Friday, April 16, 2010

Let's pretend

This train of thought has been spinning around in my head for the past few days, since I attended a meeting at our Temple earlier in the week. It goes something like this...

Most people who belong to our Conservative congregation--this is an educated guess, mind you, I have no hard data on this -- do not keep the Conservative-style mitzvot (Jewish laws) outside of the synagogue proper. Some of them have Kosher homes, but some of them don't, and many of them eat non-kosher outside the home. Some of them regularly (or occasionally) attend Shabbat services, but most of them do not keep Shabbat. Many of them drive on Shabbat. Some of them work and shop on Shabbat. Most of them likely use electricity on Shabbat. Lots of the kids do sports on Shabbat.

There is a kind of fiction going on. A "let's pretend". Let's pretend that people are more observant than they actually are.

So when an issue comes up, like, should we allow instruments to be played on Shabbat as part of a way to increase spirituality and connection in the Shabbat services, my issue is: who is going to be offended? The rabbi? A few congregants? Or, really, does a large portion of the congregation really not care in the least? And if there is more to be gained than there is to be lost: why not do it?


RivkA with a capital A said...

The reason not to do it is that it is a violation of Shabbat.

One has to ask -- if the only way to bring people closer to Torah is to water it down, then what value does that have?

There are plenty of organizations that are seriously observant and very successful in attracting unaffiliated or moderately affiliated Jews.

Why are they so successful? They are far stricter than most of their congregants. Yet, these congregations are growing all the time.

The way to attract people to Judaism is to love Judaism and to share that love.

Apologetic Judaism is not attractive.

I love the melodies that accompany Shabbat prayers. Singing can be so beautiful. even without any musical instruments. (Ever listened to accapella groups?)

What makes Shabbat services so beautiful for me is the singing that we all do together.

I am not the only one. There is a new minyan (prayer group) in our neighborhood that starts earlier and has more singing. People are so moved that they often get up to dance (separately). I find the prayer service very spiritually moving.

adena said...

Thanks, Rivka. I realized once I posted this that it wouldn't make any sense at all to someone more observant, such as you. However, this is something that I, a not-particularly-observant person, am grappling with. I hope to hear from some other less-observant friends, too, about this post.

FollowUpQuestion said...

What a "spot-on" column. Musical instruments could absolutely bring in a new group of congregants. It has worked in many Conservative congregations. Simple, acoustic instruments (guitar, flute, percussion) can bring people to be moved to prayer just as much as human voices. And if one is concerned about offending members, why not simply survey the population?

50 is the new 30 said...

Hi Adena - "Less-traditionally-observant" reader checking in! My (Reform-approaching-Conservative-in-many-ways) congregation includes instrumental accompaniment to our Shabbat services. Typically, our Cantor plays his (acoustic) guitar as he leads the prayers; in his absence (he is on sabbatical right now) our Rabbi also accompanies himself on (acoustic) guitar. We've also had services that have beautifully incorporated gorgeous accompaniment to the prayers by more "orchestral" instruments (violin, flute, cello, etc). We sing the same prayers. In Hebrew.

The inclusion of our instrumental accompaniment is, to me, an integral part of services at this point. The musical arrangements we use are wonderful. It's amazing how one acoustic guitar can make me feel so "uplifted". It adds a richness, a texture, that I just don't feel when I attend services at other congregations that do not choose to use instrumental accompaniment. If that's indicative to some of something lacking in my "Judaic fiber", then so be it.

Adena, as Alisa posted, you might want to survey your congregation to get a sense of how they feel about this issue. Or, maybe your congregation could "test the waters" a bit, by designating one service a month as a "guitar service", to gauge the impact of those services upon the engagement of your congregation and the reactions to your members once they actually have the experience. The service that includes instrumental accompaniment could be offered as a second, optional service, running in parallel to a more traditional instrument-free service. From the way you've described your congregation previously, it sounds as though there is a group there that might offer a "knee-jerk" objection to the proposal, without even knowing what a service with an instrument would "look" and feel like. Proposing options for those who prefer not to participate in something of this ilk might be a good solution ... and who knows, you might find that more people wind up attending the instrumental services than those without such accompaniment!

