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.


Jonah Rank said...

Good record of the service!

I was there too; this is pretty accurate.

Anonymous said...

enjoy your artical, thank you ........................................

baroqueboy said...

Thank you for having such nice things to say about Classical Reform. Most Conservative, Orthodox, and non-Classical Reform Jews criticize us for imitating the goyim with organ music. They just do not understand why our practices are valid. I wish Classical Reform were not in danger of disappearing altogether, but it is. Nobody is impressed by the majestic formality of the services any more. What a shame. We need more Traditional Jews like you who respect the decisions of others. G-d bless you for treating us with respect and offering your best wishes.