*A Radical Repost from 2009
In response to our last post on Jewish prayer , Kari, a reader, observed that a large part of our movement carries tremendous baggage on the subject, and many people seem to recoil at the mention of the word “liturgy.” Here are her words:
I wanted to add one hurdle that I see someone very close to me struggling with when it comes to Jewish prayer. This is a man who was raised Jewish, but had very negative feelings toward Jewish worship, even before becoming a follower of Yeshua. I thought this might fit into the category of “nostalgia,” but more of a “negative nostalgia.” Liturgy may, for some Messianic Jews, bring back memories of a form of worship that made them feel empty. Though I agree that it can be greatly meaningful, sometimes there exists a deep resistance based on negative feelings liturgy can evoke in those whose Jewish experience growing up may not have been so positive.
I so get this. Just this weekend, my husband and I attended a standard-issue suburban Conservative synagogue for what was billed as a moving and spiritual Slichot service. I walked out brimming over with disappointment and anger. Keep in mind that I married a rabbi, and that I’m particularly nerdy about my love of being Jewish and doing Jewish. It really takes a lot to put me over the edge. And yet, I walked away with all the wind knocked out of my sails.
Here’s why: the cantor, who had a marvelous voice and excellent technique, clearly understood the service as an opportunity to put on a show. There was operatic solo after operatic solo, punctuated by the kind of introductions you’d expect at a symphony, but certainly not in a service that’s intended to prepare the people for pre-Holy Day repentance. The clincher was her introduction of a final song, concluded with these words: “I think it’s a nice way to listen to it.” Listen, I thought, You think I came here to listen to you??? G-d forbid I would come to synagogue seeking an opportunity to PRAY! I won’t go into detail, and I won’t name names, but it was suddenly clear to us why we were the youngest people in the room by at least thirty years.
So yes, I understand the baggage. But I’ve had enough positive experiences with moving Jewish prayer that I haven’t lost hope.
So … what’s the antidote?
I want to make crystal clear what the antidote is NOT. Very decidedly, the antidote is NOT sparkly banners or Magen David tambourines. And please G-d, it is NOT random shofar blowings.
As we’ve seen in our own travels to congregations around the country, these unfortunate hallmarks of our movement fail just as spectacularly at attracting Jewish spiritual seekers as does the Reform movement’s affinity for choir robes and operatic cantor solos.
Awkardly, these supposedly “spontaneous” forms of Messianic worship have developed into their own forms of predictable “liturgy.” Who hasn’t noticed the following pattern? It goes like this: two happy clappy songs, interrupted by the head singer’s “transitioning” prayer, followed by three weepy sleepy songs … at which point we’re all supposed to feel that our spiritual tanks have been filled and we’ve been sufficiently prepared for the “meat” of the service, which is the rabbi’s 45 minute thematic sermon. Twenty blogger points if your own community has tweaked the foregoing ever-so-slightly!
The antidote, we’ll humbly submit, is a total re-thinking of the purpose and practice of Jewish prayer. Followed by a humble reckoning with this question: “Why do Jews go to synagogue? What does the average Jew yearn for when she or he ventures into the pew?”
Here’s our answer: What the Jewish seeker is NOT looking for is a place to play Jewish dress-up, or an attempted reconstruction of “first-century Judaism” (which is both a silly and impossible task twenty centuries later). Neither are we looking for an opportunity to warm a pew while a professional Jew on stage puts on a show (see my Slichot story above). You wonder why non-Orthodox synagogues can’t fill their pews outside of the High Holidays? Because most operate under the assumption that Jews are looking for a pretty show, and reinforce this assumption with their High Holiday services.
We fervently believe that within every Jewish person – from the most disaffected to the most observant – exists a Jewish neshama, a Jewish soul. If you scratch past the surface, what you’ll find in every Jewish neshama is a deep longing to simultaneously connect with G-d and to find one’s place within thirty centuries of Jewish history. Every Jewish person is ultimately looking for those two things when he or she approaches a prayer service.
What does that look like?
- First, we need to stop treating the bimah as a stage, accessible only to the vaunted few. In fact, let’s get rid of the stage altogether. Bring the rabbi, the singers, and the other leaders onto the floor where “everyone else” is seated. Let’s physically reinforce the message that we are all in shul to pray together.
- Second, we need to stop treating the “liturgy” like the dusty rare books we leave on our shelves to impress our dinner guests. Who says you have to sing the Aleinu in the same melody week after week? And why are our rabbis more inclined to give us stage directions (stand here, bow there, cover your eyes) than they are to inspire us to meditate on a particular line in the forthcoming prayer? How would we pray if we saw our prayer books as instruments of holiness … as living, breathing guides to accessing G-d through the traditions of G-d’s people?
- Third, we need to stop treating our congregants like children. Let’s give “speaking roles” to the congregants already. The cantor may have a nice voice, but we didn’t all show up to listen to the cantor. Get your congregants involved beyond the aliyot, and you’ll be amazed to see your community “buy in” to its own future.
- Finally, as for the children, we need to vanquish our expectation that they sit silently while the grownups have their spiritual time. It is in childhood that Jewish people develop their sentiments about organized Jewish life, for better or worse. The most efficient way to alienate a young Jew from Judaism is to make her feel that she isn’t allowed to act like a child in the synagogue. What if we made the synagogue a fun and relaxed space for our children? What if we let them run in the aisles, dance with their friends, and gave them candy after their every visit to the bimah?
As we’ve said before, we don’t have a patent on the process. But it’s our hope that in implementing these suggestions, and perhaps a few more we have yet to identify, we’ll get one step closer to drawing in the congregants that our movement set out forty years ago to serve.