We sometimes have two Shabbat services running concurrently at our synagogue: One in our large sanctuary that is more traditional in flavor (albeit with our cantor's guitar accompaniment) and something of a less-traditional ilk in our smaller chapel ... for example, a "blue jeans" service, which is a service with a more casual but no less spiritual atmosphere, typically beautifully-led by senior-high-aged temple youth group members and one of our rabbis. That way, congregants can select the "style" of service that is more comfortable to them.

At our monthly "Syneplex" services (I believe that "Syneplex" programs may be something that many Reform congregations offer for Shabbat once a month - they usually start out with a congregational dinner and offer a variety of "alternative worship" options ), we have options for things like a yoga/meditative service, for example, that allow the participants to choose that means of worship if that is what is meaningful to *them*. (Syneplex programs may also include post-service alternatives such as a disussion of a relevant book or film, a related craft, etc.) Again, these worship options are offered in conjunction to our more traditional sanctuary services.

(Post continued below)

50 is the new 30 said...

(Continued from above)

Obviously, I'm at the other end of the "acceptability" spectrum from Rivka; I don't consider our services, or our approach to worship, to be either "apologist" or "watered-down". (With all due respect, I find those labels demeaning of my beliefs and how I choose to observe.) I have had MANY moments during these services when I have felt incredibly connected to G-d *and* to my fellow-congregants ... more so than I've felt at other places. And I definitely think that the music has strengthened that feeling of connection and inspiration for me.

When I was growing up, I remember the older members of my (also Reform) congregation going into an absolute tizzy over the "guitar services" that our temple introduced in the late '60s. I think that was more because of the "hippy" connotation of such services back then than anything else (I distinctly remember singing "Peace Train" and "Teach Your Children" at my 1976 Confirmation service, LOL) but I will tell you that it drew the younger members in and involved us like nothing before it had.

@Rivka asks "If the only way to bring people closer to Torah is to water it down, then what value does that have?" Ignoring the term "watered-down" for a moment ... I think that the act of bringing people closer to the Torah - whatever the catalyst is for achieving and sustaining that closeness - is a very positive thing. In my opinion, it is positive for the individuals who are feeling a new closeness to G-d, and it is positive for the Jewish people as a whole to encourage a strong bond to worship and to our fellow-Jews.

At my son's (URJ-run) overnight camp, they have Shabbat services at a "chapel" that's been cleared in the midst of a cadre of trees at the top of a hill. It's a gorgeous setting. The campers worship in their "Shabbat" clothes (typically, white t-shirts or polo shirts/khaki shorts). And, yes, their prayers are accompanied by a guitar or two. And I will tell you that my son and his friends RAVE about the experience. They LOVE these services, and from everything I've seen and heard they are engaged and moved by them as well. For my son, who will be 14 YO this summer, to be so enthralled by services that he still talks about the ones he attended at camp last summer, to be "jones-ing" to go back to camp, to be engaged enough that he's running for a board position in our synagogue's youth group next year ... well, to me, that says that something is being done right, even if it's not necessarily being done as "halachically" as some would prefer.

As Adena says in her post, many of us are not Shomer Shabbat. Many of us do not keep kosher homes. There are aspects of those practices that to me, feel meaningless, and hypocritical, and empty. I know that there are those for whom choosing to observe in that fashion is very meaningful and important - and I respect that. But I ask for the same respect in return, even if someone doesn't agree with how I choose to observe my religion.

We (my family and my fellow-congregants) do not consider ourselves to be an "inferior breed" of Jews, and labeling our approach to Judaism as "unattractive" (or "Judaism-lite", or any of the other denegrating terms I've come across) - while it's obviously the right of anyone to do so - is *divisive*. And that divisiveness is part of what I perceive to be a huge problem that persists within Judaism today.

(continued below)

50 is the new 30 said...

(continued from above)

My spirituality and my relationship with G-d are very important to me, and it's important to me that my son also develop a love for our religion that surpasses rote, obligatory participation. If the engagement of my son and his peers - or the engagement of other Jews in my communmity, for that matter - can be enhanced by someone playing guitar during Shabbat services, or by being permitted to wear jeans and more casual clothes to services once a month ... then in my mind, it's all good.

(Sorry for the crazy-long, rambling post Adena - pls feel free to delete if you wish. Obviously, your post resonated with me!)

RivkA with a capital A said...

