David, over at Life on the Far Side, has eloquently put into words what has been milling about in my head for quite some time. Kol Hakavod to him.
And when these youth are praying, in the most frequent iteration of liberal American prayer, they are provided with a single vision of what to see: a person, in front of them, guitar in hand, singing at them. Strum, strum strum. Baruch Ata Adonai. Strum strum strum.
This is prayer? It’s not very democratic. It’s not very educational either. It does not challenge the individual to learn or connect or experiment. It allows for passive witnessing of a prayer-experience unfolding.
Let me be clear and not mince words. The songleader, as a person and individual, is an invaluable talent within our midst. Song-leading is important. We need people with musical talent. We need people with presences who can stand before an audience and teach. We need performers. We need all of this, but not in prayer.
For that we need prayer-leaders. We have them. They’re called shlichei tsibur.
That being said, I don’t believe the issue is so much the guitar itself, as the way it is being used. Certainly, the use of physical instruments is not foreign to Jewish davening. (“Hal’luhu b’teika shofar… b’neivel v’chinor… b’tof umachol… b’minim v’ugav… b’tziltz’lei shama… b’tziltz’lei t’ruah“)
Instruments become a problem when they become a tool to hide behind or a tool for performance, rather than an extension of the group’s kavannah. Or to extend David’s metaphor, when they become an autocratic tool rather than a democratic device.
There is no Reform ideology which says “we pray with songleaders.” To be truly democratic, the phrase should read: “musicians pray with us.”
David mentions that “You don’t need a special person in front of a group to lead ‘services.'”
Isn’t that what a Shaliach Tzibbur is? Isn’t a certain level of knowledge required to serve as a prayer leader? Doesn’t the very fact that we have a phrase to describe one who leads the community in prayer imply that that we do have a special person to lead prayer?
He also states: “You don’t need planning meetings… Get a group of ten together. Start praying, then you’ll learn how to lead it.” I agree. I’m with him on this one. But he’s preaching to the choir (which apparantly is an outdated institution…) We have to be careful about making assertions like this – it’s easy when we are intimately familiar with the mechanics of prayer. But for those that aren’t… those planning meetings are part and parcel of the learning process.
I find that one of the things that makes Jewish prayer so unique and rewarding is that it has never been something that is entirely spontaneous. Jewish prayer requires an ongoing learning process. Once that dissapears, it becomes stagnant. I don’t think we can just toss people into the pool of prayer and hope (pray?) that they learn how to swim.