The Latest from BZBI

Prayer for the Future

Vayera 5780 / 16 November 2019

November 21, 2019

The other night, at Federation’s Main Event, Bari Weiss suggested that instead of thinking of Judaism as a religion, ethnicity, or culture, we should consider it a counter-culture. What she meant was that, throughout history, wherever we have lived – Rome, Spain, Germany, Russia – Jews have existed in contrast to the dominant culture around them, and the same holds true for us in America. She didn’t have to convince me; I’ve seen Judaism as a counter-culture for a while now. In listening to her, however, I saw some new implications of that frame.

What do we learn about Judaism if we think of it as a counter-culture? A counter-culture means that at least some of what Judaism asks of us will be strange, difficult, even counterintuitive. We are commanded to visit the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the poor; while that may feel natural to many of us, those ideas are in fact deeply counter-cultural in America today – but that’s a topic for another time. Shabbat is probably an easier example: we’re supposed to throw a weekly dinner party, line up everyone’s schedules, invite guests – a challenge for any family, to be sure, but also something where the value-added can be quite apparent. Then we get to the disconnecting part: turning off all the screens and beeping things, shutting our work down entirely, setting aside the activities that define every other day of the week – now it gets tricky.

And still none of those things comes close to the most difficult of all: prayer. Even here in this room, among people who are regularly in a synagogue – even if it’s not necessarily this one – it can be hard to say for sure why we’re here. To catch up with friends and neighbors? To study and reflect? To say and sing the actual words in the siddur? Realistically, for each of us it’s some combination of those factors; and yet I find that those considerations still don’t fully explain why so many people come here so regularly.

While it doesn’t get as much attention as other issues in the Jewish community, I’ve come to see that prayer is the biggest struggle for Conservative Judaism ­– maybe for other denominations as well, but that’s not for me to say. Services are long, and sometimes quite slow, almost entirely in a language that few people – even among the regulars – can understand. They happen on a fixed schedule, and not necessarily at convenient times. And we need to come together – not necessarily at a synagogue, but in some space that can accommodate a community for prayer. Sure, it’s possible to pray on our own at home, but only a more limited service, without the key prayers. And since we’re being really honest today, very few take the time to daven on our own. So let’s start with a yishar koach, a hearty “well done!” – getting here today wasn’t the easiest option available, and you all made it.

Moreover, of all the counter-cultural aspects of Judaism, our insistence on communal prayer is one of the most out-of-step with contemporary America. Study after study shows attendance declining at all houses of worship, and synagogues are no different. And in the face of that trend, rather than looking for alternatives, looking at streaming or other technologies to reach people remotely, we’re constantly urging people to come here, to the synagogue, every week – or several times a week, daily, even twice daily. That’s a tough row to hoe.

It’s also not a setup for overwhelming success. As you might have noticed on the flyer tucked into your Shabbat booklets, our daily minyan has been struggling lately – we need ten adult Jews and we keep ending up with seven, eight, nine. Everyone who comes to say kaddish for a yahrzeit is always so grateful to have a minyan; but you’re counting on the other nine people to be there. What about everyone else who has yahrzeit – who is there for their kaddish? Judaism’s insistence on a minyan for our most essential prayers forces us to rely on others – and challenges us to come through for one another.

While our daily minyanim rest on a core of people who show up every day, we couldn’t get to ten without the people who come less often but have made a commitment to be there on a regular basis. There are people in this room whose choice of a single day to be “their” day has made the difference on more than one occasion. But our minyan needs more – it will always need more. Consider your part –one day a week or even just one regular day a month has an impact, if you can make a real commitment, something you will do even when the weather is yucky, even if it takes you away from the gym or other competing demands on your time. This is another one of the ways Judaism is counter-cultural. The American way is to ask, “What’s in it for me;” the Jewish question is, “What’s in it for the community?”

Requiring a community for prayer makes things tricky, but the Hebrew thing is definitely counter-cultural. The obvious answer is to switch our language of prayer to English. It’s hardly a new solution; calls for vernacular prayer have been a constant feature of Jewish debate since the early days of German Reform Judaism. Changing the language of prayer lets everyone understand what we’re saying – and that’s a good thing, right? I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that line of thinking leads us toward the cardinal mistake of Conservative Judaism in the 20th century. The leaders of our movement came to think of prayer as a declaration of our literal beliefs; this led to ever more sweeping changes in the siddur – in the Hebrew text as well as the English translation – and in a classic example of unintended consequences, the accumulation of revisions actually made everything worse. As our rabbis sought to bring the text of our prayers in line with their philosophical beliefs, they bled the richness, drama, and passion out of the ancient texts.

Over the past twenty years, the pendulum has swung back. At the time of its printing in 1998 the siddur in front of you, the blue Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, was the most traditional prayer book our movement had published since the venerable Silverman prayer book of 1945. Although it preserves some earlier changes meant to be more gender-inclusive, and adds a second version of the Amidah that includes the matriarchs, by and large this Sim Shalom reversed a half-century of liturgical emendation. With it came a return to more traditional modes of public prayer: high-art cantorial music gave way to peer-led, communal singing; the English responsive readings that were a mainstay of my childhood synagogue have all but vanished; and the silent Amidah, once an awkward pause in the middle of a service, is now widely viewed as an essential space for personal reflection.