50 is the new 30 -- First off, let me apologize for having phrased things in a way that offended you. It was certainly NOT my intent to demean other forms of worship. Though I believe that observant Judaism is how God wants Jews to live, I also believe in Jewish unity, and that we all have to accept each other, no matter what we believe or how we practice. That belief, in the primacy of unity, is reflected in my circle of friends as well as in my activities and the organizations in which I am an active participant. I practice what I preach, and I preach the importance of unity, tolerance, and acceptance.

Adena -- my approach is not so simplistic. I understand the question, and my answer is more involved. I did not grow up "Orthodox." I did not solidify my religious outlook until my mid-20's, though it has been fairly stable since then. My choices were based primarily on what I observed in the communities around me.

I have noticed, over the past thirty five years, that even the Reform movement has increased its emphasis on obeservance (I am referring to the Reform Movement, not necessarily individual congregations). This change in approach primarily has to do with continuity. (I taught in a staunchly Reform synagogue for several years.)

The "problem" with everyone doing what is "right for them" is that it is difficult to pass on something so amorphous to our children. Many kids do not feel connected to Judaism and they just stop being Jews. On the other hand, observant Judaism is flourishing and kids are even more knowledgable and committed than their parents.

I am not saying, God forbid, that *your* kids will leave Judaism. I am referring to TRENDS and statistics. There are always exceptions to the rule. I, myself am an exception. Most of the Jewish kids I grew up with are completely assimilated

I grew up in New Jersey, where people were staunchly Orthodox, Conservative or Reform and there was a lot of division. Most of my Conservative and Reform Jewish friends from high school no longer affiliate as Jews AT ALL (even though ALL of their parents were VERY involved Jewishly). Most of the Orthodox kids I knew (from the neighborhood) are still Orthodox, and their kids are as well.

National statistics confirm these trends.

A few years ago, I visited my family in Phoenix, Arizona and noticed a shocking phenomena. MANY non-observant Jews chose to pray in Orthodox congregations, even when there were a plethora of non-Orthodox congregations from which to choose.

I do not like labels and refused to label myself, because lables divide. And I believe it is important to examine issues BOTH on a global level AND on an individual level.

There have been times when I recommended to friends/acquaintaces, who felt disenfrachised by the Orthodox establishment, that they try out alternative synagogues (Ortho-Egal, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist,etc).

We all have to find the path that is right for us. But it is also important to examine the global picture. The big question for me is: what am I doing to make sure my grandchildren be Jewish?

Not everyone cares about that far in the future. But, for me, that is the real test about whether or not a particular approach to Judaism is viable.

Kibbitz said...


I think the main issue is whether adding instruments will attract the spiritual seekers to the rest of the Jewish Message. Will having more people attend a service translate into them getting more active in the adult education programs?

The Conservative movement seems to be spiritually lacking.
For many years, I felt that instruments at a service an awful idea. I had experienced wonderful, melodic services at Hebrew University when I was 20. I always hoped to see that again, in the US. It does happen on occasion but in general the services I attend are more social than spiritual.

We do have a wonderful Friday night service once a month that has attracted a good following. We moved the service out of the main sanctuary and into a more intimate space. One of our Rabbis recorded a CD with the service that included a variety of selections for most of Kabbalat Shabbat service. Now in it's eigth year, all those who attend now know tunes and the feeling is one of being in unison.
But I think that music has its place. I attended a Mens Club convention that included a complete Sephardic band and a vocalist who accompanied the guest Cantor. The tunes were introduced as nigguns and they were easy to follow. 600+ attendees were singing and dancing. It was so awe inspiring that I had goosebumps.

But all the participants were people who are already involved. These services were within four days of learning and inspiration.

So, I guess what I am suggesting is taking a wide view. If you introduce music and begin attracting a crowd, your Rabbi, sisterhood, brotherhood and adult education need to have a full docket of interesting programs that tap into the buzz.

An aside to RivkA. True Conservative Judiasm is an egalatarian form of Orthodoxy. Once an individual recognizes that everyone has a say in all the ritual, it is very hard to accept the segregation that still exists in the Orthodox movement. And the fact is, the Modern Orthodox movement of my youth is disappearing. It is being replaced by a more ridgid movement that seems more insular (at least in the Galut, non-New York world).

adena said...

this is a wonderful conversation! thanks to everyone for participating!

