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In a first glance, Hawaii seems to be a country that strictly holds its cultural values and identity with pride, leaving no room for foreign beliefs and practices to grow. However, my first impression has been proven wrong as for the first time, I set foot on the halls of Temple Emanu-el, a Jewish synagogue situated in 2550 Pali Highway, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96817. On a Friday evening, 28 November 2008, half an hour past seven, I was exposed to the practices and beliefs of Orthodox Judaism through Rabbi Peter B. Schaktman ..
It was a moment of mixed emotions for me since I only knew Judaism through books, television, films, and internet, and that I thought I would have been overwhelmed by the spectacle of one of the world’s major religious systems However, I was initially surprised by the size of the synagogue as it was totally different from how I had imagined it to be; the place was relatively small, perhaps because Judaism is not Hawaii’s main religion, nevertheless, the size of the place was just different from what I always thought.
Judging by the size of the place, I would say that 300~350 people could seat accommodated in the synagogue. The structure’s ceiling was high, and the interior designs made me recall the facades of the Roman Catholic Church. The synagogue also contains what the pastor called an Ark, the ark is a decorated cabinet wherein the Torah of the synagogue is housed And like other places of worship, I also noticed that Temple Emanu-el also has a pulpit in an elevated platform where the torah and other scriptures are read.
Judaism is a religion that promotes Jewish identity and culture, I seemed to have noticed that there is not much art in the in the Ark of Temple Emanu-el. The most probable reason is that the Jewish consider that part of the synagogue as the holiest area. Apart from the decorative curtain that serves as the cover for the Ark, the only objects to be seen in the synagogue are object of religious significance such as the ark and a candle stand.
The only non-religious object close enough to be considered art were a couple of flowers in vases positioned near the ark. During the worship service proper, the only clergy member present in the synagogue was Rabbi Schaktman. I have no idea as to why he was the only clergyman present during the time, but during the worship services, he was accompanied by a Cantorial Soloist named Ken Aronowitz who sang the songs and hymns. Although religious hymns and songs are not to be appreciated as an artistic effort, I can say that Mr.
Aronowitz’s voice is captivating enlightening. While I was participating in the worship services, I have observed that the devotees have the book named Gates of Prayer. I realized that people from the sect consider the book as a guide to the service and to spiritual enlightenment. From my experience that night, it appears that in every service, the Rabbi discusses and interprets every chapter of the book with the devotees. Based on my observation, the book contains the words of God as well as the hymns of praise to God.
Continuing further with the practices and rituals, I noticed that a particular differences between Judaism and Christianity, first is on the discussion of the contents of Gates of Prayer. During the service, Rabbi Schaktman read and discussed the distinction of Jews from non-Jews through analysis of the words non-Jews celebrate : Jews Observe. The Rabbi interpreted the exact contents of the book, however, he just used a language that everyone could simply understand.
There are certain moments where the Rabbi told us a story based on his experiences and related the story with the topic discussed during that night. And the story the Rabbi used was an article from the newspaper Honolulu Advertiser which revolved around the celebration of thanksgiving. The Rabbi said something about Jewish attitude for Thanksgiving, and in doing so, he implied that as a Jew, celebrating Thanksgiving is violating the Law of Moses and that conforming to tradition not set by God and his prophets Christmas should be eliminated.
Another distinction I have observed in the Jewish worship service was the hymn or the songs of praise. In practicing Christianity, I had to separately bring the bible and a book which contains more than 700 songs. In Temple Emanu-el, the words from God (which is taken from the scriptures) and songs were compiled in the Gates of Prayer, and most of the songs of praise appear to be sung in the Hebrew language. In addition, the songs of praise come in between the Rabbi’s preaching. After he finished a paragraph in the book, people sing.
Although I couldn’t understand the language of the hymn, the songs definitely got through me in such a way that the tunes of the songs remain in my head. If I had recorder, I really wanted to record the songs but, our instructor advised that it is a rude gesture to bring a recording device and record activities of people we are not familiar with. Another fascinating ritual is the Jewish commemoration of the dead. The walls on both sides of the Temple Emanu-el lists names of more than 500 people on wood surrounding the synagogue and right beside the names were light bulbs with a few turned on..
At first I thought it was some sort of decorative art to make the temple attractive, but I asked to Rabbi after the service, and he said that the names with the light bulbs turned on were the dead people who worshipped in the temple and died during that week or that month. The Rabbi also said that it was the Temple’s way of cherishing the memory of their deceased brothers and sisters. Although the temple’s ritual of honoring the deceased was relatively new to me, it produced a deep impression on me. This is because I only knew of commemorating rituals in the traditions of Christianity.
And I personally thought that the Christian practices of preserving the memory of the dead accorded with the other religious systems. Another ritual I saw during my visit at the Temple Emanu-el was the Jewish tradition on marriage. That night, an engaged couple came to the temple with their families, the Rabbi gave them blessing of Lynne Chun and Harvey Reackmil on the occasion of their upcoming marriage, and after the Rabbi granted the blessing, everyone started to say “mazltof! ” I guess that it is their way of saying congratulations to the newly blessed couple.
. After the speech of service, Rabbi Schaktman slowly came to our side and tried to make eye contact with each of us. I initially thought that I needed to pay for the collection just like in the Christian church that I used go to. But from the way he looked at us, I felt like he is trying to give us a chance to realize our sins for the past week and prompt us not to make the same mistakes again. Following the ending ceremony of the service, I came to a realization that the Jewish religion is not as promising as it claims itself to be.
As far as I respect some of the Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions, and practices, I honestly find Judaism’s norms uncomfortable. One is that the doctrines are so individualistic and very prejudiced as the Rabbi discussed the evils of not being Jewish and how the Jewish way turns out as the right path in life. Also the Rabbi gave us an impression that I and the rest of the class who went there were not welcome in their temple or in their community. Maybe I was just being too sensitive in this matter, but when I tried to talk to the Rabbi, he did not pay any attention to what I was saying or to the questions I were asking.
The experience was alienating, although the Rabbi constantly told us to comeback anytime, we felt it was just a gesture with no thought to it. As my disbelief and mistrust in God or any divine being, I find myself unmoved by the beliefs and practices of Judaism. Neither did its changed my skepticism of God As such, visiting the temple and participating in Jewish worship services did not affect my beliefs, ideas, and my own perception of the experience as well as the religion itself.
However, it does not necessarily mean that I do not respect Judaism and all of its followers, as a matter of fact; despite the unwelcome treatment we received from the Rabbi, my utmost respect for Judaism and for its believers remain firm. Like other major religions in the world, my visit in Temple Emanu-el has proven that Judaism, as manifested by their doctrines and songs of praise, is a religion rich in tradition, culture, and ways to establish identity. But religion is not about continuation of tradition or establishment of identity, but it is more of professing and expressing personal beliefs regardless of what such beliefs hold.