Last Shabbat, as typically happens a few times a year, we didn’t yet have a minyan at the time when we were meant to begin the Torah service. Without a minyan, we skip the Torah service and go right to the Haftarah. From the point of view of halakhah this is a loss– though I’m not sure everyone felt the same when shul was wrapped up by 11am! 🙂
A few days later, I had the pleasure to visit the Amaravati Monastery nearby, outside Hemel Hempstead. For those who haven’t been– Amaravati is a surprisingly large compound which serves as a full-time residential Buddhist monastery, a retreat centre, and a community space. It’s in a beautiful, typically-Hertfordshire, location and like many Buddhist centres, all are welcome to visit. Anyone can go and join the monks and nuns in meditation, but the time of day when there are the most visitors is just a bit before Midday, when the community make a meal offering to the monks and nuns.
Unsurprisingly, it is a heavily ritualised affair. The visitors and laypeople will come in to a prayer hall, many will spend hours cooking an elaborate lunch, others will simply linger about. Eventually, the monks and nuns of the monastery enter from the other side of the room and say some prayers to themselves. Then the Abbott makes a few announcements and special volunteers serve the monks. This ritual is an updated version of a practice which goes back to the first Buddhist communities– monks, who do not have material possessions, would go from door to door begging for food. For the laypeople, it was an honour to provide for those who were committing their life to the Buddhist path of seeking Nibbana (Pali, in Sanskrit: Nirvana).
As I watched the monks parade past the volunteers serving food and graciously accept those gifts which sustain them– it was hard to ignore the glaring differences between such a religious system and our own.
Sure, the ancient Temple included similar provisions. The Kohanim, who did not own much of their own, and spent their days performing the rituals of sacrifice on behalf of others, were mostly fed by gifts provided by the lay-people and portions of the sacrifices which they performed. Yet, with the absence of the Temple and the reinvention of Judaism around rabbis and not priests, all of that changed.
One of the biggest innovations of the Sages was a sort of egalitarianism. Whereas priestly blood and sacrificial competency was the key to religious fulfilment in the Temple, for the rabbis, it was learning and study. Notably, this transformation allows for something which was quite unusual at the time: anyone can be a part of the ‘inner circle’ of religious elite. No longer was it defined by family, or by wealth, or even by training. Anyone who had a quick mind and who committed themselves to learning and teaching the Torah could be considered one of the rabbis– famously, the earliest Sages were from all different social, economic, and even ethnic backgrounds.
To me, that egalitarian spirit is a welcome one, and much more preferable than the vicarious monasticism of Buddhism– where laypeople are often expected not to seek religious knowledge themselves, but to care for and serve the monks, who will be ‘religious’ on their behalf. However, the flip-side of our inclusive spirit and meritocratic leadership is the structuring of a community around a minyan. The need for us all to come together in prayer and service and study is certainly different from our Buddhist sisters and brothers– Judaism doesn’t happen unless we make it so.
Perhaps it would be nice, sometimes, to rely on a group of dedicated ‘professionals’ who would seek out enlightenment and share it with the rest of us. However, our tradition has embraced a different path– one where we have to rely on each other whilst we walk the road to Nirvana. It’s a gift– which allows any one of us to become a leader and teacher– and in return it asks each of us to share the responsibility of seeking a religious life together.