Sunday, April 28, 2013

Has God Moved?


In the article linked above, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo poetically shares his conclusion that God has "hired movers" and left the Synagogue and other places of established religion.  His points are basically threefold: 1)  God desires true seekers, and they are now largely found elsewhere, be it cafes, non-traditional minyanim (prayer quoroms) and batei midrash (study halls), and elsewhere.  2)  Traditional Jews continue to flock to God's old address, so to speak, but our prayer and service of God is (on the whole) absolutely and totally devoid of anything meaningful or experiential. 3)  Observant Jews are basically in a state of denial, focusing far too much energy on contrived questions and legal quandaries while willfully ignoring big-picture items that ought to form the loci of our observance.

As a Synagogue Rabbi, I've written about  many of these themes in the past, and think that this article is a must-read for all people of faith.  Practically every sermon I give includes a different impassioned plea for meaningful prayer and substantive religious encounter with the trans-formative awe of the divine; our observance is meant to serve that encounter, the encounter in return designed to radically alter our actions in this world for the good.  Whether it's had any affect good bad or otherwise I cannot say, though I know it has had an impact on my life in profound ways.  Personally, creating a meaningful observance and prayer space has been the primary function of my rabbinate and even this blog; it also happens to be one of the central points of our mesorah (tradition).

The next several blog posts will dwell on different aspects of this theme, but there's one I'd like to share today. It is widely known that Lag Baomer (the 33rd day of the omer count) is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic and possible author of the Zohar.  Often ignored is that it's also the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known affectionately as the Rema, the great mystic (yes, he also spent most of his time delving into kaballah) and authority of Ashkenazic Jewish law and custom.  In light of this article, I thought that the beginning of the legal code he authored are instructive.  We'll comment how he chose to open his great legal encyclopedia.

"שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד - I am ever mindful of the Lord's Presence" (Psalms 16:8).  He goes on to write that this is the most important rule of the Torah, because a person who lives with God-consciousness does not act the same way as one who lives without such consciousness.  Such a person will be humble, kind, and eager to serve God.

Why did the Rema begin a legal work with ostensibly non legal advice?  The answer is obvious.  Judaism and Jewish law represent a religious legal system, and the aim of that system is to foster a constant awareness of God and the resulting behavioral affects.  It's an easy question whether we're doing any of these well - we're not.  We certainly fixate on the law, even obsess, and in the modern day, seek new strictures and creative legal arguments all in a well-meaning effort to safeguard God's commands.  In all of this, the point is missed, masses leave or are uninspired, and the religious experience becomes dry and loses its efficacy.

It's easy to say "woah unto us."  The harder question, though, is what bold solutions and adjustments are needed to preserve and advance our tradition, one that teaches that the center of it all is an awareness of God's presence in our lives so deep that it affects all of our interactions profoundly.  


  1. I read the original article as well as your response,and while I cannot comment on the majority of synagogues but I can speak about some of your wonderful congregants, who go to minyan daily.

    This commitmentment is reflective of their relationship with G-d. Just as commitment is the bedrock of a marriage, it is also a major component of our relationship with G-d. Some days they feel inspired and their prayers are more "meaningful", other days they struggle and the encounter would not meet your standards. Like in a marriage, some days are betterthan others. But they are there, every day, constant, committed, dedicated, devoted.

    Your daily minyan goers show up twice a day even when they are busy, or tired, or upset, or depressed, or even dying. They show up even when they are happy and have fun things to do. They may be feeling close to G-d or distant from Him. They may see His benevolent hand in their lives or feel angry at the challenges they face. But they show up without fail (or little fail, anyway) and demonstrate twice each day that they are committed to the relationship, that they are present and willing to work on themselves, on their relationship with the Almighty, and on the observance of the mitzvot.

    In the end (and in the beginning too) the commitments we demonstrate show who we are and what we believe in. They speak louder than anything else as to our values and beliefs. How can the service and prayers of those who demonstrate such commitment possibly be "absolutely . . devoid of anything meaningful or experiential"? Their commitment IS meaning. Their every day is framed by the experience of gathering to pray to G-d, to accept the yoke of heaven publicly.

    If there is a bigger picture we should be focused on, one that is bigger than commitment to G-d, bigger than participation in the community, bigger than recognizing the importance of prayer, I'd like to know what it is. Experience can be powerful but it is fleeting, meaning in prayer can vary for different individuals and at different times, but our actions are the litmus test of our relationships.

    We learn this week that if we keep the laws G-d will walk among us, be our G-d and we will be his people. He Is always there waiting for those who have been coming.
    Where is He? He is still downstairs in CBS, every morning and every evening. I bet he is even there when you cannot get a minyan . . .

  2. Bernie Madoff showed up to work every single day, rain or shine.

  3. Yes, he served Mammon faithfully. His commitments showed who he was and what he believed in . . .

  4. Appreciate the dialogue. Not denying the commitment of daily or otherwise regular minyangoers, or for that matter shiur attendees, or those that come to my soup kitchen, etc. Nor do I think we run the dryest tefillah out there.

    Still, even many of our daily minyan goers have responded to me by noting that they feel something's lacking. The atmosphere in our synagogues is often sterile, and even the people committed to coming yearn for something more. A few people who attend regularly have even been moved to tears. As a community, I think we can do more to both make sure those who come have a more meaningful experience if they desire (many do) and to attract the majority of Jews, who at this point, simply don't come. If we don't acknowledge that problem, it doesn't bode well.

    Now, to stay positive . . . what might we do?

  5. You are focused on how to bring in those who don't come. I am focusing on recognizing the importance of those who do come and the commitment they represent. I believe that if we don't acknowledge the former, we will fail to keep the latter even if we draw them in. Why? because without the commitment, the experience is shallow and fleeting, and those we bring in are smart enough to see that.

