09 July 2011

Carry the Water

I think it would be impossible to calculate how many Reform rabbis I saw at Shira Hadasha, an "Orthodox, Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem" this past Shabbat.  Mehitza separating women from men but equal roles in the leading of the service, including Torah reading and aliyot shared by men and women and some of the most extraordinarily beautifully singing on Shabbat that one can find.

Is the movement concerned?  Interested?  Is there someone trying to figure out what this means?

I'll speak for myself and say something that in study sessions back in Brooklyn I openly share with congregants:  that Reform rabbis often live split spiritual lives:  they lead a community in one mode of engagement with music and tradition while craving, desiring, needing more Hebrew and more liturgy whenever they can get it in order to feed their soul.

It's a dilemma:  to serve a community not particularly close to Torah on a daily basis in order to bring them closer to Torah and sacrificing one's own desire for that intimate proximity in order to make way for others to get closer themselves.

My twenty-four hours at Shira Hadasha had its share of mundane moments, don't get me wrong.  Some guy stood too close to me and dangled his plastic shopping bag too close to my head; a sweet child, just learning to walk, engaged me in a game of peek-a-boo; during a brief break in the action, I caught up with a new friend on the goings-on of his week.  But these moments were overwhelmingly, well, overwhelmed, by some deep incidents of connection and transcendence in the carefully choreographed aesthetic aspiration of reaching God through prayer--Hebrew prayer--in Jerusalem.

And as I looked around the room I saw an overflowing cup of Reform rabbis absorbing it all.

Do the communities know this?  Does the movement's leadership?  Is there even dialogue about it?  What does it mean that some rabbis starve themselves spiritually in order to bring others closer and when they are away from their congregations, they choose to pray in settings that they don't work in?

Is that disconnect good?  Bad?  Healthy?  Abnormal?

Is there a way to answer these questions?

Pulling the curtain back on the paradoxical lives of Reform rabbis, I'll admit that services (the very name!  what is this:  the concierge desk at a hotel?) are work; but davenning in shul is an intensely personal endeavor that requires work but of an entirely different variety.  In rabbinical school, we were critiqued over how we led services.  It was considered bad if you didn't smile and make meaningful eye contact with the congregation.  Conversely, if I ran into--and I'm saying face-to-face--the men and women who led davenning and read Torah today at shul, I wouldn't know them from Isaac, Mayer or Wise.  They fulfilled their role anonymously, as it were, with the desired humility sought after by the prophet Micah in this week's haftarah:  agency for the prayers of those gathered nearby.  Not about us, but them.  Ironically, it's our service for them that sublimates ourselves, while (ironically?) smiling ourselves out at the congregation in order to lead them to a place we know, or have been to, or want to bring them to; but just can't get there until we "get away."  Strange goings-on, I'm sure you'll agree.

I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues.  I wondered if they're spiritually lonely.  I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.  There are so many ways to serve God.  Maybe a couple weeks in an Orthodox shul in Jerusalem is enough.

I dunno:  from the looks on my colleagues' faces, they were happy to continue to be sustained.  Their cups overflowed.

Reform Judaism--liturgically--spent so much of the past century excising Tradition and with the past generation and a half of corrections, it will be interesting to see where things land in another 40 years.  That there is a Feminist Orthodox Congregation in Jerusalem questions so many of Reform's assumptions that it's not impossible to imagine Reform itself emerging in time as a very different movement from where it began.

A simple man from Wisconsin, I am.  Proud to carry the water.

Just keep the water coming, God, keep the water coming.


Karen Vaughan said...

And yet in the orthodox shuls I have visited, the spiritual waters seem to be on the other side of the metchiza where men can freely sing their prayers but women cannot. Both orthodoxy and reform Judaism need changes. This congregation adds hope.

Old First said...

Andy, I want to talk to you about this when you get back. It reminds me of what Jon Levenson wrote about "eternal life" in the TANAKH, in the temple, in the book Resurrection: Hope for Christians and Jews.
You were experiencing eternal life, I think. It's what liberals have no interest in. I think Levenson connects with Rosenzweig here.