The Kabbalah Centre

I joined the outer circle of the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration at the reformed synagogue. In the center of the room sat the rabbi, canter and several musicians whose instruments included a harp, violin, and dobro. As I flipped through the pamphlet to lead me through the service, I thought about how ordinary everyone in the room looked—regular grandmas and grandpas and middle-class couples, not the eccentric wizened elders one might associate with an ancient mystical tradition. These were people who shopped at Target and attended their kids’ soccer games. Then the band started up and all the voices joined together. My pamphlet had phonetic translations of the Hebrew and some English explanations, but I opted to play it by ear. These were the usual prayers, but performed in a steady rhythmic fashion. I found I could join, particularly at choruses when phrases and words were repeated over and over in a beautiful hypnotic loop. At one point everyone stood and turned to face the doors of the room. Rising, I quickly consulted my guide and found we were at a prayer to greet the Sabbath. The explanation read, “The Kabbalists used to go out on Friday nights and dance as the sun was setting. It is traditional to face the entry of our prayer-space on the final verse to greet the Sabbath bride.” I had seen this analogy before—Sabbath addressed as a woman, particularly as a wife-to-be—but in this context I understood the connotation on a deeper level. In a sense, we were welcoming our own ability to receive, nurtured by the vessel-like, feminine aspects of Sabbath.

Profound Kabbalistic tidbits arrived at unexpected times throughout my Judaism journey, like offerings dropped in my path, but the one time I went looking for them—when I visited the actual Kabbalah Centre—they were harder to come by. For years, I had been reading about the Kabbalah Centre, usually in the captions beneath tabloid photos of celebrities exiting a building with a little red string freshly tied around their wrist. Or it was Madonna in an interview talking about her life-changing study of this ancient wisdom, and mysteriously revealing that her “Kabbalah name” is Ester. I had no inkling what Kabbalah was and when I decided to visit the Kabbalah Centre in the early stages of my journey I still hadn’t grasped the basics.

I found the place on a busy street in what appears to be an old Spanish-style house. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and no paparazzi were in evidence on the sidewalk outside. Inside, young women seemed to be running the show. One was at a reception desk, another manning the gift shop. A third was wandering from room to room. She approached me. She had a name tag and was something called a “Study Path Manager.” She couldn’t have been more than 25; that she should be the first representative of an ancient wisdom I associated with wizened elders struck me as strange. Maybe she’s very wise, I thought.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “What is Kabbalah?”

By way of an answer she posed a scenario. “Say you gather the best basketball players in the world,” she said, “but you don’t give them the rules of the game. What happens?”

I stared at her fresh, dewy face. I was confused, how did we know they were the best players if they don’t know the game? “They aren’t able to play?”

“Yes! Kabbalah is the rules.”

She handed me a bright shiny flyer that said, “YOU DESERVE GREAT THINGS” and invited me back for a free seminar on Tuesday night at 7 pm.

In the round

A circle is a powerful symbol. I think most Kabbalists would agree that a circle represents one of the most potent forces in the universe. The Jewish mystic tradition divides the world into two basic components: the source of all power, infinitely giving energy and light, and the repository of this power, which holds and gives it shape. In Kabbalah, the latter is referred to as “the vessel,” often symbolized by a circle, like a container’s open mouth. One might think that the source of power is the force in the universe that demands all our attention, but Kabbalists emphasize the critical role of the receptacle—without which the power would be undirected and useless. Much of Kabbalah concerns the proper management of this power and the word “Kabbalah” means “to receive.”

After the service at a conservative synagogue, I mentioned my intention to explore Kabbalah to a middle-aged lawyer with gentle, watery eyes. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes widening like two pools swelling, though whether he was warning me about L.A.’s Kabbalah “Centre” specifically or Kabbalah in general I wasn’t sure. Kabbalah has a reputation for being unsafe and stories abound about its ancient practitioners losing their minds, driven to madness during the exercises meant to tap into the universe’s power; these include chanting, singing, breathing, dancing, meditation, and visualization. The trick is not just drawing the energy but being able to properly channel it. When this transaction is not mastered, a person may cling to the power, feeding unhealthy self-interest—or misdirect it, fueling negative objectives. For this reason, Jewish leaders often say that only mature pupils under the guidance of the most skilled teachers should attempt to practice Kabbalah.

