Sunday, November 19, 2006

Reform Liturgy

Orthodox Jews living in Orthodox areas tend to like the shul they daven in. If they don’t like the place, they move on to the next shul. As we move left towards Reform, the generalization no longer holds. Many people are dissatisfied with their congregations and temples, but for one reason or another don’t do very much other than not attend. I am convinced that the problem, to a large extent, is caused by the decisions the Reform movement made close to two centuries ago when the first temple was opened up in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, one of the complaints of the Reformers was that there was no decorum in Orthodox synagogues. There was too much talking and too many children running about. It lacked the seriousness that is appropriate for a place of worship. They proceeded to install an organ, a choir, a formal cantor, a liturgy in German and an atmosphere of reverential decorum.

I would conjecture that the decorum in liberal synagogues is a function of the decorum in the concert and opera halls. During the eighteenth century, when Mozart was creating his great operas, the operas and symphonies were not treated with the respect and attention they subsequently received in the next century. People talked with each other; flirted, moved about, breastfed their infants all the while the opera singers were performing. In the early nineteenth century, the attitudes changed. Some genius got the idea to call the music “classical,” even when it was written three weeks ago and had nothing to do with classical antiquity. All of a sudden, the concert hall became a serious place where you weren’t allowed to speak or, God-forbid, eat or cough. Only the most reverential silence and attention was accepted. It then became model for what a synagogue ought to be.

The Reformers, also internalized the Lutheran model of church service. It was as if Johann Sebastian Bach was the shining light of our exile. They were convinced that when they got to heaven there would be organ music, angels with wings just like in the paintings, and a heavenly choir singing perfect baroque cantatas. Many believe this until today. The bulk of the Reform musical liturgy has this angelic feel to it. Somehow they believe that Jewish choral “masterpieces”, boring and derivative as they are, are absolutely necessary to sit through if we are to make our way to heaven. For many years I heard Canadians go on about the spirituality of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. When I finally visited Holy Blossom for some public event, I found a high Reform liturgy, formal, boring, and mired in a musical style that flourished somewhere around the time of Elgar and the late British romantics.

The main problem with this whole approach is that it requires the congregation to do absolutely nothing. You sit back and you listen to the performance, just like in the concert hall. If you don’t want to read responsively, no big deal, the chazan and choir will move the service forward. Because there’s no serious participation by the congregation, and because the music is so “tasteful,” the mind wanders, people begin to yawn, which is contagious, and the whole thing feels like cod liver oil.

Some Reform rabbis have recognized this problem. They have tried, to the best of their ability, to create a more low-church atmosphere. There are guitars, folk singing, in the style of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger circa 1960’s, and a generally more relaxed ambience. The movement has not spread to all Reform temples. Some remain wedded to chazanim belting, choirs chirping, and organs bellowing, but many have changed. But once you’re into boring, it’s hard to change. Many of the Reform synagogues that have gone over to the kum-sitz model are still boring. The era of guitars, Birkenstock, “let’s sing ‘Kumbaya’” is over. As usual, Reformers are the last to find out.

It is ironic to see the Reform movement turn into something of an orthodoxy. They frequently believe together with their Ultra Orthodox brethren that "everything new is forbidden."Given the anemic attendance at so many reform congregations, it might be time to reform Reform Judaism. I believe the way dying Reform and Conservative congregations ought to go is the Carlebach model…continuous singing, lively fairly simple Jewish tunes (nigunim), no operatic chazan, no choir, no guitar, just the congregation carrying the service on their shoulders by singing with feeling. When a congregation is responsible for the service, such that if they don’t sing nothing happens, everyone, all of a sudden, perks up and, if possible, participates. The active singing itself, full-throat, creates a special spiritual feeling. It is true that the transition from a chazan oriented model to a Carlebach service is difficult. The Hebrew liturgy must be transliterated into English, and the congregation must be taught the tunes. It has to be done gradually over time. But once accomplished, the congregation is energized and the service is enjoyable. The only downside is that it might require rounding up all the chazanim and shooting them, since they will fight tooth and nail never to give up their entrenched positions. A less radical alternative is to either get the chazan aboard or force early retirements. I see many chazanim are beginning to find work on Caribbean cruises.

Carlebach style davening is flexible. It can be adapted to Modern Orthodoxy, very Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, and all the rest. It can be combined with a string quartet and dancing as in Bnei Jeshurin on the Upper West Side. Each congregation can decide for itself the exact mix. They can also bring in new tunes from the ever lively Jewish music scene. What’s important is that the congregation is involved in the style of davening and not musical committees run by the chazan and the organist. As in so many areas in life, participatory democracy works best.


At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine recently went to a conference dedicated to fighting the very suggestion you just made. (According to him, though, the Reform movement is still stuck fighting the folky, Debbie Friedman invasion and hasn't spotted the Carlebachian visigoths over the next hill.)

