Studying in Public: Keeping My Nose in the Books on the High Holidays

One of the leading scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls prays at a modern orthodox synagogue I have attended on occasion.*  While he prays, he keeps open before him a number of books – midrashim on the Torah and Talmud, I believe.  When there is a break in the service, he turns to his other books and continues studying.  He doesn’t want to waste a minute.

A rabbi once told me that he would sometimes get annoyed with the custom in many reform and conservative synagogues to call out of page numbers during services.  “Sometimes” he said, “I just want to explore the prayers on my own.”

I kept both these stories in mind this High Holiday season when I made a conscious effort to allow myself to move between being present in the communal aspects of the services, and to take time for myself to practice my Hebrew.  It turned out to be the most fulfilling High Holiday season I’ve had yet.  I’m not saying the leading scholar would have approved, I’m sure he wouldn’t have.  I was lost for much of service.  And I’m not against call about page numbers, I’d be completely lost without it.  But both of these anecdotes speak to having some private time in a public service.  That is what I did this year.  In taking the time to study a bit, as opposed to just sitting there, pretending I knew what was going on, I opened up the mysteries of the language, and thereby of the services, just a little more.

I’ve been going to services for a number of years now, and this was the first time I was able to read any of the Hebrew, albeit much more slowly than the cantor.  Taking time during the prayers to focus on reading it for myself, even if it meant getting stuck far behind the rest of the congregation, allowed me to interact with the text in a new way – as a reader, of sorts, as opposed to merely following the pronunciation half a beat behind my wife.

That said, “reading” Hebrew is a strange thing.  Many Jews who “read” Hebrew aren’t really reading – they’re pronouncing.  They know how to say the words, but they have little understanding of what the words mean.  I am just beginning to reach this stage.  I can pronounce, a little, if by pronunciation you mean sound out the word like a four year old.  Understanding will come, but it will be many High Holidays from now.

Walter Benjamin, studying in public.

*For those who don’t know me, I am not by any stretch modern orthodox.  Also, this story would be far more compelling if I used this scholar’s name, or the name of his shul.  But, unbelievably, the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is insanely catty and has on multiple occasions devolved into insane internet wars.  I would very much like to keep this gentleman, and this blog, out of all that.  Google around if you want to know more, nerd.

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