The Price of Community
I saw an interesting movie recently: “The Women’s Balcony”. It’s an Israeli movie about a close-knit Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel and how it deals with something of a disaster. The congregation’s temple had a balcony where women attended services, as it is Orthodox custom and practice to separate men and women in synagogue. During a bar mitzvah service the balcony collapses, injuring several (including the elderly rabbi and his wife) and the congregation needs to find a way to rebuild.
I was raised Jewish, and while I still consider myself to be culturally and ethnically Jewish, I am an atheist and so I don’t actually practice the religion. But given my background, I must admit that I found the movie’s early scenes (prior to the balcony collapse) to be moving, and they elicited just a wee bit of wistfulness in me. The people all seemed so joyous in preparing for and participating in the bar mitzvah celebration; singing, dancing, hugging. You could just feel a real sense of community among all the participants. It did make me wonder for just a minute if maybe I’m missing something in my atheism. But not for long.
As the movie unfolds a young ultra-Orthodox rabbi offers to help the congregation rebuild, and at first his assistance is most welcome. But he soon insinuates himself and his ultra-Orthodox beliefs into the congregation in ways that are not so welcome, especially to the community’s women. (For example, he goads the men into giving their wives head scarves so they will appear more “modest”. Suffice it to say, these “presents” are not well-received). The men of the congregation are wary, but for the most part they are too cowed by the rabbi’s “authority” to resist him. So much for wistfulness. I could never live like that. I would never let some guy subvert my ethical beliefs just because he’s learned in an ancient book that in my opinion contains questionable ethics itself and was written by people who didn’t know that the earth revolves around the sun. Community or no community, there is simply no way that I could accept this. It’s just not in me, and it’s certainly not worth the price of surrendering my intelligence, common sense, autonomy, and ethical principles.
Besides, there are other places and institutions from which one can gain a sense of community. Religion is not the only game in town. I felt a sense of community participating in the Science March last April. If you’ve ever been to a concert given by the late Pete Seeger, you’ve experienced the joy of a communal sing-along, because at Pete’s concerts EVERYBODY sang along. And speaking of sing-alongs, try watching a soccer match from England, and just listen to 40,000 or more fans singing together in support of the home team and their community. Absolutely thrilling.
And so my slight feeling of wistfulness while watching “The Women’s Balcony” passed pretty quickly. I’ll concede that there’s an allure to the strong community bonds exhibited by the congregants in the movie, but the price required for admission to that community is simply too steep for me. (Hell, I would have suggested doing without the balcony and just having women sit with the men in the main room, and they ALL would have thought I was crazy). I can’t bring myself to believe in something that I just know isn’t there, and pretending to believe isn’t an option for me either. So I’ll just have to get my sense of community elsewhere. And if I happen to get invited to a Jewish wedding or bat mitzvah, I’ll joyously dance the hora with everyone else. Why not? It’s fun! But surrendering my true ethical beliefs so that I can to fit in? That’s a dance I’ll just have to sit out.