The Johnson Amendment to the IRS code prohibits 501c(3) non-profits from participating substantially in campaign activities. The price such an organization – including synagogues – must pay for accepting donations that are tax exempt is that they will not use them to support candidates who would benefit them or their concerns. I support the Johnson Amendment, and as an American, you should too. If public endorsements from the pulpit became protected speech, the flow of tax-deductible campaign money to religious institutions would make the Citizens United decision look like a good alternative.
But a rabbi who refrains from discussing current events (in Talmudic Aramaic, inyanei d’yoma) from the pulpit ought to be ashamed.
I understand the struggle. First of all, people come to synagogue for worship. It is why I always tried to avoid teaching or preaching in the middle of any segment of the service on Shabbat or the holidays. If someone wanted to step out before I offered a challenge, they could fulfill their need to pray or say kaddish without interference from me.
And secondly, my conclusions about public policy and values, if they represented only my opinions, were bound to conflict with the considered opinions of some segment of a diverse congregation. What gave me the right to offer twenty minutes of self-indulgence to a captive audience? Only if I had something to offer that was grounded in the tradition.
And that’s where I understand the responsibility to originate. With more than 2000 years of recorded scholarly deliberations behind us, contemporary rabbis could spend any amount of time exploring the intricacies of Biblical verses or Talmudic passages. It is the responsibility of any Jew to know about charging interest on loans, visiting the sick, how much time to wait between meat and dairy, the mandate to rise before a white-haired elder and how to check for mixtures of linen and wool. The peculiar way a word is used in a scriptural passage can fill an entire lesson. There are thousands of stories and rulings that reveal fascinating details about times past and how our forebears understood commandments, customs and conduct.
But Jewish tradition, as we so often say, is not just about preserving the past. It is about living in the present. And we sometimes overlook that all – and I will defend the word “all” – of our past scholarship is about contending with the contemporaneous circumstances of the scholars’ lives. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period didn’t talk about government in general – they talked about the Romans. The decisors of the Middle Ages weren’t merely wondering about the status of a wife whose husband disappeared on a journey – they were answering questions about actual occurrences. Even Rashi, the “plain-meaning” commentator on the Bible and Talmud, put some of his concepts into French so that students would understand them in their own context. (And never mind that his rulings on whether certain wines were kosher might have had something to do with his business as a producer of kosher wine.)
The rabbi of any community has a responsibility to speak to the people who put their trust in her or him in a manner that makes Torah crucially relevant to their lives. To neglect “current events” on the basis that they are political – that is, that they deal with the process of making decisions applying to all members of society – is to compartmentalize Jewish consciousness and imprison Torah in the classroom.
The resistance of some people to hearing a message of Jewish values that challenges their own commitments is nothing new. In contemporary times, just discussing Shabbat, kashrut, tzedakah, Jewish learning and Hebrew language skills is enough to generate resentment and pushback. Public policy is neither sacred nor trefe in that regard – it is part of the stuff that surrounds us just as much as art, science, commerce and every other venue in which we interact as Jews and as Americans.
The resistance of some rabbis to presenting a message of Jewish values that challenges his or her listeners is an abrogation of duty. In my experience, people came to shul with all sorts of yearnings, some personal and some global, some practical and some existential. They all deserve their moments. But what was true when the pews filled to capacity after the 9/11 attacks is just as true when a smaller crowd is living through a policy debate on taxes, foreign policy, social concerns or homeland security: people want to know what my tradition has to say to me about these issues. If the rabbi says nothing, then the impression is: nothing.
Rabbis are not pundits with pulpits. But they are presumed to be fully-formed human beings whose lives are guided by their learning and their piety. To be sure, some few of my colleagues have understood that presumption to be a license to pontificate, but most of them recognize their responsibility to share their own struggles with the often-conflicting demands of our traditions and our society. We have a mandate to be exemplars, not just of ritual rectitude or spiritual sophistication or academic aptitude, but also of navigators of the body politic.
Not to tell people how to cast a vote. Not to tell people how to affiliate with a political party. But indeed to remind people that the authentic Jewish life is one to which the critical issues of current events are as important as what time to light shabbes candles.
Every now and then a rabbi gets expelled from my professional organization. Sometimes it is because of criminal conduct, unfortunately. Sometimes it is because of a serious breach of ethics. And sometimes it is because the rabbi has broken the non-negotiable rules of our association which include a respect for certain administrative norms that make all of our members secure and a very few ritual commitments.
Most recently, a long-time colleague lost his standing in our organization because he breached one of those ritual commitments. I don’t want to litigate his decision here. It provokes me, however, to consider again the question of who or what a rabbi serves.
There are three possible answers and only one of them is wrong. The rabbi who holds the title and position in service of him- or herself is no rabbi. But the other two possibilities are sometimes in tension. The first is that the rabbi serves God’s will, a sort of manufacturer’s rep. The second is that the rabbi serves the (Jewish) people in some smaller or larger sense, more a concierge than an authority figure.
