Book Serialization Part 5: Six People You Meet in Synagogue
Book Serialization Part 5: Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...
A prayer book containing prayers for the various days of the year.
—The American Heritage Dictionary
he Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Sir Jonathan Sacks, begins his introduction to the Koren Sacks Siddur (Jerusalem, 2009) entitled, “Understanding Jewish Prayer,” with the poetic statement that “Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative.” The introduction goes on in lofty terms and continues for a page or two with additional prosaic statements such as, “Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity.”
When the rabbi turns to speak about the Siddur itself, the Jewish prayer book, he says to start with, “The Siddur is the choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries from the days of the patriarchs until the present day.” He calls it a “calibrated harmony.”
To be sure, this essay is the sage rabbi’s lyrical introduction to the prayer services of the Jews. It is a flowery prologue, meant to be consumed by the faithful. I don’t want to parse its every expressive phrase, can one ever disagree with poetry? I must say though that I don’t think the Siddur is a magnificent symphony festooned with harmonies. I’m certain the rabbi is on the right track, but he stops off at the wrong metaphor.
The Siddur is neither a “symphony” nor a “harmony”; as I see it, the Siddur’s prayer service zigs when it should zag. It starts and stops and restarts. It changes the topic of conversation and presentation abruptly and frequently. It meanders and wanders across expanses of time and space. It contradicts and repeats in patterns that seem to have no peers.
Later in his essay, Rabbi Sacks appears to recognize this as he surprisingly discusses the relationship between prayer and the iterative mathematical patterns known as fractals. A fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be looked at more closely in every one of its parts. Each small element of a fractal is approximately a smaller copy of the whole.
As he draws on a high level from concepts associated with mathematical chaos theory, the rabbi seems to be saying that, in an inexact way, the fractal serves as an approximate metaphoric portrayal of the landscape of the Siddur. But he abruptly stops this discourse on the comparison of prayer to fractal after a few short paragraphs, without much explanation, leaving off from his provocative metaphoric suggestions. The Chief Rabbi draws back into a more comfortable position and says again that he sees in the Jewish prayer book a masterpiece of magnificence with a single rising crescendo of intensity and expression.
I struggle sincerely with this portrayal. I do want to afford the learned rabbi the respect and authority that his office merits. But, at last, I have to say, “Step back please. Open the book and look again at the words.” You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a Chief Rabbi to see what lies before you. On the one hand, the metaphor that describes it does not need to be as complex as a fractal image. On the other hand, the prayer services should not be likened to a single musical work. The Jewish prayer book must be compared to something a bit more complex than a unitary musical composition.
Let me start over and describe the Siddur in metaphors as I see them. This collection of prayers is more than a raucous script. We use this composite book of texts in our synagogues as an inharmonious set of consecutive performances.
Imagine that you walked into a synagogue—unfamiliar with the rites—and further imagine that you did not understand a word of Hebrew. What would you see and hear? In jarring sequences, you would see Jews stand and sit, and then stand again. You would see them fall on their faces, acting out dejection. They would open cabinet doors and close doors, march around, carry and touch objects, read from a scroll, kiss the fringes of their garments and cover their eyes and, throughout all that, they would chant, sing, be silent, and chant again.
You would see them start to pray in the morning service on page one and then, eighty-eight pages later, you would hear the leader call out, “Bless!” meaning, let us now start to pray! Those previous words, it turns out, were just preliminary. During all of this action and recitation, those Jews who were reciting the prayers would move around, shake and shiver, rock and roll.
In respectful disagreement with the Chief Rabbi, I would rather characterize what goes on in the public presentation of the Jewish prayer services more colorfully as follows:
Come to the synagogue to witness a rock festival with six bands performing. Each presentation has its own sound, lyrics and style. I will show you in the coming chapters that, in the Siddur and the synagogue, I see a book and its performances that make up a complex set of multiple voices. Sometimes, the personalities behind those voices speak to one another or perform together. Oftentimes, they sing past one another, separately and apart.
