Wednesday, January 22, 2014

They Are Not Equal

When I needed to recite Kaddish for my father, my personal schedule was best served by seeking a kabbalat shabbat minyan.  The place that had one where I could be guaranteed ten Jewish men amid a mixed multitude happened to be the Reform congregation a short walk from my own synagogue which conducted services at sundown on Friday night and often did not assemble a minyan.  Late Friday night services had been the tradition at my childhood congregation, a generally observant United Synagogue of America affiliate which took liberties on Friday night to best serve the many commuters who did not complete their trip home until after lichtbentschen and much preferred supper or "That Was the Week That Was" to shul.  In those days we had a volunteer choir on Friday night, Bat Mitzvah on occasion, sometimes a brief program and always a very pleasant Oneg Shabbat following services in preparation for more businesslike activity in the sanctuary on Saturday morning.  So even though I am a long way from Reform Judaism ideologically, I took advantage of what was available to me to honor my father that year.  And invariably I liked being there more than I like attending any other synagogue in my community, including my own.  Yet my own Conservative origins have been largely abandoned.  When I came to the community, my allegiance defaulted to their affiliate, yet like many others I drifted elsewhere, or more accurately moved elsewhere purposefully, grateful for the education that I was able to acquire under United Synagogue programming but ready to graduate.  I last attended shabbat morning there about a year ago.  Those in attendance seemed to be having a good time, greeting each other, chiming in with the tunes.  But those who sang loudest to the familiar lacked the very portable knowledge that I had to proceed on to the unfamiliar.  It is not really perpetuation of our centuries' chain of traditions but rather the illusion or even the self-deception that they are doing this, and with a rabbinical and lay leadership in place.  No, the Pew Research study correctly identifies me as a defector from this.  My own congregation falls someplace between these two extremes.

I recognized what I felt but did not understand why until it was pointed out by a superb Dvar Torah commentary for Parsha Beshalach by Rabbi Riskin of Ohr Torah Stone .

He describes a contrast between Moshe and Miriam praising God for safe passage out of Egypt.  Moses sang a song whose words are recorded in the Torah text while Miriam responded in some way along with the other women, but her words, if any, were subservient to music and dance.  Judaism has a text and it has a spirit.  Both impart beauty.  We will be reading of Betzalel shortly, the man of Wise Heart who could make a Mishkan sparkle with elegance.  He had a skill that Moshe himself lacked.  But while ideas and spirit co-exist, in Judaism they are not equal.  All advancement right down to the many weekly Divrei Torah so readily available for review derives from ideas and the words that express them.  A Mezzuzah, while attractive on a doorpost, depends on the words of the klaff scrolled inside to impart its holiness.  Listening to or participating in a Hasidic niggun adds pleasantry but it is the Rebbe's farbrengen that imparts wisdom.

So having kids or their parents who can come together with a tune in unison may impart a measure of Kehillah but it leaves Tzedek, Chochmah and and ultimately Kedoshah at the starting gate.  All of these things depend on real learning, real skill, not its surrogate.  Setting aside the ideas which lead to understanding while accepting the trivial as the norm to which people will congregate does a disservice to the future of the synagogue as an institution.  Misrepresentation eventually gets exposed.  The naked emperors can count on it.

So back to my own shabbatot.  Kaddish for me has been reduced to twice a year, or technically three times some years as my mother's is observed in Adar.  Yet I still attend Reform services a few times each quarter.  Their Rabbi's message says something.  Their Cantor and organist leave me uplifted. But the usually outstanding sermon and the usually outstanding music are hardly equal in their importance, though there is some element of overlap in what each imparts.

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