Saturday, 19 January 2013


If a culturally inclusive society is what we should be working towards, then a small step was taken this week when friends invited me to their son’s Bar Mitzvah. I was both pleased and encouraged by the invitation: pleased to be included in their family celebration and encouraged at the prospect of progress towards cross-cultural understanding - our best hope of resolving persistent social conflicts. Plus, I was intrigued to compare their religious ceremonial with that of my own, Catholic upbringing.
In the event I noted some similarities: the use of an ancient foreign language, reference to revered texts from antiquity, glistening paraphernalia stashed behind velvet curtains and, of course, an unquestioned belief that God is looking on. The differences I observed (leaving aside any theological issues) were cultural rather than symbolic: the ceremony had an informal, friendly aura and seemed relatively unstructured. Being used to solemn, joyless Catholic services with their emphasis on obedience to the hierarchical structure, I was anticipating that someone would step forward and take charge of the proceedings. But it didn’t happen and I was won over in the end by the relaxed acceptance of individual expression that prevailed throughout.
There was, however, a lengthy prelude of worship and prayer during which I was faced with the dilemma of how to appear interested whilst not actually understanding anything (being an outsider is never a comfortable experience, no matter how welcoming the hosts). So, whilst cultivating what I hoped might be a suitably reverent facial expression and looking around for anything which could occupy my otherwise blank mind, I became obsessed with the prayer-shawls which the men of the congregation were wearing. They are of ancient design and not really fit for purpose since they slip from their shoulders every few seconds and have to be continually hoisted, flicked or flung back into place in a distracting bustle of activity. Before long I had drawn a mental blueprint of an improved version which incorporates some shape and structure to hold it in place. During the mingling at the end of the ceremony I had to restrain myself from enthusing about my new design for fear of alienating the traditionalists.
But, for the atheist observer amongst the Godly at worship, there is more to ponder than paraphernalia. When the two great social bindings, faith and culture, are so completely alloyed that one does not exist without the other, how does one group tolerate the other’s point of view? Bar Mitzvah for Jews, like Confirmation for Catholics, represents dedication to a religious format which dictates certain cultural mores. Isolating the two is problematic, as shown by the recent legal rulings concerning an individual’s right to put religious beliefs before public duties and the ensuing backlash against what has been called “aggressive secularism”. And the current argument about same-sex marriage that rumbles among the clergy of the Church of England, predicated as it is on a belief that marriages are sanctioned by God, will never be resolved until God’s will can be agreed upon.
I have been invited into churches, mosques and synagogues, appealed to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and preached at by proselytisers in the street. I would like to be optimistic about social integration but history demonstrates that it is usually a temporary accommodation which lasts only as long as suits whichever party holds sway: hence my concern that the door of the Schul was locked and attended by a security man.


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