Torah, Tefillah, and the Transformation of the Synagogue

Delivered by Chancellor Arnold Eisen to the Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem on February 12, 2009

It is an honor and a privilege to address the Rabbinical Assembly as chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary in the capital of my people, as I addressed you last year in the capital of my country.

I would like to dedicate this talk to the memory of Rabbi Alan Lew, (z”l), who passed away a few weeks ago at the Rabbinic Training Institute (RTI), and whose period of shloshim has just been observed. Alan was a great soul, broad and deep. He was blessed with keen intellect, sharp wit, a terrific sense of humor, and a smile that could light up a room. He also possessed real courage. He cared immensely about the encounter in tefillah with God, community, and the self that is my subject today.

Before taking up that theme, permit me to say a few words arising from the fact that we meet this morning in Jerusalem. I am a proud religious Zionist. I enjoy saying this, I confess, for it means that I reject the claim of those who declare a monopoly on one or both of those terms and want to exclude me from their legitimate use. I am convinced that the Torah wants me—wants all Jews—to fulfill the covenant undertaken at Sinai, as recounted in this week’s parashah, not only in the private sphere of home and synagogue but in the public sphere as well. Sovereignty offers Jews possibilities for covenantal fulfillment that Diaspora status simply cannot provide, even in America, where Jewish political and economic influence is substantial and unprecedented. Responsibility for the economy and education, foreign policy and health care, treatment afforded minorities by the State, and the awful ethical calculus that the IDF faced daily in Gaza a few weeks ago and sadly faces still—all of this requires an understanding of Torah, and opens the door to an expansion of Torah that I consider an enormous blessing.

I cannot prove it—no one can—but I believe that Israel is essential to the survival, as well as to the thriving, of the entire Jewish people, and not only to that portion of it that lives in the Land of Israel. What is more, and of this I can be certain, the meaning of my life is wrapped up tightly in the State’s existence and well-being. I believe that there is an especially close connection between the new ways of learning, teaching, and living Torah that Israel demands of Jews in our day and the fundamental convictions of Conservative-Masorti Judaism.

One finds a lack of confidence in some quarters about the relevance, vitality, and legitimacy of our path. So let it be said loudly and clearly that, far from betraying our tradition or sacrificing authenticity when we modify thought or behavior—halakhah or Aggadah—to suit altered circumstances, Conservative-Masorti Jews are convinced that we fulfill the Torah’s intention by doing so. Jews have to innovate and interpret—carefully, humbly, imaginatively, and bravely—in order to keep Torah relevant and compelling. This is our duty. Otherwise, there is no possibility of serving God in our time or teaching Torah here and now—with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and might; with science and the arts, medicine and anthropology, our experience of statecraft, and the conduct of our soldiers.

Israel needs a Judaism worthy of its break with two millennia of existing only in the Diaspora, just as it needs creative paths of bringing home the wisdom of Diaspora. Conservative-Masorti Judaism seems to me to offer the tools most suitable for the task. I know I am preaching to the choir here; I do so to urge us all to be steadfast and confident in the rightness and authenticity of this course, and to better articulate and communicate our principles in the face of voices that challenge our Movement’s legitimacy or strength. There are so many signs of Conservative-Masorti vitality: hundreds of thousands of adherents, tens of thousands of learned and committed laypeople, thousands of talented professionals, successful synagogues, camps, schools, and youth groups. One tires of hearing the ritualized mantra of our imminent demise. We cannot afford to give into that weariness or take the disparagement to heart, for we have a lot to do as Conservative-Masorti Jews—in Israel as in the Diaspora—and we are doing a lot of it very well indeed.

Permit me to say one more word on the subject of Israel and our relation as Diaspora Jews to it. It behooves all of us in North America in particular, where attachment to the State is declining among Jews, to think anew about the role Israel plays in our institutions, our thinking, and our budgets. We are not the same community that we were in 1967; neither is Israel the same country. Old models simply will not work: the generation of baby boomers, born and raised after the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, requires new and different approaches regarding Israel than that of our parents. For the younger generations born since 1967 or the start of the first intifada, this is all the more true. The Birthright program was a giant step forward. We urgently need others. Growing gaps of thought, sensibility, and perspective threaten the already fragile relationship binding the Israeli and North American Jewish communities. These gaps, in turn, threaten political support for Israel in America and elsewhere; they also deprive Diaspora Jews of the tremendous creativity pouring forth from Israel—and vice versa. A recent upsurge in links between Conservative-Masorti young people from around the world with Israel and Israelis is most encouraging. Every such step we can take to bridge the gap is extremely and urgently important.

