Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shomea Tefilah: The Deep Roots of the Impulse for Participatory Communal Jewish Prayer

ויהיו נא אמרינו לרצון לפני אדון כל
May our words be acceptable before the master of all
Atah Horeita, Introductory verse to Simchat Torah Hakafot
אמרינו האזינה ה' בינה הגיגינו
Hear our utterances, God; understand our meditations
Sh'ma Koleinu, Selichot Liturgy
יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך ה' צורי וגואלי

May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable before you, God, my Rock and Redeemer
-Psalms 19:15, Meditation at the conclusion of the Amidah

Each of the above verses, taken from the most joyous, serious and rote portions of the liturgy, share a focus on having a personal connection to the act of prayer, and thus to God. In each case, the words are written in the first person, whether in singular or plural (though interestingly, the יהיו לרצון verse is actually pluralized within the same Sh'ma Koleinu prayer). There is no mention of the ability of anyone to pray through the proxy of another. It is out of the words themselves that the beauty of tefilah arises, and may be enhanced by music or aesthetics. But these aesthetic elements must be designed to inspire one to pray with feeling and kavanah, not simply for the sake of their own beauty or performance.

A number of events and experiences over the past week have inspired me to write this blog post/article bringing together a collection of diverse modern Jewish voices who passionately argue that meaningful communal prayer can only take place when it is truly a shared activity by all, and not a performance done by a rabbi, cantor or other figure on their behalf. It has been most fascinating that voices as diverse as master theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbis David De Sola Pool and Hayyim Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) in New York and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, founder of Mechon Hadar. Each, in their own context and particular community or audience passionately advocates for the importance of meaningful prayer by focusing on the centrality of the words and aesthetics which are conducive to kavanah. Many see the rejection of a 'high-church,' auditorium style sanctuary and non-participatory service as an innovation of the recent independent minyan movement. I would like to enhance this move towards more meaningful tefilah by demonstrating it as an ancient impulse, expressed by many prominent leaders of recent generations.

In 1953, Rabbi Heschel addressed the members of the Rabbinical Assembly at their convention with a speech entitled "The Spirit of Jewish Prayer." I believe that this choice of topic must have taken much nerve on the part of Heschel, based on the time period and the audacious nature of its contents (appropriate for its appearance in a book called Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity). In the 1950s, hundreds of Conservative congregations were building sprawling edifices in the growing North American suburbia Within them stood breathtaking sanctuaries seating hundreds, each anchored by an imposing bimah at which the rabbi and cantor face the congregation.
Coming from a hassidic background where prayer existed as way to express one's deepest feelings, these 'new' American synagogues likely seemed quite foreign to Heschel. He knows no boundaries in his words, as he expresses frustration with the spiritual void he sees in many of these synagogues and seeks to place hope in the potential which existed for change. At one point, he pleads to the rabbis to fulfill their ultimate spiritual mission beyond simply facilitating the stage directions of a Shabbat morning service.
The Rabbi's duty in the sacred hour of worship goes far beyond that of maintaining order and decorum. His unique task is to be a power for arousal, to endow others with a sense of kavanah. And as we have said, kavanah is more than a touch of emotion. kavanah is insight, appreciation.
After this plea that rabbis must lead their communities towards greater meaning and connection to prayer, Heschel directly addresses the aesthetics of the Conservative synagogue of his day, which still permeate in many places to our own day. He expresses a discomfort with the practice of having the rabbi and cantor face the congregation:

It was in the interest of bringing about order and decorum that in some synagogues the rabbi and cantor decided to occupy a position facing the congregation. It is possible that a reexamination of the whole problem of worship would lead to the conclusion that the innovation was an error. The essence of prayer is not decorum but rather an event in the lives of men...

A cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in whose presence he stands. The congregation then will hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name {according to a footnote, Heschel is likely referring to the repetition of the Amidah here, not a belief in the ability for one to pray through the cantor alone}. (121-122)
I believe that Heschel makes an important point, one with which I personally identify in my preference for a makom tefilah (prayer environment) where the leader faces the same direction as those praying. This arrangement automatically makes a statement, reminding those gathered that the cantor has not ascended the bimah to perform, but as a shaliah tsibbur, an agent of the community. And s/he cannot be an agent unless those gathered are taught, possibly by the rabbi addressed by Heschel, that the cantor cannot lead unless the congregation has the intention, the kavanah to be led, to unite themselves in this act of prayer.

This past shabbat, I returned to Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (and oldest congregation in North America, founded 1654) with two friends. As I described in an earlier post, I am repeatedly attracted to the service for its beauty, dignity, formality and structure. One might immediately ask, that if I was so inspired by Heschel, how can I be so moved by such a formal and orchestrated service? I believe that the minhagim (customs) of our Western Sephardic brethren have succeeded, where those shuls criticized by Heschel failed, in striking a beautiful balance between formality with participation and meaning.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the rabbi of the congregation and a brilliant speaker, author and teacher of Tanach, recently published a short booklet of the congregation's minhagim. One of the topics addressed is the special custom of the leader bowing to the officers of the congregation at the beginning of each service. This practice, which might seem strange to those unfamiliar with it, is actually a centuries-old demonstration of Heschel's idea that the cantor/leader must lead the congregation and not perform for them. Rabbi Angel writes:

One of the interesting customs that we have is the little bow from the Hazan to a trustee at the beginning of each service. When there is an officer... the Hazan will not begin the service without first standing, getting the attention of the presiding official, and exchanging a bow. While a seemingly trivial gesture, it carries with it important symbolism.
In Jewish tradition, the person leading the service is not a functionary or a performer. Rather, he represents the entire congregation in prayer. In Hebrew, the term used for the reader is sheli'ah tzibbur-- the appointed agent of the community. [At Shearith Israel,] the sheli'ah tsibbur stands at the center of the congregation. In this manner, the reader is surrounded by the congregation, acting as its agent rather than as its leader. In this spirit, our congregational melodies seldom accord arias for the Hazanim to sing solo (with a few notable, beautiful exceptions); rather we generally follow an antiphonal (Hazan-congregational response) format to indicate this mutual relationship as a community united in prayer.
When the Hazan receives permission from a representative of the communal leadership (represented by that bow), it is an act of accepting appointment to lead the congregation as its agent. in this way, the reader truly is designated as sheli'ah tzibbur and feels the significance as he begins the service. (Minhagim, 17-18)
As suggested by Heschel, when the aesthetics of prayer are 'done right', they will not only enhance the words of our prayers, but even serve to remind us of the purpose of our gathering is not to listen, but to actively pour out our deepest thoughts to God, led by a reader appointed by and agreeable to the community.

Rabbi Angel's sentiments about the meaning of gathering for tefilah echo the words of his illustrious predecessor Rabbi David de Sola Pool, Rabbi of of Shearith Israel from 1906-70 (and author of a number of Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim). In an address to the synagogue's Men's Club on his 75th birthday. He too presents his own vision for why Jewish prayer is a unifying, communal act is a speech entitled "The Meaning of Prayer":

When we pray with a congregation, our prayer is not self-centered. It takes on the character of social idealism. It voices the religious aspirations of the whole Jewish people. Our praying together expresses the urge of each of us to take his part in helping to bring into being an ennobled spiritual society. Our prayers, which are overwhelmingly in the plural, express the striving of all the people to reach God. In unifying brotherhood of collective worship and communal praying, every one of us as an individual draws inspiration and strength from others, while at the same time every one of us stimulates the congregation by bringing to it his individual increment of spiritual purpose and devotion. (Rabbi David de Sola Pool, 140)
Rabbi de Sola Pool describes in beautiful language the situation which can result when Jews are taught tom pray in the way desired by Heschel, when we might see the day that many flock to sanctuaries across the country not only to share shabbat with family and friends, but ready to express deep hopes and inspirations, both in the words of the siddur and the meditations of the heart.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Kehilat Hadar and Director of Mechon Hadar, recently published a celebrated book Empowered Judaism, which I hope to read quite soon. He speaks about the rise of the independent minyan movement over the past decade. He speaks much of the time in practical terms, explaining his understanding of the challenges facing Judaism today, and how independent minyanim have attempted to face them. In a quote used by my friend Sandy at Columbia/Barnard Koach in a D'var Torah last Shabbat, Rabbi Kaunfer writes what he sees as the issue with why contemporary North American synagogues are often not engaging young (and old) Jews. He writes.

