05 March 2010

What We Do Not Demand

In the closing pages of his book, A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel tells the post-war story about an observant friend who worked for the Jewish Agency in Poland, helping Holocaust survivors with plans for emigration. On the train ride from Warsaw back to Paris, Heschel's friend shared his train compartment with a "poorly clad Jew" who couldn't find a seat anywhere else on train. Evening prayers came and the compartment guest didn't join the friend in prayer. Morning prayers arrived and as the friend put on his tallit and tefilin, the guest sat still. Later that second night, the two spoke and the guest said, "I'm never going to pray any more because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could I pray? That is why I did not pray all day."

Heschel continues: "The following morning--it was a long trip from Warsaw to Paris--my friend noticed that the fellow suddenly opened his bundle, took out his Talit and Tefillin and started to pray. He asked him afterward, 'What made you change your mind?' The fellow said, 'It suddenly dawned upon me to think how lonely God must be; look with Whom He is left. I felt sorry for Him.'"

I think there are fundamentally three reasons why most Reform Jews don't pray.

1. They don't want to because they don't believe in God or their agnosticism is such that their understanding of history is very similar to the compartment guest, who either sees or experiences evil and concludes that God is not worthy of prayer. Their lack of prayer is a protest against an idea of God that hears and deserves to hear prayer.

2. They don't need to because "in *Reformed Judaism* (it's just nuts when people get the name of the movement wrong) you get to "do whatever you want." The Reform movement in general suffers mightily from this perceived and actual "low bar" standard of performance. The lack of regular, daily, prayerful communities is one of the many manifestations of this phenomenon. Do-Whatever-You-Want-ism. Albany comes to mind--but not because Isaac Mayer Wise once served there.

3. They don't know how, a direct result of position number two above. Ignorance in education breeds inaction in life and when the standard of expectation is not set for daily practice and observance. When the demand is not made, there is a very large Rock left to push up a very steep Hill.

Ironically, in rabbinical school at HUC, there was a daily minyan. But there was also a paradox inherent to the experience of daily prayer: it was set up as a performance workshop which was managed and critiqued in such a stifling ways as to deprive it of any real meaning. Service leaders were judged by a panel of experts who rated decorum, tone of voice, and organization--leaving students often terrified (kind of funny in its own right) of failure. Every day those who had the discipline to show up would be treated to a morning service *as if* it were Friday night. There was accompaniment, cantorial solos, rabbinic teaching guides to help focus the prayer, and two service leaders standing at a lectern facing an "audience" of worshippers. I went nearly every day for four years and didn't enjoy it one bit but felt that it was my obligation to be there.

Imagine that: not enjoying your obligations. Like taking medicine. Or going to "work."

"Serve the Eternal with gladness; come before God with exultation." (Psalm 100)

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that "Divine service with rejoicing can give us true happiness, the feeling of steady and constant spiritual and moral growth, the continuous growth of all that is truly human in us, a blissful joy of life that is not subject to change in any manner by the outward circumstances which life may bring."

Finding space for daily offerings of gratitude and thanksgiving is essential for ensuring a state of constant growth. Hirsch brings the Sages to make this final point, "When one day in the future that is to come, all things on earth will be in such an ideal state that there will be no more cause for prayers and offerings; even then, prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving will never cease."

Articulating a vision and executing a plan of action for the discipline of daily practice among Reform Jews--now there's a *performance* that deserves a critique.

To not attempt to meet this demand severs the synagogue membership of the largest movement in American Judaism from the normative narrative of Jewish practice that could well be one of the greatest losses of modern Jewish life today. Is the Reform movement growing because of what we offer? Or are we growing because of what we *do not* demand?

Since we're a tradition of questions, it seems like a good one to ask.


Rabbi Val said...

One other reason people (Reform Jews in particular) don't pray: the words don't match up with what us on our minds, in our hearts. Neither the Hebrew nor the English translation expresses the real yearnings or the ambivalent joys we have accurately enough. We are both over-educated and under-educated in this respect.

As to your final question, people choose Reform for both reasons. Reform offers warmth, real commitment to social justice, acceptance and inclusion of people other movements include reluctantly or not at all. And also, Reform Judaism does not demand that we do 4 Chatzi Kaddishes per service and Tachanun, nor really much of anything. The lack of demand (ritually) to do what has become "irrelevant," however, has translated into a lack of demand for anything and has been interpreted by many members (but not all-see the crowds at a house of mourning night after night) as a free pass to have sense of duty.
Well, you asked....


Hey Val--I agree that the commitment to social justice and inclusiveness are absolutely essential to Reform ideology. But I wouldn't dismiss Tachanun so easily--I see lots of sinning going on out there. A little humility and self-reflection can go a long way. In terms of all the Kaddishes--I'm mixed. It can seem onerous. But it's also exceptionally powerful to be "obligated" to say it so often. I'm sure there's a healthy compromise.

Thanks for writing!

DP Greenberg said...