Yet, Kabbalistic notions seem to permeate all aspects of Jewish life. Casual references to Kabbalah and Kabbalah scholars peppered the talks of rabbis at practically every service I attended. Basic Jewish concepts were described to me using Kabbalistic ideas: the emphasis on passive activities on Sabbath is designed to foster the “receptive,” rather than “productive,” aspects of our nature and women are excused from many traditional practices because our vessel-like qualities are naturally more fine-tuned than those of men. I even encountered an explanation of the Messianic era in these terms: the period itself will be one of receptivity, which is the source of the peace that will prevail, like a Sabbath that extends indefinitely.

Without meaning to, I happened into a special Kabbalah-inspired service at a reformed synagogue. I thought it would be a typical Friday night ceremony that welcomes the Sabbath like those I had attended at other synagogues. I expected something bare bones, just a handful of people led by a lone rabbi. But this was different. The folding chairs in the large room were arranged in concentric circles starting with a small one at the center and spiraling out; by the time I arrived, the only spaces available were along the outer ring almost to the wall. A photocopied sheet explained that this “new model of worship” began a few years earlier; introduced as “Fifth Friday,” it initially took place only when a month had an extra Friday, but it was such a huge hit, they introduced it as a regular monthly service renamed “Kabbalat Shabbat.” If synagogue leaders were hesitant at first to officially label their new model Kabbalistic, they were emboldened by the congregation’s acceptance. In addition to seating in the round, the entire service is sung by everyone present.

I found an empty seat sandwiched between two young families facing the boyish rabbi and female cantor in the middle circle…

Poetry in motion

After a few hours of Sabbath lolling back at my dad’s house, I’m once again standing in Barbara’s living room. The dining table is exactly as it was when I left, dirty forks dangle from plates that bear the remnants of lunch and glasses sit puddled with water and wine.

We set out on our walk, just as Barbara and her husband have done thousands of times. Our destination this evening is not the synagogue, but a small building owned by the congregation several blocks up from the beach.

At the building, Barbara and I separate from her husband and enter through our own door. The women’s side of the room is cordoned off by a thin curtain, through which I can see the silhouettes of the men, the outline of fedoras as they take turns leading the prayers. When it’s time for the rabbi’s talk, the curtain gets pushed open just enough to give the women a view of him at the podium. He is a young rabbi with a scraggly beard and an excited gleam in his eyes. He says he finds the subject of animal sacrifice fascinating because, while the practice is suspended for now, at some point in the future when the original temple is restored, a decision will need to be made about if and how it will be resumed.

Rabbis and Jewish scholars all over the world debate the topic and theories abound as to what might happen because, to the contemporary sensibility, the idea of killing animals for God seems archaic. Today, people expect their religious leaders and their butchers to be separate people. But, the young rabbi explains, this could change. One theory purports that the general public will come to see animal sacrifice as no worse ethically than killing animals for food and will embrace it as an acceptable practice. Another theory proposes that new rules from God will materialize upon the completion of the temple—and that perhaps some new thing, like sacrificing plants, will be an option. Finally, the rabbi arrives at the last theory that he promises will “blow our minds.” He explains that some scholars suggest animals may evolve in such a way that in the future they will understand the meaning and significance of being sacrificed and will volunteer for the privilege. A wave of chuckles sweeps the room, and I think we must be sharing the same cartoon thought-bubble of cloven hooves in the air with the caption: “Me, pick me!”

What happens last is short and poetic, like a 3D haiku that bids farewell to Sabbath. It’s just Barbara, her husband, me and three other men. While Barbara’s husband straightens up the room, the three men gather around a plate. The oldest of the three holds a large woven candle. He lights it. He pours wine into a cup and sips it. He opens a small box and inhales deeply. As he does this, one of the younger men unscrews the lid on a typical spice jar—the plastic kind you can buy at any grocery store—and smells the contents. He passes it to me and I put it to my nose, taking in the sweet aroma of cloves. I give it to Barbara who does the same. I’m mesmerized as the men study their hands in the light of the candle and utter a Hebrew prayer. Then the oldest one douses the flame with the wine from his cup. All three touch the drops of wine that have landed in the plate and then press their fingertips against their closed eyes. Each step is like a single line of a poem whose meaning is allusive but by the end conveys perfectly the joy and sorrow of life; this final act leaves my heart heavy but full.

