Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jay Michaelson On Taking the Boring Out Of Shul

I just read Jay Michaelson's spot-on article in the Forward, "Rethinking Egalitarianism:
Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?"
. Michaelson seems to always have his pulse on the Jewish community, and his perspective is not limited to only one denomination or to what's going on in New York City.

His article tackles several problems in synagogues today and I agree with him on most counts. I disagree, however, that egalitarianism has much to do with the malaise one finds in most non-Orthodox congregations today. He begins by introducing his friends who emigrated from the famous B.J. (B'nai Jeshurun) on the Upper West Side to a mid-size Jewish community in the South. When they couldn't find a shul as invigorating and active as B.J., they settled for the Modern Orthodox congregation despite their egalitarian leanings. Not finding a shul like B.J. is a common complaint for people who leave this dynamic ruach-filled NYC congregation and go elsewhere. In fact, as a rabbi I've heard dozens of people exclaim after visiting B.J. just once, "Why can't we recreate the B.J. experience at our shul?" (Newsflash: It's more than just Argentine rabbis and musical instruments!)

More than "egal doesn't matter anymore," what I think Michaelson is arguing is that the heimishe quality found in Orthodox shuls needs to be a goal for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. The attempts to make services more inclusive and accessible to everyone by calling page numbers, over-explaining and over-simplifying the liturgy, and presenting English readings with confusing themes that pose theological problems have caused a general malaise in these services. Not to mention, most Reform and Conservative services are taking place in buildings that are too large to create any sense of warmth or heimishe ambience.

Michaelson is correct about the roots of this culture. He writes:

The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others? If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.

Non-Orthodox shuls need to spend the next decade focusing more on the kavanah (the unbound spiritual search for devotion and intention) and less on the keva (the mindless following of the rote). The Orthodox service is less robotic, thereby allowing individuals to move at their own pace and find their own comfort zone within the service. I concur with Michaelson that synagogue leaders seeking to invigorate the service and empower the membership need search no farther than Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's book Empowered Judaism, where Kaunfer writes "What the Jewish world needs is not more dumbing-down but more empowerment of individuals to opt in if they so desire."

I also appreciated Michaelson's apt view of how children should be treated in shul. He writes, "Of course, the kids ran around themselves too, as is the de facto culture in many traditional places of worship. This, my friend observed, was far better for the children’s sanity and their parents’ prayer lives. A few decades ago, we were told that the family that prays together, stays together. But if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all."

This article should be required reading for synagogue leaders. There's a lot we can learn from the culture that permeates Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat mornings.


Anonymous said...

I think Michaelson misses an important point. How many non orthodox Jews really believe in their non Orthodox clergy enough to want to be in services on a week in week out basis? In my experience the answer is not as many as show up to Orthodox shuls.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


I'm not sure I understand your point. Do most Orthodox Jews, in your perspective, attend shul weekly because of the rabbi and their belief in him?

I'd hope they're going to shul to daven, to hear the Torah read, to learn, and to be with their community on the holiest day of the week. That would apply to shuls that have no rabbi, have a less than stellar rabbi, and have a wonderful rabbi (and all shuls in between).

Anonymous said...

Whatever your hopes are in this case doesn't matter. I am basing my comment on my observations and how people around me think of their clergy. Enough people who go to Ortho shuls are able to put up with things in those shuls that many will consider far from their own everyday life to engage in an Orthodox shul. (Think Mechitzah and only the men having the very public roles.) Very few people live day to day like this. But many people who consistently go to shul put up with this very willingly. In many cases this is done to a very strong degree because the rabbi is a great marketer and he can package traditional and modern sources to show it all makes enough sense for you us to spend at least 2+ hours a week in his shul than in the non ortho shuls in the area. Yes belief in the rabbi is huge. And when the freshly minted JTS/UJ/HUC whatever else non ortho clergy person comes off sounding like a 12 year old compared to the local orthodox rabbi, it is a huge huge factor.

I will point to the non ortho rabbi who really should be your teacher on this case and that is the current USCJ leader Rabbi Steven Wernick. One of his first statements in that role was that Ortho rabbis do kiruv and believe. He said of Conservative rabbis 'what do we believe - we just want to get paid.' For my own personal experience no Conservative rabbi ever spoke a truer statement about basically all non ortho clergy I've met. And I've been around the block. Of course for Rabbi Wernick to get paid himself and keep his job, he had to back down from this truth. And you guys and gals keep chasing your tail without doing the real work which is many many more non ortho clergy have to learn to merge their values way closer to their actions. And I absolutely do see in my shul going experience that lots of people go to ortho shuls consistently because of their belief in their ortho rabbi. And non ortho Jews go a handful of times a year to their non ortho shuls because they don't believe in their rabbi. Now go do something about that.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the problem wasn't egalitarianism, since BJ is, and they have instruments which would never be allowed in an Orthodox shul. I think it's the singing of virtually the whole service, though there is the charisma of the rabbis there. I think the social action projects draw the members together, and they are not afraid to be affiliated with left leaning activities.

Larry Kaufman said...

Maybe the reason I thought Michaelson was speaking hogwash is that my Reform kahal features lots of spirited davening, kids particpating until after the first aliyah, when they leave for an hour to do kid-approprate things until they come back to join their parents and the community for kiddush, and we do a pretty good job too of welcoming newcomers.

My experience with Modern Orthodox davening, on the other hand, has been boring to the max -- as one of the comments on the Michaelson piece put it, Evelyn Wood speed davening -- come in for the first few words and the last few words if you can keep pace, and pretend to pay attention in between.

Marc said...

I think it's sort of word play that uses "egalitarian" to mean what Ron Wolfson called "radical hospitality." Egalitarian does not just mean men/women but also involved/unaffiliated, straight/gay, inmarried/intermarried, old/young, cohen/levi/yisrael.

Saying the orthodox have spirit and the non-orthodox don't is overgeneralizing. Orthodoxy has different (and non-egalitarian) norms about obligation to pray, which affects communities in subtle but significant ways.

My dream is an egalitarian shul where women are expected to wear kipot if men are!

Miss S. said...

I absolutely love davening in an Orthodox shul. The lack of "egalitarianism" doesn't bother me in the least! What does however, is the inability for tolerance.

Let me explain. The last Orthodox shul that I was a member of had a mechitza that was probably the shortest that was halachaicaly possible. It came to just above the hips, and then the ezrat nashim (women's section) was elevated above the men's. But not as high as a balcony. Anyway, we would have out of town people, rabbis in particular, declare that they could not daven in such a place. That they couldn't bring their daughters there! (The women aren't obscured from the men's view) Also, we've had women come in during the summertime with sleeveless dresses. Oh that brings up the chatter! So does the accidental ring of a cell phone on Shabbos...

From what I've seen, no happy medium exists. The Modern Orthodox shuls look towards the more Yeshivish and Chassidishe crowds as being the type of Judaism that is ideal...that they wish they could achieve. Therefore, if you come in as "Conservadox" or even less in practice, you're not embraced. You are dragging the congregation down.

And that's the problem I believe. Most feminists I hope are open-minded enough to not mind having to daven behind a mechitza. But no one likes to be judged. On their lack of knowledge, observance, or lifestyle choices. It's hard to have kavannah and excitement when people are whispering about you!