I think there's an opposite phenomenon in Orthodoxy -- services led by tuneless shelihei tzibbur who (maybe) know the words (but almost definitely not how and where to pronounce a sheva na) but have no clue how to create a service with rhythm or a communal experience. There's a middle-ground between high-church, tuneless mumbling, and Carlebach that I fear is quickly becoming lost. (It's how I grew up in my Conservative synagogue, and I miss it, whether I'm davening in MO shuls or halakhic egal minyanim. And the few times I've visited mainstream Conservative shuls, I've been shocked to hear the tunes of my youth displaced by weird cantorial creations known only by that cantor and maybe the congregational regulars. Music, like Hebrew, ought to be a point of unity, allowing for greater or lesser local variation, of course.)

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When was the last time Evanston Jew was actually in a shul on a shabbos morning? It's true enough that Reform temples are deathly boring, but the typical Orthodox shul is no better. The temple service at least has the virtue of being short.

But in Orthodox shuls, there is generally wholesale mispronunciation of words, both in the davvening and the laining, no awareness even of the comcept of nusach hatefilla, an almost frightening rushing of the words so as to guarantee they will be unintelligible and, guess what? There is still that awful decorum thing.

EJ may think that because something pertains in a concert hall it's a terrible thing to introduce to a shul, but in the typical Orthodox synagogue, where the loud talking and pathetically incompetent child-rearing renders the tefilla into a kind of background, elevator-music, it is all but impossible to - pray, and that is what we are in shul for. Right?

As in all things in life, there is a happy medium when it comes to decorum. When noise and other disruptions get to the point at which they interfere with prayer, something has to be done. The Reform movement was absolutely correct in that regard and the fact that they changed so much else as to leave themselves unrecognizable to rank and file Jews does not weaken their case against the chaos of the typical Orthodox shul. EJ seems to remember that chaos fondly from a time when he, perhaps, attended such a shul.

Does he attend such a shul - or any shul - now? If not, might a factor in his decision to abandon the tradition of his youth be the very lack of decorum over which he now waxes so warmly?

At 12:31 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 1 …Your friend is a clever man . I myself would detain Debbie Friedman at Guantanamo, but then again I have extreme opinions on this subject. The problem is that the seminaries have attached cantorial schools and these schools have this nasty habit of turning out chazanim who have this penchant for singing in the cantorial style. Change, I guess must come from below. Members of a congregation are entitled to have a davening they like. It is possible but not easy.

Anonymous2…I flat out disagree with your paragraphs 2 and 3 and most of 4. My pt. about concert halls is that what counts as decorum and appropriate is widely subjective, our differences being a good illustration. I have never been particularly concerned with decorum, nor do I consider Orthodox shuls chaotic. Orthodox shuls generally do not have trouble attracting congregants, and many participants welcome a chance to socialize and seem to enjoy the experience.

I said many Reform temples and Conservative congregations are dying because their members won’t come except on Rosh Hashanah. Here is my feeling what is wrong and an idea I think works.The alternatives being suggested for generation Y who refuse even to join a congregation are even worse. I doubt if you, lover of decorum and hater of noise as you are, would be comfortable in a congregation where one week it is communal drumming and the next interpretive dance

As for the rest of your rude and ad hominem attack, I guess since it’s my blog I’ll wax warmly exactly where and when I chose. Perhaps my blog does not suit your ideas; you might feel more comfortable elsewhere. Even better …why not start a blog and post at length about ’the pathetically incompetent child-rearing’ of the Orthodox.

12:05 AM

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, EJ, this is your blog, but when you float ideas and make assertions in the public domain and then invite comments, you should know that sometimes people will disagree with you.

As far as making an ad hominem attack, sorry; I had no idea I was hitting so close to home.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous... The topic is Reform liturgy. If you want to defend Reform services by arguing that the Orthodox are worse or not much better flail away. If you think I have no knowledge or incorrect understanding of my subject matter feel free to enlighten everyone with your insights. If you comments center on me and your projections as to who I am, either openly as in your first post or hiding behind an apology as in your second post I will delete your remarks.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous tarfon said...

You seem to imply that the style that you call "Carlebach" (but which is broader or looser than a true Carlebach davening) originated in Orthodox shuls. I think it would be more accurate to credit the Havurah movement, which is multi-denominational in origin, but is closer to the Conservative movement than to anything else.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous ToddV said...

Interestingly, there is a similarity to some of the liturgical issues in the Catholic Church in the U.S. The most striking one, as far as I can tell, being the embedded self interest of music directors and cantors.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Naftali said...

The "problem" with your blog is that it is too thought provoking for the medium -- hard to fire off a quick response.

There may be a chicken/egg issue here. Are Reform services cold and uninspiring because they are shows, or are they shows because the Reform community lacks a strong self identity as a distinct Jewish community -- are they just Americans of the Mosaic persuasion?

I am not familiar with Reform services so I can't relate to them directly. But I can ask what is it about Orthodox synagogues that seems to make them attractive to their congregants. I'm not sure that it's the participatory nature of the service, as there are successful Orthodox synagogues that are "shows". I think specifically of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, that has scores, if not hundreds, of devotees who "kvell" to the virtuoso performances of the great Cantor Herstik, accompanied by a well rehearsed choir. Last time I went -- about 2 years ago-- I counted that about one third of the attendees were Chasisdim (I was told they were Gerer, who are devotees of chazanut). I understand that the Great Synagogue has a socially active membership.