In front of the building, the six of us say our farewells. The sun has set and the sidewalk is bustling with Saturday night revelers. Music and laughter spill from a crowded Mexican restaurant. The eyes of passersby linger on our small group and I recognize in their expressions the quiet curiosity I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve happened upon a pocket of people engaged in something I assume is both sacred and private. I recall the awe with which I would consider my old orthodox neighbors as I watched them playing and how it was tinged with resentment at my exclusion. I want to reach out and touch people as they pass and whisper, “I’m one of you.”

If a stranger cared to listen, I might tell him: “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.”

The conversation

The conversation during the meal at the orthodox home I’m visiting is a heated debate about current events and Israel. I’m familiar with the tones of this discussion, the impassioned voices that make it sound like no one at the table is agreeing when actually they are all nodding vigorously. As a teen, I was exposed to this aspect of the Jewish dining ritual, which alarmed me at first until I realized that each person is simply honing their argumentation skills. The only difference here is the politics, which are decidedly right wing. I had heard that some Jews, particularly those on the orthodox side of the spectrum, can be conservative, an affiliation born at least in part from a die-hard support of Israel.

So contrary is this from the politics of the Jews with which I’m familiar—who struggle with the complicated affairs of Israel and the role Jews play in the region—that I was inclined to believe they were mythical creatures too rare to encounter during the course of this exploration, and certainly not likely to attend a synagogue in Venice, California. If I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was sitting with far-right Christians, who also adamantly support Israel, though they do so because the “gathering of the Jews” there is an essential piece of New Testament prophecy to ensure the return of Jesus. Both groups’ opinions overlap at this thin sliver of foreign affairs.

As I ate, I busied myself surreptitiously sneaking peaks at the woman sitting on my right, thinking that one of the great ironies is how separating men and women can make it so much easier to check out members of the opposite gender than those of your own.

I finally get the opportunity to unapologetically stare at the woman next to me when she takes a moment to tell the table about herself. She grew up in a Hassidic family in Brooklyn, she explains. Today, in her 40s, she remains observant, though she’s obviously taken her own approach to the guidelines for attire. She dons a long-sleeved black top that would provide excellent coverage but for the fact that it is entirely mesh. Every detail of her leopard-print bra is visible. Her scalp is crowned in long platinum hair extensions. I know this because from my vantage point I can see where each cluster of fake hair is attached to her real hair. I try to imagine what her parents must think of this daughter who knows every Hebrew prayer by heart but looks like Paris Hilton. When she explains that her dream is to get married and maintain an observant household, my heart breaks a little. I sincerely doubt hers is the typical profile on JDate, the Jewish Dating website. It’s one thing for someone like me to visit this world for a short time, but it’s another entirely for a person to have a foot firmly planted in two worlds seemingly so at odds with one another.

At the end of the meal, I reach to take my dishes to the kitchen but Barbara tells me no, I should leave them, she will clean after sundown. I am momentarily paralyzed by a mental tussle between two sides: what makes a good guest versus what makes a good Jew.

As we say our goodbyes, Barbara asks if I’d like to return to her house later that day, just before sundown, to walk with her and her husband to the small evening service that officially recognizes the conclusion of Sabbath.

I’m happy for the invitation because earlier one of the rabbis at the synagogue mentioned he would be giving a brief talk during this evening gathering about the future of animal sacrifice within the Jewish faith. I’m curious to know what plans exist for the bronze altar.

The mitzvah

“I…I…I’m not Jewish,” I tell the orthodox woman in red who has invited me to her house for lunch. More than wanting to protect myself from humiliation, I’m hoping to shield her home from my ignorance. I understand enough to know that a Jewish home’s dining room has, without the temple and bronze altar, increased in significance. Food on a table, especially on Sabbath, is a sort of offering to God.

