[URJBiennial] Rabbi Marmur on Heschel
[URJBiennial] Shabbat; Sermon; Kamenetz on dreams

[URJBiennial] Shabbat

Shabbat shalom! Tonight involved two huge Shabbat experiences, one of which I loved and one of which I...didn't, though it was definitely interesting.

Services came first, at 6pm. We gathered in an enormous room we hadn't seen before, which felt like a rock concert stadium, complete with big lights overhead and several Jumbotron screens which, when we arrived, were cascading through a slideshow of Reform sanctuaries around the country. (That was pretty neat, actually.) The service was led by four sh'lichei tzibbur, rabbis and cantors together, along with a full band (in an orchestra pit), and the screens switched from camera to camera to give even those of us near the rear a clear view of the faces of the prayer leaders.

I liked the point, made early on, that despite the grandeur of the setting, we can still create intimacy with one another and with God. And there were some neat moments singing in conjunction with the whole room. But mostly I felt like I'd stumbled into some bizarro world of Jewish megachurches (especially when we sang in English). And every time the band struck up, I felt like we were in Shabbat -- The Musical!

So that was...interesting, but not my thing at all. It was too much of a spectacle, too performative and too huge, to feel like worship to me. I did my best to use it as an opportunity to find (or make) Shabbat consciousness even in strange settings.

After dinner we filed back in to the same enormous room for the song session. This time there were fifty or sixty people on stage: rabbis, cantors, song leaders. A dozen had guitars. The pit band was still there, and this time there was a conductor leading the whole shebang. The giant screens were still up, and the camera still moved around, and lyrics still flashed onscreen -- but this time the vibe was less formal, which invited enthusiastic participation.

(A special treat for me: at the left-hand side of the stage were Jeff Klepper, whose melodies I dig and who my sister knows, and Louis Dobin, the director of the Greene Family Camp for Living Judaism, where I spent one summer as a kid and one summer as a young adult camp counselor. That camp counselor summer was a tough one for me, but the song sessions Louis used to lead after Shabbat dinner were the one time of the week when I invariably felt good about my life. And this was like one of those song sessions scaled up: instead of Louis leading a few hundred kids and counselors, this was dozens of musicians leading a few thousand people.)

We sang all kinds of things: old camp songs, Shabbat liturgy songs, Hebrew rounds, folk classics like "If I Had a Hammer," song parodies (what some of you might know as filks, like "Pharaoh Pharaoh, whoa-oh, let my people go" to the tune of "Louie Louie"). At one point somebody started a line of people dancing in the aisles, a kind of cross between a conga line and a hora, and next thing I knew there were hundreds of us dancing around and around and around the room. The musicians ran with it, turning one song into another in a long medley of "Hallelu / Kol Haneshama / Hava Nagila" (and a handful of other songs besides).

The song session was a lot more fun for me than services were. One reason is, I love singing, especially in a group and with gusto. Another may be that the aesthetic of the worship was fairly showy, which isn't my cuppa, while the song session had no such lofty goals -- it was just about energy and harmony and having a good time. The service was pretty but didn't engage my passions; in trying to create something that would fill our diverse liturgical needs, the organizers opted for "grand," and that isn't something I look for in my davvening. The song session was less polished, but it was full of ruach, spirit, that seemed to cross generational boundaries.

On the walk home, I found myself thinking about the assertion we heard this week that prayer is about more than just feeling good, more than just the peak experiences; it's about renewing our covenant with God. According to that philosophy, the kind of joy I get from wild song sessions isn't enough to qualify as mature Jewish worship, or at least it's not the totality of what worship is supposed to do and be. That makes sense to me. Even so, I'm pretty sure that when I look back on this Biennial Shabbat, what I'll remember the most fondly won't be Shabbat: the Musical in a megachurch-esque auditorium, but the unbridled pleasure of singing camp songs and folk songs in a crowd of thousands.

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