My colleagues with a more traditional theology most often put God’s will first. By “God’s will,” they mean the teachings of the Bible as understood and applied by a hundred generations of scholars. Some (including me) call it halakha, Jewish law. Though the literalists among us believe that God revealed every detail to Moses atop Mount Sinai, the less literal and more liberal subset of us believe that human experience and deliberation is part of the revelatory experience, something that God actually factored into the process of divine decision-making.
Others – including those who wonder if attributing the notion of “will” to God is anything other than anthropomorphism – put people first. As recognized experts in the Jewish endeavor, they see their task as escorts into the meaningfulness of belonging to this diverse community with common concerns. Every encounter is a teachable moment and an opportunity to share the wisdom that has sustained this evolving civilization in its various iterations. The people who embrace Jewish life will sustain it, and therefore they see their sacred work as strengthening the ties that bind.
Of course, most of the time these two perspectives are entirely compatible. From the Passover seder to activism on behalf of social causes to interfaith engagement (my own current work), rabbis have found multiple avenues to promote contemporary expressions of ancient practices while welcoming individuals seeking a place in the jigsaw of Jewish life.
But sometimes, a rabbi has to choose. Sometimes, the answer to a question asked in one context is completely different when asked in the other context.
Here is an example that has nothing to do with the colleague mentioned above. Jewish law prescribes that a minyan, a quorum of ten, must be present for the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish, a liturgical declaration that the bereaved recite during the initial mourning period and then on the anniversary of the death of a near relative. But what happens when less than ten are present when the time comes to recite? The law-centered rabbi omits the prayer, perhaps disappointing the grieving worshipper. The people-centered rabbi recites the prayer, perhaps disappointing the “traditionalist” worshippers. There is no way to uphold the legal requirement and to allow the individual to practice the personally meaningful ritual.
Believe me, I know that first-hand. In my earliest days in my congregation of many years, I discovered that the practice at daily worship was to recite Kaddish even in the absence of the quorum by opening the doors of the ark containing the Torah scroll and “counting the Torah” in place of the missing people – sometimes four or five of them. Not having a poker face, my discomfort with the practice was immediately noticed by an older (and not very diplomatic) member who summarily announced one morning that, per the rabbi, we were no longer observing that custom. A dear woman who had arrived on the first anniversary of her mother’s death burst into tears and ran out the door as I stood flabbergasted that a “solution” had been invoked in my name.
Those whose commitment to the obligations of Jewish law is unbreakable understand the painful decisions that are sometimes necessary when you can’t give people what they want. Those whose love for the people is primary understand that they may indeed be fraying some of the strands that (we assume) have been holding together our sacred tradition. If this sounds to you like the plot of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then you understand the soundtrack that plays in every rabbi’s heart.
As I said, I do not want to weigh in on the decisions made by my (former?) colleague. He was not the first and he will not be the last to make the choice in question. And the consequence of his actions was no surprise; it was not innovated on the spot the way my congregant proclaimed. This tension will always exist, even if/when the fierce disagreement that provoked this incident has been resolved. There will always be another frontier.
Congregations, communities and individuals choose a rabbi whom they believe will give dominant weight to the side of this fulcrum they favor – sometimes for philosophical reasons and sometimes for self-satisfaction. But the rabbi, unless she or he wrongly serves a personal agenda, will always struggle to consider the side of lesser weight. And sometimes, despite the consequence, will disappoint those on the other side.
I was once a guest at a synagogue in a town distant from mine. The rabbi there had a reputation for a very stern demeanor, on and off the pulpit. So I was surprised to notice a good deal of commotion from children in the very formal sanctuary. I mentioned it to the friend who hosted me who responded, “The rabbi never allowed children in the sanctuary unless they were silent. If a baby made noise during his sermon, he would stop until the child was removed by one or both parents. And then one Shabbat morning, his grandson bolted away from his parents and went running up to the pulpit yelling, ‘Grandpa!!’ From that day on, children were welcome to be children here.”
I know that ambience well. One of my rabbis (never mind which) once began a sermon very dramatically, only to be interrupted by a baby’s yelp. He stared down the mother until she slunk out of the sanctuary with her little one. I don’t think I ever saw them again. And clearly, I never forgot it either.
I love kids of all ages, but especially little ones. Each age has its special delights, but the tiny ones are the most delicious. During my first Yom Kippur as a congregational rabbi, I picked up a little girl from her frustrated mother just before the afternoon prayers and she promptly fell asleep in my arms as I conducted the service. (I did not beat my breast during the confessional for fear of disturbing her.) For all my years in the pulpit, when parents brought their babies to Saturday services for the first time, I would carry them in the Torah procession and up to the open ark as the congregation sang “all its path are peace.” I whispered into uncomprehending ears, “All of this is for you, and I will teach you anything you want to know.” When I had the chance to bring my own granddaughter to that place…well…
The noises of little children never disturbed me in the pulpit, even when I was speaking. I know it frustrated some members of the congregation to no end that I could ignore the babble and occasional crying. I not only tolerated but celebrated the ones who would toddle up to the bima, jump off the stairs, run around the place behind the ark or come to sit in the big chairs where the clergy and officers would sit. I could even mostly ignore the yellers. I meant what I said to them when they were tiny: all of this is for you. Only once in 34 years did I ask parents to remove a child; it was time for the Yom Kippur sermon and the topic was very difficult; it required my full concentration just to get through the words I had written. As I began, a child began to yell. The little one was not crying or complaining, just yelling as kids sometimes do. I could not focus. Stammering my apologies, I asked that the child be taken outside so that I did not have to outshout the yelling.
