If I Could Turn Back Time

The eternal question: “What time will services be over?”

I suppose this question would not be so bothersome if the reason it was asked related to some important duty that needed to be performed after the service. At the end of Yom Kippur, when everyone is hungry, I can understand why people want to get out as soon as possible. These are the rare cases. The real question behind the question “What time will services be over?” is “How fast can I get out of here?” Non fundamentalist Jews seem to want to be anywhere but in a synagogue praying. If they have to be at the service, they will often come late to minimize the time they have to spend in prayer.

Ritual Committees and Boards of Directors have issued ultimatums to their clergy staff to have services end “on time”. Letters get written and apologies made when services run “late”. It is not just a Jewish problem either. One Christian minister, I am told, tells his congregation that the service will be over “When they have nothing more to talk to God about.”

I agree with Educator Joel Grishaver, that the real issue that underlies our question is never about time, it is about engagement. Grishaver talks about the other big issue in Judaism, the amount of time we require our children to be in “Hebrew” School. There is a common thread in both issues. As long as people don’t see religious education and prayer as important, they will find all kinds of ways to spend less and less time in both.

This puts the issue squarely in the hands of Rabbis and Cantors. I have way too many colleagues who complain that their own services are deadly boring. My good friend, Rabbi Jack Moline has chided them that if the services are boring then they have no one to blame but themselves. They set the tone of the service and it rests, almost exclusively in the hands of the Rabbis who put the service together.

But before you go out with this message to your own Rabbi and Cantor, remember that they almost always try to give a congregation what they want. Most of the Jews in the pews tell their clergy that they want the service to change as long as the change does not affect their own “favorite” part. Rabbis and Cantors regularly receive advice on how to change the service for the better that is contradictory and often at odds with what a Jewish prayer service is all about. Every generation tries to craft a service that they like, with words and melodies that call up warm memories and then fight tooth and nail to keep it that way forever, to the chagrin of those who came before and have different melodies and to those who will follow them who want to change these melodies.

That being said, there still is much that can be done to improve how we pray in synagogue.

First of all, we need to be true to the meaning of prayer. We neglect teaching about God and the meaning of prayer at our own peril. Many of our members have no idea who they are praying to and are not challenged to think their theology through. Our members are not “greenhorns” anymore. They are college educated and have the resources of the internet and more at their disposal. We should not be afraid to challenge them to spell out what they mean when they say words like “God”, “Prayer”, “Revelation”, “Redemption”, “Repentance” and “Torah”. Dr. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America would also have us add “Mitzvah” and “obligation”. Rabbi Sharon Brous, on the website of her congregation, has every board member’s name listed with some of the reasons they are active in the congregation. When our members have an understanding about why faith, God and Torah are important, they will have a better understanding of why they are in synagogue in the first place.

Next we will have to remember that prayer is a very personal and individual process. That is why it is becoming less likely that any one service can fill all the needs of every one of our members. The days of “one service fits all” is coming to a rapid close. We need to fall back to an earlier format where different groups of people had their own service that they did in their own way, at their own time and with their own melodies. We need to get away from the big box service and open instead small, intimate prayer groups that perhaps only come together as a community for a communal meal or collation after all services are finished.

I like to listen to a good singer as much as anyone else and I know many Cantors who are beautiful singers and accomplished musicians. But there are too many concerts on television, on cable, on line and in the concert halls for people who want to pray to sit through another. Many congregations are opting to go without a Cantor so that the congregation will have to pick up the slack and lead the service. I would hope that a modern Cantor would understand that the real job today is to teach congregants the melodies and nusach of our liturgy and enable them to lead and participate in the service. We need Cantors who can write the music that will change the way our congregations will experience prayer using all the tools that this kind of composing can bring to bear. We need relevant prayers, to be sure, but we also need relevant music. I have already written that there are composers who are not Cantors who have changed the way our congregations sing. If Cantors want to make a difference, they need to use the skills they have to go beyond these non-cantorial composers and create a new golden age of liturgical music for our congregations.