I will devote the bulk of my remarks today to thinking with you about a question of immediate concern to me both as a Conservative Jewish layperson and as chancellor of the institution that is training many of the Conservative leaders of the next generation. I do not pretend to name the problem for the first time, nor will I propose a solution to it. My aim is to reflect upon it and move it to the top of our collective agenda. Bearing this week’s parashah in mind, one might express my concern the way Heschel did in his famous 1953 address to the RA: that we enable far too few of our congregants to experience what it means to stand at Sinai. Many of our synagogues—the institutions on which Heschel focused that day and on which I shall focus this morning—are simply not functioning in a way that places Jewish men and women in encounter with God and one another. Indeed, it is just as hard for congregants at many shuls to experience the pleasures of real community or to know the satisfactions of vibrant ritual and tradition as it is for them to ascend to the heights of sensing God’s presence. I hope in the next few minutes to think with you about this matter, drawing on my work as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and student of the American Jewish community, and to do so in a way that will be helpful to all of us—those who lead synagogues, those who daven in the pews as members, and those who, like me, train future clergy and lay leaders.

The topic is crucial to our Movement. Although there is a lot more to Jewish life than the synagogue, and a lot more to the lives of Conservative-Masorti Jews, the synagogue is the signature institution of our Movement, the place to which most people look for what is most distinctive in our path of Judaism, and the experience by which they usually judge us. I assume as well, and stipulate here, that although there is a lot more to the synagogue than tefillah, a shul is and must be beit midrash and beit Knesset, as well as beit tefillah—prayer is the signature effort of our synagogues. We are most often judged by the quality of prayer services on Shabbat morning, though this is changing in some places to include Kabbalat Shabbat as well. It seems clear to me that many of our shuls have a lot of work to do before they can claim to be offering tefillah experiences of high quality that are recognized to be such by large numbers of their congregants. Synagogue 3000, STAR, and other programs have been working to address this failing for quite some time.

The problem, like others we face, is in part organizational, financial, and demographic. In North America, and I think not only in North America, there is a generational gap in expectations, desires, and aesthetics even where membership and attendance are not an issue. Jews my age and younger tend to favor more participation by congregants, even at the cost of quality; older congregants tend to want more formality, decorum, and pomp. Some want divrei Torah or Torah discussions. Others want sermons from the rabbi on issues of the day. Some are comfortable in the Hebrew. Many are not. Some want traditional nusah and hazzanut. Others can’t stand it or tolerate it only in small doses, so long as there is a lot of congregational singing and Carlebach. The regulars tend to like things as they are. Why change, they say, in the effort to attract people who won’t come to shul anyway? We can’t afford to alienate our regulars, even as they recognize that younger people are not attracted to the sort of service to which the regulars are so attached. We laugh about three-hour services to which many arrive at the half-way point, but surely this is not a recipe for communal kavanah. The rabbi feels caught. So does the ritual committee. The pattern is familiar to all of us.

I am afraid that the problem goes deeper still, and requires honest reflection on the spiritual, religious, and existential levels. We are talking about tefillah after all. I know of no great religious thinker of any period in any tradition who was not also a great psychologist. When we talk about religion, we are dealing with depths of the soul and stirrings of the heart as well as dilemmas of the mind. In shul, in prayer, we encounter human beings at their most vulnerable and inchoate. So while there is always room for improvement on the basic and obvious things, some of them still lacking in too many shuls—things like quality programs, attention to pastoral needs, making sure no one who comes to synagogue leaves un-greeted (I hear complaints about this everywhere I go) or without an invitation to Shabbat meals (a key to the success of Orthodox congregations) or without having learned at least one thing at shul that they can point to and find valuable—despite all that, it seems to me that the more important discussion needs to take place in existential and religious terms.

Let me begin once more at Sinai, or rather with the manner in which the Torah helps us to approach Sinai each year, as it has for many generations of Jews in different cultures and conditions. We do not come to Parashat Yitro peremptorily or without careful preparation. First we work through the narratives of Genesis, where we recognize ourselves in the portraits of our flawed but noble ancestors; recognize our political and social world in the cruel and complex dynamics of power and powerlessness, majority and minority, and the at-home-ness and estrangement that they faced. And, perhaps most importantly, recognize the God who encounters the patriarchs in surprising ways at key junctures in their lives as the God whom we too seek and occasionally meet but who often remains cloaked in mystery, absent when we most want God near and at other times too close for comfort.

