Reflective Essay on Religious Studies

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The Shabbat and its implication of human’s prospects History Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world, existing upon the basis that there is one and only one God. The Jews believe that they are “God’s ‘Chosen People’” (Karesh and Mitchell). They follow the principles of the Hebrew Bible, also called Tanakh. Just like every other peoples, throughout their history, the Jews have their highs and lows. They have some periods of extension, but they have suffered some of the worst genocides ever. Millions of their people were slaughtered in the Christian Crusades of the medieval time, and millions more were tragically massacred during the horrifying Holocaust.

Their Holy Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, once in 587 BCE by the Babylonians and once in 70 CE by the Romans (Hinnells 517). It was not until 1948 that the State of Israel was declared, but that was not the end of Jewish hardship. Israel is still under ongoing conflicts with Palestine, and violence regularly happens along the border, especially in the Gaza Strip. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, abbreviated CBST, is a Jewish synagogue founded in 1973. They start very small, with “barely a minyan attended,” but eventually grow much larger in membership (“Our history”). As opposed to the homophobic principles of many religious places, the CBST welcomes people of all genders and sexualities. The people of the LGBTQ community, abandoned by their family and religion, can finally have a place to practice Judaism. This unique principle makes up the core values of CBST: “secure peace, justice, and equality for all” (“About us”). All their hard work pays back, and now they are financially stable thanks to the generosity of various individuals and organizations.

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They recently moved to their current location, the ground floor of the Cass Gilbert building. Only after taking a glance at their history can we truly appreciate how special CBST is. Many members of CBST have to go through numerous sufferings. Being both Jews and members of the LGBTQ community, they have endured all the hardships of these two communities. Having suffered for such a long period, they finally find support, joy, and happiness in CBST. Thick Description To obtain a deeper understanding of Jewish traditions, my group visits the CBST on a Friday night, a Shabbat night. The synagogue is on the street level of a modern building in downtown Manhattan, far from what we imagine a religious place looks like. Once we get inside, a middle-aged woman greets us with the warmest welcome, and she guides us to the hall where the Shabbat service takes place. The hall has white walls, decorated with wooden ornaments.

Rows of wooden benches, with crimson-red cushions, form an arc around the central stage. This arrangement gives off a sense of coziness to all people. We settled on the balcony of the hall, giving us a fantastic view of the event. Most attendees are middle-aged to elderly citizens, but, that day, there are some young men and women who are leaders of LGBTQ organizations coming from Israel. Jewish men wear kippahs, the Jewish brimless caps, of various colors and patterns. At the center stage, the service leader, dressed in a bright green and white robe, guides people through all the rituals of Shabbat. His delightful green costume stands out on the light-colored background. All these colors mingle perfectly to bring a feeling of joy, peacefulness, and relaxation to everyone. The Shabbat starts with prayers and the lighting of Shabbat candles, during which the Jews have to cover their eyes. Throughout the evening, the service leader sings aloud in his warm and mesmerizing voice for others to follow. Everyone holds blue leather-bound songbooks in one’s hands, sincerely prays, and sings religious songs together.

The beautiful melodies of “L’chah Dodi,” “Prayer for our Country,” and the lines of the poem in “Bar’chu” can elevate and empower the atmosphere of the hall. Since we are not Jews, we simply follow the service leader, and we genuinely feel restful, just as the name “Shabbat” suggests. The ceremony ends with everyone connected, arms around each others’ shoulders. Big Ideas The Shabbat is the resting day of the Jews. This day of rest is sacred and separated from the six remaining days of the week, for “According to the Book of Genesis, God created the world on the first six days and rested on the seventh” (Karesh and Michell). In the songbook from the Shabbat night, we find a profound and comprehensive description of the Shabbat from Erich Fromm: “On the Shabbath, we cease completely to be animals whose main occupation is to fight for survival and to sustain our biological life. On the Sabbath, we are fully human, with no task other than to be human.” Thus, the Jews refrain from all activities they consider heavy work. The ceremony implicitly suggests a natural limitation of humans that we need to rest. Humans, a biological machine, cannot work continuously without rest, as opposed to what a human-made mechanical machine can do. We are limited by our natural weaknesses, so we have to overcome them in our way. Throughout history, humanity has advanced by overcoming physical weaknesses with the creative use of mental capability.