I think that the draw of Orthodox synagogues is that they are interesting, engaging and fun as social institutions. Remember that the Jewish place of worship is the Synagogue or beit knesset -- the gathering house. Even women, who are more or less disenfranchised, can enjoy what's going down: who got an aliya, and who didn't, the competitions, and the politics of it all. Did their husbands/sons get rsapect. Whose up, whose down. And of, course, the after shul kiddush and socializing. Certainly, the davening is part of it, but I wouldn't exaggerate its importance. Thus, yeshivis/haredi services are notoriously, dry and unparticipatory, but certainly not alienating if you're part of the team.

Are the Reform cohesive enough as a community to generate this sense of a synagogue as a place to come in order to see and to be seen? I wonder whether an exciting service is enough.

At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evanston Jew: Anonymous 2 engaged in unfortunate ad hominem comments, but you misrepresented his point. He is not a lover of decorum and a hater of noise. He, as do I, stresses the need for balance, that, is he and I wish for a measure of decorum and we hate noise when it reaches the point of intefering with the service. Surprising as it sounds, there are many Orthodox Jews who go to shul both to daven and hear the Torah reading AND to socialize. How to balance the two is the question. I would not generalize, but in many shuls I have gone to the level of talking is horrendous.

But I certainly agree with you that the Reform solution that the congregation must be passive is not the answer. I love going to a concert, but a shul is not a concert hall.

lawrence kaplan

At 10:37 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

tarfon … now that you mention the chavurah movement it brings up in my mind an associated idea to my Carlebach thesis. In weak temples the room is much too big and creates a bad feeling. Fifteen daveners/singers in a sanctuary take on the feel of a lively group. Fifteen people in a cavernous space create the feeling of being in an empty synagogue.

Naftali…I enjoyed reading your post. Your third paragraph mirrors my own experience. In response to your last question I would think the answer depends on how many people show on an ordinary Friday night/Shabbus. If there is a crowd of regulars they form over time a community in the same way such communities form around shuls all over Jewish life. I do not believe your possible characterization of Reform as Americans of the Mosaic persuasion is representative of how contemporary Reform people see themselves. If the place is basically empty with only a few old timers in attendance the sense of the Temple as a place to see and be seen is not going to be very strong.

Prof. Kaplan...I have no issue with your formulation of the need for balance. You recognize the social aspect is a part of the total shul experience.

Anonymous 2 in his pitch for a happy medium added ‘The Reform movement was absolutely correct in that regard (i.e. against shuls ‘where noise and other disruptions get to the point at which they interfere with prayer’.) I have serious doubts that the noise issue was anything but a ruse. It is hard for me to believe that the austere influential German business people who were the major force in the first generations of Reform could not get the Orthodox rabbis and elders to create a tolerable decorum. Any thoughts?

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Bob said...

There is some potential for "listening as a spiritual experience" (quote from the Jewish music conference site linked in the first comment) -- if the cantor is top-notch. But take your average-voiced or even above-average-voiced member of the Cantors' Assembly: let's just say, the Great Synagogue it ain't.

The problem with Carlebach davening is that not only does it take the goal of Spiritual Experience too seriously, but it takes far too long. A full davening is plenty long already without the drei-ing around. In my shul on Friday night, every time the Carlebachian shliach tzibbur finally gets to the end of some tehilla that he has sung aloud in its entirety, to the same A-B melody repeated five times over, and then launches into a sixth repetition to the words "yai-di-dai," my nine-year-old kicks me. By this she means, "Can't we go home, and yai-di-dai after the soup course is over?" I'm right there with her. I twiddle my thumbs through the la-la-las so that I can say my amida with a minyan - if I'm still alive and awake by then, and not overly weakened by hunger. My view is, if it doesn't say yai-di-dai in the siddur, that's a signal that the kahal should not say it aloud.

The thing about a dry davening for the Orthodox or otherwise observant worshiper who prays every day is that such a person has internalized the davening. Even if the Orthodox shat"z doesn't use any tunes and mangles the words, in the heart of the davener the correct tefila can be heard. But this does not work for many people in my local conservative synagogue (which I regulary attend).

I do like this blog!

At 8:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The thing about a dry davening for the Orthodox or otherwise observant worshiper who prays every day is that such a person has internalized the davening. Even if the Orthodox shat"z doesn't use any tunes and mangles the words, in the heart of the davener the correct tefila can be heard."

Oy! I daven ke-hilkhata and I still can't stand lame sha"tzim. In fact, it makes it worse, because I know I could just be somewhere else, daven it in two to five minutes and be done, less annoyed, and have more "kavvanah".

At 11:02 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Bob...I suggested a Carlebach solution for dying congregations that have boring services. I understand fully that people who have davening as an integral part of their lives can be very happy in a minyan with no singing, for example a yeshivish minyan.Reform congregations have no qualms about editing psalms and prayers. They have total freedom when it comes to how many times the nigun is repeated.

There is this mantra going around that generation Y needs leadership roles before they are willing to join a congregation. I don't know how you can have a shul comprised only of leaders. My idea is that maybe they will settle for just having something to do during services.


Post a Comment


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home