All this makes us ready to identify with the people Israel that in Exodus grows out of the family whom we got to know in Genesis. We identify with Moses when he strikes the Egyptian taskmaster; we recognize the affinity between the slavery and genocide that we have witnessed in our time and the paradigms set by the Pharaoh long ago; and we leave Egypt with the Israelites knowing that our world too has seen great redemption. The evidence for it surrounds us this morning in Yerushalayim ha-benuya. All this preparation has its effect. We arrive at Sinai ready to commit again to covenant.

Prayer, too, needs preparation, both immediate and long-term. Rabbi Alan Lew meditated, breathed, and focused for a solid hour every morning before davening at RTI. We will devote next year’s Institute, in his memory, to reflection on tefillah and what makes it work or not work—a complicated question in keeping with the nature of divine service as avoda. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Man Is Not Alone, wrote that we arrive at the mountain of encounter with God only after openness to wonder that, in turn, has aroused a search for the Ineffable that cannot find satisfaction anywhere else—and a crisis that breaks through the resistance of routine. At the end of chapter nine, Heschel couched his description of personal religious experience—for which he strove in his own tefillah—in terms of a mountain standing in front of us, a light that penetrates through us, a voice that resounds both outside us and within.1 Similarly, one of Yehudah Halevi’s liturgical poems, translated and interpreted by Franz Rosenzweig, asks, “and did my believing heart not see you, as if it had been there at Sinai?”2 I think Heschel probably counted synagogue services, when they fulfill their objective, as among the “islands across the restless sea of time” that carry us back to encounter with God, so long as we are powered by the “wake of undying wonder.”3

That, I suggest, is why Heschel aimed so high, when it came to the synagogue, and engaged, in his 1953 address, in a critique of the American synagogue that is harsh and unforgiving: “Our services are constructed with pomp and precision . . . everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: life . . . Has the synagogue become a graveyard where prayer is buried? Are we, the spiritual leaders of American Jewry, members of the hevra kadisha? . . . The modern synagogue suffers from a severe cold. Our congregants preserve a respectful distance between the siddur and themselves . . . We have developed the habit of praying by proxy.”4

We wince in pain at this passage because we have all been to services like that, or even to shuls like that. But the critique is too sweeping to be fair; there are many shuls and services that do better. More important, Heschel’s argument does not do justice to the effort of the synagogue as a whole, and of tefillah in particular, to serve other functions than encounter with God, though that is its highest objective. Just as our shuls must be and are batei midrash (places of teaching and learning), so too our services, just as our shuls, must be and are batei Knesset (places of assembly), sites of real community, sources of action to build just and compassionate communities in the larger world.

Steven Cohen and I reported in The Jew Within that the moderately affiliated American Jews whom we studied come to shul with all of these objectives very much in mind.5 They want to experience community: tangible connection to those around them and to the larger Congregation of Israel. They want to draw closer to their ancestors and their ancestral tradition. They seek precious time for reflection, away from the hectic pace of the week, on what really matters. And, of course, they want to encounter God. The vast majority of American Jews say that they believe in God, whether as personal being (e.g., Heschel’s God) or force in nature and history (Mordecai Kaplan’s God). Most believe that God hears prayer, and those who do not seem to pray anyway. They do not need to come to synagogue to encounter God. They sense God’s presence in nature, miraculous events, the eyes of a child, and the kindness of strangers. The God in whom they believe is generally more universal than the particularist God who figures in much of the siddur: close to, saving, and chastising the people of Israel in distinction to the nations of the world. But the American Jews whom Cohen and I studied are open to the possibility of encountering God in shul. I suspect that many Conservative-Masorti Jews think similarly, no matter where they live.

If our batei tefillah are to be places where Jews can regularly sense the presence of God, we have to work to make them so. The key, I believe, is to make them houses of study and community; to fill our services too with experiences of learning and community. My students at Stanford always learned more and better together after pizza in my living room. Greater intimacy and personal relationships improved the quality of class discussions. The same is true of prayer. People who know each other’s names, share something of each other’s lives, go on retreats together, gather together around a Shabbat table, or study together in a library or living room, will daven better together. Tefillah always improves once the Jews who share a worship service have learned something from one another that gives insight into the tradition—or the lives—they share.

