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Rabbinic Open Forum -- In Focus
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Introduction to "Reconstructing the Synagogue"
CLALs Rabbinic Leadership and Rabbinic Renewal Retreats are best known as settings for pluralist dialogue, bringing together rabbis of all denominations for an intensive period of study and conversation. Equally important, however, is a retreats function as a catalyst for institutional change and personal growth. Rabbis attending the retreats not only build bridges, but think through together the practical application of CLALs ideas for the strengthening and revitalization of synagogues and local Jewish communities.
Rabbi Michael Cohen attended two Rabbinic Retreats, in 1994 and 1995. Already one of North Americas most creative young Reconstructionist rabbis, he gained from the retreats a language for articulating the kinds of changes he hoped to bring home to his congregation, Israel Congregation of Manchester in Manchester Center, Vermont. He describes those changes in his essay, "Reconstructing the Synagogue." "It was a session at the CLAL Rabbinic Retreat with the sociologist Bethamie Horowitz, on how people experience ritual within and beyond the synagogue, that helped me help the congregation understand the things I was proposing," explained Rabbi Cohen. Rabbi Cohen shared his essay with fellow CLAL rabbinic alumni on the CLAL Rabbinic Community On Line. "I think the reconstruction of the synagogue I describe in the article is a lot of what CLAL is about," he added.
Rabbi Cohen is a Past-President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He lectures at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont and is a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura.
Reconstructing The Synagogue
-Rabbi Michael M. Cohen
In 1934 Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan wrote his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization:Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. Its main emphasis was Kaplan's insightful understanding of the dynamic of "Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people." That is to say while our religion is at the core of who and what we are, we are more than just a religion. We are also a civilization that includes history, poetry, art, philosophy, music, and language. Kaplan also reminded us that we have evolved over the almost 4,000 years of our existence. Jewish law (Halakhah) has evolved, our understanding of God has evolved, the role of women has evolved, our understanding of what it means to be a Jew has evolved, the synagogue has evolved.
The main thrust of Kaplan's charge was that the situation in which Judaism had operated since the first Diaspora no longer existed. In that situation the majority of Jews lived in Jewish communities where both outside and internal pressures contributed to Jewish continuity. In the post-French Revolution Western European world of Egalite, Fraternite, et Liberte, those pressures abated and the structures that had sustained Jewish life for over a millennia dissolved. Kaplan taught us that reconstruction of Judaism is imperative for a vital and meaningful Judaism to continue. He understood that that reconstruction in our homes and our institutions needed to have both conserving and reforming elements, not just one or the other.
One of the institutions where that reconstruction needs to take place is the synagogue. Over the past ten years the Israel Congregation of Manchester Center, Vermont, has been going through that process. The first change was moving the time during the Erev Shabbat service when the sermon is given. This came about from a suggestion made to me by Reb Zalman Schachter who said that putting the sermon at the end of the service is the wrong place for it. There is in fact a natural break for study in the Erev Shabbat service between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv. In more traditional siddurim there is a section of study (B'mah Madlikin) between these two parts of the Erev Shabbat service. Therefore, a ready-made, natural place exists for the sermon.
Moving the sermon to earlier in the service has been an improvement for a number of reasons. When the sermon is at the end of the service, congregants' minds are already beginning to go out the door as they anticipate the end of services as well as the end of the rabbi's words! Earlier in the service congregants are able to remain more attentive to the sermon. It also means, both for the rabbi as well as congregants, the focus of the remainder of the service is the service itself and not anticipating the sermon. Placing the sermon earlier allows its message to edify the rest of the service. Also it gives me the opportunity to refer back to the sermon at appropriate moments in the service.
This move is part of reclaiming the synagogue not only as a beit tefilah, a house of prayer, but also as a beit midrash, a house of study. We know that the rabbis of the Talmud elevated study to the level of prayer, and for some the two were close to synonymous. To that end we have put in the pews of our sanctuary books about Judaism. (Our siddurim have their own bookshelf at the entrance to the sanctuary.) On the inside of each book is the following:
The rabbis teach us that study is a form of prayer. The book that you hold in your hand is a living memorial to Herb Golstein, of blessed memory. Herb was a very dedicated member of our congregation and cared deeply about its success. He loved reading and understood that learning is vital to a synagogue's growth. These books, donated by his family, have been placed here to add to your knowledge of Judaism as you worship with us. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of this book for yourself, do not hesitate to speak to the rabbi. Please replace this book and do not remove it from the sanctuary.
In recent years there has been an explosion of books in English about Judaism. There is no longer the excuse that a lack of Hebrew and or Yiddish limits what one can read and learn about Judaism. However, people are not always familiar with these books. If you can't bring the people to the mountain than bring the mountain to the people. These books are interesting, well written, contemporary, meaningful, engaging and are geared towards Jewish adults to raise their level of Jewishness. I am now used to congregants reading them during services.
