I love community religion, and always have.
The best part about my time in conservative Judaism was the community. I was very lucky in childhood, my Jewish community was a kindly, accepting, and jolly one to be around. Judaism in general, in all of its forms (reformed, conservative, orthodox, etc.), places a heavy emphasis on community. All of the worship revolves around a “place of worship”, which is the synagogue: a temple- or church-like building where the Torah (holy books) are kept and the prayer services take place. The point is to “come together” to study and pray; that, as the Jewish people have always been a minority and a constantly persecuted one, it is so very important for us the stick together and remain strong as a group. It is why the Jews care so deeply for Israel – the physical manifestation of the Jewish community, the place where we can all, without prejudice, “come together.” (Ironically, as the world knows, Israel is not such a safe/ideal place in this modern age – and many Jews are actually very much, nowadays, on the side of equality for both Israelites and Palestinians…but I digress. This isn’t a political blog!). In any case, with research, you’d be able to see how very community-based Judaism is.
The synagogue I went to as a child, the smaller community I knew, was very important to me: in many ways, those people shaped who I am as a person (if not theologically, definitely morally). Many of those people are still dear friends of mine and my family, and I visit them whenever I can. My experience with Judaism in childhood is why I still partake in many Jewish holidays and festivals with my family now, when it is convenient for me. I sometimes go out of my way to go back to my old synagogue and be with those people. I have new Gods now, but I love the memories I have from there, and I’m proud to claim similar heritage with those people. And I do thank YHVH sometimes (the Abrahamic God)…because, for whatever reason, it was through my family’s original devotion to Him that I was born into that loving community in the first place. YHVH Himself maybe never spoke to me with as much vigor and love as He has to others, but those people did. And for that, I do give thanks.
Coming from such a strong, happy, invigorating religious community, where every holiday was a group event, and where many classes, gatherings, educational experiences, and memorial services were held regularly (monthly, usually) by the community (about Judaism itself, but also about other things, like community service, volunteer work, and interfaith discussion)…it was hard for me to forget what that felt like when I went to college, where that community didn’t exist anymore. Even though I’d started doubting myself as a monotheist at that point (I won’t go into that history here) and I wanted to look into other religions, I missed the community-aspect of the Judaism I’d previously experienced. I like community in all areas of my life (thus my decision to attend a HUGE State school, and my decision to study abroad with groups in college, as opposed to going alone), but for some reason, in a religious sense, being able to band together with people and pray or just simply share cultural and religious tradition (the lighting of candles, the singing of hymns, the naming and honoring of God or Gods) very powerfully affects me.
And I soon found, when living in Japan, that my love of community in religion wasn’t actually unique to Judaism. My first time living in Japan, in the summer of 09, I attended my first “Shrine Festival.” These sorts of events are called 祭り(matsuri) in Japanese, the Kanji symbol meaning, literally, “ritual” or “offering.” Matsuri range in scale. There are nation-wide ones that occur all at the same time in the varying cities, in celebration of certain important Buddhist and Shinto holidays (such as Obon or Tanabata), as well as those based on human ages (for example, the Shinto 七五三 (shichi-go-san) festival, which celebrates all children who are ages 7, 5, and 3 on any given year) and the seasons (for example 雪祭りor Yuki Matsuri, which are snow festivals held in winter, usually in northern Japan, and 花見 or hanami, which are festivals held in Spring, literally called “Flower Viewings” – the most popular being, of course, the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Viewings in March). On a smaller scale, there are hundreds of, what the Japanese call, “Neighborhood Shrine Festivals” in all of the varying cities and rural landscapes throughout Japan. These are festivals where the Deity of a certain neighborhood Shinto Shrine is honored, and carried around the entire neighborhood on a 神輿 or mikoshi, a movable altar.
Anyway, in the summer of 09, I attended the Shinagawa (a neighborhood in Tokyo) Summer Shrine Festival, which would be the first of many, many matsuri I would attend in years to come (and it will always be my most memorable, for that reason). The thing that’s so incredible about these festivals, is that it’s not just one or two people holding up the mikoshi and parading around the neighborhood for everyone to see out their windows or something: no, the entire neighborhood (as in, hundreds of people) come spilling out onto the streets, everyone takes turns carrying the Deity in the mikoshi, and everyone parades around the neighborhood. We’re talking adults, teens, children, old people, ALL of them. Even the pets! I saw a lot of dogs and cats out there too. Many Japanese people even grabbed us – the visiting foreigners – and threw us into the mix. We got to parade around too! It was honestly incredible. There was singing, dancing, drumming, drinking, and food.
