A Reasonable Spirit

Arlo Guthrie has a great line in his song Alice’s Restaurant. Actually, Arlo Guthrie has a lot of great lines in Alice’s Restaurant, but one of my favorites is this one: “And they all moved away from me, on the bench there.”

He’s talking about sitting on the Group W Bench; it’s “where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committing your special crime.” Fortunately for him, his special crime combines littering — which is why he is treated like a leper by the rapists and murderers on the Group W bench — and, he adds, creating a nuisance — which earns him a warm welcome: “And they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time on the bench talkin’ about crime . . ..” If you don’t know the song, look up the lyrics, or, better yet, buy a copy of the song, or the movie based on the song, and listen to Guthrie perform it. It’s a song and story “that can’t be beat.”

But I digress . . .

I’ve just read an article about the Classical Reform Judaism movement, and I’m thinking about that Group W bench. And I’m thinking that I am often sitting on a similar bench. Not a bench of criminals who “may not be moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses, and villages;” rather, I am sitting on a bench of Reform Jews who might not be rationalistic enough to be enlightened or might not be ritualistic enough to be spiritual. And I like sitting here, but it makes me nervous.

I was raised in the loving arms of the Classical Reform movement, first, just outside of New York City at Temple Israel of New Rochelle amidst a large family of very actively involved people who wrote our Religious School textbooks and presided over our boards of directors and so on; then in Raleigh, North Carolina where you could have fit the whole congregation, almost comfortably, in the space we use for our library at my synagogue today.

In my mother’s famiy, in New York, there’s a story about how my grandmother, who helped start the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, accidentally served  chametz at one of our seders. Our rabbi, beloved Rabbi Jake Shankman, fixed the problem: he made the sign of the cross over the cake and pronounced it kosher.

It’s the perfect story to illustrate my understanding of the Classical Reform movement: Chametz, schmametz! What have you done for mankind lately? We weren’t concerned with yeast on Passover and electricity on Shabbat and how far your Sukkah was from your house. We were concerned with bread for the hungry everyday and light for those in darkness everyday and shelter for those out in the cold everyday.

And, yes, I know that I boast of the Classical Reform movement’s focus as though the current Reform movement isn’t as concerned with world hunger and intellectual freedom and universal shelter from harm. I want you to hear that theme, clearly: I think I was raised with the contention that the rituals and rules of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism were distractions from what God really asked of us: “Only to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I don’t believe that contention, but I think I was raised with it.

As an adult, I am an active member of the Reform movement, happily embracing the opportunity to insert physical ritual into my spiritual practice of prayer and, at times, my spiritual practice of living. I wear a tallit (a prayer shawl) when I worship in the mornings, which is, at the same time, traditional and radical since I am a woman. Yet, I don’t wear a kippah, a head covering. I’ve tried, several times, but I find it distracting. I don’t keep kosher, but I would like to practice eating more mindfully, more carefully, more in a way that supports the well-being of the world. It would be my kind of kosher. I bow when I recite some lines of prayers, just like they do in Conservative and Orthodox practices, but I refuse to bow at the names of humans, such as Sarah and Abraham, no matter how revered they are. When I practice a Torah reading in an empty sanctuary on, say, a Wednesday, I am careful to close the ark, to recite a prayer for study or reading, and to address the object and the process with care and intent. Yet, I’ve decided that touching the Torah as it is carried through the congregation feels a little too much like idolatry to me; I tried it, I didn’t like it. I love that it means something different to the person standing next to me; and I love that I don’t have to understand the practice the same way. Most especially, though, I love that my community recites a prayer before it embarks on an act of social justice, I love that we weave together ritual and action, spirit and sweat.

I have enjoyed the blessings of the Classical Reform movement and the current trend of the Reform Movement. I learned most prayers in English, long before I could read Hebrew, which has made learning to understand Hebrew so much easier for me. I have learned to revere both the traditional texts and the authority of my intellect. I have learned to pray with my body as well as my words. I have learned to seek the unfathomable gift in God-forsaken loss and to be satisfied with the endless effort, regardless of the absurdity of the hope. I think that I would have learned none of this, without partaking of the Classical Reform movement, as well as the current, mainstream Reform movement.

So when I hear smug chuckles when others fondly recall the profound and lyrical Union Prayerbook or derisive sneering when others wrap themselves in the grounding and evocative tallit, it makes me want to throw up my hands and go to the movies on Friday night, instead. At least there, people don’t care what language I pray in, whether or not I’ve got fringes on the corners of my shawl, or how acutely I bend my knees during the Adoration . . . I mean the Aleynu . . . I mean . . ..

Which brings me back to the movie and the song I started with: Alice’s Restaurant. We’re all sitting here on the Group W bench, whether we like it or not. So enough with the irony and the holier-than-thou-could-ever-hope-to-be attitudes and the cold shoulders and so on. There’s actually room on this bench for a lot more people, and we’re going to need them if we’re ever going to make any progress toward a world that merits the Messianic promise.

For my money, I’d much rather argue about whether the word humankind is the best substitute for the word mankind. Now that’s something at which I can really sneer derisively. What’s wrong with humanity? But I digress . . .

2 thoughts on “A Reasonable Spirit

  1. My sister Melissa and I started a tradition back in high school of always listening to Alice’s Restaurant on Thanksgiving Day. The song itself takes place on Thanksgiving Day; but more importantly, WQDR would always play it in the middle of that afternoon, so the jock who had to work had time during the 18+ minute song to eat his Thanksgiving meal. There are so many great lines from that song – I like the part about “Did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?”

  2. I agree. I often talk about Officer Obie’s third possibility. But the Group W bench is my favorite part, I think. What a great song. Thanks for the comment.

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