The services in the synagogue that I know comprise a sort of Woodstock Festival of Jews at prayer, not a seamless symphony and not a choppy cacophony, as synagogue prayer is a concert venue with multiple performances. Looked at as a whole, I see it as a series of events accompanied by some dissonance and disharmony. Yet I am sure each of its parts has its own musical coherence and a synchronization that I need to discover and appreciate.
By design, Rabbi Sacks got his metaphors wide of the mark. He is not alone to be faulted. When all is said and done, he is the chief of the promoters of the good aspects and aesthetics of the Jewish faith. Many other theologians with the same intent have previously sought to describe the services of the Siddur as a linear symphony, to impose upon them a synchronicity that really is not there. I do understand that the rabbis would like the performances of the synagogue to be magnificent and artistically nonpareil. Okay, I want the same.
Perhaps the Chief Rabbi never went to an inspired music event with multiple bands in performance. The tunes the groups play in turn at such a venue absolutely do not mesh like a symphony. The artists, in their distinctive groups, positively do not fit together. But the artistic and emotional impact of the components of such an occasion—independently, and as one entity—often can pack quite a wallop. And for the attendee-participant it can be both stunning and inspirational.
In a composite rock or pop or jazz experience, it does not detract that the vehicles themselves speak in many voices and sing in dozens of dissonant keys. In our synagogue services too, the whirling activity of reading and singing and humming and silence, we can find and mine a trove of truly complex and fascinating contents of words, ideas, themes, tropes and compositions—each one an inspiring act unto itself.
Like a great impresario’s rock happening, the great Jewish get-together called the synagogue hosts performances that convey a multiplicity of ideas, precepts and personalities. That’s a big part of what I describe in this book.
One thing I will not dwell on in my account is the role of the rabbi in all the excitement of Jewish prayer in the synagogue. Let me justify why I leave out the rabbi from the primary list of people that I meet in the synagogue. Though now people routinely associate a rabbi with his or her synagogue, throughout history the pulpit rabbi was not integral to the Jewish prayer that was performed in that place of worship. The rabbi today may routinely preach to his congregation during the service. Indeed, there is evidence that people gave sermons in synagogues two millennia in the past; the Talmud mentions that expositions on biblical topics were delivered in synagogues and the New Testament describes Jesus and Paul preaching to Jews in synagogues in Israel and Asia Minor.
The practice of regular sermonizing looks as if it changed over history. Ismar Elbogen, the great historian of Jewish liturgy, says that “The manner of the sermon changed in the course of time with changing tastes; in some districts it was nearly completely neglected for centuries” (Jewish Liturgy, Phila., 1993, p. 157).
The modern rabbi’s sermon was reintroduced in the past century, beginning with its reemergence in Reform Temples, some assume, to keep up with the same type of practice in Protestant and Catholic churches. It is accurate to say then that the rabbi’s sermon is an “optional” element in the synagogue service. In fact, it is not referred to as a scheduled event in any Siddur that I know of.
I’ve observed that, when the modern rabbi gets up to speak in synagogue, he or she may in fact distract the congregants from the standard performances of prayer. I’d hazard a guess that, back in the first century, when Jesus and Paul delivered their sermons in synagogues, more than a few Jews of that time thought those teachers were seeking to divert them from the traditional ways of worship.
In truth, sermons are not davening; they are not liturgy. Accordingly, I am not accustomed to meeting a preaching rabbi as a distinct archetype of prayer in my synagogue. Now, after saying that, I must add that, in my discussions below, I will refer to a few prominent rabbis who, in their praying, take on the personae of the core archetypes that we meet. I will speak about my father and two of my teachers to illustrate three of the distinct prayer archetypes whom I meet with you at the synagogue. I describe below how those three exceptional rabbis, acting in their roles as a performer, a priest and a scribe, contributed significantly to my understanding of the spiritual landscape of the synagogue. I’ll talk about a fourth famous activist rabbi when I describe the celebrity-monotheist model. And, yes, I’ll also speak about myself, yet another rabbi, throughout this book.