Pinchas 5772: Many Voices to Reach the One God: The Nature and Purpose of Collective Prayer

on Friday, 13 July 2012. Posted in Sermons

Jewish communal prayer has been defined as praying alone, together. We each do our own thing, but we must do it with other Jews, usually a minyan of them. So, two questions for us: what is the nature of worship in synagogues today? And what is the purpose of celebrating Shabbat together, as we are doing now?

Perhaps the best answer to this basic question is to explore the traditional understanding of the rationale for tefilah b'tzibur, communal prayer. We know that as Jews we can pray to God anywhere, at any time, and that we need no intermediary to intercede for us with the Divine Power. So when we gather for services it is not because there is very much we do together that we cannot do alone, without the trouble of schlepping to shul on Shabbes.

Interestingly, the purpose of praying in a group in temple, in a beit Knesset, literally "a house of assembly," is defined in the Talmud, in Masechet Brachot, as being a more successful way to pray. It tells us, "The prayers of the community are always heard." That is, it's not that your individual prayers don't reach God; it's just that you stand a better chance if you are in minyan. Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, one of the last of the great Spanish medieval Talmudic scholars, explains the uniqueness of the community beautifully. Each person has some merit and some fault, some good qualities and some bad. When standing alone, he is judged on his merits and is likely to be found wanting. When we join together, the union benefits from the sum of the different merits of each individual. In other words, we pool, as it were, our individually different strengths. The assumption here is that faults are negative, the absence of positive good, and hence are eliminated by the presence of the corresponding good quality. Weaknesses do not add up, only strengths. And when we pray together our strengths overcome any potential deficiencies, and collectively add up to better prayer, for God and for us. We are much more together than we are alone, the whole is greater than the parts.

Of course, when praying in community we also fulfill several functions: first, we permit those in mourning to grieve within a community; second, we help those celebrating a simcha to rejoice with others, thereby multiplying joy and giving everyone the merit of helping with the celebration; third, we help those who are lonely or yearning to find comfort and consolation in the shared experience of seeking God; and fourth, we allow for the very real possibility of communal Torah, teaching and learning in a meaningful way to many. Finally, we hope that any prayer service leads to greater inspiration and spiritual fulfillment, and somehow when we are together these possibilities may become real more easily.

I have always enjoyed exploring how other Jews worship God, and hearing and experiencing their traditions and melodies and practices whenever possible. For the multi-voiced way we Jews pray collectively, the different styles and interpretations and energy in different places can inspire and teach.

On that theme, last weekend, while on vacation with Wendy in Los Angeles seeing my family I attended two very different Shabbat services. LA is the second biggest Jewish city in America, which makes it the third or fourth largest Jewish city in the world on the basis of population, after Tel Aviv and New York and about even with Haifa or Jerusalem.

Yes, I went to synagogue on vacation, truly a busman's holiday. But, I mean what else should a rabbi do on Shabbat? One of the privileges of travel is the opportunity to see how others are celebrating Judaism, whether it's in Israel or Los Angeles or Turkey or England or wherever you happen to be visiting. So last Friday night in Los Angeles my wife Wendy and I went to Stephen S. Wise synagogue in Bel Air, a candidate for the largest Jewish congregation in the United States and likely the world, made up of some 3000 family units. On Saturday morning I went to shul with my dad, Rabbi and Cantor Baruch Cohon, at a very nice smallish Orthodox, Chabad synagogue on Pico Boulevard called Beis Betzalel. There were some significant differences of course, but also many similarities.

First, the similarities. Both the Reform service Friday night and the Orthodox one on Saturday morning were in lovely spaces, beautifully kept up and appropriate for prayer, and temperature-controlled effectively. As you might expect from LA congregations, both shuls have significant show-business ties—for example, the Chabad place, Beis Betzalel is lovely inside because Stephen Spielberg's stepfather goes there and Spielberg paid for the beautiful interior. Both were well-conducted services, the Reform Friday night service led by capable professionals, a rabbi, cantor, and four fine musicians, the Orthodox Saturday morning service led by both extremely capable volunteers—including a retired cantor, my dad, at one point—and coordinated and sometimes led by a capable rabbi. Both were thoughtfully constructed, used their own traditional liturgy and melodies well-known in the two congregations—lots of people sang along; in general participation was pretty universal in both shuls, a mechaieh, lots of good spirit and congregational song—and both included intelligent, insightful commentary at the right point in the service. Both services flowed effortlessly, almost completely in Hebrew with page numbers given in English, but without interruption of English responsive readings or rabbinic explanation or shtick. Both were welcoming to small children, even the disruptive kind. Both services a knowledgeable Jew with high expectations could enjoy without making any excuses.

