Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Can I Be a Fully Religious Jew Without Communal Prayer?

I am temporarily interrupting this month of Elul blogs to engage in what I hope will be an honest and frank discussion.

My mother and I had a conversation last week that was, at its core, about the annual observance of the Yamim  Noraim (High Holy Days)-family dinners, service times, clothing options. But it truly evolved into a discourse about the changing nature of our congregations, the content found within those walls, and whether or not a questioning but highly rational, scientifically-based individual can find value in prayer, or more specifically communal prayer. And are we, (I count myself amongst those who are questioning) best served by sitting for hours in a synagogue, simply flipping pages, during this holiest of times?

A few caveats before I delve further.

1. I am a retired cantorial soloist whose job it was for over thirty years to facilitate these services and communal prayer experiences. High Holy Days were the most stressful time of the year simply because we knew that our "audience" was at peak attendance and it was our opportunity to engage those wayward souls who honestly and accurately describe themselves as "twice a year Jews." I am not at all naive about what brings people into synagogues and what keeps them away. 

2. God does play a part in my life, but as I get older I have found myself engaged in a much more rational, intimate, and personal conversation with the Divine Presence and a far less spiritual one. 

3. I am not a liturgically-uneducated person. I have spent years studying and understanding our services, the Hebrew and English texts, the order of our worship, and why we do what we do when we do it. 

4. Judaism is a religion that is dependant upon communal involvement for the completion of many mitzvot. A minyan, or quorum of 10, is required for public prayer and finds its roots in both Torah and Talmud.

"And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev 22:32)
"Separate yourselves from the midst of the congregation" (Numbers 16:21)

Additionally we find in the story of the ten spies who returned with negative reports about the land, Moses complains to Aaron:

"How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?" (Numbers 14:27)

Using a biblical exegesis known as gezerah shavah, whereby two or more verses with similar terminology are compared, the Talmud (Megillah 23b) has deduced that the minyan is required for communal prayer. So, if a minyan is a religious commitment, and I wish to be a religious Jew, how can I fully justify a decision to disengage from public prayer, (attending services) that no longer carries any emotional weight or spiritual meaning?

And so begins our discussion....

Herein lies my fundamental problem: I am having trouble finding purpose or spiritual fulfillment in the majority of service experiences of late, and that includes many of the ones that I have led. I have been fortunate to hear wonderful compliments from congregants over the years as to how my music has moved them to a higher plane and aided in their spiritual journeys, but my own personal divine pilgrimage has been frustratingly stunted when it is within the confines of the synagogue walls and prayer books. I have worked with and been involved with some tremendously creative rabbis and cantors over the years who have been on the cutting edge of synagogue worship experiences, so I am not stuck in any kind of worship rut. I have tried the experimental, the experiential, the natural, the playing it straight, and the study. At best I find myself fidgeting, at worst I am bored and disinterested. It used to be that I would let the music carry me away, but lately I simply cannot get engaged in a service. I love the music of our people and am most moved when it is eclectic, but I am finding my voice is often silent these days during traditional worship experiences.

Last year, on the second day of Rosh Hashana, The Husband and I took a hike and communed with nature rather than attend services. We did tashlich, blew the shofar, ate some apples and honey, and enjoyed the warm autumn morning. It was the closest to God I had felt in many years and hopefully we will get a chance to repeat the experience.

So, what is the answer?

Frankly I am stumped. Is removing myself from communal prayer the answer? I'm not convinced because as Jews we not only require brethren, we welcome them, we envelop ourselves in group worship so that we might attain a level of kadosh, holiness. So...I am opening the floor to suggestions and discussion.

Blog Elul Day 18-Ask

"Animals are such agreeable friends-they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms."~George Eliot

Do we ask questions to know the answers or to avoid them? We must be fearless in our inquiries and accepting of their truths.

Diner (1982)
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Written by: Barry Levinson

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 17-Awaken

"Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."~Henry David Thoreau

We can only seize the day if we awaken to the possibilities.

Dead Poets Society (1989)
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Tom Schulman

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at

Monday, 31 August 2015

Blog Elul Day 16-Pray

"In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart."~Mahatma Gandhi

I pray with full heart and full voice, but I continually question; what is the point of my prayer? Is it for me or is it about me? I worry that my sincerity has gone missing.

Keeping The Faith (2000)
Directed by: Edward Norton
Written by: Stuart Blumberg

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
**We should always pray with joy like this. Music is the portal through which our prayers travel. For me..without music, prayer is meaningless.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Blog Elul Day 15-Change

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."~George Bernard Shaw

Growth is impossible without change.

Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Written by: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Blog Elul Day 14-Learn

"I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it."~Pablo Picasso

Learning can never penetrate a closed-off mind.

The American President (1995)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Written by: Aaron Sorkin

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
** I just had to include the amazing writing of Aaron Sorkin. How I wish politics on either side of the border was as eloquent as he makes it out to be.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Blog Elul Day 13-Remember

"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."~Margaret Mead

Our memories are acute and define our realities. Every smell, every taste, every sound; they return us to another time, another place...and we remember.

Mostly Martha (2001)
Directed by: Sandra Nettlebeck
Written by: Sandra Nettlebeck

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
**Non-English language films are amongst the most original and the most engaging. The English remakes are seldom as good. Open your minds to the cinema of the world. There is life outside your apartments. (yes..I stole that from Avenue Q!)