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Spontaneous Prayer

A number of years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel on an Interfaith Clergy trip sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the ICJS. We left on a bus from the Chizuk Amuno parking lot, and just as we were pulling out the leader of the trip suggested that we should say a prayer at the beginning of our journey together. Since we were an interfaith group it only made sense that one prayer would be offered by one of the Christian clergy, and one prayer by one of the rabbis.

First the Christian pastor got up, and took the microphone at the front of the bus, closed his eyes, and spontaneously began to pray. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of ‘let the Lord God, God of all people, bless our group in fellowship and faith. Let our time together be full of meaning and hope, let us learn from one another, let us grow in faith together with respect and love. Let us journey in safety, let us return to our loved ones enriched by the experience, and let us together say Amen.’ It was a beautiful prayer, prayed right from the heart, on the spot, sensitive to the fact that Jews and Christians were embarking on this experience together, and expressing our shared sense of mission and God.

Then it was the rabbi’s turn. The rabbi walked to the front of the bus, took out a pocket siddur, looked at the table of contents, began to flip the pages, eventually finding the page that had what prayer on it? The Traveler’s prayer, Tefilat Haderech. The rabbi read the prayer word for word, straight from the siddur, first in Hebrew, and then in English translation. The Traveler’s Prayer is also beautiful and meaningful, but it lacked the spontaneous nature of the prayer the Christian pastor had offered, and it felt more like a rote recitation of a text as opposed to an actual prayer that was trying to connect human beings and God. I am not sure what the Christians on the bus thought of that Traveler’s Prayer, or even how the other rabbis experienced it, but to me it was an illustration of the way in general that Jews struggle with spontaneous prayer. We like to have our text, we like to know what page the prayer is on, we like to open the book to that page, say the words are supposed to say, and be done with it, check the box.

Now sometimes there is something to be said for having that book, for knowing the page and being able to read the words. First of all there is a level of familiarity to it which creates a sense of comfort. Secondly, there is the ability even if you didn’t feel any great emotional connection to be able to say I did what I was supposed to do, I read the prayer and fulfilled my obligation. A prayer book also gives you the advantage of having something to say. With a book you don’t need to worry about ‘what should I say, what if I don’t know what to say, what if I can’t think of anything to say.’ None of that matters because you can just read what is on the page. And last, but certainly not least, there can be something powerful about everyone saying the same thing at the same time, about communal prayer, that you can only arrive at with a text. And the siddur gives Jews access to all of that, not by any means to be underestimated.

But the prayer book also comes with a set of problems, and one of the most difficult of those problems is that the siddur never changes. The words we read from the siddur this morning were the same words that were read here on Shabbat morning at Beth El 30 years ago, and in all probability even 50 years ago. The weekday amidah prayer, said by traditional Jews three times a day, day in and day out, never changes. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or snowing or sunny out, if it is fall or spring, if the stock market is up or down. It doesn’t matter if the person saying the prayer is 15 years old, 50 years old, or 85 years old. With very minor exceptions, it never changes.

Now on the one hand this is a necessity. A liturgy, at least to a certain extent, has to be repetitive and fixed. That enables it to be a point of unification for a community, because everyone is familiar with it. I have many times had people tell me that they were traveling and found a synagogue, entered it for services, and felt immediately at home because they recognized the service, the payers, even some of the tunes. And the reason that happens is because the service is standardized and rarely changes. The repetitive nature of the service also lends to the sense of ritual – ritual by definition is repetitive, connecting you into a community, and also to a history, in Judaism’s case with our services a stream of history that is about two thousand years old.

But the problem with a changeless liturgy is that you or I might arrive in shul, open up the prayer book, and we might not be able to find anything in it that relates to the way we are feeling, to what kind of day we are having, to what is going on in our lives. And if that happens once, it is not the end of the world. But if it happens to someone again and again and again, after a while that person isn’t going to be interested in coming to services, and they aren’t going to believe that the prayers in the siddur have anything to say, having any real meaning. And then why would they come?

Spontaneous prayer is a solution to this problem. What do you suppose people feel is their favorite part of this service? Besides the sermon of course! I’ve been told over and over again. The mishebeirach prayer that we recite during the Torah service. That is the one moment prayer wise where most people find the most meaning. Why? Because it is personal. Because while we are singing the words together, in their minds they are thinking about real people in their lives, people they care about, people they hope – and pray – will be healed. And so that moment feels real to them, it touches them, and the spontaneous part of it is that every individual is thinking about someone they know and care about.

