Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How Fancy is your Shul?

I am personally always struck by how unassuming a Jewish place of prayers often is.  I travel often and yet my normal adventures to synagogues rarely leave an impression influenced by the physical structure, but rather the quality and spirit of the quorum.  Recently I was a brand new shul and was humbled by the colors, natural light and decor of the sanctuary. Another famous example is the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem - a must see for its beauty, splendor, and controversy.

Interestingly I came across a fascinating passage in Hillel Halkin's Yehuda HaLevi, a 2010 Nextbook publication exploring the biography and poetry of a midieval classic. In the middle of Halevi's journey in Spain he encounters a church that has been transformed into a mosque and back - Halkin writes:
Two conflicting theologies i stone, one overlying the other without erasing it. All over Andalusia are churches that once were mosques, the airy lightness of whose minarets now support the weight of Christian Bells.   
And Judaism? A room in Cordoba, a doorway in Seville. Yes, a doorway: the sole known Jewish feature left in that city is the former entrance to a synagogue that is now part of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca.  
Standing in the Mezquita Cathedral, a Jew feels envy.  How much they did for the glory of God, and how little we! 
Of course, we never had the opportunity.  Grand mosques were not built in Christian Spain, nor grand churches in Muslim Spain, nor grand synagogues in either. And yet even when Jews have erected such structures where they could, as in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and America, their hearts have not been in them. It is striking thing in Judaism, a religion that codified everything expected of its practitioners in exhaustive detail, that it has almost no rules regarding a synagogue's appearance  Whereas mosques and churches have their architectural traditions, there are none for what the outside of a Jewish house of worship should look liked.  This remains true even in Israel, where, unless there is a menorah or Star of David on its roof, a synagogue cannot be distinguished from any other public building and need not be a building at all, since a plain room, large or small, will do as well.  
And so another thought, ironic and dissident, came to me in the Mezquita Cathedral. For whom, it asked, did you intend all this pomp, you who built and decorated this place? Did you think God was so easily impressed? "Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee," Solomon said in dedicating his Temple.  "How much less this house that I have builded!" True, he went ahead and built it anyway, but this was a folly Jews committed only twice. Christians and Muslims have never stopped repeating it.  
Halkin makes his point dramatically and ends with a beautiful poem by Halevi tied into this message about the sanctity of space (I will keep this as teaser for reading the book).  I also hear in his writing Heschel's hallmark point about the Sabbath as an "island in time" and the predominance of Jewish time over space - an important theme for conceptualizing tefilla in a modern mindset. One digestible take-away from this passage is that the history of a place of prayer reminds us that the eternal nature of prayer must be focused on the strength of the daveners and not the physical structure alone. What's your take-away?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Nusach and a Philosophy of Prayer

I'd like to share a fascinating blog titled Nusach Freak - which shares perspectives and experiences on davening.

The following post is from December 2008 and shares what I think is a profound statement about the underlying motivation to public prayer.  My personal notions regarding nusach have evolved and I think that all educators must consider what they are teaching towards when it comes to tefilla.

So two weeks ago I ended up in Venice, Italy for Shabbat (long story and largely irrelevant to the Nusach blog). Naturally, I avoided davening with the Chabadnikim given the chance to daven with the Italians. The Italian minyan actually followed a hybrid nusach of 90% Spanish & Portuguese and 10% Minhag Roma...and it was gorgeous.

Now here's what I don't get. Go into any random Ashkenazi modern Orthodox shul where there is no chazzan and you will get baal habatim doing the davening/leining. Invariably, one of the following things happens:

1. The chazzan will not only be unable to carry a tune but will have no idea of what he's reading evidenced by the rediculously bad phrasing and dikduk.

2. The nusach will be butchered or at a minimum, the chazzan will lose the nusach for a few worlds here or there (for instance, when switching to shabbat nusach at the end of kedusha of mincha)

3. The baal koreh will get most of the pasha right but a few taamim will be missed and the occasional mistake will be made resulting in the entire shul screaming out the correct pronunciation  It's one reason why many people go to shul...(Hey Yanki, want to go to shul with Tatty to play heckle and correct the baal koreh?)

