Building Our Singing Community

The most profoundly meaningful moment of prayer in my life occurred on the day that I did not get in to Rabbinical School.

Growing up, I was about as involved in my childhood Conservative synagogue as you could be.  I was a leader in USY.  I was first a teacher’s assistant and then a full teacher in the Religious School.  I came to services just about every Shabbat throughout middle school and high school.

So naturally, everybody who knew me, from the members of the congregation, to the Rabbi, to my non-Jewish public high school teachers, told me that I should become a Rabbi.

While I was a well-behaved teen-ager, I still wasn’t about to do what a bunch of adults told me to do, so I did not give it too much thought.

As I went through university, however, I stayed Jewishly connected, and by the time I graduated, becoming a Rabbi had become a very real possibility.  I spent a couple of years working outside of the Jewish world, just to be sure, and that helped me make my decision.  It was now time to apply.  And this is where I made my big mistake.

I believed what everybody had been telling me.

I figured I was a shoe-in, but I did not really understand what I was in for.

There is a legend about rabbinical school entrance interviews at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  The stories go like this:  There is a panel of 6-7 esteemed professors and Rabbis sitting around a table, with the candidate alone on one side.  The table is glass.  At some point they offer the candidate a glass of water and watch to see whether or not he or she recites a blessing before drinking.  They ask the candidate what the current date is on the Hebrew calendar.  And so on.

The Seminary was under renovations at the time of my interview, so I didn’t experience the glass table, the water, or the calendar question.  I was asked about faith and practice.  What do I believe about the origins of Torah, and how are my actions expressions of that belief?

These are certainly important questions about religious authenticity for a prospective rabbinical student, but I had never considered them for myself, and certainly did not have the language to discuss the matter.  I totally bombed the interview.

A certain member of my interview committee was not pleased, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms – so much so that the Dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Alan Kensky, had to intervene and gently tell him to back off.

I was allowed to attend a preparatory program, but I would have to re-interview at the end of the year to begin Rabbinical School.

That experience was crushing to me.  At the time it felt terrible, but in retrospect it was one of the most important experiences in my religious life.

All of this took place on a Friday.  Shabbat was beginning that night.  I didn’t have any close friends in New York City at the time, so I walked by myself to a modern Orthodox synagogue on 110th Street, Congregation Ramat Orah.

My ego having been deflated that morning, there was an empty space in my heart that night for true prayer.

I still remember it.  The wooden-pew lined sanctuary was packed with people who were all strangers to me.  Chandaliers hung from a tall ceiling, lighting the room with a warm glow.  And everyone sang.  I still remember the melody for L’cha Dodi.  It was slow.  It took a really long time.  And it was perfect.

In one of the rare true-prayer experiences of my life, my usual barriers were stripped away.  I was vulnerable.  My emotional state, combined with an atmosphere in which it felt safe to let go, provided an opportunity to pray to God in an honest way.  To recite words which were familiar, but infused with kavanah that could only come from a place of brokenness.

Those moments have been rare in my life.  I suspect that moments like this are rare for many of us.

Last Shabbat, our community had a unique prayer experience.  Joey Weisenberg, a musician and ba’al tefilah, prayer leader, introduced us to the idea of building a singing community.

While Joey spent some of his time with us talking about what makes prayer “work,” the most profound lessons came when we experienced it first hand.

I learned a few things last weekend:

1.  We can sound really good.  [Listen to this brief recording of our pre-Kabbalat Shabbat session]

2.  The physical space in which we are praying matters.  Singing in the chapel, close together, is very different than singing in the sanctuary when we are spread much further apart.  The acoustics of the social hall, with its sound dampening ceiling tiles and carpet, is radically different than the reflective tile and glass surfaces of the foyer.

3.  How we are configured matters even more.  To be a singing community, people have to hear and see each other.  It is hard to do when we are far apart.  It is easy when we are close together – and as we found out when we crammed together around the podium, that means really close.

4.  The melody is secondary to all of these other factors.  When we came together in the center of the room and sang the exact same niggun as when we were spread out to the edges, people were brought to tears.

And finally, the last point, which is the most crucial of all:

5.  To build a singing community, the members of the congregation are at least as important as the person leading it.

That means that it is up to all of us.  If we want to continue our transformation into the singing community that we experienced last Shabbat, we have to do things differently than we have been doing them.  We have to break patterns.  We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  I promise:  It will be uncomfortable.

