Friday, February 24, 2012

Shortening Shabbat Davening - The Problem (First in a Short Series)

We love to think that this is a picture of "them".
But it's more like us than we're willing to admit.
Years ago, I heard about the amazing popularity of one of the Mega-Churches led by a famous pastor (I think that it was Joel Osteen), and wondered what he could possibly be doing to draw fifteen thousand people to a service on a weekend. So I decided to watch some of a service (available online) to see what I could pick up.
Truthfully, I didn't watch much. (I think that I was either bored, uncomfortable, or both). But at the beginning of the service, the pastor led the entire congregation in a recitation that they clearly repeated each and every week. I don't remember it word for word, but I remember that they all picked up their bibles, and declared their allegiance to the word of God, faith in the Bible and in God, and asked for the wisdom and blessing to find the answers that they were looking for through prayer and study.
I was astounded. There it was, so simple, in a sense. People are looking for a sense of faith. They want to reach out to a Divine God they know they cannot comprehend, but need to reach out for in any case.
Watching that video, a sense of frustration welled up inside me. All of those elements exist in Orthodox Judaism. The Torah offers all that, and more. And yet, how many people leave davening on Shabbat morning feeling that, they really spoke to God that morning, that they had a religious experience, and that they left davening with a greater sense of faith than when they came?
What would have happened hjad I tried to institute such a custom in my shul, where before Torah reading everyone picked up their Chumash and declared, together in unison, in English (which people understand),

"Hashem, this is the book that You gave to us through our prophet, Moshe. It contains the one and only truth. Please grant us the wisdom to seek guidance through the Torah. Give us comfort through its words, guidance through its commandments, and connection to You through its holy light. Amen."

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I would have been laughed out of shul. No one would join me. The first week I'd get uncomfortable stares. The second week, a few might participate, but most would not. And I'm sure that by the third week, there'd be a hastily organized meeting with the shul's senior leadership to "discuss" sudden changes to the davening. It wouldn't be considered "frum" at all. Maybe Conservative. Maybe Reform. But certainly not Orthodox.
That's a tragedy, because we actually do say those very things throughout the tefillah: וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל. And this is the Torah that Moses placed before Israel." קדשנו במצוותך - "Sanctify us in your commandments." וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת. "Purify our hearts to serve you in truth."
Somehow, when we translate all that into English and recite it together, it becomes less frum. And by removing these types of communal prayer experiences that would give many, if not most Orthodox Jews - who don't speak fluent Hebrew - true spiritual experiences, we rob them of a meaningful prayer experience that they badly need.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton synagogue recently asked on his Twitter feed (which I follow via Facebook):
How would u shorten shabbos morning davening within halachik boundaries in an effort to make it more enjoyable and meaningful?
Shortening davening? Easy. A little harder is the second clause: "Within halachic boundaries." Still, with some creativity and finesse, finding halachic solutions is possible. But Rabbi Goldberg did not include the most important clause, which he perhaps assumed, but I believe cannot be taken for granted: "Which would be accepted by the Orthodox community."
That's a much tougher nut to crack. Because we can design a wonderful, meaningful service, that reflects the needs and desires of the broad majority of today's Main Minyan crowd.
But if they think that "it's not frum" and won't implement the changes, what have we really accomplished?

I have some suggestions to make that might help. Before I make them, in my next post I'll outline what I believe is the problem underlying the challenge of Shabbat morning davening. Finally, I'll suggest a number of changes that I believe are clearly within the boundaries of halachah, but will most probably be considered too radical to institute, and therefore ignored.