People regularly suggest that education can address some of these challenges – that if we did a better job teaching Hebrew, and people understood the meaning of the prayers, we would have an easier time getting into it. Bari Weiss echoed this view at the Main Event. I’m as big a supporter of Jewish education, at all stages of life, as you’ll find anywhere. Rabbi Max Nissen, our Director of Youth and Family Education, works tirelessly to raise the bar in our Neziner Hebrew School, and Rabbi Annie and I are right there alongside him. We offer a Basic Prayerbook Hebrew class for adults, and it’s packed. Better education and deeper understanding can only benefit us, individually and as a community.

Nevertheless, understanding the prayers doesn’t actually help us pray. If that were the case, I think we’d see many more communities turning to English prayers – and I would happily support that. I don’t think that’s the point at all. That we pray in Hebrew is more than a vestige of an ancient time when that was the spoken language of our people; Hebrew is the glue that binds our prayers to the eternal Jewish people. It connects us to the global Jewish community; if you are familiar with the core prayers – even if you don’t know what the words mean – you can walk into almost any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and recognize the service. Hebrew also connects us through time, to the Jews of the past and the future. As one of my teachers pointed out, the authors of Tosafot, who brought about one of the most revolutionary innovations in Jewish thought, were fluent in French and German – after all, those were the lands where they lived. Had they written their Talmudic commentaries in French, they would have been no less brilliant – but they would have been lost to future generations. Being written in Hebrew placed these works on the timeless bookshelf of Jewish classics. In the same way, our continued reliance on Hebrew prayer stakes a claim of continuity with the past and lays the groundwork for the future – and presents challenges that we must reckon with every time we come to a service.

For a few weeks now, you have been gently bombarded with information about next weekend’s Shabbaton with our artist-in-residence, Eliana Light – the first of four that we will hold this year. Until now, you’ve gotten the pitch: all the nice, attractive things that might encourage a person to join in. All of that is entirely true, but those highlights alone don’t justify the level of effort and resources we are putting into this year’s artist-in-residence program.

BZBI faces a defining struggle around prayer. We have a solidly good Shabbat morning service. We have a nice, if lightly-attended, Friday night. Daily minyan attendance is a constant struggle – as it is for any synagogue that maintains a daily minyan – but it gets the job done. Over the past four years, we’ve made great strides forward in improving the quality of all of our services. Prayer at BZBI is good – sometimes great, even – but I don’t think that’s enough. We deserve a tefillah, prayer, experience that is exceptional.

I have a clear vision of what an exceptional service would look like, and I am not going to share that with you today. When it comes to tefillah, my vision can’t be the dominant idea in the room; to become truly exceptional, we need to find our voice as a community. What will be exceptional for all of us together? I am sure it won’t be exactly what any one of us might want – communal prayer will always demand compromise. Still, we have a right to expect a prayer service that is engaging, comforting, uplifting, and inspiring – at least some of the time. An exceptional service will connect us to our shared past and point us toward the future. It will bind us to the Jewish people throughout the world and connect us with others in the community. Exceptional tefillah must root us into the deepest level of our soul.

All of that adds up to half of the picture, because the children of our congregation deserve no less. When I started at BZBI, parents in our Hebrew School consistently cited Junior Congregation as an area in need of growth. Parents whose kids attended Jewish day school asked what we would provide for their families on Shabbat. We’ve made slow progress over the past four years, and when we brought Rabbi Max on board this summer one of his core challenges was to reimagine what family services for Shabbat might look like: what will engage kids, train them for a lifetime of active participation in prayer and synagogue life, help them share formative experiences with their parents.

We chose Eliana Light as this year’s artist-in-residence because her passions and talents make her uniquely positioned to help us navigate these challenges, for adults and children. Eliana is a gifted singer and songwriter; a dynamic educator; a deeply spiritual person whose recent work focuses on questions of how and why we pray. Everything we told you about next Shabbat is real – there will be great davening, interesting learning, a lot to think about after the weekend is over. Those things on their own don’t account for our decision to bring Eliana four times throughout the year, and they’re not the core reasons why I want you to come next week, and each time Eliana visits.

The real reason I want you there is so that we can define “exceptional” prayer together. No one of us – not even me or Rabbi Annie – can get us from where we are now to where we need to be. We’re bringing Eliana four times because the process of reimagining tefillah requires deep, ongoing engagement. She is coming to be our teacher and guide and companion, to help us find our own answers. Some of us will be there for all of her residency; some might catch only one or two weekends, or maybe just one service or dinner. However much you can come, your being there shapes the answers we will find. This process of reinvigorating prayer is like prayer itself: we depend on one another. Our work will continue in earnest long after Eliana’s residency at BZBI draws to a close.

In my earliest conversations with Eliana, we talked a lot about my desire to see BZBI excel – for us to develop tefillah that truly defines us as a community. We quickly reached the end of what the rabbis could do with Eliana on our own, and we broadened the circle to include our sponsors. Two weeks ago, Eliana spent the day at BZBI and met with a series of small focus groups – students, parents, service leaders and Shabbat regulars. With that, we reached another limit, and it’s time to expand the circle further. We need as many voices as possible in this conversation, and that means you. This process needs to be for everyone, whether you’re here every week or every so often. I want you to tell your friends – for this to work, we need help from the people who are not in this room at all. I am counting on you. We’re all counting on you. Our future is counting on you.