“The classic layout of the liberal American synagogue is one in which the clergy face the congregation from an elevated bimah, and all the davening and Torah reading take place at the front of the room. The layout of the room enforces the feeling that this prayer service is a performance to be watched, with the actors onstage at the front and the audience dutifully listening in the rows below.”

When read in isolation, these words may seem as if calling for an unprecedented revolution against the status quo of the large North American synagogue. but read in the context of Rabbi's Heschel, Angel and de Sola Pool it is not hard to see the long tradition from which Rabbi Kaunfer's impassioned call arises. Like his predecessors, he is calling on Jews to awaken and taste the meaning and communal bonding which can be derived from prayer if participants are willing to put their hearts and souls into it. I believe that each of these quotes sends a clear message about the ideal format and function which Jewish prayer may serve if those who come to pray are inspired to take part in this holy act. It may take time, patience, aesthetic, layout or architectural changes, but I believe that traditional prayer can be made meaningful and reachable to many who seek meaning in their lives.

ויחד לבבנו לאהבה וליראה את שמך, may You unite our hearts to express love and awe for Your name. Amen.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A grand shul-hop, across town and a century back in history!

שמחתי באומרים לי בית ה' נלך - I rejoiced when they said unto me, let us go unto the house of the Lord (Psalm 122:1)

With these words began the opening choral piece of the Friday Evening Service at Temple Emanu-El, the oldest Reform congregation in the United States and the largest Synagogue in the world (larger than St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York's Catholic Diocese). I attended in order to experience what a 'Classical Reform' service is like, broadening my understanding of the richness of the practices of other parts of the Jewish people. I joined a group of classmates from Columbia who founded a group known as New Yachad City (founded by wonderful friends Ilana and Ya'arah) which visits different synagogues throughout the city a couple shabbatot per month. The fact that Emanuel has their Friday evening service at 5:15pm meant that I was able to take the subway and bus both directions before Shabbat officially began, at which point I attended a more traditional service at JTS. (Interestingly, many of the early benefactors of JTS were members of Emanu-El, including Emanu-El's president Louis Marshall. They generally did not wish to become Conservative Jews, but hoped that the new institution would attract Eastern European immgrants who would be uncomfortable with their own Reform practice but would be more comfortable with the more traditional observance of the Seminary).

Not only is the verse quoted above appropriate since it began a special piece performed at the Service in honor of Yom Haatzmaut (coming a long way from when Zionism was quite divisive in Reform Judaism), but it reflects the feeling of grandeur one experiences when they enter the Temple sanctuary, surrounded by stained glass windows, a ceiling over 100 feet high and a marble Bimah. It is hard not to feel that one is in the House of the Lord!

While the Reform movement has gone through a gradual re-embracing of Jewish ritual and customs over the past generation, including increasing the amount of Hebrew and congregational participation in their services, the main service at Emanu-El attempts to preserve the formality and dignity envisioned by the founders of Reform Judaism in America such as Isaac Mayer Wise and Kaufmann Kohler. Thus, the service began with a fifteen minute organ recital, which was beautiful but quite different from any Jewish service I had ever attended (and I've been to hundreds of different shuls and minyanim in my lifetime). At its conclusion, the choir began singing the Samachti piece mentioned above, as three rabbis (only one of whom had his/her head covered) and a cantor, all wearing clerical robes walked onto the Bimah. Unlike most Conservative and Orthodox shuls, the lecterns for the rabbi and cantor were at the corners of the Bimah as opposed to in the center, and were covered with canopies somewhat evocative of Anglican churches.