In contrast, between Kabbalat Shabbat, Arvit, Zemirot (Pesukei d'Zimra), Shacharit, Kriat Hatorah, Musaf and Mincha not a single mistake was made. There is no formal chazzan in the shul ---Friday night an Israeli (temani) transplant to Venice was the Shat"z and there was literally not a note different than what is done on a Friday night at Shearith Israel in New York. More surprisingly, Shacharit was led by a kid who looked no older than 22 or 23, did not exactly look yeshivesh (more Italian, fresh out of an espresso bar in Milano look), a typical Venetian local yokal, and his chazzaning was perfect --- everything was said out loud and his dikduk, nusach and transitions between the nusachy and singy bits were 100% perfect.

This is not the first time I have been overwhelmed by how important attention to detail is in sephardi batei knesset. Why is it that Ashkenazi tephilot don't come out the same way? Is it somethig in how the kids are educated?

This past shabbat, back in Israel, the shatz in my local shul used Carlebach. Being tired after a long (boring) work week and an even longer Friday getting ready for Shabbat, I had little patience for awkward Kabbalat Shabbat dancing (c'mon, you know what I'm talkign about) and 25 minutes of ny ny ny ny ny....Luckily, my 2-year old, who had spent all of Kabbalat Shabbat next to me happily munching on a candy had had enough and after Lechad Dodi insisted we go home. I was happy to oblige. On the way home it dawned on me why Sephardi (and paticularly Western Sephardi) and Yekke batei knesset have such a different character than the run of the mill Ashkenazi batei knesset and especially those that allow nusach Carlebach now and again:

It's all about philosophy of prayer --- and how we view our tephillot (avodah shebalev) as a replacement for the avodah in the mikdash.

If we are focused on creating a tekes or formal ceremony to take the place of a very formalized (and I imagine a largely unemotional avoda that was conducted in the mikdash) we will try to develop a tephilla that is focused on perfection --- nothing can be off. Everything like the ancient avoda istelf must be done in a formalized manner with pomp and circumstance (l'chavod u'litipharet?) . Of course, as part of this formalized process, we need to speak out to God.

The idea of ny ny nying and dancing in shul seems very out of place according to this philosophy.

On the other hand if we are to focus on reaching out to God via a spiritual experience (focusing on the shebalev part of avodah shebalev) than we don't have to worry about little mistakes in our nusach or for that matter, our didkduk --- the important thing is too get the vibe going....Clearly, chassidut has a strong influence on the latter school of thought.

There is no right or wrong here...just different approaches. Personally, I grew up in that more formal environment and therefore, I find the ny ny nying and dancing in shul thing very foreign and even more so because it is often accompanied by poor nusach/dikduk. However, I do love beautiful singing (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi) ...and I am quick to get a spiritual high from nicely sung davening (with multi part harmony of course) and this helps me to focus my tephillot to the Almighty.

Enough shtuyot...back to work.
Shabbat Shalom

Nusach Man

Prayer and Boston

This is an interesting perspective from The Atlantic on the human reaction to the tragic events in Boston.  I wouldn't exactly call tefilla in this situation a meme - I rather think this is a very post-modern/borderline cynical commentary of tweets and posts on facebook - but there is something here about the pattern of human reactions in times of crisis.  One could apply the aphorism about there being "no atheists in a foxhole" to communal thinking in wake of a tragedy; I personally believe that the miracles do not make believers out of people (and have a biblical argument to support this theory) and rather think that the desire to pray reflects a deep emotional want of people, and the context brings this out.

Why People Prayed for Boston on Twitter and Facebook, and Then Stopped
Social networks reveal some long-standing human patterns.

