Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Heschel on Prayer - Add on to Shul Hopping #4

  In my most recent Shul Hopping piece I discussed the foreignness of the Conservative Judaism experience. In some ways, I felt that I swiped at them too harshly given the limited medium one small article affords. I hope to both justify and mitigate my criticisms in this post. First, I think it became clear that I feel a discomfort with rich synagogues. In general, I feel ambivalent about religious institutions spending inordinate amounts of money on their sanctuaries. I know I fall back on David Simon too much, but something stings me about the disproportionate use of money spent on cement and concrete and not on human beings. I understand that a lofty building engenders lofty thoughts, but I can’t shake the feeling that we sacrifice possible transcendent thoughts for the urgency of charitable causes.
  However, I cannot be blind to the fact that throughout the ages Jews have poured money into their sanctuaries. The holiest of them, the ancient temple used gold and other precious materials from all around the world. I remember once, walking through the Vatican both admiring their collected (stolen, plundered?) riches, but also feeling a sense of disgust at their spoils, (Could we not solve world hunger if we sold one purple marble bathtub?) only to realize that the Jewish temple itself, while it did not pillage other civilizations, spent the equivalent, with inflation and all, of a small nation's economy on it's structure. I think all religions feels this ambivalence towards materialism. On the one hand, we respect the ascetic who lives on bread and salt alone, who looks to god alone for support, and yet on the other hand, we respect those who can use their money for good, who can make a palace fitting for god. For me though, I err in the middle, of taking care of the needs of people before the needs of God, but as a person who hasn’t really made a substantial amount of money in his lifetime, I feel that I i can only talk presumptuously on this matter.
    The second, more substantive point, revolved around the performance, rote-like feel of the service. The fact that the cantor prayed towards the congregation, the instruments, the fact that the community was emphasized over the loneliness of each human being before God, the glass like feel of the service chafed against my need for unbounded spirituality. In the first draft of the piece, I felt presumptuous as to these claims so I mitigated them in an attempt to view the service from their side. Who was I to criticize the conservative movement after one visit? Especially after a visit in which I acted as half-outsider, half-insider? But, auspiciously, I began reading Abraham J. Heschel’s book on prayer, Man’s Quest For God the week after going to Park Avenue Synagogue and he levels very similar critiques against Conservative services in general. Heschel makes a few claims that relate specifically to the Conservative movement, but one word of qualification before we engage in criticism.
    While writing a critique of the service, I attempted to understand why I felt more let down by Conservative Judaism than anything I had experienced up until that point. I believe it relates to the point I made about kiddush foods and conservative Judaism. If Conservative Judaism allows themselves more leeway in regards to the tradition, then I assumed they could fix certain problems in the prayer services more easily, but it appears their attempted solutions did not work the way they intended, or diverted attention from larger, more systemic issues with prayer, as Heschel points out:
Modern Jews suffer from a neurosis which I should like to call the Sidder complex. True, the text of the prayer book presents difficulties to many people. but the crisis of prayer is not a problem of the text. It is a problem of the soul. The Siddur must not be used as a scapegoat. A revision of the prayer book will not solve the crisis of the prayer. What we need is a revision of the soul, a new heart rather than a new text.
Here, Heschel points out that despite the changes in text, the changes that include our the addition of foremothers, and prayers for Non-Jews, i.e. political problems and answers, these will not solve spiritual problems. I felt this acutely in a Park Ave Synagogue in which I easily connected politically to the inclusions of woman, and certain prayers, but felt aloof from the actual religious service, but where does this aloofness stem from. Heschel, again:
It is not the primary purpose of prayer “to promote Jewish unity.” Prayer is a personal duty, and an intimate act which cannot be delegated either to the cantor or to the whole community. We pray with the whole community, and every one of us by himself. We must make clear to every Jew that his duty is to pray rather than to be a part of an audience.
Here, Heschel speaks to shul as a communal experience which he believes overlooks the main part of the shul experience: one of a lonely soul coming together as a group, but still alone, pouring out everything before God. Heschel then goes on to address the performative aspect of Conservative prayer:
It was in the interest of bringing about order and decorum that in some synagogues the rabbi and cantor decided to occupy a position facing the congregation. It is quite possible that a re-examination of the whole problem of worship would lead to the conclusion that the innovation was an error. The essence of the prayer is not decorum but rather an even in the inner life of men....A cantor who faces the holiness of the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn to realize that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people of Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in Whose presence he stands. The congregation then will hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name.
    I cannot speak to the internal feelings of those worshipper in Park Avenue Synagogue. As I said in the article, I found them all genuine, friendly, and passionate, but I can say that Heschel’s words ring true for me. Consequently, it was hard to partake, because of my biases, in this more performance like prayer.
    In the end, despite this criticism, I think it is important to realize that as an Orthodox Jew, I have denigrated, whether in my mind or in conversation, Conservative Judaism throughout my life, and from initial comments from like-minded friends, many of us grew up with this bias.  We are not exposed to Conservative Jews or Judaism, which it to our detriment and loss. To us I say go visit a Conservative Shul, go to talk to a Conservative Jew and you will realize that our discriminatory actions and stereotypes are baseless. I have grown to respect Conservative Judaism as a passionate part of the larger Jewish Nation, one that struggles with questions of modernity in ways that other denominations do not. Now, I feel nothing but respect and awe for their services and politics, even if I cannot personally fully connect.I believe all Jews should shul hop in the sense that it allows us to see the other denominations not as less than in any way, but as different, as commanding our respect. The more we understand other people, I have found, the more we grow in respect, and the more we understand our own biases and ourselves.
Thanks for reading, 


  1. This is fantastic. Your writing is superb and your point of view so honest, introspective and fair.

    As a life-long Conservative Jew with significant exposure to various Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, I agree with your assessment of some of the unsatisfying elements of the Conservative prayer service. I can also relate to the intimidation factor of some schmancy-pants congregations!!

    I'm now off to read the rest of your shul hopping series... So interesting...

  2. Thanks for the followup, Joe. Many of the points that you made resonate heavily with me as a Conservative rabbi and as one who loves Heschel's work. As a movement, we are attempting to address the issues that Conservative synagogues face. You might be interested in reading the blog of the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Arnold Eisen, who is also a lover of Heschel and has been writing about some of the very topics you have addressed:

    Furthermore, you might want to read what I have spoken about at my congregation on this subject, inspired by Heschel and Eisen:

    One more thing: one particularly hot discussion topic at my congregation right now is whether the hazzan should be facing the congregation or the ark. My sense is that congregants of older generations want to see the hazzan's face; younger congregants would just as soon have the hazzan pray with them, rather than at them.