Emanu-El may be the only Reform Temple which continues to use the Union Prayer Book, first released in 1892 and last edited in the 1940s. In most congregations, it was supplanted by Gates of Prayer in the 1970s and Mishkan Tefila in 2008. However, Emanu-El continues to use the UPB
Conceived in the late l9th century by the growing Reform Movement in America, the Union Prayer Book (ultimately revised several times) is a work that combines the essence of Jewish tradition along with a spirit of classical dignity. By evoking the feeling that prayer is truly different, use of the Union Prayer Book is an attempt to reach a mode of thinking and feeling that transcends the ordinary here and now and that seeks the realms of the sublime.

You can find the nearly-complete text of the Union Prayer Book here on Google Books, which I encourage you to peruse in order to get a better sense of what the service at Emanu-El felt like. (you can also find podcasts of Emanu-El services here ). The English readings (which far outweighed the Hebrew) were recited either by the rabbi, or sometimes responsively or unison, reminded me of the translations in the Conservative movement's 1946 Silverman Siddur. Although I doubt this is the case in most contemporary Reform services, congregational singing was completely absent, replaced by either cantorial solos or the choir. The poetry of the UPB was sublime, but also felt distant, compared to modern translations like Sim Shalom or Koren. A feature that the UPB does contain and is missing from Sim Shalom is instructions on when to sit and stand, which meant that there were relatively few announcements and interruptions during the service. Like its successors, UPB contains several services from which the congregation can choose (we read mostly from Service III which began on p. 38.
Some highlights and interesting departures from traditional services with which I am more familiar included:
  • The Bar'chu was a call and response between the cantor and choir, without involving the Congregation
  • We rose for the Sh'ma and Baruch Shem - it was recited in unison in Hebrew and English by the congregation and rabbi, and then chanted by the cantor, with organ and choir (The baruch shem, traditionally said silently except for on Yom Kippur was also aloud). The V'ahavta was recited in unison, in English.
  • The cantor sang a piece for Mi Kamocha. It was an example of a few places where the UPB was quietly adjusted to match the congregation's current practice, as the words boke'a yam lifne moshe, 'who split the sea before Moses' were not found in the text, but were sung by the cantor.
  • The first paragraph of the Amidah was recited in Hebrew by the rabbi and the second paragraph in unison in English, all done while seated (as I mentioned earlier that the Shema was recited while standing, it represents the centrality of God's oneness over His revelation to our ancestors for the fathers of the Reform movement).
  • A special prayer was added (found on p. 68) in honor of Yom Haatzmaut. It did not mention Israel by name, since the last edition of the UPB was published in 1940.
  • After the singing of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (mostly in English) by the cantor and choir and some announcements, the concluding prayers of the classical Reform liturgy began with the Adoration (similar to Alenu), during which the Ark was opened. It was sung in English by the cantor, after which she chanted the line 'Va'anachnu Kor'im' in Hebrew. A second paragraph was read by the rabbi in English, and the choir sang 'V'ne'emar', though only the words beginning Bayom Hahu were found in the text.
  • An English meditation was read by the rabbi to introduce the Kaddish. She then asked all to stand to mark the Yahrzeit (though that term was not used) of Gustav Gottheil, a rabbi of the Temple in the late 19th century. Interestingly, Kaddish was recited in an Ashkenazic pronunciation, though most of the liturgy had been said in a more Israeli one. In another departure from the UPB, the passage Al Yisrael v'al Tzidkaya which was added by the authors to make mention of death and mourning to the Kaddish was no longer recited.
  • At the end of the service, the rabbi stood in the center of the Bimah and raised his hands as if performing Dukhening, reciting the priestly benediction.
  • Although I was unable to stay for long, the service was followed by an Oneg Shabbat in the lobby where Shalom Aleichem was sung followed by candlelighting, a recent addition or rituals that used to be considered foreign to Reform sensibilities.
Although the service at Emanu-El did not feel even close to a normal 'davening' for me (which is why I attended another service afterwards), it was a privilege to have this unique experience and better understand an important facet of American Jewish history and the development of Jewish liturgy. It would be hard to not be impressed by the flawless orchestration of the service and all of its different elements, despite the almost complete lack of interaction between the clergy and congregation. May God accept the prayers of all Israel, no matter where they are or how they pray. Amen.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Parashat Vaera 5770: Partners with God - A divine Call and a personal responsibility