After the news broke Monday afternoon that two bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, prayer flooded my social media feeds. "Thoughts and prayers for folks in Boston," a former colleague posted on Facebook. "Pray for Boston," another friend wrote, echoing a popular Facebook page, Twitter hashtag, and image meme.

It was jarring. There was the weirdness of seeing so many references to the divine in spaces normally reserved for vacation photos and article links and quips about the news. It was tempting to think that all the social-media-fueled "prayers for Boston" somehow degraded the idea of prayer. As one Facebook commenter wrote on the Pray for Boston page: "Do you want me to DEFINE prayer? A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. Prayer is solemn. Not a 'like' on facebook."

It was also strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren't especially observant. Maybe they go to church or synagogue on holidays, but not regularly—and they certainly don't post about prayer under normal circumstances.

Odd as the deluge of prayer-related status updates seemed to me, many of them were just high-tech versions of an ancient phenomenon: faithful people reminding other faithful to pray. The Bible is obsessed with prayer. From Genesis to Revelation, variations on the word appear more than 300 times. The Hebrew scriptures describe people praying for strength, for babies, for deliverance from slavery, for food. In the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers how to pray (using the simple, straightforward words of the so-called Lord's Prayer) and how not to pray ("you must not be like the hypocrites"). In Paul's letters, we see the closest analogues to this week's "pray for Boston" tweets: constant reminders to pray. "Pray without ceasing," he tells the Thessalonians. "Be constant in prayer," he writes to the Romans. To the Ephesians he says, "Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests."

Churches have carried on this tradition of encouraging each other to pray, through prayer letters and prayer phone chains and prayer breakfasts and prayer groups. With that context in mind, Facebook shouldn't cheapen prayer any more than the Postal Service or the telephone does.

"Social media platforms are merely a means of communication," Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an active Twitter user, told me. "Asking for prayer via Twitter or Facebook is no different than calling someone and saying, 'We should really pray for this.'

"Social media can be used for harmful purposes, obviously. I'd be concerned about rumors spreading quickly over social media. But social media can be a tremendous force for good in alerting people to things they can be praying about right away."

But what I saw on Twitter and Facebook in the hours after the Boston bombings and the Texas explosion wasn't just faithful people reminding other faithful people to drop everything and pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer in a way that they wouldn't under normal circumstances.

At first, this kind of prayer also appears to be nothing new. It seems to confirm the old, disproven "there are no atheists in foxholes" myth—that when confronted with death and destruction, even a hardened skeptic is moved to seek God.

"As a Christian, I would see it as an evidence of a natural human understanding of dependence," Moore said. "People who live their lives with an illusion of independence and self-sufficiency, when a crisis happens, are often driven to prayer, or at least to call upon people to pray...I think that's a natural reaction."

It is a natural reaction for some. I grew up in Manhattan, and September 11th, 2001 was the second day of my senior year of high school. Though I didn't believe in God at the time, I found myself saying, "God bless you" to my friends as we parted ways that day, and in the days that followed. That faint, involuntary urge to call on God's name soon grew into a desire to read His word and then a hunger for friendships with people who believed in Him. Two years later, I said out loud what I knew in my heart was true: "I am a Christian."
But I'm not sure that's really what's going on here. I don't think the outpouring of post-Boston social-media prayer was fueled by a bunch of people who, in the face of tragedy, are suddenly eager to seek God. As Elizabeth Drescher writes in a well-done piece at Religion Dispatches, it didn't take long for the "pray for Boston" meme to die; it was soon replaced by other, more practical sentiments. I noticed that, too. Here it is in graph form—check out how quickly the phrase "pray for Boston" surged on Twitter on Monday, and then how quickly it fell:

My friends who wrote of praying on Monday night soon began thinking about Boston, or standing with Boston, or loving Boston. It's interesting to see what words besides prayer have emerged as the way to respond to and process the terrible things that happened, and continued to happen, in the city.
Drescher believes #PrayforBoston rose and fell so quickly because the prayers were never really about religion in the first place. They were more reflections of temporary anxiety and sadness than a lasting call to pursue belief:

Obviously, we can reasonably conclude, prayer memes shared in times of crisis do something besides expressing traditional religiosity, calling us to God, to regular spiritual practice, or to worship. Rather, in an increasingly secularized America...praying or calling for prayer in times of tragedy seems to mark a kind of existential angst, sorrow, or confusion for which other words or gestures seem inadequate.