I explain my situation in a nutshell: how I am married to a Jew who feels alienated from the faith, that I am interested in Judaism and religion in general, how the visit to her synagogue is a tiny step in an effort to educate myself.

She nods slowly. I can see her considering my words, measuring them with private weights. Perhaps she consults God. Whatever the case, the result is in my favor. “So you’ll join us? We don’t mind if you drive.”

Now it is my turn to consider. If she is willing to put up with me, how can I refuse? “Okay,” I say. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Wonderful,” she says, offering the first smile of our exchange. She tells me her name is Barbara and gives me her street address; I repeat it to myself over and over again, as I am not writing on Sabbath. “My husband and l will start walking home in about 10 minutes, so give us a half hour.”

About 30 minutes later, I approach what I hope is the right house. As I get closer, I spy Barbara through the screen door sitting with a group gathered around a dining room table. “Hello?” I call, marching in, not even thinking to stop and press my kissed finger tips to the little mezuzah posted at the doorframe. This gesture is meant to remind all those entering of the unifying presence of the Divine. Instead, I offer my toothiest grin as everyone turns to watch me ignore God.

Four men and one other woman besides Barbara and me sit around the table. As Barbara introduces me, I make sure to nod a polite greeting to the men, congratulating myself on knowing that orthodox men and women do not shake hands upon meeting. Barbara directs me to an empty seat on the lady’s side of the table. Barbara’s husband occupies one head, and the oldest gentleman present sits at the other. Two younger guys roughly my age sit directly across from the women. The table is set beautifully for seven and, knowing it would have been prepared the previous afternoon, it suddenly makes sense why Barbara pressed me on whether I would be joining them. Mine was the spot left empty in case God sends a lone traveler; feeding me is a mitzvah, or good deed.

When it’s time to eat, everyone takes a turn going into the kitchen for the ceremonial hand washing. The counters are crammed with the remnants of yesterday’s meal preparations, everything left just where it was when the sun set. The oldest gentleman shows me the ropes: he pores water from a pitcher over my hands and then asks me to repeat the Hebrew words after him, feeding them to me a few at a time. I try desperately not to mangle them. It’s the basic prayer before eating when the meal includes bread and translates as, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” After washing, we return to the table in silence and wait as Barbara’s fills each of our plates with the meat and beans from her slow cookers.

 

Dearest miners,

As promised, here is the podcast of my conversation with Justin Campbell of The Two Cities website. Among other topics, we discuss how the One None Gets Some project has revealed to me the importance of vulnerability in any spiritual quest. I hope you enjoy it, and please tell me what you think.

The invitation

I’ve always loved the Venice Boardwalk first thing in the morning before the fog has burnt off when it’s just locals milling about—those with and those without homes—and shopkeepers prepping for the day. On this morning, I can almost imagine what it would have been like in the 50s and 60s when this was something of a Jewish main street with the occasional Gidget in a sea of black fedoras.

Today, I’m dressed like a throwback to an earlier time when bathing beauties came to the beach completely covered. I’m wearing a dress with opaque black tights under and a blazer over. I approach the synagogue, a simple stucco building that doesn’t even attempt to take in its unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. I read on the website that once inside the first door, I’d encounter a second set of doors. I’m relieved I remember that the entrance for women is on the left because I feel awkward enough as a visitor without having to be escorted out of the men’s section. I’m the first person to arrive on the lady’s side and, as I take a seat, the men begin to chant prayers in Hebrew. I catch glimpses of them through a thin strip of lattice that runs across the top of the room divider.

A few minutes into the service, everything comes to a screeching halt. The men stop praying. A woman has taken the seat next to mine. When she sees me looking around, confused, she whispers, “They’re waiting for the minyan.” Almost no prayer in the Jewish prayer book is recited from the first person. They are generally offered from the perspective of “we.” Among the orthodox, only men count toward the minimum of ten worshippers needed for a valid “we.” This morning, the male congregants are slow in arriving.