    I think it is an error to compare a one-a-week commitment to a twice-a-day commitment. This comparison fails to recognize and value more intense commitment. I don't think that we adequately value and celebrate this kind of commitment and focus on the meaning inherent in this constancy.

    In this, we are mirroring what our society does with its portrayal of marriage: we celebrate passion and romance almost exclusively, and don't adequately value love, constancy and devotion. For this reason, we forget that making marriage meaningful requires hard work, and we set ourselves up for failure. Making our relationship with G-d meaningful requires the same.

    Combining these into a positive suggestion: I think we need to make an effort to value and promote the significant daily effort and to focus on the meaningful experience that arises from this. Focusing and appreciating the commitment is a way to enhance people's *recognition* of the meaning in their actions.

    This does not mean that even with this focus on valuing the committed experience some of the attendees will not yearn for a different type of prayer experience, but this may be the same type of service that will turn off others . . . we are individual in what we like, and what we find meaningful. I think that part of the problem is that we have an amorphous idea of "meaning" and "atmosphere" that varies from person to person, and in pursuing that we devalue the meaning inherent in commitment. Just as movie-style romance is great for some couples, but may feel insincere to others -- a Carlebach style minyan may be wonderful for some but empty for others! What some call "dry" may be what others call beautifully simple and straightforward. Style should not be confused with meaning.

    What is a sterile atmosphere? One where there is no relationship with G-d. But this is only known in one's heart, so I think it is offensive to call the atmosphere in any synagogue sterile. It devalues the devotion of those who are there, and how can we judge that?! (BTW I found your statements 2 and 3 in the original post inappropriately judgmental as well)

    We don't all experience G-d in the same way, nor should we. But when I look around me I assume the best of those praying near me, and believe they are here to strengthen their relationship with G-d in their own way, and so whatever their style I can't consider it "dry" or "sterile". And that is inspiring. To see committed people at prayer is meaningful.

    And what if I don't like the style of a service? What if it fails to move me? What if it irritates me? Then I must look into myself and to G-d and remember what the relationship is about: a focus on the meaning that is inside us, that is expressed in our actions and our lives, instead of an "experience" or an "atmosphere" that is individual and transient.

  6. For sure, I agree with many of your points. Prayer is ultimately internal, and each of us is largely responsible for whether we there is a true "amidah lifnei Hashem" as is required by halacha, or not. And obviously the level of commitment is vital, and you're right, people don't do commitment like they ought to in this generation, not with lots of things.

    I think when we say that synagogue environments are sterile, though, we mean that they are often objectively not conducive if someone wanted to have a true tefillah, regardless of style.

    For example, some like singing, and some feel it's artificial, and prefer to quietly focus on the words. However, if someone's saying the words not respectfully (rushing, without care, etc.), it will almost certainly affect the kavanah of everyone else, to the point where the environment is simply not conducive. If we are used to people speaking as soon as they finish their private amidah without concern for the disruptions of others (and yes, whispers are as distracting as anything else), then it's not conducive. I think the combination of rushed prayers(obviously there are many notable exceptions)said without grammar, feeling, emotion, etc., talking, noise, casual conversation, interruption, all of it contributes to the non-conducive atmosphere that many find challenging.

  7. I agree that a rushed and noisy prayer is not conducive to focus. I also agree that this is a problem in many places. But you make it sound like these things are intentional, or that people are simply expressing a lack of concern for others or respect for prayer. I don't believe this to be the case.

    I think that we need to try to judge these situations positively -- and that is the point of communal prayer.

    For example, if we only allowed those who have correct grammar and pronunciation to lead the prayers or read the Torah/Haftorah, we would be down to about 3 people (maybe fewer!). And yet we want to enhance participation, we want to encourage younger and less experienced (as well as less well-trained and knowledgable) people to be a contributing part of the congregation. So our values are served by lowering our standards. You can say we are not careful about grammar or that we are very committed to inclusion. Both are correct: how should we look at it? Can't be be inspired rather than distracted if we focus on the intent?

    This is similar for those who pray quickly or unclearly (rushed is a relative term, as some simply pray faster than others, but clarity is important). Yes, it makes focus more difficult, but there is not bad intent or disrespect meant, and so we place a higher value on valuing the person than the prayer. Yes, it may be distracting, but there is a redeeming aspect there too.

    As for lack of feeling and emotion --prayers may not sound like they are heartfelt, but that does not mean they are not. (And I am not sure that what I consider "sounding heartfelt" would be the same for you). Here we get into some subjective judgements.

    Shuls that have a Chazzan of excellent quality may not have these drawbacks (though you hear similar complaints there) -- but they may miss out on the participatory element and an opportunity for growth and the warmth that comes at the cost of uneven quality of the prayer leadership.

    As to the congregational behavior and decorum. Noise and chatter is disrespectful and not easily justified, but in some cases it too can be judged positively, e.g. children running and making noise can be a sign of a warm and welcoming place; As can people welcoming newcomers (loudly!).

    I am not saying we all have all those positive motivations and attributes in all cases, but I believe that in most synagogues there are very few -- if any -- congregants who have "no concern for disrupting others", or Shlichei Tzibbur who have a disregard or lack of respect for how they say the prayers.

    Yes, of course I would prefer to have a more conducive service while maintaining all the warmth and inclusiveness -- but as much as I would love to see it happen, and enjoy it if it did, I don't honestly believe that a quieter, clearer, more accurate and decorous prayer is the magic piece (or indeed peace) we are missing to bring us closer to G-d. Not even a magic piece . . . maybe one ingredient. The encounter with G-d is more complex, deeper, more individual, and less predictable.