Thursday, July 14, 2005

In favor of fringes

Now here's an op-ed sure to get people going.
Aaron Hamburger, author of an acclaimed book of short stories, argues in the Forward that
In an age when religious activists frequently lament that their faith is under constant attack by secularism, gays could prove to be religion's last best hope.
He reasons that unlike most stuffy, uninspiring 'mainstream' shuls, the gay synagogues he's been to have been much more spiritual, joyful and inspiring:
I'd almost given up on Judaism when, at the age of 22, I walked into a gay synagogue for the first time, mostly out of curiosity. It was on a Friday night, and I was surrounded by gays and lesbians chanting the prayers I'd learned as a kid — but with a striking warmth and fervor, the kind I'd dreamed of finding in shul as a young prophet-in-training. Instead of lecturing from the pulpit, the beaming rabbi walked down the aisle of a small, bright room and encouraged us to wish the people around us a good Shabbat.
In the middle of the service, I began crying — at first because I still couldn't get over the idea of a gay synagogue, but mostly because I was moved by these people's mere presence. Sure, a few congregants may have been hunting for dates, yet most seemed genuinely interested in the service itself. Why? What drew these people to spend their Friday nights praying instead of going out to the bars?
He suggests that religious leaders should study the gay community to see why so many people are voluntarily religious, although they are "if anything... encouraged in the opposite direction by party promoters, alcohol manufacturers, and queer culture -- or by misguided clergy," in order to understand better how to attract and retain others as well.
There is actually something to his argument, but I don't think what he's talking about specifically pertains to gay people or gay communities. Very often, the most important and inspiring religious innovations and practices happen on the fringes, by people who don't quite fit (or want to fit? or are excluded from?) into the mainstream and who, by virtue of being on the fringe, have less constraints from the 'establishment' and less pressure to conform. Very often these innovations / practices later move into the mainstream and in effect contribute to the religion's perpetuation and renewal (Think of Carlebach and his followers, for example). In addition, the 'warmer, friendlier, more welcoming' service syndrome is another fringe characteristic, and one some people have learned from. So here's to fringes of all kinds...

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