How to be a perfect stranger
Q: What is the appropriate action for a person of the Jewish faith, if you are at a church service and the congregation kneels down during the service? Should you kneel down or stay seated? -- From M
A: Stay seated but sit in the back.
Richard Siegel, a friend of mine who passed away this year, wrote a book titled "How to Be a Perfect Stranger," which deals with some of these issues. We all know that when we are guests in someone's home we should respect their customs. Out here in California, I am encountering quite a few of them, including, at an owner's request, removing my shoes before entering their home. The same regard for custom should apply when we are guests in a friend's house of worship, but only up to a point.
There are religious rituals that are only intended for members of that faith, and these rituals are not meant for sharing. Taking Communion in the Catholic and other Christian denominations is one such ritual that is reserved for Catholics and those in communion with the Catholic Church. So when members of a Catholic church get up from their seats to go to the Communion rail, you stay seated. According to Jewish tradition, Jews are not permitted to kneel in church; in fact, certain orthodox Jews will not attend a prayer service in a church for any reason.
Christians attending a service in a synagogue are faced with the issue of whether or not they (usually men) should put on a ritual head covering called in Hebrew a kipah and in Yiddish a yarmulke. If all the men in the congregation are wearing kipot, then it is appropriate for a visiting Christian man to also wear one. If some men are not wearing kipot, then a visiting Christian can just go bareheaded. The kipah is just a sign of respect for God and not, like Communion, a ritual that contains a sectarian Jewish belief.
However, there is one custom that all of us ought to follow religiously when we are guests in a friend's house of worship and that is to dress appropriately. What Christians used to call their "Sunday best" referred to the best clothes that folks wore to their most holy destination. Today, many guests at services (particularly funerals) come dressed as though they crawled out of a refrigerator box under a bridge. Show respect by dressing up, not down. God may be watching.
A personal story:
I began quite early in life grappling with your fine question, Dear M, about the appropriate action to take while on a neighbor's religious turf. As a member of the choir at Shorewood High School in Milwaukee back in the '60s, when the hostility against organized religion was not quite as ingrained as it is today, the choir put on a holiday concert every December. No Hanukkah songs were included, as I remember the event, but I definitely remember our rendition of the hymn, "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Latin: Adeste Fidelis). You all remember the lyrics:
O come, all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant