Friday, July 12, 2013

Aliyah Sound Bites

One of the phenomena that has infiltrated our local shabbos morning service, one which has actually led me to reduce the frequency of my attendance has been the running commentary that precedes each Aliyah, refereed to with a certain derision as Aliyah Sound Bites.  I detest them enough to go someplace else on shabbos morning which I plan to do next shabbos and sometimes make the assessment that no place is better than our sanctuary on shabbos morning so I upgrade my weekly holy experience by going no place.  Not long ago, I passed this comment to a senior Conservative rabbinic friend amid a larger assessment as to why I think many previously observant Jews have voted with their feet in increasing numbers to deplete attendance on Saturday mornings, myself among them.  He seemed a little surprised that I isolated this part of the morning that made the most negative impression upon me, since he had been at the forefront of encouraging his colleagues to replace some of the shabbos morning sermon with this type of running commentary as a form of machshava to better appreciated what is being read when it is being read.  I judge it more as tircha d'tzibburah, lengthening an already long service with trivial ideas that lack any exposition, much as our TV news has replaced analysis of events with a couple of minutes of photos.  Citizens are dumbed down that way and Jews are spoon fed if not dumbed down as well.

Having carried a pager for most of my medical career, one of the most negative features has been multiple interruptions that destroy any focus or personal exploration.  If you are seeing patients in the office and the pager goes off you cannot deal with the message as an opportunity as much as a reason to dispatch the person doing the interruption as quickly as possible.  Aliyah Sound Bites transpose this process to Torah exploration, something that many of us only get to do once or twice each week.  Learned Judaism really has an elegance to it, a give and take much like Medical Rounds where an issue arises that has many different facets to it.  The Torah reading while divided into seven often unequal parts has a unifying cadence that is sacrificed by inserting constant minor interruptions.  I regard the sequential approach of the seven olim each week as part of that cadence, part of the pageant of Torah.  It represents a pause more than a change in thought.  Since the printing press, it is a chance to glance at a commentary as a footnote to what was just read or to read on to the next aliyah or merely to offer a warm handshake to the person returning to his seat following his honor.  Those pauses enable people to direct their attention to where they would like it to be.  Aliyah Sound Bites on the other hand let somebody else select how the natural pauses between chantings are utilized.

My rabbinic friend in his email to me also asked what I would like the rabbi to do instead.  My first reaction was to have a traditional d'var Torah or sermon.  There is a reason why these expositions have endured for centuries, though often quality dependent.  Many of us study a measure of Torah each week, sometimes the weekly portion, sometimes a particular subject that spans several locations in the scroll, or sometimes an offshoot such as a sage's commentary or a modern commentary.  Nobody that I know of who does this opts for a piece of triviality that can be knocked off in minute.  And multiply triviality seven times or eight if you count a Haftarah Sound Bite as well.  Torah understanding accrues with ideas of greater substance, ideas that are amenable to challenges and citations to the contrary of what is being expressed in the portion being studied.  To pretend that seven spoonfuls each week compensates for a real effort where ideas flow from one to another diminishes the many learned people in our sanctuary each week to occupants in the lecture hall of Rabbinical Junior College.  It's a real negative to me.  And I will try to escape it this coming shabbos.

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