The only problem with babies is that we do not have enough of them. My father’s generation had 48 first cousins. Mine has 15. My kids’ has 11. There are all sorts of reasons for that decline, and I judge no one for the lack of desire, ability or opportunity to raise children. All the more reason to treasure the ones we have and to make them feel as comfortable as possible in the places we want them to frequent as they get older.
(Do they need instruction on respectful behavior? Yes. More on that at a later time, other than to say that my experience is that the ones who learn to love synagogue at an early age are the easiest ones to educate on the special nature of the place.)
I read a brief essay by a man who claimed he was “banned from synagogue” because of his baby. It made me very sad, though he wasn’t exactly banned and it wasn’t exactly his synagogue (I understand why he felt that way). What he described – a rule against children in the sanctuary before noon – excludes two generations from the community, so-called family services in a segregated location notwithstanding. I just don’t get it, and I never tolerated it.
Parents or designated caregivers have a responsibility to consider the people around them if a child’s behavior interferes with the ability of others to pray or learn. And congregants, with a little forethought and practice, can learn how to say, “Your little one is adorable, but I am having trouble hearing the cantor clearly. I am sorry to ask you this, but might you take her outside for a little while? Please bring her back when she is happier.”
But it is the rabbinic ego that insists that pronouncements from the pulpit carry more enlightenment and joy that the sound of a child being a child. Not every rabbi shares my interest is tuning out pint-sized competition. Yet, however long the rabbi toiled over a sermon or page announcements, the very people she or he wants to reach are the ones raising that organic noisemaker.
And neither is the rabbi the enforcer for impatient congregants. I think the rabbi should stick up for the kids.
When I am asked if I miss being in the pulpit, my answer is that I do not. I don’t avoid it, but my life remains full without the weekly need to present ideas and encourage prayer. But truth be told, here is what I do miss: escorting those infants to their first encounter with the Torah. I only wish I had done it more.
Bullying is a serious problem and it is wrong. I want to go on record with that statement because without making it explicit, you might think I believe otherwise.
A colleague of mine wrote a column in The Forward in which he discusses being bullied by his congregants. There was probably a sad smile of recognition on the part of every rabbi who read that essay because there are such people in every congregation.
(There are also devoted acolytes, sycophants, humble saints, deeply needy people, sociopaths, paragons of compassion and more in every congregation. Sometimes they are all the same person.)
Most rabbis, certainly this one, want to be loved. It comes as a shock when someone seems to be personally antagonistic or even downright cruel instead of appreciative and respectful. And when confronted by congregants who are aggressive or enraged, the dissonance a rabbi feels can be disabling.
Professional training and collective wisdom encourage conciliation and understanding. The rabbinic amygdala demands fight or flight. And even if the rabbi, certainly this one, could overcome the sense that “a rabbi ought to be wise enough to deal with these things alone,” there is never a guarantee that effective and reliable allies can be mustered.
I faced difficult congregants throughout my career. I came to two insights the hard way – that is, by ignoring the good counsel of others and taking much longer to come to the same conclusion myself. I actually wrote about this a little in a previous column, and the take-away is that my own inadequacies are always magnified by the history of previous rabbis (and other authority figures) with my challengers.
But it can be hard to remember that. A particularly forbidding member, used to getting her way with a predecessor of mine, sent me into a funk when she told me, “You are a cold person. Lots of people feel that way.” Another member accused me of “oppressing widows and orphans” (she was both) when the synagogue raised dues – and made a formal complaint to my professional organization that, ridiculous as it was, I had to answer. A third congregant kept track of how many lights were on in the (synagogue-owned) house we occupied for a few years, and reported it to the board. (By the way, all those people have been called to their eternal reward, so they are not you.)
So the first insight is that most people, seeing these interactions, recognize them for what they are: bad behavior. Synagogues are notoriously forgiving communities, accommodating difficult personalities and even enabling them out of love and compassion – no different than most religious institutions. If you need proof, compare the numbers of people who quit synagogues with the number who are disaffiliated. But just because you love someone does not mean you like them. I almost always discovered that lots and lots of people shared my frustration with these contentious folks.
And my second insight is that, except for the sociopaths (and there are a few), when bad behavior is pointed out to the offenders they are shocked at themselves. I should know it from personal experience, but when I am on the receiving end, it is hard to remember that my own excesses are usually unintentional. I remember speaking to a congregant about bad behavior and, after he shamefacedly owned it, hearing him say, “That’s not who I am.” I guess that’s what Yom Kippur and its preceding days of repentance are all about.
So I am not sure that clergy bullying per se is as prevalent as rabbis think it is. Sometimes we smack a label on something that helps us get a handle on it, but the complexities can disappear behind the generic category.
