Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prayer, leadership, and music.

.תפילה, מנהיגות, ומוזיקה

Yesterday morning, Jessica and I attended Reconstructionist services held in the student lounge of HUC. During the services, I had one of those periodic waves of anticipation and excitement about being a rabbi some day, and I was actively engaged in thinking about prayer and leadership. Add to that the several conversations I've had with Jessica and HUC colleagues about our Rosh Hashanah services here--and Jewish prayer services in general--and it turns out I've been thinking about this topic a lot. So, here are some of my thoughts (many of which are inspired and tempered by others).

Let's start with the Reconstructionist service. The leadership style of the service was fairly laissez-faire, with the leader announcing page numbers, starting a song, and then getting quiet. In some communities, that leadership style can be quite effective. I understand that a number of Reconstructionist congregations are comprised largely of Jews who want to take an active role in prayer and therefore, a strong central leader would detract from their prayer experience. This results in a more organic, ground-up form of prayer service.

Now, in the environment that we had yesterday, I didn't find this leadership style particularly conducive to my own prayer. We weren't in a "Reconstructionist community" as such but rather a somewhat hodgepodge collection of Jews, at least some of whom were quite new to Reconstructionism. This resulted in not only a quiet leader but also a quite congregation. The service was slow, perhaps contemplative, and though it may have been beautiful and meaningful for some or most of the participants, it wasn't for me.

Now, this presents a troubling question: Am I dependent on someone else to facilitate my prayer experience? That is, how much should I be able to pray in any circumstance? The goal of my liturgy teacher is to familiarize us enough with Jewish prayer that we will be able to pray in any Jewish environment, and I would love that. One of my goals for the year is to be able to better understand, and indeed be better at, prayer. The more Hebrew I learn, the more meaningful Jewish prayer becomes to me. Also helpful are learning more about the structure, history, and composition of Jewish prayer as well as the context within which a particular prayer service is conducted. I hope that sooner than later, I'll be able to find myself able to pray in any setting.

But I know that it's rare for a person to be able to pray anywhere (and I know it will require a lot of work on my part). For most people, the community and the service leader are integral parts of the prayer experience, and that will always be true for me as well. Being able to pray on my own, after all, is only a part of the picture: Jewish prayer is also communal, and without connecting to my prayer community, my prayer will be incomplete. (This, by the way, is why it will be difficult for me to pray fully in an orthodox congregation - the segregation of men and women will, I believe, pose a significant barrier to my being able to fully connect to that prayer community.)

So, what should I, as a future professional prayer leader (possibly), be aware of in prayer leadership? Personally, I like a leader who exhibits confidence and control. Even though I can't sing well, if I'm singing first and loudly, I hope to be able to inspire intentional and meaningful singing from the congregation as well. Although I might be speaking a Hebrew that some congregants don't understand, I hope to read with sufficient conviction to convey the heart of the prayer even if the specific words are lost.

Because to me, understanding a prayer is crucial to its beauty. Some Hebrew songs are just beautiful, period, regardless of their meaning. But, I've found that the more I know about what I'm saying, the more meaningful my prayer experience. (Duh.) So, I feel it will be important to convey meaning and not just words during prayer. If that requires English or explanations or whatever, I hope to be able to find it.

And then there's the question of music. For me, I don't have to say every word to feel prayerful. I can listen to a song like Avinu Malkeinu and not say a word and have it be meaningful. (I think I wrote about that here earlier.) Even more "everyday" songs can inspire me if I don't sing along. I am in the process of exploring the relationship between my self and my prayer community, and I believe that my own prayers can be uttered by others and vice versa. By saying amen, I am affirming my place in the Jewish community, and the tenet of Jewish prayer that at least ten people are required before a full service can take place further supports the idea that a community is necessary for an individual to pray.

Yet there are others who feel differently. I've heard from people who say that if they're not participating in the prayer, they're generally unable to have a prayerful experience. So for them, beautiful and intricate music is just that: music. Not prayer. And many people don't want to attend concerts in place of services.

Obviously, there's a compromise position of a cantor being able to switch between "cantorial" music and "congregational" music effectively. But the High Holy Days can be a problem because they're the Days of Awe. For many, perhaps the majority, "accessible" music is not what's expected or enjoyed during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So, do we wash our hands of the Jews who don't like that kind of music?

I was hearing about a congregation back in the States that's actively engaged in this question of being able to provide meaningful prayer experiences to all of its congregants. The congregation offers different kinds of services, but the trade off is a further separation of the community. And that brings us back to the original question: How important is the individual in Jewish prayer, which is by nature communal?

Take, for example, our dilemma at UVA Hillel. For my last couple years at school, we had significant difficulty getting a minyan at both Reform and Conservative prayer services. The question before us was: Do we focus on the individual needs of the different groups, or do we sacrifice particular desires in order to bring the community together as a whole. I think I would have handled the situation differently now, especially as an outsider to the community, but we had so much difficulty understanding the question that I don't think we ever came up with a really satisfying solution.

It's one thing to say what I find most conducive to a positive prayer experience: A strong leader, beautiful music, and meaningful words in a language I understand. The challenge lies in finding what's most conducive to a positive prayer experience for a community.

Tomorrow, I will co-lead the first of the weekly student-led prayer services at HUC, and I'm fairly nervous about our ability to have accurately gauged the needs of our prayer community. I'm sure that we'll get some things wrong, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how other prayer leaders interpret the needs of our community. Hopefully by the end of the year, I'll have a better idea of how to assess those needs because I think that's going to be a vital skill to my future.

Ultimately, I'm just grateful and excited that I don't have to be a rabbi yet. Five years is a long time, and we're only just beginning. Hearing my colleagues discuss prayer in such a serious way for the past week has given me a lot of optimism about the degree to which we're going to be able to delve seriously into this business of Jewish professional life once we graduate from HUC. Let's hope we don't disappoint!

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