Synagogue Novices and Synagogue Experts

Alex Braver
October 11, 2012
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As a rabbinical student, I’ve perhaps grown a bit smug; I can generally step foot into most synagogues, on most days, and have a pretty good sense of what’s going on and why.  It took a lot of time and learning to get to this point, and there are still times when I feel lost or confused, but I think it is fair to say that I have a sense of how a synagogue functions on a regular basis.

But I stepped foot into a Sephardi synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat one evening here in Jerusalem, where I arrived a few weeks ago and will be studying for the next year, and was so thrown off by the change in accent, additions to the liturgy, and the shuffling-around of congregants doing who-knows-what around the synagogue as the service went on, that I soon decided to leave and go to the same synagogue’s safer, more familiar Ashkenazi minyan downstairs.

I realized then that I’d forgotten what it meant to feel alienated and confused in a Jewish setting, the way that I imagine many American Jews might feel at their synagogues.  I spend most of my life nowadays among Jewish communities in which I feel at home—it’s bee awhile that I’ve had to revisit that feeling of being a foreigner, of being lost and confused, like the one actor in the play who doesn’t know his lines.  And as I left the service, I thought to myself, how is it that we can make our services more accessible to congregants, while still maintaining its richness and complexity, its ability to be overwhelming and challenging and beautiful and deep.  How do we allow the “experts” who know their way around the service to continue to access the full intensity of the traditional liturgy, while bringing in “novices” who find the traditional liturgy overwhelming or problematic or just too foreign?

Do we cut away much of the “extraneous” words and focus on what we think is essential?  The extreme example of this is the Jewish Renewal synagogue I visited a few weeks ago; they selected only one verse out of each Psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, and chanted that one verse repeatedly for ten minutes or so.  Maybe it’s better to really pray one verse well, to mean it and explore it in all its shades of meaning, than to mumble through thirty verses without proper intention.

Or, perhaps, cutting away from the liturgy means losing out on opportunities to connect with different parts of the service in a more personal way.  I prayed at an Orthodox synagogue the next week, two hundred men crammed into a small synagogue with a few women above in the balconies, quickly and quietly chanting to ourselves the same set of Psalms that the Renewal synagogue carefully edited and curated for its congregants.  I didn’t get to sing one verse for ten minutes, but the reading, the flow of the liturgy, the sing-song sound of reading in Hebrew to myself, the energy of hundreds of people engaged in these texts, was powerful.  And in that service, for as many lines as I mumbled through unthinkingly, I also had a few moments of being struck by a particular verse or phrase that I might otherwise not have seen.

Do we edit the service for what we think is important?  Do we read it all in its entirety, hoping that something sticks?  Do we speed up or slow down, add in more interpretive readings and English or more silent meditation and singing?

I attended tashlich this year at a different Sephardi synagogue, and stood outside a small well with a large crowd as the rabbi chanted (in an accent I barely understood) a long series of Psalms and prayers that I did not recognize, and could not find in my machzor.  I spent the entire time frantically looking through the book, trying to find out where we were, frustrated that I—a rabbinical student, no less!—had no idea what was going on in this Jewish ritual.  I am not sure, though, that I wish they had stopped the ritual every few moments to announce a page number or to say what was going on.  I think having my hand held or having the ritual ritual abbreviated or simplified for me might have detracted from that particular experience..

The Talmud in Megillah 22a discusses a variation of this question.   In the midst of a long and complex discussion of how to divide up the Torah into aliyot for reading, the Talmud decides to take into account the fact that congregants will be entering and exiting the synagogue.  “You might have thought,” the Talmud argues,” that it would be unusual for people to go out and leave while the Torah is being read.”  However, the Talmud continues, you cannot assume this is true!  The rabbis decide that they must assume  people will be waltzing in and out of the shul, even when the Torah itself is out in the open being publicly read!  And therefore, our liturgy to this day has–built in–special allowances for people walking in and out of shul, even if they are abandoning the Torah itself as it is being read aloud!  Jewish law is influenced and modified by a need for the communal leadership to make its liturgy accessible and understandable, even to people who choose not to sit through all of it, even to people who perhaps aren’t “experts” like the rabbis of the Talmud were.

Yet a few lines later, discussing a related point, the Talmud says that we can also assume that someone walking in late to synagogue will ask other congregants what’s going on if they are confused.  The responsibility isn’t just on the leadership, the Talmud seems to be saying.  Rather, congregants—even novice, non-expert congregants, need to take some personal responsibility for their spiritual lives.  Don’t expect the rabbi to hand-feed you every little thing that’s happening in a service, the Talmud seems to say.  You must be empowered to take your spiritual life into your own hands, to ask for help.

So it seems that responsibility goes both ways—the leadership of a synagogue needs to make efforts to accommodate people where they are at, even if they don’t understand what is going on or even if they are walking in and out of the synagogue.  Yet at the same time, we have to create a synagogue-culture in which congregants take the ritual seriously, and take personal responsibility for their own ritual observance and spiritual practice.  It’s important for us to discuss how rabbis and Jewish leaders can bring in people to synagogue, but we also need to create communities in which there is an expectation that members will speak up if they are confused, and that congregants  believe enough in the potential of Jewish ritual to impact their lives that they will turn to their neighbors and ask what’s going on, because knowing what’s going on matters to them.

Yet finding this balance is hard—at the Sephardi tashlich, when I had no idea what was going on, I could very easily have turned to any number of the strangers around me and asked for some help, if it had not been for my own ego stopping me.  I told myself that I should know what’s going on, that they might judge me for being lost, or for being a stupid American tourist butting in on their private ritual.  But if I had chosen to live up to the standard set in the Talmud, I should have had the courage to ask what was going on.  And if they too were living up to that same standard, they would have had the kindness to interrupt their own prayer to help me.

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