We should recognize that tefillah is not easy for many congregants. Speaking to God, and hearing God speak in return, is perhaps the single most difficult act that our tradition requires of contemporary Jewish adults. Our culture has made God marginal to science, history, everyday explanation, and experience. Fundamentalism too gives prayer a bad name, from the opposite pole. Nor does it help our cause when baseball players pray for success before each at-bat, and go down on their knees to thank God for a single, let alone a home run, no matter how genuine the feeling displayed when they do so. Divine messages are rarely discussed in polite company by modern Jews; add to all these difficulties the fact that experiences of the depths (where genuine prayer resides) are scary, jolting, disturbing, or, at the very least, laden with emotion—not the sort of thing one wants to have or witness among strangers.

Hence the need for safeguards when it comes to tefillah, for caveats and indirect approaches that work better than head-on engagement: poetry rather than prose, music rather than speech, or oblique allusion rather than outright declarations or logical propositions; silences; ritual choreography, or routine. Does not the Torah help us toward the covenant la’asot ve-lishmo’a, individually and collectively, through the ambiguity in which the text carefully clothes the key word kol in chapter 19 of Exodus? For Jews struggling with faith, it helps not to know if the kol that sounded the ten dibrot was shofar or thunder or a human-like voice forming audible words. We hear God’s voice better, as it were, because we do not know exactly what we hear or how we hear it.

Many congregants have not yet learned that tefillah requires them to bring the equivalent of a pair of stereo headphones to shul.6 Perhaps we should supply them at the door as the airlines do. In one ear those engaged in prayer would hear the words written on the page or chanted by the hazzan or congregation. In the other ear they could hear the sense that they have made of these words, thanks to aids supplied over time by rabbis, teachers, commentaries, and fellow congregants. It helps, of course, to know and daven in Hebrew. One does not, in that case, have to stop at every point to decide if one agrees with the prayers—an inheritance that is two thousand years old—as one does when dealing with a vernacular wording arrived at by a committee just a few years ago and subject to alteration in the next edition. A double or triple kol echoing from the words on the page can greatly assist kavanah and understanding.

Consider the task our congregants face each week. They walk into a Jewish sacred space at Ma Tovu (assuming they arrive that early) and must feel comfortable enough, at once, to pronounce this tent of Jacob good; within a few short moments, they must be prepared to bless God along with the rest of the community, take on the yoke of God’s kingdom at the Shema’, and then stand before God in the ‘Amidah. This is daunting; small wonder that they and we often settle for something less than sincerity. Most Jews could use additional tools to help them: evocative poetry, helpful guidance about the order of the service and the meanings of the liturgy, music that elicits genuine emotion, faces that put them at ease, and the pleasure of tangible community.

We sometimes pay too little attention to what makes prayer work for us when it does work. Many in this room, for example, journey through the tefillah each day or each week and meet old familiar friends along the way. I myself look forward to the vision of the angels, ahuvim, berurim, gibborim: a description of how I would like myself and my congregation to stand before God. I treasure the final lines of nishmat kol chai, in which all my inner organs are said to praise God; take comfort from the plaintive words and melody of Bei Ana Rahetz and the cadences of Agnon’s prayer for the State of Israel.

Many Conservative-Masorti Jews feel no such at-home-ness in the siddur. If they are not comfortable in the Hebrew, they lack the added pleasure of knowing that Jews around the world are saying precisely the same words of our common ancestors at the same moment. The absence of this double at-home-ness makes harder the willing suspension of disbelief that prayer, like theater or opera, demands. The modern world, as Max Weber famously put it, is disenchanted. If we cannot believe in the angels, even as metaphor, it is hard to resonate to my ahuvim, brurim, and gibborim angels, or to those whom we imitate when we sanctify God in this world and proclaim it “holy, holy, holy,” and full of “God’s glory.”

Yehudah Halevi put the ideal process of encounter with God, morning or evening, in these words: “You [God] my visions sought. Your splendor entered me, to submerge in my dark clouds. And then my meditating startled me up from my bed, to bow before Your Glory, God.” To which Rosenzweig said, concerning the inability of the contemporary individual to believe in God, believe God is near, or believe himself worthy of having God near to hear prayer, “For the seer of the vision, the problem has not been solved—it is vanished . . . A problem for the mind has become a power of the heart.” 7 I find this formulation profoundly meaningful. If only more of us could more often transmute problems of the mind into powers of the heart.

