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God Squad: How to be a perfect stranger in a house of worship

Q: What is the appropriate action for a person of the Jewish faith, if you are at a church service and the congregation kneels down during the service? Should you kneel down or stay seated? — From M

A: Stay seated, but sit in the back.

Richard Siegel, a friend of mine who died this year, wrote a book titled "How to Be a Perfect Stranger," which deals with some of these issues. We all know that when we are guests in someone's home we should respect their customs. Out here in California, I am encountering quite a few of them, including, at an owner's request, removing my shoes before entering their home. The same regard for custom should apply when we are guests in a friend's house of worship, but only to a point.

There are religious rituals that are only intended for members of that faith, and these rituals are not meant for sharing. Taking Communion in the Catholic and other Christian denominations is one such ritual reserved for Catholics and those in communion with the Catholic Church. So when members of a Catholic Church get up from their seats to go to the Communion rail, you stay seated. According to Jewish tradition, Jews are not permitted to kneel in church; in fact, certain Orthodox Jews will not attend a prayer service in a church for any reason.

Christians attending a service in a synagogue are faced with the issue of whether they (usually men) should put on a ritual head covering called in Hebrew a kipah and in Yiddish a yarmulke. If every man in the congregation is wearing kipah, then it is appropriate for a visiting Christian man to wear one. If some are not, then a visiting Christian can go bareheaded. The kipah is a sign of respect for God and not, like Communion, a ritual that contains a sectarian Jewish belief.

Nevertheless, there is one custom that all of us ought to follow religiously when we are guests in a friend's house of worship and that is to dress appropriately. What Christians used to call their "Sunday best" referred to the best clothes that folks wore to their most holy destination. Today, many guests at services (particularly funerals) come dressed as if they crawled out of a refrigerator box under a bridge. Show respect by dressing up, not down. God may be watching.

A personal story

I began quite early in life grappling with your fine question, Dear M, about the appropriate action to take while on a neighbor's religious turf. As a member of the choir at Shorewood High School in Milwaukee back in the '60s, when the hostility against organized religion was not quite as ingrained as it is today, the choir put on a holiday concert every December. No Hanukkah songs were included, as I remember the event, but I definitely remember our rendition of the hymn, "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Latin: "Adeste Fideles"). You all remember the lyrics:

O come, all ye faithful / Joyful and triumphant / O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem / Come and behold Him / Born the King of Angels! / O come, let us adore Him / O come, let us adore Him / O come, let us adore Him …

And then the big finish … Christ the Lord!

So even as a young man I had problems as a Jewish kid singing the phrase, "Christ the Lord" because I did and do not believe in that central article of Christian faith. Jesus was his name, not Christ. Christ is a title, not a name, and it means Messiah.

So I organized a couple of my Jewish friends and we decided not to make a cause célèbre out of one of the world's most famous hymns. Instead, we decided that when the verse "Christ the Lord" came along we would all just sing, "La, La, the Lord." Now remember this was the '60s, even though it was Milwaukee, and somehow word got out about Gellman's Adeste Fideles Revenge Mission. A bunch of Christian kids consequently decided to secretly join up with Gellman's La, La Warriors, though not during rehearsals.

On the evening of the concert, the choir tore into the hymn with special vigor and at the climactic verse a couple hundred Shorewood High choir members belted out, "O Come let us adore him … La, La, the Lord!" Later on, everyone ratted me out.

I had no idea then that what I was really doing with my insouciance was preparing for this column and your question, Dear M. Who knew?

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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