While I was only there for one Shabbat and did not have the chance to attend Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and other Jewish religious choices, I can report that the level of services at these two places was quite high—what I would honestly expect of a major Jewish city like Los Angeles. I can also say that our own services at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson match up quite well with either of these religious experiences, which was both reassuring, selfishly, and pleasant to note. And of course I'll try to steal a couple of the melodies from both places...

There were some differences, of course, and these are important, and also some surprises.

The first surprise: while it was the post-4th of July weekend and lots of people were out of town—in fact, LA traffic was the lightest I have seen in a long time—there were only about 100 people at the services at Stephen S. Wise. Considering they have 3000 families, that translates to a market share on Friday night, still their main service, of about 3% on a summer Shabbat, not very impressive. We get about that, and often more, on Friday night here at Emanu-El in little old Tucson, with between 600 and 700 families, which translates to something like a 15% market share—not overwhelming, but a whole lot better. In fact, the attendance on Saturday at the Chabad shul, which has far fewer members, was about the same—approximately 100 people.

A second surprise: although the rabbis were respected professionals in both cases, neither sermon was really particularly impressive or interesting, and the best Jewish insights came before the Orthodox service on Saturday morning when a few of us attended a study session, a shiur, before services with Rabbi Lisbon who was exploring a Chabad text, but demonstrated a rich and deep Jewish knowledge matched to real human insight. Only five or six of us were there to hear it, but there were real pearls of wisdom there. Perhaps the best and most inspiring Jewish teaching takes place in these smaller settings...

Some of the differences between the services were obvious: the Orthodox service included no English readings at all, while there were one or two short English readings in the Reform synagogue. The Orthodox service was longer, with much more liturgy, as you would expect, especially since Friday night has much less to it than Saturday morning. And at Beis Betzalel people sit at tables rather than in pews or rows of chairs, leading to a little more relaxed feeling—it was actually quite nice. Interestingly, if anything, the average age at the Orthodox shul was younger, with a good number of men in their 20's, 30's, and 40's as well as some small children. The Reform crowd was older on balance, with some younger families sprinkled in.

But the largest difference, to be honest, was not the more Chasidic style of the music in the Chabad place, more ya ba byes and ai dai dais, or the lovely musical instruments—two guitars, a piano, and a violin—playing seamlessly in the Reform setting. It was the simple fact of gender. In the Orthodox shul the small group of women was off to the side, behind a serious mechitzah that hid them from view and hid the main service from their view. They essentially were not part of the experience. The Reform service was led by a woman cantor with a fine voice and quality and included at least 50% women in the congregation.

That difference never fails to amaze me. In the year 2012 the contrast is stark: a Reform movement that fully integrates and promotes women in every area of its religious experience and an Orthodox world that simply does not.

Both serve an important purpose, and both serve Jews that care very deeply about their experience of a meaningful Jewish life. But that difference remains pretty stunning, in up-to-the-minute Los Angeles as everywhere else in the Jewish world. And if we serve God best through communal prayer, don't we reach the highest level of communal prayer when our entire community is present and actively engaged, not reduced to half its potential strength by gender discrimination?

One final thought about the ways in which we come to pray together, and what that process is all about.

This week in our Torah portion of Pinchas we learn of a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace given by God to Pinchas, a member of the priestly family. The covenant is one of commitment to leading worship, to helping others fulfill their requirement of avodah, of service to God in the public forum. Peace is the result of such successful service, an eternal covenant of peace its sign: for when we connect with God fully we can reach a personal peace as well as a communal peace, both of which are among the greatest of all God's blessings.

On this Shabbat on which we have gathered for our own minyan, our own tefilah b'tzibbur, may you find your inspiration from our collective prayers. And may our combined prayer reach the One God who listens to all these many voices. And may this collective experience help us realize our spiritual potential.

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