Every time I have lived in Japan since then, I have fallen in love with the Japanese community religious experience. While I don’t necessarily consider myself a Buddhist or a Shintoist, I credit those religions with helping me find spirituality again after I went to college, and encouraging me to seek the spiritual in new and profound ways. I credit those religions with helping me to accept myself as a polytheist and realize that I believed in a myriad of spirits, Gods, and natural powers that exist all throughout the world. But most of all, I credit those religions in helping me to come to terms with the fact that I cannot be a religious person without community.
Except, with Kemeticism, due to its nature as a new and unorganized religion (being revived from what was previously dead), I always assumed, from the start, that I’d have to give up community religion in favor of my Gods, and how well this religion fits me. I always assumed I’d have to work hard to be solitary, and (because I didn’t foresee myself regularly living in Japan again in the near future) use my family/whatever ways I could still acces my old Jewish community as the only way of holding onto community religion and still experiencing it. I “made that sacrifice”, in my mind, when I left college in 2011, fully committed to the study and practice of Kemeticism. “I’m Kemetic now. I love it, and there are people to discuss it with on the Internet, but I’m going to have to accept that there’s no community for this. There are no working temples, no community festivals, and no group worship.” And that was ok.
But it wasn’t necessarily the truth.
This past January 2012, I was urged (by two Goddesses), to join an organization I had never realized was there really until just this year. This organization is the Kemetic Orthodoxy, or House of Netjer. In late January, I joined their Beginner’s Course in hopes of seeing what they might be all about. I admit, I was initially very excited – “really, this is a working, organized, large-ish Kemetic community? In America? With temples/shrines that DO exist? With people who DO hold festivals, if far away from my particular home?” I soon realized there were outside people with not-so-nice opinions on this KO organization, and that there were even some people within it who I didn’t like either (and rubbed me the wrong way). But I decided to give it a chance, since I tend to like to decide for myself (out of experience) whether or not something works for me (and at the very least, I thought, Tamara Siuda, the woman who runs it, is an intelligent and qualified Egyptologist and spiritualist who I can respect and admire – and that’s a good sign, when the leader of something seems like a decent, qualified person!). Though I understand now that nothing is perfect – and that this organization does have its flaws and its room to grow and improve – I am actually very happy with my classes so far, and the aspects of community that I have experienced.
Just last week, for example, after our Sunday weekly chat session was over (for the class), those of us who had attended were invited to the organization’s monthly Akhu Dua, or community Akhu celebration. I chose to attend, and I’m very glad I did. The ritual words were lovely, and I was able to add some of my own ancestor’s names to the list of “community Akhu.” I gave an offering myself, in my home, while everyone else in the chat session did (I can only assume) at their homes, and then we all recited a hymn to Het-Heru, as it was also a feast day of Her’s (apparently). And you know…sure, it was primarily experienced through the Internet. And sure, I’m not a full member of anything yet – I don’t get the chance to be until the class is over. And sure, there are going to be people who don’t agree with KO’s structure/philosophies/etc. And sure, there are always going to be people from within religious communities who aren’t likable or perfect.
But in that moment, typing the names of my Akhu into the chat and reading the names of the other Akhu instantly popping up as the 10-15 or so other people who had attended were also adding names, it felt like community religion. I felt the spark. I felt the connection. I felt like a part of something larger. And that gave me hope.
Kemeticism as a religion is still growing and improving and changing, and Kemetic Orthodoxy as an organization is still growing and improving and changing…and I hope someday there will be temples/shrines in any major city for us to travel to and worship at; and I hope someday I will live near more Kemetics, so I can get to know them better in person and celebrate with them in person; and I hope someday the P/P/R community as a greater whole will become larger, and more united, more tolerant, more easily accesible, more organized, more mature.
But none of that can happen if we don’t work at it. And that’s why I want to be a part of that process of growth and change. That’s why I’ll always be a part of it: because, despite its flaws that do exist, I will always love, and advocate, community religion.