Where’s the Awe?

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From the moment I was first exposed to organizational Jewish life when my family joined a shul in 1991, I was immediately attracted to the phenomenon of Jewish prayer. Even at the age of eight, I found great delight and curiosity in our liturgy – in the meaning of the (at the time) strange Hebrew, the engaging melodies that my rabbi taught with her guitar and voice, and the power of a group of people sitting together and speaking (praying) as one voice.

From that point on, liturgy and the act of praying – both individually and communally – have been key foci of how I experience Jewish life. Whether through religious, spiritual, musical, or academic paradigms, I have continually been engaged in learning more about how Jews pray, and particularly with how Jews lead prayer.

Since that first spark at the age of eight, and now for close to two decades, I have explored many different types of Jewish prayer – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, French, English, Hebrew, egalitarian, non-egalitarian, partnership minyans, musical, silent, creative, and so-on… I love discovering new things about my relationship with prayers and praying, and I know how important it is for me to push myself to be open to new experiences and not be locked into a specific idea of what works for me. To be sure, that first prayer experience at the age of eight was a radically new phenomenon for me. At the same time, I also believe it important to be aware of what forms of prayer are personally meaningful, and for me to be able to pray in a way which is spiritually and religiously fulfilling.

This being the first time I have been in Israel throughout the chagim, I was anticipating with great excitement my being here for the pinnacle events of the Jewish calendar.

Because of this particular building up of anticipation, I am surprised with how I look back upon my experiences during the yamim noraim here in Israel. In retrospect, I didn’t experience much of my anticipated excitement. They just weren’t that awesome. Somewhat ironically, the pinnacle point for me was actually had in a basement classroom (more on that shortly).

Many of the services I was involved with throughout the chagim were ones that didn’t speak to me in a way that addressed my religious, spiritual, and liturgical needs. From my singing in the school’s choir on Rosh Hashana, to leading Yom Kippur services at the new Reform/Progressive community in Be’er Sheva, to attending Progressive services at Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer on Simchat Torah, I had ample new opportunities, yet was often left feeling somewhat empty and unfulfilled by each of them. These just weren’t the serious and moving experiences I was looking for and expecting.

At HUC, the melodies and liturgy we prayed with were mostly in the same vein as those we had already been exposed to. In Be’er Sheva, I compromised my own desires for a longer, loftier Yom Kippur service for the sake of reaching out to an un-served community and being a part of a nascent progressive religious experience there. And at Gezer, I was disturbed by the community’s lack of reverence for the Torah during reading and hakafot, and the generally uninspiring rabbinic leadership; what was supposed to be z’man simchateinu seemed to me to be little more than stuff that needed to be said and things that needed to be done.

The most impacting worship experience I had was at Sod Siach – a traditional egalitarian minyan in Katamon. Worshipping in the rented space of a crowded, sweltering, basement classroom; praying with words from an Orthodox Union-embossed machzor, in a service led by tallit-enrobed women; praying entirely in Hebrew that was at times often challenging to me in content and syntax; I felt one of the most profound connections to God and prayer that I have yet had this year.

The Sod Siach experience satisfied me spiritually through the use of engaging and accessible music (yet without the guitar that I myself most often lead services with). It satisfied me intellectually in experiencing a uniquely organic Israeli community worshiping in a style that one often doesn’t associate with traditional Israeli Jewish prayer. And through the reverence of the community and willingness to engage with the machzor’s text, it satisfied me religiously in acknowledging the awesomeness and height of the holy day in a way I didn’t feel elsewhere.

And yet… as much as I was searching for a familiar prayer experience, Sod Siach probably couldn’t have been any further from my communities in New York and Toronto. To be sure, most other members of communities would likely have been utterly lost.

I do believe it’s important to state that I don’t view one style of prayer experience as more authentically Jewish than another style. But I do believe that a sophisticated and complex approach to Jewish liturgy and prayer is more authentic than a simplistic and more basic approach. Just as my relationship with Israel is nuanced and doesn’t avoid grappling with tougher issues facing Israeli society, I want to have an approach to Jewish prayer that is nuanced and doesn’t shy away from the more complex, challenging or difficult aspects of our liturgy.

In that light, I wrestle with finding the balance between having new prayer experiences that are less meaningful to me, and having meaningful prayer that are just more of the same week after week. I don’t want to fall into a comfortable, rote “this is how I pray” approach to worship, but I also can’t just treat prayer as an intellectual exercise. Something this important to me and to God needs to be held to a high standard that – ironically – I don’t always feel I am able to do while in rabbinical school!

This is one of my fears about becoming a rabbi. I know that I have a found an approach to prayer that is meaningful to me, even as I look forward to it growing throughout my schooling and indeed throughout my career. But how will I reconcile my own preferences with the regular need to lead and participate in differing styles of prayer? How do I square my progressive, open approach to Judaism with a particularist approach to prayer? How will I balance the needs of my future congregants with my own spiritual and religious needs? To be sure, this has been a significant factor in my general reluctance towards a congregation-based career.

These are questions and challenges that will most certainly remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing; I can  look forward to continuing to wrestle with them throughout my schooling.

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