But to return to the beginning, bullying is a serious problem, and it is wrong. Even with all of the insight my decades in the pulpit inspired, there were times when I knew I was being pushed around by someone with personal animosities. The behavior was reprehensible; even so, I felt like a crybaby when I complained. And the gulf between the expectation that the rabbi will always be the adult in the room and the attempt by a bully to infantilize the rabbi can be impossible to straddle.
Any rabbi will also smile knowingly when you mention that there are friends of rabbis, too. They may have the best of motivations or some of the same pathologies, but they are quietly beloved by those of us deeply grateful for their support. It’s not all bad.
What is the solution to clergy bullying? Well, no different than on the playground or the campaign trail: good people need to stand up for what is right.
I never much liked preparing for the High Holy Days, but I loved them when they arrived. Especially as I became more adept at managing the long services with the flow of so many dear people in, out and through, there was a poetry to the days that was independent of the liturgy and the sacred tasks at hand.
I had the privilege to work with some terrific partners in the pulpit over the years (none better than hazzan who is yet at the synagogue I served) and a few people whose sincerity may have exceeded their talent. But it was the crowd before me that made the real difference. Each person came with two agendas – the official orders of the day, printed in the prayer book, and the personal priorities that impelled them to the synagogue. The list of items was limited: penitence, reflection, fashion, gossip, musical inspiration, display of (grand)children, and so on. The combination was unique in every congregant and part of the symphony of the day.
To succeed, I needed three things: services that provided ample opportunity for prayer, an inspirational set of messages and an eye on the clock. The first years in my most recent pulpit were not successful in that last item. The later years, thanks to pre-labeled post-it notes, allowed me to plan for the following season by tracking the actual amount of time it took to, say, do the full introductory service until the Torah service. (1:20, by the way). And even though the services for the first and second days of Rosh HaShanah are virtually identical, the scriptural readings for the second day are actually about twenty minutes shorter. Now you know.
The year after I stepped away from the pulpit was an emotionally difficult time. In my opinion, the transition was poorly handled all around. But my family knew we needed to be somewhere else for the High Holy Days, so we wound up with a short term rental on the Upper West Side in New York. We spent those holidays at the services of the Jewish Theological Seminary among a relatively intimate group of less than 400. After all, most of the rabbis and not-yet-rabbis were off conducting services in parts unknown. I was among a few friends and a lot of strangers.
The experience was like none I ever had. I credit the leaders – Julia Andelman, Alan Cooper, Danny Nevins and Lauren Henderson – with presence that was both gentle and intense. But I credit myself with letting go of my role as manager. And when I did, the liturgy flowed through me like a river. It washed over me like first love. It infiltrated my body – head and heart, eyes and ears, limbs and lips. Words and phrases jumped off the page and danced for me. Ideas I had considered aloud 100 times or more climbed into my tear ducts and baled streams down my cheeks. Freed of the responsibility to beat the clock, maintain (Jewish) law and order and keep everyone on the same page (literally), I became just a Jew in the pew.
I was grateful. Absolutely, I was grateful to JTS for the experience of worship, but at least as much I was grateful to the decades of preparation for those moments. Without the engagement from the pulpit, I likely would not have had such engagement off the pulpit.
Judging from the size of my long-time congregation, only one in a thousand people has my experience. I am that one. But over the years, I heard expressions of gratitude from lots of the other 999. They were grateful for lots of different things, flowing from those unique agendas. (I heard complaints, too, but fewer than you might imagine).
So I have come to understand that this annual pageant, lauded and lampooned, is a collective conspiracy. It has a stated purpose: to get individuals and the community right with God. But whether or not any or all of us believe that literally, High Holy Day services are also the Walmart of Judaism. (Ouch. Macy’s? Harrod’s? Amazon?) They are the place for certain business to be conducted that serves the local franchise and the larger endeavor, but does so only if they can provide what every individual comes looking to find.
Congregants pretend to come for the purpose of prayer, and rabbis and cantors are complicit in that pretense. But the fact is that prayer is most the excuse for people to come together; it is the one thing they all have in common. However, it is not necessarily the primary reason for anyone…except maybe the rabbi.
Accidentally, I guess I became the enabler of all of those private agendas. In the process, my High Holy Day experience became not so much prayerful devotion as it was managing the prayer experience for others. I had my few moments, tucking myself into a less-visible nook and creating private space with my large tallit pulled over my head, or free-falling into the chanting of “Avinu Malkeinu,” broken-heartedly aware that we need charity and love because our good deeds fall so short of our potential.
But once I relinquished that role to others, I rediscovered what I probably knew before page numbers and post-it notes – I was happy to be present for the collective endeavor as long as I got what I needed in the process. That’s as it should be, and not just for the pious of Israel, but for the co-conspirators from all aspects of Jewish life, too.
For a while, I attended a gym (no longer convenient to me) with an interesting regimen. I worked out twice a week for about twenty minutes at a time. During that time, I rotated among a few machines for very slow intensive muscle work. The notion was to exhaust the muscle in two minutes or so.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I investigated it thoroughly. The literature may or may not have had strong scientific grounding, but it changed my theology of Jewish law.