Though Twitter and Facebook make it easier to witness those fleeting moments of prayerfulness, they're not all that new, either. A 2002 Gallup report on religious belief in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and September 11th concluded, "Public perceptions of religion's importance in society tend to spike following crises, but those perceptions are often short-lived, and don't frequently translate into behavioral changes." As an example, the report says that religious observance increased the week after September 11th, but by December it was back to normal levels. The same pattern played out this week, only much faster.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Picture of Prayer - Worth a Thousand Words

There is a wonderful new sidur out called Nehalel, published Nevarech and Urim Publishers, devised by Michael Haruni.  Many readers have probably used the Nevarech bentcher, which I think was really a groundbreaking change to the conceptualized forms of bentching. This new sidur brings that approach to Shabbat davening.

The introduction by Zvi Grumet is an outstanding essay on the conceptual journey of Jewish prayer and desire for visual images.  Grumet dubs this siddur a "visual midrash on the liturgy" to provide a "new avenue for helping us access our inner selves".  While I don't imagine using this siddur every week, it is a great trigger for teachers and parents on how to use the liturgy for everyday prayers and increase kavannah.

The siddur is a perhaps the most under appreciated books on the Jewish bookshelf and I believe Michael Haruni's siddur is a bold step to refresh our relationship to the text inside.  His "cautionary" introduction addressing his motivation for creating this siddur offering educators a fascinating and honest confrontation with the limits of photographs and images to conceptualize prayer.  It is a must read and a great springboard for students to begin to see their own prayer as less fixed and rote.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Prayer for Fallen IDF Soldiers and Vitcims of Terror

In Israel, we have begun to mark Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance Day for Fallen IDF Soldiers and Victims of Terror.  The following is the IDF's Chief Cantor singing the El Maeli Rachmim prayer in 2011:

I am generally not a 'fan' of chazanut - mostly because I was Hebraicly illiterate as a child and didn't like my shul's tunes.  Also, it was very showy, in the sense of the chazan sang (read performed) and the rest of us watched.  This tefilla give me the chills each year, mainly because of the gravity of the day and shadow of national loss - but I also think I truly understand and identify with the words.  May there memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why (some) Woman Don't Go to Shul

The following is a blog post from the Times of Israel from Hadassah Levy and I really thought it was good fodder for davening discussions.  One comment (from a female) that responded to this article was the following:
I admit that 'going to shul' for me always meant dressing up and going to see people. This was certainly more appealing when shul ended at 11:30 instead of 10am. But frankly, it's not just shul that is boring... it's davening. And I think it is definitely a personality thing.
I think Levy raises some good points about the difficulty balance it is for moderns to find a communal role as well as religious balance, but I think the greater dissatisfaction with davening is symptomatic of a greater problem plaguing Jewish life today.

There has recently been a spate of articles online about the experiences of women in synagogues. Rivkah Lambert Adler wrote about her frustration at the inferior seating available to women in shul. The women’s section is generally much smaller than the men’s, the chairs are sometimes less comfortable and the position of the women’s section is not always conducive to hearing and seeing. After Pesach, Hadassah Sabo Milner wrote about the uplifting experience of carrying the Torah through the women’s section. She mentions her negative feelings for her local shul, where you can only see from the front row and her preference for curling up with a good book instead.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter blogged about the deplorable state of some shuls’ women’s sections. He pointed out that shul-going for women is more common outside Israel, where the synagogue is a community center as well as a place for prayer. And that more attention is given to the architecture of the women’s section in American shuls, since the women are more involved.