In the words of the great Jewish philosopher Barney Frank, let me answer your question with a question. Why does it matter so much to you whether I believe in G-d, and, as a corollary, whether I pray? Honestly, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to question of why some of the brightest people I know, including you, believe in God, pray to it and are concerned about what I do. Does it make me a lesser member of the community that I haven’t carved out some concept of a greater power for myself, whether anthropomorphic, polymorphic, angry, judgmental ineffable or otherwise? The list goes on because none of you believers seems to be able to define what exactly it is that you are praying to or about. Perhaps that’s the charm of it: the one corner of your lives where you have be problem solvers, think in scientific terms and be rational. As you know, I’m all for community. Many undoubtedly derive great moral strength by associating their communal urge with a divine mission. Others among us, however, don’t make such a fit. Does that automatically make us vulgar Jews? Do we have a lesser moral standing as a result? Is my soul in jeopardy? I’m not asking these questions to be provocative. I believe they are a fair response to what seems like a constant din from the rabbinate imploring us to buy into the full package as you experience it. Tell my why it matters, how what I do falls short and I’ll consider it. Otherwise, your God, and the prayerful service owed to it, will remain an abstraction for me.

Amanda said...

As someone who enjoys prayer and has tried and wants to continue to try to pray on a regular basis I really liked your blog today Andy. I also, found David's comments thought provoking. I do not think everyone needs to do what I do to be a "good" Jew, but I wonder if there is something to be gained from praying that is missed by those who opt out. And it may be in that vein that Andy focuses on this matter. If, and you may be one of those people, one tries prayer and find it doesn't work, I think that is one thing, versus the person who just says, nope don't want to do it, it would do nothing for me.


DP: First of all, there's a problem with my message if you take it as my proselytizing or judging you. I'm not. My faith in God is my own; that I find God (sometimes) in prayer is a good benefit for which I am grateful. I am, rather, trying to describe the benefit of *doing* ritual in a daily way that deepens ones relationship with God or Not-God but certainly with Judaism and the Jewish people. The end result, arguably, is the same. But as a person of faith, God motivates me. So don't see my persuasive language as *din* but as simply speaking from where I am. Now, happy Shabbos you big ignoramus. (Kidding, kidding.)

Old First said...

I'm all about this.

Stewart Chicago said...

I have become friends with some Orthodox people in Chicago. Since I was raised Reform, they told me that the problem with the Reform movement is that certain things that determine Jewishness are watered down so much that it is no longer really Jewish (observing Shabbat, Keeping Kosher, etc.) Your comments on Jewish people in the Reform movement not praying hit pretty close to home and made me think. I tend to pray when I have some great difficulty in life, like if I or a good friend is sick. Like anything else, practice makes perfect and praying is no exception. Thanks.

DP Greenberg said...

Not so fast, Elmer Gantry. The title of your entry is "What We Do Not Demand." There is a strong suggestion there, and all the more so from the text that follows, that you would at least like to consider investing normative Reform practice with a daily ritual of prayer. Now, if that were somehow to happen - for example, the governing bodies resolved to make it so - wouldn't that effectively render those of us who refrained less than full-fledged practicing Reform Jews? So I do think there is a measure of judging in your suggestion. The judgment you cast, of course, is not a personal one, and that's by no means the message you convey in any of the several forums at your disposal. Nonetheless, it's hard not to feel that one would be failing to live up to a standard of some sort by not engaging in daily prayer, were that to become an accepted tenet of the Reform Judaism. Incidentally, I'm also not clear where that leaves the conversation. I'm certainly not suggesting that such a concept shouldn't be put forth for fear of alienating the "Scientific" arm of the movement, as I am today dubbing us. I'm simply trying to get my bearings in this discussion. [NB: if memory serves, my great hero Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan referred to Reform Judaism as "Reformist." He also described it as a "smile without the cat." What do we think of his terminology?]


David--I don't see the distinction between the study of Torah, the study of the Hebrew language, the practice of performing good deeds and the practice of prayer as distinct from one another. In a hierarchy of what Judaism demands of us, I see them as normatively equal. Judaism demands that we engage in each of those "pillars" to the best of our ability. Is there a judgment if we do not? In a way, yeah. But so what? Don't you measure yourself against standards of performance at work? When you run in the park? In your personal friendships? Why should a religious tradition not demand of us as well? Even if one is an atheist, one can exist in a community that has standards of expectation. Though not enforced (I sincerely doubt a national body of Reform leaders, by the way, could agree on national standards--the movement would inherently reject it as "non-Reform")standards locally, or by community, are a concept well worth pursuing if a community decides it wants to create an aspirational vision for what that community represents.

But I think you overstate the "judging" aspect of all this. So 20 people out of a congregation of 750 families show up at daily minyan. There would be no judgment of those who *don't* show up; but for the 20 who do, why deprive them of the feeling and satisfaction of fulfilling an obligation to do so?

Larry Kaufman said...

In our (sensibly) security-conscious synagogues, how many leaders would choose to make the chapel available all day, for those who want the comfort of "sacred space" for private prayer?

And if we are not going to facilitate individual prayer, how many Reform congregations could muster a minyan to offer communal prayer?

I would agree with Rabbi Bachman on the idea that Reform congregations should meet their communities' demand for daily prayer opportunities, if I thought that such a demand exists. I know that the large urban congregation I used to belong to eventually discontinued its longstanding 5:45 service because too often the only person there was the designated volunteer service leader.

Now maybe if that congregation had maintained a minyan requirement, and had worked at building a minyan.....No, I'm inclined to believe that even my hypothetical is so much wishful thinking.

Dave said...

to the question you pose at the end, "Is the Reform movement growing because of what we offer? Or are we growing because of what we *do not* demand?" i note on the home page of the temple's website the item "Welcome to CBE" which begins:
"Congregation Beth Elohim ... is the largest and most active Reform congregation in Brooklyn. CBE is host to a variety of youth and family education programs, musical and artistic performances, and religious and social activities."

am i overreading when i wonder why the religious activites of the synagogue are mentioned third, after musical and artistic performances?