Flyers and falsehoods
With hearts and minds and voices

Negotiations and love songs

We're currently in the lunar month of Heshvan, the only month in the Hebrew calendar which contains no holidays except Shabbat. (A rabbi-friend of mine jokes that this is his reward for making it through the exhausting month of Tishri which features Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Hoshanah Rabbah, and Simchat Torah.) In the absence of holidays to muse on, I'll talk about synagogue some more.

Ever wondered why we repeat the kaddish half a dozen times during the average synagogue service? If your answer is "no," don't feel sheepish; that was my answer for a long time, too. I was twenty-seven before I learned that the repetitions of the kaddish serve a purpose. We say kaddish every time we reach the end of one section of the liturgy and prepare to enter another. It's a marker, a pause, a time to catch our breath and reflect on where we are.

Now that I know that, I enjoy the repetitions...but until I heard that teaching, the repetitions held no special meaning for me. They just felt...well, repetitious, and a little dull. (On a related note, I haven't heard anything that sufficiently explains the repetitions of the Amidah. Anyone out there have a good, or at least historical, reason for repeating the Amidah?)

It amazes me sometimes how much difference a few well-placed pieces of information, a few good teachings, can make in my enjoyment of synagogue -- indeed, in my whole approach to the experience. When I was a kid and my family was affiliated Conservative, we always showed up late to shul. Services started at 8:30 with the p'sukei d'zimrah (poems/psalms of praise), and we showed up at 9:30, maybe at 10 for the Torah service. It seemed normal to me then; lots of people did it. Many people do it still.

But, as my buddy Jeff (the rabbi at the shul I now attend) points out, the p'sukei d'zimrah are there for a reason; they're a spiritual warm-up, to get us in the right mindset to approach the service. Like stretching before starting a workout. So showing up an hour late means missing the warm-up, missing the opening exercises, and being plunged into an experience that's already going on.

Now that I'm looking at it that way, the first blessings of the morning service have become one of my favorite parts of the liturgy. I like being there at the very beginning, to center myself and get ready for the spiritual work I want the synagogue experience to do for/with/in me. And as the morning wears on and the sanctuary slowly fills, I find myself thinking that it's a bummer that the latecomers are missing out on the start-to-finish experience. If more people saw the service as a journey with a beginning and middle and end, maybe sanctuaries wouldn't be so empty at the beginning of the morning service.

To me, that's an argument for education: more, and better. But it's also possible that teaching people about the liturgy won't suffice; once people learn how things work and why, there may be things they want to add or change or modify. And I think we need to be open to that.

The standard, long-form, Hebrew-intensive service is an excellent practice for people who know it well, but for people who don't, it can be daunting. I suspect that many twice-a-year-Jews (who only come to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) find the liturgy confusing or alienating or simply uninteresting, and that's part of why they don't come back until some vague feeling of obligation brings them back in the doors the following High Holidays. We need to give people the tools they need to find their way in...but we may also need to create a clearer, and more direct, path.

I'd love to see synagogue services take a few more risks. I recognize that meditation and chanting (however much I may love them) won't work for every community. But I suspect most shuls could benefit from a little judicious shaking-up. Surely getting people excited about, and invested in, the liturgy can only be to Judaism's benefit.

What if more shuls moved away from the tradition of homily-type sermon, and offered a Torah discussion instead which involved everyone in an active way? What if, as I've suggested elsewhere, more shuls provided sheet music so strangers or first-time attendees could join in the singing with gusto? What if we offered periodic teaching services, designed to teach people how to navigate the world of prayer? Or services which distill each prayer down to an essence, a line, to focus on (which might enable us thereafter to pray the longer versions with clearer kavvanah, focus/intent)?

I'm not saying that the traditional service should be scrapped -- just that it's not necessarily the easiest way in. If you want someone to come to appreciate the exquisite subtleties of mathematics, you don't drop them unprepared into a graduate-level seminar: you start by making sure they have the fundamentals of algebra. Why would we expect spiritual practice to require any less careful and loving instruction than math?

Granted, abbreviating or changing the liturgy may frustrate more people than it helps. On a recent visit to my birthplace, I attended a Reform Shabbat morning service which was so shortened (and apparently arbitrarily so: why cut "Yigdal" to six lines?) that I had trouble sinking my teeth into it. That service was almost entirely different from the Reform service I attend now, and the changes were not what I would have chosen. I did like that the rabbi translated the Torah portion line by line, on the fly; and instead of delivering a d'var torah (sermon-style exegesis), she came down off the bimah (pulpit) to lead us in a conversation about the portion and its commentaries. That part was cool. But the rest...? Not my cup of tea. (Then again, because the Reform movement places such a high premium on making one's own choices about the tradition, every Reform shul may be different, and in fact the other rabbi at my parents' shul leads a far more traditional service than the one I visited. Makes it hard to generalize.) Anyway: I recognize that while cutting or changing the service may facilitate newcomers' entry, it may also alienate the people who already know their way around a siddur (prayerbook). This is not an easy line to tread.

A friend tells me that, in a recent lecture, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsalz cited the proverb that the ignorant man of 250 years ago could be a rabbi today. His intention, he explained, was not to impugn today's rabbis, but rather to bemoan the state of Jewish education. I think his point is valid: I'll bet that, 250 years ago, the average Jew was more familiar with the liturgy than he or she is today. And without a basic familiarity, services are bound to seem impenetrable. Most of us don't grow up with that kind of familiarity anymore: our synagogues and Jewish instutions need to be aware of that, and need to teach more.

Of course, changes on the institutional end can only be half of the solution: the other half has to be individual. We each have to invest some time and energy into learning how the liturgy works, both so that we can connect with it and so that we can figure out what changes we might want to suggest. It means nothing for our synagogues and community centers to offer courses if they languish empty. We have to want to learn.

If we accept the liturgy as it's handed to us, without studying it or questioning it, then we're passive recipients of tradition. If we engage with the liturgy, learn what makes it tick and what makes us tick, then we're active participants in the tradition. And that's what will keep Judaism vibrant and alive.

There are arguments against making the tradition too open. One goes, "if we open the tradition up and let people know it's malleable, then we run the risk of changing something important."

My response is this: if we don't open the tradition up and let people feel they have a share in it, then we run the risk of losing them through attrition. We have to trust that as people learn the tradition, learn how it works and why, learn to negotiate with it, they'll find themselves in love with it, as I have...and that the changes they'll want to make will be good ones. We have to trust that the tradition is strong enough to survive being opened. That the negotiations will become love songs, and Judaism will be stronger for it.