All of these discussions have made me wonder whether women who don’t go to shul are simply uninterested in communal prayer or whether circumstances are keeping them away. As a shul-goer myself, I wasn’t sure why many women tend to avoid shul, so I asked my social media connections their reasons for not going. The main reasons cited were:
  • My children can’t sit and there is no place for them to play – While some shuls (primarily outside of Israel) offer activities for children during davening, these activities don’t usually occupy the smallest children. In Israeli shuls it is common to find kids playing in a nearby park while their parents daven, but this is a solution which works only for older children who can play unsupervised.
  • It ends too early – This is a complaint in Israeli shuls, which generally start at 8 AM or 8:30 and finish around 10 AM. Since Israelis have no other day to sleep late in the morning, many moms find that by the time they have had a little lie-in and are ready to go out, the congregation is already filing out and getting ready to go home.
  • The women’s section is too loud and distracting for proper prayer – Between the women talking to each other and the young children making noise, it is hard to concentrate on davening in shul. Davening at home offers a distraction-free environment for serious prayer.
  • Tradition – Many women have been brought up to consider davening at shul a men’s activity. Their mothers and grandmothers did not go to shul, so they don’t feel the need to either. After all, the halachic obligation to pray in a minyan applies only to men.
  • It’s too long/boring – Not everyone succeeds in connecting to God through structured communal prayer.

Although many people still feel that shul is relevant for men only, the trend in Orthodoxy is for women to be more active in communal life, and shul is at the center of it. Women today are not necessarily concerned only with their obligations. Many mitzvot from which women are exempt are being widely observed: Sefirat HaOmer, Sukkah and Torah study are some examples. Additionally, a basic Jewish education should make it possible for a woman to walk into shul at any time and know what the congregation is up to. If women don’t take their daughters to shul with them, how is this to be accomplished?

My unscientific study of the reasons women choose not to attend shul shows that if certain changes were made, many more women would come. Childcare, a later davening time and a more comfortable women’s section would certainly go a long way toward bringing more women to shul. Efforts to make davening more interesting (with more singing, perhaps?) would be appreciated by both men and women. Although sweeping changes are always slow to come (especially in the Orthodox world), individual communities can surely make their shuls more welcoming to women.

The Beis Yaakov schools were established to prevent a situation in which women become educated in secular studies, yet remain ignorant in Torah. Similarly, our shuls should not be empty of women, when our courthouses, offices, teachers’ rooms and batei midrash are full of them.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Yom HaShoah Prayer

The following is the Chief Rabbi's Yom HaShoah Prayer, which starts Sunday night (although it is technically today but pushed off one day by the Israeli Parliament to prevent Sabbath violation in setting up official ceremonies.  It is important to also note that this date was chosen as it is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943; you can watch the official government ceremony at Yad Vashem at 8PM Israel time. 

On Yom HaShoah, we remember the victims of the greatest crime of man against man – the young, the old, the innocent, the million and a half children, starved, shot, given lethal injections, gassed, burned and turned to ash, because they were deemed guilty of the crime of being different. We remember what happens when hate takes hold of the human heart and turns it to stone; what happens when victims cry for help and there is no one listening; what happens when humanity fails to recognize that those who are not in our image are none the less in God’s image. We remember and pay tribute to the survivors, who bore witness to what happened, and to the victims, so that robbed of their lives, they would not be robbed also of their deaths. We remember and give thanks for the righteous of the nations who saved lives, often at risk of their own, teaching us how in the darkest night we can light a candle of hope. Today, on Yom HaShoah, we call on You, Almighty God, to help us hear Your voice that says in every generation: Do not murder. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor  Do not oppress the stranger. We know that whilst we do not have the ability to change the past, we can change the future. We know that whilst we cannot bring the dead back to life, we can ensure their memories live on and that their deaths were not in vain. And so, on Yom HaShoah, we commit ourselves to one simple act: Yizkor, Remember. May the souls of the victims be bound in the bond of everlasting life. Amen.