Many congregants have commented to me how much they enjoy having the books there for their use and often ask me how they can purchase copies for themselves. I know of a young woman, the daughter of a congregant, who came to her mother's adult Bat-Mitzvahservice and was influenced by reading these books. She was in an interfaith marriage and had not decided what religion to raise her children. After reading one of the books in the pews she decided to raise her children Jewish. As Rabbi Irwin Kula has pointed out, quoting Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, when we pray we talk to God, when we study God talks to us.
The restoring of the beit knesset to a beit midrash has also affected how rabbis address their congregations. Like many of my colleagues, I have found the sermon-dialogue format to be a constructive means of communication. While there are certain moments and messages that work better in the more traditional sermon format, a sermon-dialogue often is more effective: studies have shown that people remember much more of what they discuss than what they passively hear.
One of the obstructions to the synagogue being better used as a beit knesset, a beit tefilah, and a beit midrash has been the architectural design of straight row seats facing the bima which is elevated and away from the congregants. This style is conducive to turning worshipers into a passive audience. The goal of Jewish prayer is not a passive audience, but rather active participants. Following a more traditional model we moved our pews into a horseshoe configuration and took the amood (lectern) off the bima, placing it within the open space of the horseshoe. This model completely changed the feel of the sanctuary, making it a more heymish space and creating a more interactive environment for congregational participation.
When I first arrived here some ten years ago, there was no tradition of a Shabbat morning service. On the Shabbat morning of Parashat Ethannan on which the Sh'ma is read from the Torah no one had come to services. I was getting ready to leave having davened on my own. Just then a young couple appeared. We sat together in the sanctuary and talked. She was in the process of converting, and he had not been involved much with Judaism since becoming Bar Mitzvah, the last time that he had read from the Torah. I said to him that he still knew how to read from the Torah and that it would not be difficult for him to do. I then took the Torah out of the Aron haKodesh and opened to the Sh'ma and asked him to read. To his amazement he was able to read out of the Torah. It was an important lesson for me. We now have a viable ongoing Shabbat morning service.
One of the challenges in reconstructing the synagogue is to make the service more inviting and meaningful for congregants. The traditional way that Torah is read may work in certain communities; however, for many individuals and communities the full reading of the parsha or even the triennial cycle high and away on the bima is both too long as well as too threatening. We are reminded in that marvelous passage in Devarim (30:12), " lo bashamayim he," that the Torah, "is not in heaven." For too many of our congregants the Torah has become too distant both physically and spiritually. Therefore on Shabbat morning when we arrive at the Torah service all are invited to stand around the amood for the reading of the Torah.
There is something profound and powerful which happens when we are physically close to an open Torah, not to mention when we are allowed to read from it. This mentions nothing of the opened and closed spaces, the large and small letters, and the calligraphy of the letters. All of these are visual aids in understanding the Torah more deeply; they are lost when the Torah is far away or limited to a few people near it. Torah is important both spiritually and physically. This is why our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students are the ones who roll the Torah during the week to the correct spot for each week's Shabbat morning service.
Standing together around the amood we all recite one of the three blessings for the study of Torah found in the Talmud, Baruch atah adonay eloheynu melech ha'olam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la'asok bedivrey torah. (Since we did not always have a minyan when this format started we began by using this generic blessing for the study of Torah; since then it has become our minhag.) Anyone who is Jewish is then invited to read from the Torah. Individuals will read a pasook (sentence) or a number of pesukim. Someone who is not as well versed in reading Hebrew translates from a Chumash. I provide running commentary and questions as we read from the Torah in this fashion.
It is not unusual for visitors to say that they can only read Hebrew with vowels. We gently encourage them not to let that be an obstacle to their reading directly from the Torah. Reading directly from the Torah provides wonderful moments of validation. This is particularly true for the many women, some in their sixties, who have never been allowed close to a Torah much less given the opportunity to read from it.
But beyond all this there is something else that happens when people are physically close to the Torah. In his beautiful essay, " On the Love of Torah," Rav Soloveitchik teaches, The Torah should be seen not just as a book, but as a living personality, a queen like the Shabbat Malka, with whom one can establish an I-thou relationship... Torah is a friend... To become a lamdan you must look at the Torah as an individual- a living personality... If I love someone I am inquisitive, I am interested in him and in his plans...
If I were asked how an emotional experience can be had through studying the laws of, for instance, monetary fines and damages, I would say that it is true that the exterior of Torah is formal and abstract, but behind the shell of conceptual abstractions there is a great fire burning, giving warmth and love, and one can love the Torah in turn with great passion. When you apprehend the Torah as a personality, not just a book, it infiltrates your emotional as well as your intellectual life.