As the minutes tick by, I feel a little like I’m dangling on a frozen Ferris wheel. Luckily, I’m not alone. The woman next to me is also here for the first time, though she is an actual Jew. Her grown children live in Los Angeles and whenever she visits, she likes to worship with different congregations. “My kids call me a ‘synagogue slut’,” she says. I snort my approval. We have such a good time swapping stories of religious tourism that I’m a little disappointed when the Ferris wheel cranks back to life after 15 minutes or so.

At the end of the service, the congregation gathers together on a back patio for the prayers over wine and bread. A table is spread with snacks of the dairy persuasion; I sample the banana pudding and soft cheeses. A woman in a red dress and gold sun hat sits perched on a low wall like some exotic, radiant bird. I smile at her. “Are you coming to my house for lunch?” she asks. She seems to be looking at me when she speaks and I think she must have me mixed up with someone else. The people I’ve met these past weeks have been friendly and welcoming, but no one has invited me to come home with them. Maybe she forgot her glasses?

“Do you have lunch plans?” she asks looking directly at me. She stands and I’m surprised at how tall she is. The hat puts her well over six feet.

“I…I…” I don’t know what to say. I hadn’t planned on lunch, especially in an orthodox home whose customs I understood only vaguely.

 

Dearest miners,

I was interviewed recently for a website called the Two Cities, which is a Christian-based site about culture and theology. Started by a group of students who met at a Christian liberal arts college, they seem to take an approach that includes humor and openness to meaningful discussion. I appreciate their desire to talk to the likes of me.

Here is a very brief snippet of the podcast conversation I had with writer Justin Campbell about the One None Gets Some project: http://www.thetwocities.com/podcast/the-two-cities-podcast-episode-1-preview/. The full conversation will be posted at the end of the week and I will link to it for anyone who is interested.

With much respect, Corinna

Life for life

As she begins, Kay Warren tells us to find the guide to her sermon in the printed materials. I get mine, which is a four-paged supplement with sentences that have blanks where I can fill in the words from her presentation like a biblical Mad Libs.

The first sentence that needs my attention is this: “The altar represented the claims of a holy and righteous God which must be _________ before he can meet with man and bless him.” The missing word is “satisfied” but I need a moment to locate my pen so it stays blank. Further down: “Any deviation from perfection must be punished by the person or a _________.” I fill in “substitute.” Kay explains during the time of the tabernacle this substitute was an animal, provided as an offering. “Why did God require a blood sacrifice?” _________.  I write “because blood represents life.” The size and prominence of the bronze altar is no accident, it really was a hugely significant component of the tabernacle, perhaps even the most important element. Blood had to be shed for God in an attempt at restitution: the gift of life for the gift of life.

Now Kay’s talk turns to the act that birthed Christianity from Judaism. “Jesus was the __________.” I stare at the blank, knowing full well that “ultimate blood sacrifice” is the answer but unable to bring myself to write the words. Jesus was a human sacrifice. I’ve never thought of it like that, and the idea feels too big and powerful to reduce to a fill-in-the-blank response. His death didn’t occur on a bronze altar but his blood shed is interpreted by Christians as the last say in the “life for life” transaction, officially nullifying the need for further animal sacrifice and rendering all the other Jewish “rules” obsolete. To flesh-out the story, my study guide provides several quotes from the New Testament, like this one from Acts 13: “In this man Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins! Everyone who trusts him is freed from all guilt and declared righteous—something the Jewish law could never do.” Whatever indebtedness to creation or God each of us senses was paid by Jesus and our job then is to believe in the power of this transaction. “Acceptance of Jesus as my substitute makes me ________ to God.” In tiny letters I write: “acceptable.”

At the end of the service Kay has an exercise for us. She asks us to find a small rectangle of paper that has been placed in each of our packets. This piece of paper has been made to look like an old-fashioned luggage tag, with a hole punched at the top and a string to tie to an imaginary suitcase handle. She tells us to write our sin at the bottom of the tag and, on our way out of the building, she wants us to rip the sin portion off and toss it in the red garbage bins placed by the doors for this purpose.