This morning’s Torah portion describes the very beginning of Abraham’s journey, just as God calls him to what will become his life long mission. When he first arrives in the land of Canaan Abraham builds an altar, and offers a sacrifice, a way of showing God gratitude for the fact that he had completed his journey safely. And then the Torah uses an unusual phrase – ויקרא בשם ה׳ – in our Humash you’ll find this phrase translated as ‘Abraham invoked the Lord by name.’ And that translation sounds so staid and dry, like the rabbi on the bus, Abraham took out his siddur, looked in the table of contents, found a prayer, and read it word for word. But of course Abraham didn’t have a siddur, and the force of the Hebrew in the verse – ויקרא – is that he called out, he raised his voice, that it was a moment filled with emotion, and that the prayer that he offered came from his heart.

It is that kind of prayer that we need to recover in our community. Not that we should throw out the service, or the structure, the prayers we know so well and have been reciting for so long. But that perhaps the balance isn’t what it should be – perhaps we’ve become overly reliant on the words and the page numbers, and not as comfortable as we might like to be with looking to God and calling out to the Divine straight from our own hearts. May we find the strength, the courage, the hope, and the belief to pray in that way בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך יבשכבך ובקומך – when we sit in our homes, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up –


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A New Judaism?

An article that appeared in last week’s Sunday NY Times by James Carroll called ‘Jesus and the Modern Man” has me thinking about Judaism’s role in modern life. Carroll argues that the new Pope, with his popular touch, is helping the average Catholic in the pew to regain a sense of the potential power of the Church in his or her life. Carroll sees the Pope as returning his faith to its roots, namely the life of Jesus, with his message of love, hope, and inclusion for all people.

What, then, would be our message? A Jewish message for the soundbite age, Judaism at its essence, ‘standing on one foot?’ Without a Pope figure to direct the Jewish theological enterprise, and without a Jesus figure to create the image of an ideal life driven by ideal values, where do we stand?

One thing we know is that on many levels our problems and the problems of the Church are similar. Dwindling attendance at services. Diminished registration in our religious schools. Fewer people identifying with our faith traditions. At the heart of it all is a malaise of modern life – fewer and fewer people take religion seriously. Religious life is becoming anachronistic, the wives’ tales and superstitions of a previous age, not suited to modern life and modern sensibilities.

What then, will be a Judaism for the modern man? We are seeing early glimmers of an answer to that question. It may be less synagogue based, and more social action and social justice oriented. The emphasis will be on doing good rather than being good. Traditional rituals may fade away (wearing tefilin, for example) while new rituals may become important in people’s lives (baby namings and b’not mitzvah two current notable examples). Prayer may be replaced by meditation. Lectures by walks. Lunch and learns by cooking classes and wine tastings.

The sage Hillel famously took a stab at creating a one line description of Judaism’s essence: what is hateful to you, do not do to others. Not bad, but not sufficient. What about the impulse to challenge the status quo, so central to Judaism’s approach? Or another core tenet, responsibility for caring for the underprivileged? The importance of a day of rest, so the mind and spirit can rejuvenate and grow? Of course the list could go on and on.

Interestingly, these are all values that still speak to us in the modern world. What we need to do is somehow convince people that Judaism’s ancient wisdom can still bring meaning into their modern lives. Prayer can be powerful and life changing! Study of sacred text can deepen your spiritual life! Ritual can ground you and give structure to your days! Of course we don’t have a Pope to deliver that message, or a Jesus figure to galvanize the uninitiated or disenfranchised. The Jewish message for modern man has to come from Jewish leaders – clergy, Jewish professionals, lay leaders as well. Our challenge is that we cannot deliver that message in a soundbite. But a TED talk? Maybe. At least it is a place to start. Just don’t ask me to do it standing on one foot.

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Great Expectations

Yes, the great Dickens novel.  I am re-reading it, and enjoying it immensely.  The title is a double entendre.  Great expectations is a technical term in the book referring to Pip’s expected inheritance – as in ‘he has come into great expectations.’  But the phrase also hints at Pip’s own hopes and dreams – how he wants to live and who he wants to be.  Both meanings play an important role in the narrative as Pip grows into adulthood.

We might say the same for people who decide to convert to Judaism.  When they become Jewish they come into an inheritance – a faith tradition that is thousands of years old and filled with wisdom and beauty.  But also their conversion is a piece of the puzzle of their lives, a way of nourishing their souls.  Great expectations indeed.

This is in part why it was painful for me to read a blog post that appeared on the Times of Israel website, written by a woman named Bethany Mandel.  The title of the post is ‘A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts,’ and the author, herself a convert, outlines a series of 10 challenges that often confront Jews-by-choice.  Among them:  conversion ‘costs’ are often not revealed until the candidate is just about to become Jewish;  converts are put into the uncomfortable position of having to discuss deeply personal matters with total strangers;  the conversion process is drawn out, and almost impossible to meet demands are made on candidates.  To see Ms. Mandel’s complete article you can check the following link:  blogstimesofisrael.com

When I read her article it struck me that virtually all of the problems she points to are particular to the Orthodox conversion process.  Had she converted under the auspices of the Conservative or Reform Movements she would have, in all likelihood, come through the experience with a very different feeling about the meaning of conversion.  Her sense of personal dignity and affinity for the Jewish people would have remained strong.  Her conversion experience would have been positive and not painful.  And, as a Conservative rabbi, I hope her welcome into the community would have been generous and genuine.