The founder of this program asked a basic question: how do you build muscle strength? His answer was: by breaking down the muscle tissue and allowing it to rebuild. That, he said, was best effected by slow and intense repetitions, not by rapid repetitive motions. He formulated it in an intriguing way. If the goal was to work the muscle, use his method. If the goal was to work the exercise machine, go for quantity over quality.
As a rabbi, of course I look for a sermon in everything. And here was one about Jewish law. I thought of a lesson I learned one day while waiting for the tenth man for a minyan at an orthodox synagogue. The rabbi discussed the change in liturgy that occurs at the end of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In the central prayer, words reminding God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall are added as the fall festivals conclude. But what happens if an inattentive worshiper, used to omitting those words during the summer, can’t remember if they were recited? In certain cases, the entire central prayer must be repeated. However, if it had been thirty days, it was assumed that the worshiper was habituated to it. Now, during thirty days, a pious worshiper would recite that prayer about 97 times (trust me). And so, said the rabbi giving the lesson, it became the custom of some seminary students to gather on the night the holiday concluded and chant those words 97 times. (Take one down and pass it around…)
I remember laughing (to the disapproval of the rabbi) at the absurdity. The notion was one of habituation, not literally repeating the words in rapid succession to tick them off a list!
But all those years later, here I was reading about the purpose of exercise and realizing I might very well have been doing the same thing…both on the bicep curl machine and in the performance of my religious duties. It wasn’t about speed and facility – that was just working the machine. If I wanted to strengthen my muscles and my soul, slow and intense was better.
This idea, of course, goes against everything I believed about Jewish law. It is comprehensive, made up primarily of mitzvot (commandments) meant to address every aspect of life. Mediterranean Jewish culture even commends reciting one hundred distinct blessings a day. There are grand expectations (compassionate behavior, formal garb for prayer, immersion in sacred literature) and small expectations (hand-washing, head-covering, pleasant greetings). Being a devoted Jew can be a full-time endeavor.
But the kind of rapid-fire devotion that goes for quantity over quality works the system, not the soul. The younger version of me, enamored as I was of my increasing immersion in Jewish life, collected observances like baseball cards. That sounds more frivolous than I mean it, but any kid who collects baseball cards will tell you it's very serious business.
The struggle over the years was to recapture the meaning that these practices held when they were new. Like the liturgical addition about wind and rain, initially I had to pay attention to be sure I got it right. After a while, when I became habituated, I could just presume I did it because I always did it.
Recapturing the elevating aspects of a traditional Jewish life has come to mean, ironically, doing less. Never mind what I have given up – don't worry that I am somehow no longer devoted or traditionally observant. But appreciating what makes Jewish law "work" for me means slower, fewer, more intense. It means mindfulness. It means being aware of God rather than just doing what (we have decided) God wants.
My dear friend Rabbi Irwin Kula has embarked on an audacious study of whether the commandments are achieving their purposes; can we develop metrics to determine if observance "X" makes you a better person, a wiser person, a more spiritually sophisticated person. I am anxiously awaiting the results that will make Jewish wisdom more readily available to a world in desperate need of it. But I know the answer for myself.
When I perform any mitzvah with heart, soul and might, that is, with intention, attention and intensity, it strengthens me in ways 97 mindless actions, even if those actions are what a God wants, simply cannot equal.
Early in my career, I served as the rabbi of a small congregation. How small was it? Small enough that I used to joke that our minyan was five people and a mirror. But actually, this small but dedicated community supported an almost-daily minyan and boasted an admirable attendance on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
The only time we had trouble gathering even the minimum of ten was when the festivals landed on weekdays. I learned to expect that most of those days would be spent with a couple of close friends in a mostly empty sanctuary.
The only exception was on the last day of the festivals when we conducted Yizkor, the memorial service. Then I had a (relative) crowd – sometimes thirty adults. Once I wised up, I moved Yizkor to the next-to-last day (the Biblically mandated final day). That’s when the crowd came. And many of them were delighted because there was an orthodox service nearby that had Yizkor the next day, so they got to double dip.
Now I belong to a much larger congregation which tries valiantly to sustain a twice-daily minyan. But it is hard. 7:30 am and 7:50 pm are perhaps less inconvenient than other times, but they are tough nonetheless for people who commute, have children at home or engage in evening activities. Each week, an announcement is made at the end of Shabbat services pleading with people to set aside a morning or an evening once or twice a month “so that people can say kaddish.”
Maybe the best and worst gift of our past suffering has been the institution of the practice of reciting the prayer called kaddish in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is in Aramaic, not Hebrew, dates back 2000 years or so and bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Matthew (“Our Father who art in heaven…”). (Argue among yourselves as to who had it first.) It appears in various forms throughout worship services and in traditional study halls. It has no mention of death and nothing to do with death.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, kaddish became a memorial prayer. You can learn more about it here. My purpose is not an exposition of its history, but of what the custom of a “mourners’ kaddish” tapped into then and now. Older colleagues of mine, equally frustrated, have referred to the custom as ancestor worship or necrophilia. The terms are harsh, but they make the point. Our prayers, including kaddish, are about life and living. The only direct mention of death is in a blessing that acknowledges God as capable of bringing life to the dead, keeping the faith with “those who sleep in the dust.”