Audience members rise and begin to leave, but I stay seated and try to think of a good sin to write on my luggage tag. Finally, I scrawl, “Not feeling worthy.” This feels like the ultimate sin, something each of us struggles with on some level that causes any self-destructive behaviors that masquerade as the real sins. The Jews built into their system of worship an answer to this sense of unworthiness, an attempt to repay God for the gift of life. Christians accepted this basic premise but substituted Jesus as the compensation and sin as the debt.

The crowd streaming out has thinned by the time I join its ranks. The tall red bins are hard to miss. Each boasts a sign. “FORGIVEN,” they announce in big letters. I go to the nearest one and feed my paper to the slot at the top. I peek in at the mound of sins and watch mine flutter to the top.

The Question

Among the Jews of West Los Angeles, I am cautious about mentioning my husband for an entirely different reason: guilt. Judaism is transmitted to children via mothers and even though Phil and I have no children, the notion that if we did my non-Jewish status would rob them of a vital birthright is enough to make many Jews, even those on the less traditional side of the spectrum, uneasy.

According to some orthodox strands of thought, the question exists as to whether my marriage is even valid.

The only thing that could potentially rectify the situation is if I convert. It doesn’t matter that Phil considers himself a None: the onus is on me as the potential vessel of life. When I do mention Phil, I can tell the question is on people’s minds—do I intend to convert?—though they are too polite to ask. I have a feeling that how they perceive me hinges on the answer. Even if I am the one within the marriage who is interested in Judaism, most eager to understand, and the only person who may eventually soften Phil’s heart toward a religion that currently makes him bristle; in my current state, I am an agent of harm to the Jewish people.

Non-Jews who wish to officially convert must receive formal education under the guidance of religious leaders. By contrast, it’s far easier to become a Christian. I just have to accept Jesus as “my savior”—though, frankly, I still don’t know exactly what that means. I suppose it has something to do with recognizing that Jesus sacrificed his life to absolve my sins, but the details of the transaction remain hazy. Luckily, I am about to get a tutorial on this exact subject.

I arrive at Saddleback on the perfect day. The church has constructed a replica of the original biblical tabernacle, which is temporarily being displayed on its grounds.

That the ancient Jewish tabernacle has been constructed at a church is not too shocking, as the Torah has been adopted by Christians as the “Old Testament,” making all the stories and characters it contains vital to their history as well. That the tabernacle is at the Saddleback Church is a bonus as far as I’m concerned since visiting a “mega-church” headed by a celebrity preacher is a gaping hole in my Christian experience.

I had to dig around on the website to find out that officially Saddleback is Baptist, as the denomination is overshadowed by the star power of Pastor Rick Warren, author of New York Time best seller Purpose Driven Life (a book that has apparently sold more copies than any other nonfiction book ever), and frequent Christian commentator on various cable news programs. Online, I find I can choose between three times for Sunday services, given at two hour intervals to accommodate the estimated 20,000 people who attend in person (or via video streaming) from all over the region, country, and world. Apparently, it’s become something of a tourist destination—the Sunday plans for families visiting other hot spots like Disneyland and Sea World. From my dad’s house, it’s about a 45 minute drive south on freeways blissfully free of traffic.

Strange dance

It’s a strange dance Christians and Jews do around one another. When I first started attending church, I was surprised at how often Christians casually mentioned Jews during their services. Looking back, I don’t know why I should have been surprised or how it could be avoided, as most readings from the Old Testament mention Jews directly or indirectly. I suppose I still had Martin Luther in the forefront of my thinking. Earlier in his life, he treated the Jews kindly in his writings, expressing hope that they would soon come to embrace Jesus as the human incarnation of God, their long-awaited messiah. I don’t know why he thought Jews would choose to accept Jesus during his lifetime but when they didn’t he grew disillusioned and angry toward them. In 1543 he wrote a booklet called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” detailing all the reasons he believed Jews deserved to be despised. The fact that this hateful propaganda circulated in the region that is modern-day Germany is not lost on most historians, and some suggest it fueled contempt that simmered for 400 years and came to a head with the Holocaust.