But isn’t that kind of the point?

So many of our people say that they don’t find services to be spiritually meaningful.  American Jews report that they are more likely to feel God’s presence in the woods than in a synagogue.  If that’s the case, then we are doing something wrong.  Where else should a Jew expect to find God than in a synagogue?

Listen to these words describing the synagogue in America:

Services are conducted with dignity and precision.  The rendition of the liturgy is smooth.  Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony.  But one thing is missing: Life.  One knows in advance what will ensue.  There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden outburst of devotion.  Nothing is going to happen to the soul.  Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays.  He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives.  Our motto is monotony.  The fire has gone out of our worship.  It is cold, stiff, and dead.  True, things are happening, of course, not within prayer, but within the administration of the temples…

When do you think this was written?

Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered these words to Conservative Rabbis at the 1953 Rabbincal Assembly Convention.  He later incorporated them into his beautiful book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God.  (pp. 49 – 50)  In it, he offers a poignant critique on Jewish worship that is as relevant today as it was then.

But don’t conclude that the problem lies in the rote nature of the prayer itself.  Don’t assume that by changing the words of the siddur and introding flashy innovations, we will suddenly be able to feel something when we pray and have real kavanah.  Heschel suggests otherwise:

The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ourselves. (p. 77)

I first read this book in Rabbinical School, and it has stuck with me.  One section in which Heschel discusses the role of the sermon has particularly resonated.  The sermon, he says, was never of primary importance during Jewish worship.  And yet now, as he speaks to his rabbinic colleagues in the mid-1950’s, it is given “prominence… as if the sermon were the core and prayer the shell.”  (p. 79)  Then he complains about sermons that are indistinguishable from editorials in the New York Times, popular science, or the latest theories of psychoanalysis.  Or, that Rabbis deliver scholarly, intellectual discourses that identify the historical pre-Israelite pagan roots of various Jewish holidays.  All of this misses the point entirely.

“Preach in order to pray.”  Heschel urges.  “Preach in order to inspire others to pray.  The test of a true sermon is that it can be converted to prayer.” (p. 80)

Heschel’s plea is always present for me.  Always.

“Preach in order to pray.”  I find it to be a tremendous challenge.  My default mode is “intellectual.”  I do not think of myself as the kind of person who expresses a sense of deep spirituality.  I am not someone who would be comfortable leading meditation.  I am very comfortable discussing the various traditional interpretations of a biblical phrase, and then comparing them to modern biblical scholarship.

“Preach in order to pray.”  That would require me to be open, honest, and vulnerable.  That is scary.  On the other hand, the times in my life when I have allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of others – times when I have been honest about my mistakes, my fears, and my doubts – those are the times when I have been able to pray with the greatest kavanah.  But to bring myself to do that every week is not easy for me.

But this is not about me.  It is about our community.  Heschel’s challenge, and Joey’s, is to us not as individuals, but as a community.

Do we want this to be a place in which tears can flow?  Do we want to be surprised when we pray in this room?  Do we want to find God in our synagogue?

There are numerous ways in which to build a community in which these kinds of things can happen.  Heschel doesn’t have anything specific in mind.  He writes:

“My intention is not to offer blueprints, to prescribe new rules – except one: Prayer must have life.  It must not be drudgery, something done in a rut, something to get over with…”  (p. 76)

Singing together is a powerful way to give prayer life.  It has been an important part of Judaism ever since we crossed the Sea of Reeds.

So here is what I suggest.  And again, it is up to us.  It will be different, and possibly uncomfortable.  When we return the Sefer Torah to the ark in just a few moments, we’ll bring the Torah around the room.  Today we’ll go around the back and come down the aisle on the other side so that we cover more ground.  As the Torah passes you, if you like, join in the procession behind it, continuing all the way up to the ark, where we will sing Etz Chayim Hi together.  It’s a Tree of Life – but only when we give it life.

Then, we’ll go straight into musaf.  Again, you are invited to stay up front and stand close together around the podium, joining all of our voices in song and prayer together.

If we are going to become a singing community, we’ve got to commit.  If we make that commitment, I am confident that it will happen.