My colleague Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue has recently argued that the Conservative Movement should make conversion easier, with fewer demands on candidates, shorter study times, and a much more open attitude towards people who want to make their home in the Jewish community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Any rabbi will quickly tell you that people who have chosen to become Jewish strengthen congregational life, often becoming some of the most devoted congregants we are privileged to serve.   Some might believe that the Jew-by-choice is blessed, privileged to be granted access to a sacred community and ancient covenant.  In fact the opposite is true – when someone decides to become Jewish, it is the community that is blessed by that person’s commitment, caring, faith, and presence.


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Gordis Redux – Whither Conservative Judaism?

      Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article Requiem for the Conservative Movement, an analysis/reflection on the results of the Pew Study vis a vis Conservative Judaism, created a veritable firestorm of staunch defenses of the Movement from its leaders, thinkers, and rabbis.  In a follow up piece from last week, Gordis responds to the responders, or as he calls them, his ‘interlocutors.’  In the course of a lengthy article (almost twice the length of his original piece) he does his best to answer his critics, and also attempts to reinforce some of the ideas from his original ‘requiem.’  There are two fundamental flaws in his argument, but also one essential truth.  First the  flaws.

     The first comes from Gordis’ misunderstanding of what he calls ‘aspirational’ Judaism.  By this he means the challenge that a faith tradition should present to its members to live more engaged and meaningful lives.  A religion should be demanding, not acquiescing;  it should expect its members to grow in soul (a David Wolpe phrase), not remain on a level spiritual plane.  All of this is true, and you would be hard pressed to find any religious leader from any faith tradition that would disagree.  Gordis’ mistake is that he takes the idea of aspirational religious life and he connects it to halachah, Jewish law.  These ideas may be connected at times, but they do not need to be, and a faith tradition can be highly aspirational while having very little interest in a legalistic approach to religious life.  I would argue that Conservative Judaism is highly aspirational.  It encourages its members to study more, to come to services more, even to observe more seriously, and most importantly to use classic Jewish values like the importance of giving charity and the idea that all humans are created in the image of God as guiding values.  But to believe that the Movement’s less stringent views of driving on Shabbat and eating out in a restaurant have had a negative impact on the Jews in the pews is simply misguided.  The fact is the vast majority of Conservative Jews don’t even have these issues on their radar screens, so how can they ever be ‘aspirational’ for people?

     The second flaw in Gordis’ thinking comes from the title of his rejoinder, ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’  This is what he describes as the gap between where a person is and where they feel they should be.  He understands Orthodox Judaism as the movement most invested in the idea of cognitive dissonance, and believes that is one of the reasons why Orthdoxy is growing while Conservative Judaism is shrinking.  Knowing some of what goes on in the mainstream Orthodox community these days it seems to me as if the opposite is true.  Most Orthodox rabbis, and many Orthodox Jews, are not at all comfortable with ‘cognitive dissonance.’  Instead, as Orthodoxy’s lean to the right continues, it is less and less comfortable with ideas, values, and narratives that do not reflect the strictest definition of how one should practice and even what one should think.  Gordis imagines, I guess, that many within Orthodoxy today are mini-Soloveitchiks, ready and able to keep in their minds the tension between Orthodox dogma and modern thought.  The truth is there are a handful pockets where this kind of dynamic exists today, but YU is no longer one of them.  They are few and far between, and the fact that rabbis ordained at such places as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah have trouble being recognized as rabbis in many Orthodox communities is all you need to know.  For all of the Orthodox community’s passion, and its many strengths, cognitive dissonance is simply not its forte.  

     Which brings me to the one essential truth in Gordis’ new argument.  He writes that in all of the responses to his initial ‘eulogy’ of the Conservative Movement, there were defenses of what Conservative Judaism is and has been, but there were not suggestions as to what it should be.  I am afraid that by and large he is correct.  The defenses of the Movement have been intelligently and in some cases passionately stated.  They have acknowledged, with complete intellectual integrity, the Movement’s flaws while trumpeting its success, of which there are many.  But there is not a sense, as you read through the responses, that anyone has a clear idea of what should be done and of how we should change.  The status quo may be high quality, but if so it is a high quality product in which fewer and fewer Jews are choosing to invest.  Perhaps it is time to try to get a sense of why that is the case, and in so doing to begin a conversation about what we can change to make a difference in the years to come, not holding on and fading away, but growing and glowing brighter.

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