ROSH HASHANAH 5772 – FIRST EVENING
When I was a rabbinical student, I taught religious school. In those days, I didn’t have a car, so I either rode with other teachers to the schools, or I took some form of public transportation. One fall day, when I was riding on the Long Island Railroad, either to or from my teaching assignment, I saw one passenger say to another, “Are you ready?”
The other person didn’t seem to understand the question, so the first one went like this: [dovvening motion].
Certainly, from now through the end of Yom Kippur, we shall be spending a great deal of time praying – or, at least, we shall be spending a great deal of time in the synagogue. It is worthwhile, therefore, to ask, “Is this meaningful?”
Prof. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has launched a blog on Conservative Judaism, and one of the topics which he has addressed in it is “Meaningful Tefillah” (Meaningful Prayer). I would like to take off from the Chancellor’s words and the reactions to them on the blog, to share with you some thoughts on the subject.
Prof. Eisen initially made these points:
Prayer is one of the hardest of tasks, but it is a rewarding one. Despite our doubts and problems, we are engaged with God.
Synagogues are the signature institutions of Conservative Judaism, and prayer, especially the Shabbat morning service, is the main event of synagogue life.
“The quality of tefillah in our Movement demands urgent, sustained, honest, and impassioned attention.”
The design of many synagogues, in particular, large sanctuaries with row after row of seats and high bimas makes meaningful prayer more difficult.
Another obstacle to meaningful prayer is that different people have different expectations. Some prefer the polished presentation of professionals (like hazannim) whereas others favor congregational participation. Some like sermons to deal with current topics whereas others prefer traditional themes.
Some people prefer services which include instrumental music while others would rather not have it. Also, many people these days do not feel comfortable with the Hebrew of the siddur.
Yet, the Chancellor wrote, there are many moments of strong emotion in synagogue services: a Misheberakh for the sick, the last Avinu malkenu, or kissing the Torah, for example.
The Chancellor’s initial blog essay called forth dozens of responses, some from rabbis and professors, some from ordinary Jews. I would divide the reactions into two groups: the theological-ideological and the organizational.
Some of the contributors held that meaningful prayer in Conservative synagogues is difficult if not impossible because the traditional prayers recited in Conservative synagogues presuppose the concept of a supernatural God, a being who can perhaps be cajoled into carrying out our wishes, and that is a concept which few people today hold.
On the questions of the use of Hebrew and instrumental music, the responses were, to no surprise, divided. Some people stressed the importance of Hebrew in Jewish life, and some people emphasized the fact that most American Jews are simply mystified by long stretches of Hebrew reading or chanting. Some people wrote of the role of instrumental music in raising the aesthetic and emotional level of worship services, and some people pointed to the presumed violation of halakha and tradition that the use of musical instruments on Shabbat and Festivals represents.
I don’t believe that anyone wrote in favor of large, formal, synagogue sanctuaries. Every participant in the discussion seemed to recognize the value of more intimate settings. Of course, the economic realities of synagogue life are that some congregations are stuck with huge sanctuary spaces. Some have remodeled their sanctuaries to make them more inviting, but not every congregation is able to do that. I can say that that is one point on which we at NHS are in a good position.
People discussed the dynamics of services, their pace and flow. Some people argued that explanations of the prayers make services more meaningful, while others held that such explanations impede the flow of the service, which is an important emotional factor. Most participants in the discussion favored more “participatory” services, but some people objected to the apparent demonization of professional h?azzanim, pointing out that not all h?azzanim are performers intent only on vocal display.
So far, I have mainly described the discussion as it appeared on Prof. Eisen’s blog. Now, let me tell you what I think.
I don’t believe that any of the descriptions of God which appear in our prayer books, or in the Tanakh, the Bible, can be taken at face value, but that should be no surprise. As Rabbi Brad Artson said here last year, the attempt to create a rational Jewish theology using attributes such as “wise,” “powerful,” etc., and understanding all of those attributes of God as being infinite, is a mistake. It necessarily leads to contradictions.
Maimonides, in Part I of the Guide for the Perplexed¸ wrote that, from a purely philosophical point of view, the best prayer would be silence, because we cannot really say anything about God. However, he went on, since our tradition has given us certain ways of speaking to and about God in prayer, we may use those forms and attributes.
Making a similar point, from very different premises, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman said that, rather than trying to prove or disprove assertions supposedly made in the prayer book, we should let ourselves be carried away by its drama, a drama in which we are actors. To push the matter further, the Hebrew word “l’hitpalel” (to pray) probably means “to play the role of an advocate”.
The structure of the Amidah, which is our prayer (with a capital “P”) bears that out. We stand up, approach our sovereign, bow, praise Him for His past actions, make our case, thank Him, bow again, and take our leave without turning our back, taking three steps backwards.
If this description of prayer as playing a role seems disturbing, I would remind you that Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
Yet, the question of meaningfulness returns. Does it make sense for us to play the role written for us in traditional Jewish prayer? Ultimately, this is not a matter than can be argued one way or the other. I find it meaningful.
Indeed, I used to be Reform, and one of the reasons that I moved to Conservative Judaism is that I found the traditional prayers more meaningful than modernized and abbreviated ones. I can only hope that other people, when they learn more about the traditional liturgy, when some of their misconceptions have perhaps been dispelled, and when they have experienced it more, will feel the same way. The reality is that some people will, and some people will not.