Many have written about how we need to get away from our services as a “show” with a Rabbi and Cantor in the front and everyone seated theater style in the room. We need to have more movable chairs so that our members can see each other when they pray and sing and the Rabbi and Cantor must move among them, not stand in the front. At least they should face the same way as the members to be a part of the congregation not separate from them. High bimahs that have clergy “standing over” the congregation must be torn down and the wall between the bimah and the seats must be removed.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over using musical instruments at Shabbat Services (There is no reason not to use them at daily minyan but I don’t see people demanding that change.) For the most part this is a false issue. Musical instruments in a place that has not had them will be, at best, a curiosity for a while and then things will return to what they were before. It is not the instruments that make the difference, it is the music itself. The right music, with or without instruments, will draw people in. There are just as many exciting congregations who only clap their hands on Shabbat as there are those with guitar, drums and keyboard.

Cutting and changing the liturgy is also a critical issue. The first part of this issue is the language problem of Hebrew text. When someone says they don’t understand the words they are praying, they don’t mean that they can’t translate the Hebrew, because that translation is often right on the opposite page! What is not understood is the reason that this prayer belongs in this place. We all sing songs when we don’t really know the words, because the music inspires us (Kol Nidre, for example is all about music, for the words are about as unspiritual as you can get.) Jews will sing in Hebrew if they have an understanding about the importance of this one prayer. We have a hard time trying to teach why we need a long string of psalms at the beginning of the service, why we repeat so many prayers so many times and how to use the liturgy as a springboard to touch the pain and gratitude that is in our hearts. Most of the time, all we teach our congregation is that everyone needs to be on the same page at the same time. We need to teach that it is OK to spend some time on a page that speaks to us, and let the rest of the congregation move ahead and we can catch up later.

We should challenge ourselves and our members to write personal prayers and share them with the congregation. We need to make a place for this in the service. I was in a congregation where the Bar/Bat Mitzvah stood before the ark as the Torah was put away and offered a personal prayer. Every week a Jewish adult should be asked to do this for the congregation. It is an exercise that will change the life of the one offering the prayer and change the lives of all those who listen to it. We live in a technological age where we should be able to add new words and translations to our prayer books regularly, and not feel tied by the bound texts we currently use. We print up announcements for the congregation, why not print up special prayers to be inserted in the service each week or a selection for the month.

Rabbi Brous has taught that our services should reflect the lives of our congregation. The Shabbat service before a natural disaster should not be the same as the one that comes after it. She is correct. We need to find ways to tailor the service to the mood of the congregation and the mood of the country. Our members do come to synagogue when they are celebrating and when they are sad. They come when they are happy and when they are insecure with themselves and with the world. They come to pray for loved ones who are sick and to find meaning in the face of death. There should be something in our service to speak to these needs.

I recently attended a theater production on a Showboat on the Mississippi River. The actors came out at the beginning of the performance and insisted that the audience participate in the show. We were to boo the villains, cheer the heroes and express our happiness or dismay with what the characters were saying. I have been to Baptist churches where this is so common that when I spoke, they verbally encouraged me on and were right in there with me as I shared my message. Rabbi Eugene and Annette Labowitz say that we should swap our sermons for a story that has a message for the congregation. Others go out into the congregation and engage them in learning, to struggle together with a difficult text. Storahtelling, the group in NY that makes the Torah Service come alive believes that a good song in the right place can help bring the message home. We need to do more to put the focus on the lesson and not on the Rabbi.

Dr.Ron Wolfson, has written a book on how to make our synagogues more welcoming. (This is a topic all of its own!) His method is to visit any religious institution that gets a huge crowd at services and then he ask them how they do it. There are many models out there of successful liturgy and engaging services. We would do well to visit them, understand them and then adapt their ideas into our own communities. Let me also add here that there are other, non liturgical issues with our service. We functionally exclude from the congregation young families if we don’t offer babysitting. We exclude the elderly if we don’t have large print books and hearing assistance. We exclude the disabled when our buildings and our bimah are not accessible. We exclude the intermarried when we don’t address their needs in the service. We exclude Jews with little Jewish education when we don’t have pamphlets with transliterations and explanations of what the service is all about.

The movie trilogy, “Lord of the Rings” consisted of three very long movies. I never heard a complaint that any of the movies were too long. Time problems are problems of engagement in the service. If we make the service come alive, they will come and they will stay. Let us encourage our Rabbis and Cantors to use all of their creative talents and we will soon reap the blessings of a fully engaged community.

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