by Richard Rabkin
The University of British Columbia Law School encourages its students
to enroll in an exchange program for a semester and sample the law school
of another country. After two-and-a-half years of hearing the same professors
tell the same lawyer jokes, they didn't need to encourage me too much.
But I had two prerequisites for selecting an overseas law
school. First, I needed my destination to have a sizeable Jewish community
so I wouldn't have to worry about buying Kosher food, or finding a synagogue.
So the University of East Timor and the University of Batswana were out
of the question. Second, I wanted it to be a little different -- not too
different, but different enough to know that I wasn't in North America
Melbourne, Australia, seemed like the perfect choice. When
I got off the plane, things looked comfortably familiar. True, I almost
got run over walking across the street, because people over there drive
on the wrong side of the road, and I did immediately feel like I was on
the set of the upcoming Crocodile Dundee sequel. But Australia couldn't
really be that different, could it?
Very quickly, I found out how different it actually was.
I've always thought that the best way to familiarize oneself with a country's
people is to get to know the sports that they like to play. With that
in mind, I sat down and watched my first cricket match, which is one of
Australia's national pastimes. In case you don't know, cricket is a cross
between baseball (because they use bats and a ball) and Chinese water
torture (because the matches last so long that you want to kill yourself).
If you think I am exaggerating, just consider that one cricket match actually
lasts for five days! And you thought High Holiday services were long!
To make matters worse, often times, after the five day cricket-a-thon,
there isn't even a winner!
After my encounter with cricket, I needed to familiarize
myself with a game that was a little faster and tried to watch Australian
Rules Football. This game is a cross between soccer, football and MMA
(mixed martial arts --ed.) -- the rules make it legal to punch your opponent
in the face or bite him in the abdomen. In addition, I believe that the
fans are encouraged to join in and bludgeon one another, feeling that
they are somehow part of the game.
These were not the sports that I was used to at home. In
fact, many things seemed to be different from what I was used to at home
until I walked into a synagogue.
Although I was physically on the other side of the world,
spiritually it seemed exactly the same. We recited the familiar prayers,
like the Shema and the Amidah in their original Hebrew. On Shabbat, the
weekly Torah portion was read in Melbourne in the same way as in most
synagogues throughout the world. In addition, there was also a similar
spirit of hospitality -- after services many of the congregants invited
me for a Sabbath meal.
Although I found these traditions comforting, some argue
that they are restricting. For example, many people think that the liturgy
should not be in Hebrew, particularly if that is a language that they
Indeed, the Talmud (Sotah 33a) states that it is permissible
for a person to pray in his native tongue provided that he has the requisite
intent and devotion. On the other hand, one can fulfill one's obligation
of prayer in Hebrew, even if the words said were not understood.
Although this may seem illogical, the practical significance
is obvious. Throughout my travels in communities in North America, Israel,
Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Australia, I've always been able to walk into
any synagogues and join with the members of that community in prayer.
Although we may not share the same language of conversation,
more importantly, we share the elevated language of prayer, which Judaism
teaches is the language of Creation.
We are also taught that the Members of the Great Assembly
(4th century BCE) wrote the text of the prayers through divine inspiration,
capturing many mystical secrets in the choices of words and letters they
used. In translation, this power is lost.
Perhaps another reason that our Sages decreed we should pray in Hebrew
is that they felt that it would be a unifying force to all Jews. Our common
language -- along with other common traditions - helps to define the Jewish
people as one nation and bonds us all over the world together, not bagels,
Jerry Seinfeld or Jerry Springer.
Jewish traditions are what enable us to keep our Jewish
identities intact while being citizens of the various countries that we
live in. Whether we are Canadians who enjoy watching hockey, or Americans
who like watching football, or Australians who have way too much time
on our hands and take out five days to watch a cricket match, wherever
we are, we will always be Jewish because of our common traditions.