Monday, June 17, 2013

Fitting In vs Standing Out

I think that one of the common experiences for most people going to a synagogue is that they really want to find a comfortable spot to settle in. It is interesting to observed that atmosphere of a shul is one that there are not so many opportunities to draw attention; having an aliyah is a way of being honored, giving a dvar Torah or announcements clearly sticks out, otherwise the main characters standing out and performing are the ones leading the service.

The Rambam, in his Mishne Torah Book of Service, explores the many features or defects that disqualify a kohen from serving in the Temple.  The list is long - from deformed limbs to drippy eyes to chronic depression.  Learning through this extensive list of (dis)qualifications I came to better understand the meta-goal of such restrictions. The performance of the Temple was to be perpetual and perfect and not defined by personality. Regardless of who was the kohen, they were to be dressed the same and gesture the same to transcend the individual to represent the community.

It is interesting to compare this approach to the shaliach tzibur, the prayer leader of today.  Occasionally the chazan might be too showy or choose a tune that is out of sync with the congregations mood - but the ideal shaliach tzibur carries the nusach to become swallowed into the moment.  One Rosh Hashanah I was invited to daven with a family minyan - an amazingly intimate tefilla that was family friendly (read: child tolerant).  The shaliach tzibur commented to me during kiddush that it would be otherwise weird for him to invite 20 friends over to his living room for him to sing a selection of songs.  However it was not awkward - his selection of nigunim brought this temporary community together in prayer and blurred the lines between congregant and chazan.  A chazan who is standing out may just be preforming to the wrong audience.

I believe the Rambam's categorization of the "Laws for entering the Temple" offer a stern reminder that we cannot succumb to radical individualism.  Even more so, the inclination of people to be wallflowers at synagogue is normal - rather it is the challenge of the prayer leaders (and educators and rabbis) to arouse the attention and energy of the crowd to the moment.  Fitting in at shul is a skill - one that I think is the key goal for most Jewish educational institutions.

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