An agnostic goes to synagogue

BY NEIL STEINBERG [email protected] | September 27, 2012 6:26PM

Every columnist has a few hobbyhorse causes he likes to ride. One favorite of mine is the idea that government shouldn’t promote any particular religion. I like it because, despite being so obvious — a diverse nation of many faiths, we can’t exist in harmony if the law backs just one — many folks still can’t seem to wrap their heads around it.

Raised in their own insular worlds, they lurch upon the national stage with their great idea — prayer into public schools! — never pausing to consider whose prayer will be put in school (theirs, naturally; is there any other kind?) It is satisfying to inform them that, yes, there are other people who believe other things, a half dozen faiths per classroom, and adding prayer to schools would make them more chaotic than they are now.

Such reasoning can’t be merely accepted — that would involve changing their minds, and most are hardwired to prevent that — so instead they accuse me of hating religion. People to whom fairness is unfamiliar still perceive, in a foggy general way, that fairness-based arguments can work, so they want to grab at that advantage themselves. They say: You’re disagreeing with me! You must hate me in a fashion similar to how I hate you! What about tolerance of my bigotries?

For the record: I think religion is swell. Life is a long time, you need help to get by, and faith is perfect for that. Religions tend to be old and are embraced by many, so there’s tradition and company, plus food and music.

OK, not always food. Yom Kippur was earlier this week — the holiest day of the Jewish year, a fast day. Not that I’m the sort who believes that God Almighty is peering down from heaven, quill pen poised over the Book of Life, waiting to see whether Neil Steinberg toddles off to synagogue or not. But my wife announced she was going to services at the Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook. That was different. The Lubavitch are a highly observant branch of Judaism — think beards, black hats, fringed garments. Typically not the corner of our faith that my wife and I would snuggle in. But unlike most synagogues, they don’t charge a fee to worship on the high holidays — typically most synagogues see it as a chance to make hay.

Our previous temple membership fell victim to the recession. So free helped. Though in my secret heart, I felt distant from the process, brooding as I put on my suit: Every year this stuff seems more ridiculous. I could be attending an animistic goat ritual performed by Ghanaians and couldn’t feel less affected.

I didn’t say that aloud. I’m trying not to complain so much, and when I had shared similar thoughts in previous years, my wife just smiled and replied, “You always say that, but you end up getting something out of it.”

I had never been to a Lubavitch Yom Kippur service; I expected it to be all in Hebrew, expected a scene from Vilnius in 1754, the low drone of ancient syllables uttered by men in prayer shawls. I would slink in, as out-of-place as a peacock among penguins, perch awkwardly in a corner for a few hours, and then flee unchanged, grateful to be gone.

That’s not what happened. A surprising amount was in English. They not only weren’t hostile but warmly welcomed us freeloaders. Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, director of Lubavitch Chabad in Illinois, gave a sermon that I didn’t transcribe, but can be summarized thus: We’re glad you’re here. Because Orthodox or Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, whatever, we’re all Jews. We should be Jews together and do Jewish stuff. We should be good to people, give them m’vater — space, respect.

“We’re not judgmental,” Moscowitz said, a concept that many faiths, still hoping to convert the entire world, by persuasion if possible, by law if not, might want to contemplate. Religion should be voluntary. Moscowitz said the Lubavitch are here, doing the things they believe in, and hope other Jews will come and join them and see that they’re good. (And maybe kick in a little something. He did allude to having electric bills to pay, a soft-sell invite to those present to help, which of course we will; we’re not utter schnorrers, as they say in Yiddish, not mooches).

But that isn’t why I’m writing this; that wasn’t the surprising part. The surprising part was, when I was done, after ... geez ... five hours over Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt better. Not that I felt so bad going in, but I felt better. Life seemed more palatable. I will forever deny that grace or God or anything like that had any part. It was just nice to sit in a room among other people and hear familiar prayers and think about being a better man for a few hours, with no email or Facebook. I came out renewed, though not — and this is important — also feeling the laws of the United States should be changed to funnel people into Lubavitch services. In all candor, the place was packed, and if none of you ever go, that’s fine with me.

My wife merely smiled at my glowing report. “You say that every year,” she replied.