While I have not written a blog entry in months, I was moved to do so by a number of reminders of this Parsha's message which came to me as I went through a quite enjoyable final week of vacation. At first, I expected to have trouble responding to this week's narrative, which focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues, I hope you will also see the powerful connections I felt to the refrain proclaim by God, through Moses and Aaron, to Pharaoh - שלח את עמי ויעבדני, Send my people forth so that they may serve me (Exodus 7:16 et. al.). Beyond the plain meaning of this text, this call has meant so much to so many different people, Jews and non-Jews, throughout history, who have sought the God-given rights to freedom and dignity, especially the same freedom to serve God sought in the Parsha.

Less than twenty-four hours after returning from Israel and a stopover in Belgium, I ran out from minyan Monday morning and headed downtown on the subway to the New York Supreme Court to answer a summons for jury duty. Although it felt like a chore at times, especially as I spent most of my time (all of Monday and the first hour of Tuesday) just waiting for my name to be called, an experience I had Monday afternoon, coupled with the reminder in the juror orientation video that the jury system came to replace the use of trial by ordeal, made me think otherwise.
After being released early for the day on Monday, I spent some time sightseeing downtown, and took a few hours to explore the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which I hadn't been to since I was in sixth grade. The Museum tells the story of twentieth and twenty-first century world Jewry in three parts: Jewish Life a Century Ago, The War Againt the Jews, and Jewish Renewal. As I walked through the section depicting the Holocaust, especially the many points during which rights and dignity were taken away from Jews and others, an intense feeling of Thankfulness came over me. The fact that as an openly practicing Jew, I was called upon to fulfill this civic duty just like any other citizen (besides for the fact that one of the court clerks was wearing a kippah) is an answer to the call of שלח את עמי ויעבדני. The demand of Pharaoh was not just that the Hebrews should be released to be free from any obligation, but the freedom to accept responsibilities to God and their fellow people, to build a better society than the one from which they had come. Although I have generally been one to take civic duties like voting seriously, the intense reminder of what happens when rights are taken away from Jews and non-Jews in a society was more than enough for me to see jury duty as not just an obligation, but a right and privilege, a way to attempt to emulate God's command of צדק צדק תרדף, justice, justice shall you pursue.
I did not have to leave the museum to again be reminded of this Parsha's message of freedom from tyranny. A moving changing exhibit focused on a phenomenon with which I was previously unfamiliar, a small but significant group of Jewish refugee professors who were saved from Nazi Germany by being given offers to teach at Black colleges, who unlike certain other institutions, had no issue with hiring a Jew. Besides for transmitting knowledge and being thankful for their lives having being saved, these professors shared the belief that all people were created equal, and should have equal opportunities. One of them was quoted with putting forth an idea that was logical yet revolutionary for the time, that he saw no reason why Black students should not be challenged and could not be capable like any others. In the same vein, a student remarked that they were at first uncomfortable with one of the refugee professors calling on students whether they were prepared or not, and waiting for what seemed like eternities for them to produce an answer; the same student later remarked that when he went to law school, he was more prepared than any other student for what was a standard tool of pedagogy. Both the refugee professors and their students cried out שלח את עמי, let me be free, let my life be spared or let me have the same rights as my neighbors - but the saga also embodied the spirit of ויעבדני, and serve Me, as the professors did not take being spared for granted, and their eager students were willing to work hard, for both personal achievement and so they could fulfill the same rights, like jury duty, as their peers.