RivkA with a capital A said...

Kibbitz -- I know all about the Conservative movement. I was on NATIV (The Conservative Movement's flagship "Gap Year" program). During the year, we were required to take a full course about the Conservative movement. My family attended a Conservative shul, in which half the regulars were professors at JTS. I went to college at Barnard, right next door to JTS; many of my college friends were on Joint Program or in the Rabbinic Studies Program. And, as if that were not enough, I was also a counselor for various Ramah programs in Israel.

Let's be honest,there are less than a handful of shuls that adhere to strict Conservative philosophy. The amount of Jews who identify with the Conservative movement and who are observant is also a miniscule percentage (and I probably know half of them personally)

And with the departure of Rabbi Professor Weiss Halivni, the last remaining strict Halachic authority at JTS, comparison to the Orthodox movement is simply misleading.

Regarding what is happening in the mod. Orth world, I see two trends. One is a move to the right, such as you described, but the other is a move to the left. There are more institutions for higher Torah learning for WOMEN than ever before, women are far more knowlegable and able to participate in halachic and philosophical discourse, women serve as poskot in areas of Family Purity and toanot (legal advocates) in Religious Course, there are women's tefillah groups all over the world (thirty years ago, there was ONE in NY).

I have been involved in Jewish Identity education for almost 30 years.

One last point: there is not a single seriously halachic Conservative Rabbi who would tell you that it is OK to play a musical instrument in shul, on Shabbat.

And there is NO Orthodox Rabbi would would allow a woman to pray as equals. Even in Shirah Hadasha (and similar minyanim), the women only do P'sukei D'Zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat, etc. They do NOT lead the congretation for Shacharit, Mincha, Musaf or Ma'ariv.

Please do not assume that just because I have a more conservative (note the small "c") approach that I am ignorant (or intollerant) about other movements.

If there was a strong, viable, serious halachic community within the Conservative movement, there is a good chance that I would have ended up in that community. But, besides a few very special islands of committed Conservative Jews, the majority of those who identify as Conservative Jews do not adhere to any of the traditional Conservative ideologies. Moreover, most of the children of these marginally Conservative Jews have married out. A few stay affiliated with movement. A few affiliate wtih other alternative streams, and not an insignificant number end up affiliating with some sort of orthodox movement (mod. orth, chabbad, hassidic, etc).

I am not telling anyone what to do or how to live/worship. But it is important to examine the past 100years with a critical eye, and honestly evaluate the factors that contribute both to assimilation and to continuity.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Adena -- you certainly wrote a thought provoking post!!

QueenTimely said...

Adena, let me start by saying this: I absolutely love your honesty and openness. Just having these queries and being willing to share them openly, is such an incredible quality and service. Thanks.

Although this doesn't really address the question, I'll just say that I've wondered the same things for many years. It's different for me now, living as I normally do in Western Australia where the choices of Jewish expression are much more limited -- mostly different versions of Orthodox.

But the truth is I've never been as open and fluid as you seem to be with your questions -- often afraid of showing that I'm not really a "real" Jew, how little I know, how little I do, etc. Especially being married to a non-Jew. And now, even "worse," being a JewBu.

It's true that Chabad seems to grow, and I'm grateful for them because they are sustainers of people who are remote from Jewish communities like I am now in rural Northern Italy, or who are tired of being judged or having to pay excessively to attend Yontif services.

But I'm also incredibly grateful for Aleph and all impulses toward Jewish renewal (little r is intentional). Because as much as very observant tendencies are growing, there are still so many Jews who feel the need to pretend they are, or do, other than what is true. There are families for whom being shomer shabbos heightens their connection with each other and with HaShem. However I have seen so many others who use their observance to distance themselves from other Jews, nevermind non-Jews, who keep kompetitive kashrut, and seem, to me, to have lost the meaning of halachah -- the walking, the way, the path. Thanks for your posting and for inspiring us to post back.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Queen Timely -- What is JewBu?

I never heard of kompetitive kashrut. I am pretty sure I get what you mean, but not 100% sure. Can you elaborate?

I can't believe that I never thought of the meaning of halachah like that. Halacha = Tao = the way, the path.

Thanks for the insight!