I regard the use of Hebrew as the primary language of prayer as both a necessity and a problem. Each person has his or her personal relationship to God, but, in synagogue worship, we come before God as part of the Jewish people, a people scattered all over the world, a people with a 3,000 year history, a people held together across time and space by the Hebrew language. Furthermore, our prayers are full of allusions and connections to other parts of Jewish literature, the Bible and rabbinic literature. Those connections make our prayers very rich, and it is hard to convey them in translation.
At the same time, the reality is that very few members of American Conservative congregations have more than a rudimentary command of Hebrew, so prayer in Hebrew will necessarily lose much of its meaning. The best solution to this dilemma is easy to state but harder to implement: people should learn Hebrew. Alternatives, such as English translations in the prayer books and transliterations, leave something to be desired in terms of meaning. However, the meaning of prayer includes more than the meanings of the words, and, if one can participate in the emotional experience of the worship service, by any means, that is something positive.
The inclusion of instrumental music in synagogue services, on Shabbat and Festivals, is a major point of discussion and of controversy in the Conservative movement today. In his blog discussion, Chancellor Eisen cautiously favors the use of musical instruments – cautiously because only a minority of Conservative congregations today use musical instruments. There are two real issues connected with the question of instrumental music in the synagogue. One is halakhic, and that is that the mainstream halakhic position, from the Talmud through the 20th century, has been that it is forbidden to play any musical instrument on Shabbat or Festivals. (I kid you not.)
The second question is a policy question: is it a good idea to use musical instruments at services? If you accept the halakhic prohibition, then the policy question is moot. No matter how many advantages there may be to using musical instruments, if it constitutes a violation of Shabbat, then one should not do it. I have always held that playing musical instruments on Shabbat is forbidden, but I must tell you honestly that, in terms of the underlying halakhic considerations, that blanket prohibition is overkill.
With regard to the policy question, I have mixed feelings. I have no question that the addition of instrumental music makes the synagogue experience more pleasant. I am not sure if it enhances worship. But perhaps to make that distinction is to be too much the purist. In any case, b’li neder (not making a vow that I may regret at Kol Nidre), I plan, some time during the coming year, to write a halakhic position paper taking a more nuanced stance with regard to the use of musical instruments, and then the Ritual Committee and the congregation can discuss what we shall do about it.
For me, the flow of the service and a feeling for its structure are very important elements of worship. Our services rise and fall in intensity like a series of waves. One can ride the waves as one prayer leads to another. Therefore, I like interruptions of the flow, whether they be page announcements, other instructions, or explanations, to be kept to a minimum.
Having seen many pompous rabbis in action, I prefer a less obtrusive rabbinic presence during the prayer part of the service. When it comes to services, I am a tea-partier; I like less government. However, I know that that style of service, which lets some people make fuller, more direct, use of the channel to God provided by our traditional liturgy, also leaves some people lost and mystified. Can we reach a medium point which will be satisfactory to everyone, or do we need to have different kinds of services for different people?
My last observation about meaningful prayer is based, not on the Chancellor’s blog, but on another discussion which I read some time in the last year or so. The rabbis of the famous (or notorious) Cong. B’nai Jeshurun of New York, which has hundreds of people dancing in the aisles on Friday night to the music of a band, wrote:
"The key to understanding how Jewish spirituality manifests itself at BJ cannot be found by narrowly focusing on BJ’s Shabbat services. Certainly, when visitors come to our synagogue on Shabbat, they typically comment on the intensity and beauty of the prayer services and the number of people. But what they don’t know, what they don’t see, is that this experience is created by the myriad of deeds that take place daily, building and strengthening the fabric of the community and feeding back into the vitality of the service."
Much like BJ’s famed dancing in the aisles on Friday night, hundreds of people are connected to each other — every day — and engaged in mitzvot such as bikkur holim (visiting the sick in our community), taharah (washing the body of the deceased), nihum avelim (comforting the bereaved), literacy programs, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry at our lunch program, participating in the daily morning minyan, engaging in study, organizing Shabbat dinners, welcoming new members, and more. Shabbat could not exist without this connection of what goes on in between services. Services become the culmination and the celebration of our week as a participatory community.
At the same time, on Shabbat we seek inspiration and renewed vision for the week ahead. More than its being fast or slow, in Hebrew or in English, with instruments or without, what makes prayer meaningful is its being part of a fabric of Jewish religious life which extends to the entire week, which includes other Jewish religious practices, such as Shabbat and Talmud torah, and also mitzvot, such as tzedakah, gemilut hasadim, and sh’mirat halashon, which connect us with other people. In the justly famous Mishnah near the beginning of Avot, we read “The world is based on three things: on Torah, on the service of God (avodah), and on gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).
Originally, avodah, the service of God, meant the Temple service, but, already in the time of the Mishnah, another view had emerged. At Deut. 11:13, we read “Serve the Lord your God with all your heart,” and the Sifre asks and answers, “What is the service of the heart? It is prayer.”
Prayer is actually more than the service of the heart. The psalmist said (Ps 35:10), “All my bones shall say, ‘Who is like You, Lord?’”
Our entire selves, body and soul, are engaged in prayer, and factors physical and psychological can facilitate or impede meaningful prayer. Chancellor Eisen was right in devoting part of his blog on Conservative Judaism to meaningful prayer, and I hope that we shall devote part of our ongoing congregational conversations to the same topic.