The memory of our deceased relatives drags us to synagogue, even if they themselves attended as infrequently as so many of us. And as a result, for that so many of us, the practice and discipline of prayer has become associated with death. How awful!
When I was in seminary, the hot book among many of my classmates was Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. In it, Becker contends that human civilization exists to avoid confronting mortality, the knowledge of which is the downside of consciousness. I leave it to you to decide whether our focus on death in our worship is part of that conspiracy or a repudiation of the theory, but I will propose that the fixation is not healthy. I do not blame our ancestors for including a moment of sacred remembrance in the context of worship, but I decry the contemporary result. Our modern skepticism has washed away the sense that prayer can be sufficiently efficacious to stand on its own merits and allowed the dark residue of bereavement to justify the continuation of the endeavor. And that, I believe, is a losing proposition.
Do I have a solution? It won’t be popular. First of all, I would eliminate all recitations of mourners’ kaddish except one, at the end of each service. I would de-emphasize the Yizkor service on festivals by encouraging rabbis not to give a “Yizkor sermon” and to set a context for private reflection for a few minutes rather than a ceremony that is decidedly not in the spirit of the Torah’s command to be “only happy” on those days (Deuteronomy 16:15). In fact, the Sephardic tradition does not include this service at all except on Yom Kippur.
But it is not enough to remove the pall of death from daily prayer. If we are going to sustain prayer, we need to find a better reason for people to engage in it. The inclusion of a memorial moment is one of a collection of sociological, psychological and anthropological overlays that have saturated our conduct of prayer. Rediscovering the inherent value of the practice of prayer (see my earlier columns below) is the essential ingredient. Otherwise, Yizkor days will be as sparsely attended as the others.
I’ll begin with something counterintuitive to most people: the rabbi does not lead services. That is to say what a rabbi does in most synagogues is not what leading prayer is about, nor does the rabbi do what leading prayer is indeed about unless she or he steps out of the role of announcing pages and telling people to stand and sit. More to come.
I have learned a lot about leadership over the past number of years. The most important lesson is about the distinction between leadership and management. Leadership, suggests Marty Linsky (who is a real expert – look him up), is about change; it is about delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can tolerate. Leadership is about testing boundaries and making things different, ideally for the better.
Management is about maintaining the status quo. A good manager reassures people by keeping them dependably within a familiar system.
Synagogue worship is the ultimate in status quo, and rabbis are, therefore, the ultimate managers.
I should have learned this lesson early in my career when I was the rabbi of an intimate congregation with devoted regulars. One of the “shul kids” had her bat mitzvah and asked to conduct the whole service, almost always my role. I worked with her on the prayers and the melodies. And when the morning came, she did a spectacular imitation of me. Not only had she mastered the Hebrew prayers, she had mastered the exact wording and phrasing of the pulpit announcements I made each week. My instructions to turn to this page, turn to that page, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight were parroted with precision. It was the ultimate in status quo.
It is the sh’liach tzibbur (messenger of the community) who is the rightful leader of prayer. Often, this person is a hazzan (cantor), a person professionally trained in both music and liturgy, charged with the responsibility to draw collective devotion out of the community. But in many synagogues and many more minyanim (prayer quora), the duties are assumed by a lay person or the rabbi.
If leadership is delivering disappointment, what is the disappointment the prayer leader is to deliver? If leadership is promoting change, what is the change? If leadership is testing boundaries, what are the boundaries?
You won’t be surprised to discover that the targets are not the liturgy or even the collective experience, in my opinion. The targets for change are in the internal landscape of the individual Jews. If collective prayer is not encouraging the participants to consider their inadequacies, showing them a way to change (for the better) and testing the boundaries that prevent them from being better selves, then it fails miserably at everything other than management.
Yet, most rabbis treat public worship not so much as an opportunity for that kind of leadership as a long-running theatrical production, even (perhaps especially) in innovative circles. The script is inviolable, unless it calls for guest stars – people called forward to recite their lines. The fourth wall is maintained, all of the action taking place in the front. The people in attendance are spectators, dependent on announcements and (God help us) over-dramatic hand gestures to know where in the libretto to look and what position to assume. Even though the voice of the sh’liach tzibbur is guide and goad for the real prayer experience, we have imbued the role of the rabbi with a distracting authority that maintains the status quo and feeds the rabbinic ego. I’ve been there.
As my appreciation of my need for prayer deepened and expanded throughout the years (to my great surprise), my realization that it was frustrated by my pulpit role became clearer and clearer. I tried hard to model prayer rather than manage it, leaving the heavy lifting to the person whose role was the true practice of leadership – the hazzan. I tried to break through the fourth wall. I never waved people up or down. But with all that, the role of prayer manager still intruded on my prayer life, especially given the fact that so many people scrutinized my behavior as a model for their own. Eventually, in public circumstances, even when I was allegedly just a Jew in the pew, my spiritual life atrophied.