God gives man limited physical strength but gives him a mental strength exceeding that of all other creatures on Earth, and he knows how to utilize this to his advantage. In ancient times, he managed to make use of various types of materials to create tools. The man knows his hands are not sharp and hard enough, so he creates stone or metal axes to cut down trees. He knows he is physically weaker than many dangerous animals, so he creates weapons to fight against them. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, and man invented mechanical machines and production lines to replace human labor in a large portion of work. He is now much more productive than ever before. Given these strengths and weaknesses, what are our possibilities for changing ourselves and the world? We can carry on with humankind’s history of creation and innovation. Specialization and automation enables human to reach an astounding level of productivity. We used to spend a whole day on the field or in the forest to get just enough food for ourselves. Now, survival is not such a big task for us. One farmer can produce enough food for hundreds of people, thus freeing up the majority of people to do other jobs.

Creators and innovators are the people who can push our civilization further forward by optimizing the output of human labor. Nonetheless, not everyone can change the world this way; most people will live ordinary and quiet lives. Then, how do we change the world? Changing the world is not only about changing it physically but also mentally and spiritually. These aspects are explicitly presented during the Shabbat night, that we need mental rest alongside physical one. Refraining from work is simply a rest to our body, but praying or singing is a rest to our mind. Living in the modern world is stressful, so our mind needs a break from all the intense labor. The Shabbat fulfills this physiological requirement by providing people with rest, support, care, and love. The community shares its members’ happiness, e.g., the birth of a child, and grief, e.g., the death of a member’s loved one. They fight against injustice and discrimination, providing support to people of all backgrounds. If changing the world physically seems like a job for just the most talented people, we can all change the world mentally and spiritually, just like how the CBST community does. We cannot always tell if someone is having a bad day.

Return the lost purse to an old lady, and we prevent her day from getting worse. Show the way for a lost and tired tourist, and we make his day. Even our smallest act of kindness can change the world for someone. Comparison In comparison with Rober Orsi’s “ Roundtable on Ethnography and Religion: Doing Religious Studies with Your Whole Body,” my experience from this field research trip does not agree with some of the axioms. Many scholars of religion believe that “ it is irrelevant to speak to religious persons because what any one person says or experiences is always already determined” (Orsi 3). Nonetheless, each person has his or her own unique experience. Thus, this axiom overly generalizes the religious community in that they share the same mindset. The people I met in CBST that night were of various backgrounds, with some people coming from Israel or Poland. They speak different languages, live in different regions, and have different genders and sexual orientations, so they cannot share the same experience or mindset. Furthermore, the axiom “ religious studies are about the human side of religion, not about the non-human” distinctly separate religious studies from theology (Orsi 2). However, I believe that only through carefully exploring both the people and the God they worship can a researcher capture a comprehensive view of a religious community. Self-Reflection The CBST is a very open-minded community. They give us a place on the balcony, so we can explore, observe, and participate in the Shabbat at our wills. To have an immersed experience at the synagogue, we try our best to follow the activities.

I am not a Jew, and I have no prior encounter with the Hebrew language or Judaism. I am one of the few people who attend the CBST Shabbat Service for the first time. However, their atmosphere, their rituals, and their people make me feel as if I am a part of their community. I can feel the passion and connection through the way they sing, read poems, and pray together. Spending an evening of Shabbat with the LGBTQ Jews, I learned a lot about their traditions and rituals. More importantly, this ceremony implies the physical weakness and mental strength of humans, which gives one possible answer to our guiding question: “What are our prospects for changing the world?” Care and love hold people together, so we can change the world with our everyday acts of kindness. Help people “with all your heart”, as written on the cover of the songbook.

Works Cited

    1. “About.” Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 20 Mar. 2018,
    2. Hinnells, John R. A New Dictionary of Religions. Blackwell, 1995.
    3. Karesh, Sara E., and Mitchell M. Hurvitz. Encyclopedia of Judaism. [online] Checkmark Books, 2008. Available at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019]
    4. “Our History.” Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 6 May 2019,
    5. Orsi, Robert A., “Roundtable on Ethnography and Religion: Doing Religious Studies with Your Whole Body.” Practical Matters, 2013, pp. 1-6.
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