When you are able to stand physically close to the Torah it allows for that relationship to grow. You are able to look into the face of the Torah and see the spacing of the words, the calligraphy of the letters, the texture of the parchment. The relationship becomes more intimate. And then there are the special letters, the broken vav in Parashat Pinchas, the inverted nun of Parashat Behalotecha, the large aiyn and daled of the Sh'ma, the large hay of Hazinu, the small alef of Vayikra, the special structure of the Song of Moses. These are all there asking to be noticed, asking to be discussed. When the Torah is high up on the bima and limited to who is seeing it or reading from it, this close relationship with the Torah can not happen.
After we have read and returned the Torah to the Aron Hakodesh a commentary is then passed out to the congregation. These commentaries may be taken from Torah Aura's Learn Torah With..., The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, The Jewish News, A Torah Commentary for our Times, Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, or Sforno, etc. In addition the World Wide Web serves as an endless source of meaningful Torah commentaries. What ensues is a half-hour to forty-five minute discussion. The discussions are deep, meaningful, and challenging. Following the wisdom of Pirke Avot (5:21), "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it, and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it," our discussions cover every topic and subject imaginable. In our matbeya the commentary is our Haftorah, and the comments that people make is our Musaf offering.
The introduction of Kol Haneshamah, the new Reconstructionist siddur, has also helped in making the service more accessible, particularly to those congregants who have limited knowledge of Hebrew and of the service itself. The siddur is user friendly in many ways. At present it is the only non-Orthodox siddur written with extensive commentaries at the bottom the page which provide explanations and insights into the words of the siddur. In addition it provides transliterations for all the Hebrew that is said or sung by the congregation. Kol Haneshamah also presents a contemporary Jewish theology that is expressed in the wording of the prayers and in gender-neutral language. Many congregants have commented to me on how Kol Haneshamah has made the service easier to understand and participate in.
Many synagogues have become Bat/Bar-Mitzvah factories. The good news is that these young Jews are going through this Jewish rite of passage. The challenge that we face is to make the observance and celebration of our adolescents becoming Bat or Bar Mitzvah the most meaningful of experiences. Adolescents need mentors, and so for the year leading up to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah each student switches to private classes with me. In addition, we have developed a tradition here that after the Bat/Bar Mitzvah gives their dvar torah members of the congregation ask him or her questions based upon their dvar torah as well as the Torah reading. It is a powerful moment as a 13 year old fields questions from peers and adults alike.
In the challenge of "living in two civilizations" that Kaplan addressed, too often the North American civilization wins out. This has become most apparent when it comes to Shabbat where the late Friday evening service accommodates the North American civilization, which most of us find ourselves living in, and has completely truncated the Erev Shabbat experience. Instead of Kabblat Shabbat being the transition decompression chamber from the workweek into Shabbat as it is meant to be, it often becomes but another "show" that an individual or family must rush off to after a quick dinner.
This is not to say that we want to completely dismiss the rhythms of the American civilization in which we also live . As Rabbi Kula has taught, we need to meet our congregants where they are while at the same time bringing Yiddishkeit to them. The reading of Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings was instituted in part because those were the market days when large numbers of people gathered together. Therefore when the Israel Congregation moved our Friday evening services from 8:00 pm to 6:30 pm a number of years ago, we also made arrangements with two of our local restaurants (Bistro Henry and Laney's Restaurant) to serve Shabbat meals at 7:30 after services.
Service attendance increased, and we were able to reclaim the more traditional rhythm to Friday night with Kabblat Shabbat services acting as the transition from the work week to Shabbat. An early service also meant that my wife and I could have congregants over to our house for Shabbat evening meals so that we could do Shabbas with them as opposed to only teach about it. It also allowed other families to have people to their homes or go to congregants' homes after services. For those individuals who were too busy to cook but still want to be with the Jewish community on Friday night, the restaurants provided that opportunity.
This move allowed more congregants to enjoy both Kabbalat Shabbat services and many different opportunities for Jewish community to exist on Friday night, particularly for many who would not have entertained the idea beforehand. During the last two years we have discontinued the meals at the restaurants and now provide a communal Shabbat dinner after services at the synagogue on Friday nights for anyone who wants to stay. There is no charge. We have set up a Shabbat Dinner Fund to help defray the costs. Between one of the courses I do a short teaching of Torah (a Torahle). A culture of community and Shabbas has been reconstructed by taking the above mentioned route.
In the liberal Jewish world where most Jews now live, reconstructing our Jewish communities is one of the core challenges that we face at the end of the twentieth century. While the aforementioned ideas may not be applicable to every congregation or community, the understanding that we need to reconstruct Judaism needs to be. As outlined above, the process of reconstructing includes reforming, conserving and being innovative. This process is something that we have done throughout our long history. It is a process that is imperative at this particular moment of our history as well.
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Copyright c. CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, 1999-2003