Monday, April 23, 2012

Yoga vs. Shul: Round 1

Tonight, I went to a Yoga class at the local JCC.  Lasting for one (quick) hour, the class encouraged mindful consideration of body position, energy, relationship to the surrounding environment, and more.  The mood was peaceful, and highly conducive for contemplative and meditative types of experiences.  Lighting was set just so, and the instructor calmly talked us through in a way that helped aid our efforts. Feeling rejuvenated, energized, and more mindful, I left just in time to go to the daily mincha/maariv prayer service at my Synagogue.  

It was there that I was struck by the difference in atmosphere, and just how far we have to go to improve the nature of our services.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan certainly popularized the still unfamiliar notion that authentic Jewish prayer is a meditative experience.  Now, many in our synagogues are aware of the idea.  The Talmud in Berachot recounts how the early sages used to prepare for an hour, pray for an hour, and then spend an hour poised in post-prayer contemplation. 

Now, I'm not saying we have to spend three hours praying, but is the Synagogue environment conducive to a true prayer experience in its current iteration?  Even on a weekday afternoon prayer, when the text is not overly burdensome or lengthy, it is very difficult to be in the right frame of mind.  For one, few synagogues pay serious attention to whether the lighting is conducive for a meditative experience.  Further, the parts of the prayers that are said out loud are rushed.  The yoga instructor used calm tones and relaxed pacing to help create the right atmosphere; our baalei tefillah should be instructed to do the same.  Racing through ashrei and the kaddish before the silent devotion can ruin or constitute a serious setback to the prayer experience.  Lastly, sound and quiet whispering begins in almost all synagogues about 30 seconds to a minute into the silent devotion.  Even if everyone is silent, the clang of charity falling into the pushka (while well intentioned) is completely disruptive to the mood.  Charity is important, but should be given before or after the the silent devotion, not during!   

This isn't meant as an indictment of our synagogue or any other synagogue, but a call to action.  We should be seeking to create a peaceful prayer environment, in order to better help the mood.  Is it any wonder that calls for increased synagogue attendance are falling on deaf ears.  Let's make some serious changes, and when shul becomes a place conducive to spirituality and an authentic Jewish prayer experience, we'll have myriads of lost souls knocking at the doors . . . 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Making of a Meaningful Passover Seder

Part I

For years, one of the arguments used as a justification for affirmative action has been "diversity."  Academic institutions have incorporated race and other such factors into their admission decisions, claiming that such practices are necessary to advance the cause of education.  

Truthfully, I've always felt that race was a rather shallow and imprecise way of ensuring diversity of viewpoint and robust classroom discussion.  Here is a description of the reasons for my discomfort: I very strongly agree with the assertion that diversity of opinion is vital to an educational environment.  Further, I agree that academic institutions are more than justified, perhaps obligated, to promulgate diversity of viewpoint and experience through their admissions processes.  Where I have trouble is in the use of race as a primary factor in establishing diversity of viewpoint.  If we are truly seeking to live in a society that is color-blind, as Martin Luther King Jr. so strongly and passionately articulated, why should we presume that people will have varied opinions on the basis of race.  While it is in fact true that racial identification does correlate with political, social, religious, and other beliefs, by using race as the indicator, we further the notion that there are inherent differences in human beings which can be fairly judged (or at least assumed for the purposes of admission) based on race. 

Rather, college admissions might be better off asking for candidates to describe their background, family, and upbringing, describing how it has shaped their political, religious, and social views.  Diversity of experience, background, and opinion are all incredibly important; why not ask about these things directly, rather than through the intermediary guise of race?  I truly believe that by using race as the overwhelming criteria, we continue to foster prejudices and do ourselves a disservice, however well-intentioned.  

Part II

I expect that many of you will voice various concerns or disagree with sections of what I wrote above.  That's expected, and the point of a blog.  This section is the main point I wanted to make; the above is just a related thought. 

This year, I was incredibly fortunate, and my wife and I were able to host incredible and meaningful sedarim at our house.  What made the nights special was largely the people who attended, their participation, sincerity, enthusiasm, and diversity.  While all of us were of one race (as best I could tell), there was tremendous diversity present.  Some were college students, some high school students, others children.  We had adults at various stages of their lives.  We had Republicans, Democrats, Independents, a variety of religious outlooks and denominations, and more.  What this led to was productive, meaningful, and inspiring dialogue all grounded in the text of the Haggadah and the Passover rituals we hold so dear.  

Many people approached me this year and inquired as to what they might do to have a more meaningful seder.  At the time, I wasn't sure.  Now, I'd say that the one of the most important things is to make a concerted effort to invite people from different walks of life.  It certainly enhanced my holiday, and made it one of the most meaningful in recent memory.