I Don’t Go to Shul on Shabbos

By Benay Lappe

I don’t go to shul on shabbos. There, I said it. I know, I know, I’m a rabbi, and rabbis are supposed to like going to services. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But I don’t. It’s taken me a long time not to feel sheepish about how my Jewish life looks—it’s  not always “by the book.” But I’m learning that there’s not just one “book” out there that explains the right way to be Jewish. There are lots of books and lots of right ways.

[Seeing as I’m probably going to catch a lot of flack for my little confession,  I’m hoping that at least by being honest with you about what works for me and what doesn’t in my own Jewish life, it will help you feel a little less crazy about working out yours. So, let’s talk. About what works for us, what doesn’t, and why.  After all, it’s probably much the same for many of us. Most of what doesn’t work, doesn’t work through no fault of our own. There are reasons that affect us all, relating more to the times in which we live than our own individual lives. And as creatures of the late twentieth century, very few of us are going to live Jewish lives  simply because we were born Jewish, or because “God said so.” More than likely, for most of us, what we do (Jewishly and otherwise) we do simply because it works—because it makes us feel good, because it reminds us of what’s important in life, because it helps us feel connected,  more whole, more ourselves, closer to God, whatever.]

On Shabbos I learn Talmud. My chevruta (study partner), Andy, comes over at 11:15 every shabbos morning and we learn all day. Talmud is my greatest joy. And learning Talmud on shabbos is a pleasure nearly impossible to describe. But I’ll give it a shot.

We start by catching each other up on what’s happened in our lives since the previous shabbos—family, relationships, inner struggles. We instinctively know that we couldn’t possibly engage in as intimate a process as talmud study is, without making sure we’re with each other first—safe, seen, and fully present, for one another and for the text.

We open up the folding banquet table and chairs, and pull down from the shelves two copies of the volume we’re learning along with the usual reference books : an aramaic dictionary, two dictionaries of talmudic terminology, a dictionary of common abbreviations,  and a modern Hebrew translation of the tractate we’re learning, just in case.

We say the bessing for learning Torah, and lovingly open up our very regal-looking, gold-lettered, simulated leather-bound volumes. Over the next four or five hours we are in another world, fully consumed by our effort to decipher the text, and our attempt to glimpse what is going on underneath it. We follow our curiosity wherever it leads and trace references into legal codes, and untangle commentaries on the commentaries. We talk out the text until it finally clicks, then pace the floor as we take turns reciting it back to one another from memory, adding to our recitation phrase by phrase as we conquer new chunks of text. We know that if we can’t recreate the precise argument in our minds—from logic and memory—then we don’t really have it, and we go back to the text until we do.

The entire process is an hours-long meditation on the most complicated mantra imaginable. It is an experience of pure in-the-moment present-ness. We may have progressed a couple of lines, or only a couple of words. But it doesn’t matter. We have been in a land of pure pleasure and thank God for shabbos, for talmud, and for each other.

Shabbos and talmud are two Jewish things that work for me. What works for you?