It is a fact, not a complaint. Don’t feel badly for me, and please don’t roll your eyes. I found a remedy for myself that involved disappointment, change and pushing boundaries – I left the pulpit! But I would like to think that there are other responses. I spent so many years talking and singing in front of people that I now find the deepest gratification and inspiration in listening quietly to others. My praying in private is aloud and animated. My praying in public is silent.
But here’s the deal: leading prayer must be an extension of a satisfying personal life of prayer. The person for whom prayer doesn’t work or who spends no time off the pulpit praying cannot lead prayer. Such a person can manage worship services, direct and host a weekly production and even make it onto a list of inspirational rabbis. But prayer, praying and leading prayer are, in the spiritual realm, far too important to individual Jews and to Judaism to be satisfied with the ultimate in status quo.
[Before I dive into part 2, a comment on some of the responses I received to Part 1. The general reply to my column, which began “prayer doesn’t work,” was essentially “then you’re not doing it right.” Without going into a history lesson, Jewish prayer has been the same for most of the last 2000 years when it evolved to take the place of Temple ritual. Its purpose was to repair the breach with God caused by sin. Its content, as I wrote, was to create a universal credo for the far-flung and diverse Jewish community. Those purposes, I contend, are unrealized among contemporary Jews. Prayer and its traditional purpose have not changed. Jews have, as the commenters illustrated.]
Jewish liturgy is notoriously inflexible. With minor variations, the prayers recited on the fourth Tuesday in November will not be significantly different than those recited on the third Thursday in May – just as true in 2016 as it was in 1716 and as it will be in 2316. The comfort of that consistency has been noted by travelers to the farthest-flung corners of the Jewish world. But that comfort is sociological, not theological – closer to Starbucks than to spirituality.
Praying, for American Jews, has been Protestantized, with at least a touch of Buddhification thrown in. That is to say, what we want out of our liturgy is new meaning that responds to our current circumstances in a spiritual sense, together with a certain mindfulness of the daily miracles we encounter. It comes in various names and forms but, like most of the American culture in which we are marinated, it is very personal and barely collective. Is that a bad thing? Far from it. But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, if you are reading the siddur (prayer book) for new information, you will be sorely disappointed.
I was always intrigued by Christian prayer. I admired the way writing new prayers and even improvising them in the moment supplemented the traditional hymns and readings that made up Christian worship. So I started asking about it. I asked mainline Protestant pastors, African-American Baptists, students in Episcopal seminary, friends who are Evangelicals. They all spoke about letting the spirit move through them. It took me awhile to realize it was not the spirit, but the Spirit, that manifestation of God they identify with what we call shekhinah, the Holy Spirit.
I recognized that I had seen Jews pray like that already. Young women in our youth group had developed a custom of spending some moments after their individual recitation of the liturgy to stand with their eyes closed, the siddur’s binding resting on their foreheads, and their heads slightly bowed. There was a mistiness about them, especially when they opened their eyes again, that carried a certain holiness. I always associated that moment with Friday night candle-lighting, when my wife could escape into the twilight between the weekday and Shabbat and pour into it the praise, penitence and petition she accumulated from the previous days.
At the same time, I learned a bit about mindfulness practices, both the near-silent meditation of Buddhism and the practice of chanting designed to drive me deeper into appreciation of a single phrase attached to a consistent melody. In a sense, they were the very opposite of davennen, the Yiddish word for prayer, which Leon Wieseltier defines as “saying very important things much too fast.”
The minimum content of any of the three daily prayers includes nineteen distinct and interwoven blessings, a long Biblical passage from the Torah or Psalms, and an extended liturgical poem that affirms our devotional obligations, our distinctiveness among the nations and our hope for the triumph of monotheism over paganism. Practiced davvenners can complete all of that and more in ten minutes, a bit more in the morning when introductory readings and perhaps a Torah recitation are thrown in.
Preserving the communal liturgy remains, I believe, important. I have always been reluctant to tamper with what I have received from long ago. But spending as much energy on developing skill in “praying your heart” is the only thing, I believe, that will rescue this central Jewish practice from dissolution.
I experimented with it privately before going public in the moments before the Torah scroll was removed from the ark. I opened my heart and opened my mouth, and I never knew exactly what would emerge. It was exhilarating for me, even as it was terrifying, like working without a net. More important, it replaced one of those few pieces of received liturgy I always wanted to erase: a nasty anti-Christian polemic that, were it inverted and recited in churches, would certainly prompt complaints from our many defense organizations.
Once, a group of congregants did an exercise in which they were asked to find their favorite spot in the sanctuary. More than half of them chose the place I would stand and pray my heart.
But opening this ability is not so easy. Jews have a tendency to channel their yearning through learning. They overthink their words, throw in a Biblical or Talmudic reference, structure their thoughts to refer back to something they read. Spontaneity seems the enemy and cleverness substitutes for inspiration.
Music can serve the same purpose and present the same hazard. The liturgical poem El Adon that appears in the Saturday liturgy has been set to melodies that reflect different aspects of the mystical tradition it celebrates. It can sound majestic, contemplative, anticipatory, almost-reachable. The words and the melodies are symbiotic, and for the uninitiated, musically or Hebraically, they can be as effective apart as they are together.