Most of today’s Christians have distanced themselves from this hatred; they are more attuned to the debt Christianity owes Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew and some of Christianity’s most vital tenets—the belief in “one God” and the idea that each person is valued deeply by a creator—are clearly bred by Jewish thought.

Still, some awkward tension remains. During my months of church-going, I was cautious enough not to mention being married to a Jew, even one as lackadaisical as Phil, until the morning I felt compelled to, and quickly regretted the decision. I was at a Presbyterian church. After the service, during the coffee and cookies part, a group of women gathered around me—the first recognized me as a visitor and approached to make conversation; others joined until we formed a substantial circle in the middle of the room. Several of the women were wearing name tags, and one in particular caught my eye. On this piece of plastic affixed to the lady’s chest was a decidedly Jewish surname. Years of Jewish classmates have made me aware of names common among Jews—like Cohen or Bernstein—and on this morning, in front of my very eyes, was one of these names—as strange and exotic, given the setting, as, say, “Sally Goldberg.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked her. I couldn’t help it, I was curious. Obviously she wasn’t a practicing Jew, but I wanted to know what twists and turns of history might have led her here.

“No!” she practically shouted.

Our coffee klatch was silent, the air gone out faster than a whoopee cushion stomped with both feet. It occurred to me that perhaps my tone had sounded accusatory.

“My husband is Jewish,” I said. It was as lame as if I had followed a racial slur with “some of my best friends are black.” Apparently, it only made matters worse. The whoopee cushion might as well have been the real thing. Suddenly everyone had very important matters to attend. I was left wondering which had been the bigger faux pas: the question or the revelation? Of all the ladies, Sally herself seemed the least fazed. Before leaving, she returned to me and gave my arm a tender squeeze, “I hope we see each other again,” she whispered.

What could be

Today’s Torah reading covers the last of Exodus, which focuses on God’s instructions for the tabernacle tent. I’m surprised at how detailed they are: according to Moses, God has outlined the exact components for every part of the structure, including their precise dimensions and even what material from which each thing should be built.

God has also made it clear that everyone who is able to contribute, resources and skills, must do so. The people are eager to comply. Carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers—everyone chips in. Even the “working women” give up their precious scraps of metal for the cause. During an informal question and answer portion of the service, the rabbi acknowledges that this may be a reference to prostitutes surrendering the small reflective surfaces they used as mirrors. This small detail, he explains, indicates how even those with very little were willing to sacrifice items essential to their livelihoods.

Once the people understand what the tabernacle is for, they dedicate themselves fully to its construction. They seemed to be soothed by the specificity of the instructions, the lack of ambiguity.

Just as the history of being enslaved helped them grasp how time can be used to draw closer to the sacred, being homeless had made them keenly aware of how a shelter can be used for that same purpose. Experience may have heightened their gratitude for both, but it also made it clear that freedom is the essential ingredient—without it, one cannot organize time in such a way that a Sabbath is possible, just as putting up a structure like a tabernacle isn’t allowed if the land belongs to a person who doesn’t permit it.

With all this focus on homelessness and tents, I can’t help but think about the young people who I found camped on the synagogue steps when I first arrived this morning. Freedom is the ability to say “no,” whether it’s “I won’t work this day” or “I won’t vacate this space until I’m ready.” It’s why the “Occupy” movement is so powerful—people are refusing to leave an area that technically does not belong to them. With their tarps and tents and bed rolls, they are designating a space where everyday rules no longer apply. It’s not all that different from what the Jews did as they trekked across the desert thousands of years ago. The parallels are not lost on the rabbi. At the end of the service, he explains the events of the morning to the members of the congregation, most of whom showed up after the porch was cleared. I don’t know what he could have done differently, but he obviously feels that kicking the occupiers off the porch wasn’t the best choice. “We must ask God for forgiveness,” he says. “We have to right this wrong.” He doesn’t elaborate on what restitution might entail—whether something impersonal like cutting a check to a homeless shelter or more intimate like opening the synagogue’s basement as a shelter on stormy nights—but it reminds me once again what I admire about religion. It doesn’t automatically make you do the right thing, but it helps you imagine that there might be a right thing, lighting the way from what is to what could be.