The next day, I was perusing the Jewish news on JTA (I'll admit it, on twitter), and came across yet another courageous figure who acted in the spirit of his ancestors, Moses and Aaron -- Rabbi Murray Saltzman, a civil rights leader who passed way just the other day. While the rabbi devoted much of his career to this noble cause, one incident touched especially:
At HUC [Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's seminary] , he and a fellow student -- an African-American professor studying for a doctorate in rabbinics -- went to a restaurant for a meal. The diner would not serve the professor, leading Saltzman to organize a lunch counter sit-in until his classmate was served.
Just as Moses and Aaron continued relentlessly to push Pharaoh to let the people go, Rabbi Murray Saltzman did not acquiesce to his colleague not being served like himself, but persevered until justice was achieved and both he and his colleague were served. In doing so, he anticipated what would become the most repeated mantra in the Torah - כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Unfortunately, we were also forced this week to look to our tradition for help in responding to the intense tragedy which ensued from the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week. This is not the right forum for theodicy (dealing with why evil happens); I would much rather devote the space to how we should respond to this tragedy after it occurred.
The idea of doing what is within our power to help those in need, and saying that we are our brothers' keepers came to mind when reading the commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of the Ger Hassidic dynasty on this week's Parsha. He began his remarks in 1871 by quoting a midrash about Reuben, Joseph's brother, who had attempted to save Joseph from being killed by the other brothers with the idea of throwing them into a pit. The midrash says that the verse regarding Reuven (Genesis 37:22) came to give testimony before God, and implicate Reuven for not fulfilling the words in the verse, למען הציל אותו מידם להשיבו אל אביו, that he had asked the brothers to throw Joseph into a pit 'in order to save him from their hands, to return him to their father." Reuven responded, "if I had known that those words would be recorded I would have worked harder to fulfill them." The Sefat Emet comments mystically that God has plans preassigned for individuals and the course of history; but nevertheless, it is up to us to fulfill them -- that is our challenge and purpose in this world. Connecting it to our parasha, he highlights the point where Moses spoke to the people, who did not listen to him for being broken-spirited. Just like Reuven, Moses had a mission to fulfill. He eventually did so,. despite doubts and setbacks, because he knew that there was an expectation of him to act and do what is right.

We are in the same situation - the writing is on the wall, on the TV screens and in the newspapers of the tragic loss of human life and infrastructure which occurred in Haiti. I also believe that it is clear what our responsibilities are, as we are created בצלם אלוהים, in God's image. As Jews, we have an additional responsibility to look after those who have been made to feel like strangers in their own backyards, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (and countless other times in history). Thus, we must not allow ourselves to be like Reuven, saying that if only we knew how history would record these events, would have worked harder. Thus, we should continue to steadfastly support the amazing fundraising and relief efforts that have been put into place, despite the setbacks that will occur. We will rather be like Moses in our Parsha, persevering because we believe that we will persevere and make a difference. I chose to make a donation to American Jewish World Service , and I encourage you, if you have the means, to contribute to this or any other organization helping with relief efforts. There is no such thing as too little.

To close on a happier note, this week's parsha is truly everywhere. I spent this afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and came across this famous medieval representation of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh in Exodus 7. As the sense was meant to be satirizing the royal clashes of the artist's time, there is no doubt that the cry of שלח את עמי resonated then as well. I hope that it will resonate with all of us this Shabbat, as we remember the multiple steps involved in God's call, that we are only free from tyranny if we take responsibility to work towards Justice in the Jewish community, in our society, and for all of God's creations.

Shabbat Shalom.