But how often has the concluding hymn Adon Olam been set to a familiar popular tune for the sake of cleverness. The plaintive expression of faith that is indeed personally addressed – “I place my life in God’s hand, whether asleep or awake, with my soul and my body, God is with me, I will not fear” – disappears into “The William Tell Overture,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” or “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I am certainly guilty of this search for connection, but I have to acknowledge I put form above substance.
Praying requires a personal investment in the endeavor. Liturgy accomplishes some of it, but I worry that those of us who are also invested in preserving the liturgy not only have channeled yearning through learning, but validated form over substance.
Guiding a group of Jews in prayer – ten, two hundred or a thousand – is daunting, but a rich and heart-rending prayer life is a prerequisite. More on that next time.
Prayer doesn’t work.
That’s not a statement of faith or, more accurately, lack of faith. It is a statement of fact.
My assertion has nothing to do with whether prayer reaches the heavens or moves God’s heart. I leave it to you to decide if prayer ever caused the phone to ring before homecoming weekend or got you an A on a test. If you say that prayer has opened within you an experience of deep insight or inspiration, or brought you comfort in despair, or channeled gratitude for an undeserved blessing, I will understand, because it has done the same for me. But that’s not what I mean.
I mean that for the majority of Jews in the world, prayer does not do what it is meant to do. I have no scientific measurement of this statement. Still, I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise.
For the greater part of two thousand years, prayer was meant to bind Jews together with a common value system and vocabulary. We pray with a fixed liturgy. Every paragraph, especially those that end with a brakha, a formulaic blessing, is meant to convey something we all believe about God and the way we see the world. But most Jews, especially in North America, only pray when they are told and what they are told. Prayer, however transcribed by the variety of prayer books by the variety of communities, is rarely something a modern Jew does voluntarily or with intention.
(A quick word about the phrase “most Jews.” There are a little less than six million Jews in the United States. A small minority attend synagogue, where they are most likely to pray. A minority of that minority certainly prays enough to raise significantly the average amount of praying that happens. But it doesn’t change the fact that most Jews pray only in synagogue, go to synagogue only when they feel they have no choice, like when they are invited to a bar mitzvah or Yom Kippur is on a federal holiday, and stand, sit or answer “amen” only when someone in the front of the room tells them to do so.)
I am one of those people who believes that prayer could work and should work, but I have to acknowledge that could and should, even when combined, do not equal does.
There is a lot more to being a Jew than prayer, but we spend more time rehearsing prayers than any other aspect of Judaism. The official identifiable institutions of Jewish life are synagogues, where, as the prayer says, people enter to pray. Seminaries and day schools set aside time for prayer. We pray before and after we eat, when we usher in holidays and when we mark every life moment from naming to burial. We pray when we remember the dead (more on that soon). We couldn’t even write a Broadway play without a prayer for the Czar.
But mostly we don’t mean it. I was struck by three words during one of the holiest moments of prayer one Saturday morning. The congregation sang with passion, “Oh when will You, God, govern Zion? Soon, in our lifetime, and then forever may You reign!” Even the most politically right-wing of my fellow worshipers do not yearn for a theocratic Jewish state without end.
Now, maybe that’s the proper thing to want. But if that is the measure of faithful belief among most Jews, even the people who can explain away what they mean are in big trouble.
Is it any wonder that we do everything we can to distract ourselves from the text we recite? Most of our prayers contain admirable exhortations and exaltations, but they are expressed in a way that is incomprehensible unless, even as a native Hebrew speaker or inspired poet, you spend an additional amount of time learning the origins, meanings, inferences, interpretations, variations and applications of the roster of blessings, Biblical readings and devotional poems that form the infrastructure of our worship. So we set them to music. We translate them into a modern idiom. We learn them by rote. We teach our children to mimic them. We publish prayer books that surround them with art, essays and enhancing commentaries. We treat prayer-time as theater (more on that soon).
I am part of that conspiracy, and I confess it is motivated by my desire to bring prayer to life for my fellow Jews. The ties that bind us, so eloquently expressed in our mother-tongue, have begun to fray. They have been politicized: conservers of tradition vs. reformers; universalists vs. particularists; egalitarians vs. elitists; people who see gender in everything vs. people who deny that there is gender in everything. I hope that just the endeavor will bring us together and transcend the particular meaning, thus opening the worth of prayer for its own sake. Even in my tiny corner of the Jewish world, I failed.
It is because prayer doesn’t work. Perhaps “any more” ought to be at the end of that sentence, but as we look to the future, rather than the past, that point is academic. Where do we now find that set of values and that connection to God that binds us as a people? And what is the best use of all that time we spend in prayer? The rabbis who are the products of this lost generation have that challenge first and foremost.
I have not stopped praying, though where and how I pray has shifted significantly. Away from my perch at the front of the room, I have the chance to look for models of success for myself. Sometimes I find them and sometimes I recognize my mistakes. More on praying next time.