Judaism - Prayer

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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Judaism - Prayer, Living in Jerusalem, Music

The Beatle and the Havdallah Candle

Bonnaroo. Standing in a field surrounded by 90,000 people in the sweltering Tennessee heat, I counted down the minutes. Only 120 left until I was certain that my life was going to change.

Rewind a year to that same field in Tennessee – no doubt surrounded by many of the same people – and I’ve just seen Radiohead perform a set that quite literally knocked the words out of my mouth and left me silent. Trying to describe the experience as we walked back to our campsites, almost everyone was left searching for words that would do justice to the transcendent musical experience we had all shared. I don’t use the word transcendent lightly. It was – quite literally – an experience that elevated me to new heights. After hours, it seemed that most people had settled on beautiful as the only word that accurately reflected the concert. Turning to a friend, I proclaimed “Well now I’m screwed. No concert will ever be better than that.”

I was wrong.

With 120 minutes left until Paul McCartney was set to take the stage, my body tingled in anticipation. I was going to see and hear a Beatle sing to me.

I grew up with The Beatles constantly in my ears. My parents fed my sister and me a regular dose of classic rock, folk, and classical music, but it was The Beatles who were the staple soundtrack of my childhood, enjoying a weekly set every Sunday out of our old-school, wooden stereo speakers.

So when Macca took the stage and played over three hours worth of thirty-eight songs, I knew nothing would ever be the same. Radiohead’s mind-penetrating experimental music be damned, this was the original stuff. You can search elsewhere if you’d like a musical review of the show; this one’s more spiritual.

Towards the end of Paul’s sonically blistering (he can still wail on “Helter Skelter”) and emotionally moving (I dare any grown man not to shed tears when he sings “Here Today”) set, as fireworks exploded in the sky above me and 90,000 people sang “Naaaah, na na na na na naaaaah, na na na naaaaah…,” I was completely caught off guard. Like a punch to the soul, my body and brain united in a reaction to the experience. While Radiohead left me speechless looking for adjectives to describe the concert, Paul McCartney completely took over my body, soul, and brain.

Before that day, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I physically felt this way. Some people call these sensations hokey, hippy, or crunchy-granola. Fine. Let it be. All I can vouch for is that something for me changed, as my body reacted to the experience:

  • I felt a complete sense of oneness with the 90,000 people around me. Simultaneously and without contradiction, I also felt as though I wasn’t standing in a crowd of strangers, but was the only one who the music was being played for.
  • I felt pure thankfulness for being in that singular moment. For me, that was directed towards God. For others, it may have been to someone or something else. But the moment for me was one of sincere spirituality that was directly tied to my own personal theology.
  • Feeling the experience coursing through my veins and sending shivers up and down my spine, I questioned why anyone would need the help of drugs, when you can experience a full-body-high naturally. As it happens, it turns out there’s some science behind this. But for me, it went far beyond biology.

At the end of the set – recalling our Radiohead experience a year earlier – I turned to my friend with a bittersweet look on my face and said, “Well, shit. Nothing in life will ever be the same. It’s all downhill from here.”

I was wrong.

Last night, exactly a month after seeing McCartney, my body was hit with the same sensations of oneness and thankfulness.

With sweet music ringing in my ears and a leaping flame in front of my eyes, my body was thrown back to that field in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t have been further from there. Here, in the center of Jerusalem, as my classmates and I marked the end of Shabbat and the beginning of our formal schooling on our paths to becoming Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, my body and soul reacted again to an experience in a shocking way. I felt at one with the 40 souls surrounding me, united in the journey ahead of us. I felt a supreme sense of thanks to God for bringing me to this moment in time. Blessed to experience that soul-punching sensation again, the two central foci of my life – music and Judaism – were united in a way that I couldn’t have expected.

That this moment occurred during a Havdallah service is particularly serendipitous, as the ceremony is a multi-sensory experience that – much like Radiohead and McCartney – has the power to cut straight to the human soul. The sight of the flame, the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the wine, and the beauty of the melodies give our body a lingering sensation of the neshama  – the soul – of shabbat.

It seems to me that it’s no surprise that music and Jewish spirituality have the power to biologically affect our bodies in similar ways. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said that the most direct way humans can attach ourselves to God is through music and song. Chassidut teaches that every neshama has its own melody before making the descent into the human world.

Lucky that I get to spend an entire year of spiritual and musical growth with this group of people, I only wish I could say the same for my relationship with Paul McCartney…