The existential challenge that we face in tefillah, then, is formidable—and yet we know that for many Jews it is regularly and successfully overcome. I have just observed shloshim for my father—a so-called “ordinary Conservative Jew” of the 1950s. He never had the benefit of Jewish or secular higher education and could not translate the siddur word for word, though he davened nearly every day and did so with true kavanah. My Dad was full to overflowing with gratitude to God for life and the blessings of life. Shul was his world, the major site of social life outside of family. Growing up, it seemed to me that he was always there, not just for services but several evenings a week for meetings. Shul was my parents’ main community, as well as their major tie to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people. They also made me feel at home in this world as a child: I ran up and down the hallways, led junior congregation, and knew that I belonged—because my parents did.

There are many such Jews in our pews today, unlettered in the fine points of Judaism even if possessed of much higher education than my parents and working as high-powered doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, or computer scientists. We do not need to romanticize or idealize these Jews. They are good enough as they are. We need to serve them: to raise them up to heights of kavanah that we and they both know they can attain. We can give them synagogue services of real quality on a regular basis: music, words, and silences that usher them into encounter with God, their fellow Jews, and themselves. We know we can do this because we have all experienced it. I do not address you as a voice crying in the wilderness for creation of what does not exist, but as a Conservative-Masorti Jew who is privileged to travel around North America and beyond and therefore has seen many very fine services in which kavanah, community, and learning are evident. We do not need to invent or imagine such experiences but only to replicate them and make them more widespread and readily available.

Let me stress one final time that community is the key to such success. Why else does the liturgy work so hard to bring us together in prayer? Why do we take the trouble to let the congregation know who is in pain or in mourning? One reason, of course, is that we need to care for them. But another is that our tefillah is raised higher to the degree that we know what is on the minds of the people praying alongside us. Isn’t Musaf improved by the experience of singing Etz Hayyim Hi so robustly as the Torah is returned to the ark? We chant with real feeling because we have just been reminded that Torah—Judaism—really is life to us and that we share this precious recognition with the other Jews in the room. Community strengthens our davening and vice versa.

The same is true of shared learning. The Jews who come to synagogue want to make contact with tradition there; learning about Torah that engages them, mind and heart, and particularly learning about the elements of the liturgy, serves a double purpose. It helps to overcome the barriers to tefillah that I noted earlier, enabling congregants to “own” some words or passages of the siddur, to make the tefillah theirs, rather than a rote performance of tradition; this happens through the act of thinking about the siddur, being inspired, and coming to feel emotional connection to it. Such learning also serves to supply material that will be played back on the stereo headphones at a future tefillah. A service that does not engage the congregation, for a few moments at least, in Torah—not Jews in general but the people in the room that day, with their sensibility, their questions, and their issues—is disappointing a keen desire with which they have come to shul: a desire for learning, for Torah, and for the anchor of their lives.

JTS designed the Mitzvah Initiative with all three of these goals in mind: in-depth learning on issues that matter to Conservative-Masorti Jews, an enhanced sense of community, and reflection on the CommanderGod—whom we encounter in prayer. In the two years since I first announced this initiative to the RA, we have piloted the program in a number of synagogues around America; had the pilot evaluated by JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America); hired an experienced educator who refined the curriculum; and begun discussions with a number of the institutions in our Movement about making the initiative available to their groups in 2009. Participants in the Mitzvah Initiative begin by discussing what mitzvah means to them: the ways in which, and the areas in which, they do and do not feel commanded, obligated, responsible, engaged, and in love with the mitzvot—for the variety of reasons that our tradition captured in the literature called ta’amei ha-mitzvot. Those who take part in these discussions are led, if things go as intended, to recognize that despite (and because of) their differences, they are at the right table as it were. The discussion is the one they want to have, in these terms and not others; their shuls and the Conservative-Masorti Movement are where they belong. Participants then proceed to study a wide range of mitzvot—Shabbat and kashrut; support for Israel and opposition to genocide; visiting the sick and studying Torah; mezuzah and tefillah—along with ancient and modern sources that provide a variety of meanings to these observances. The program also includes reflective performance of selected mitzvot. It is meant to conclude with personal and collective resolve to increased observance.

Talks are underway at various stages among JTS and Ramah, Men’s Clubs, USCJ, Solomon Schechter Day Schools, and others. You and your synagogues will all be invited next month to participate, a process that will involve an orientation at JTS in June, conference calls with participants over the summer, and a twelve-unit curriculum of study and practice designed by JTS faculty and staff in cooperation with the various arms of the Conservative-Masorti Movement.

It is my privilege as chancellor not only to initiate programs such as this, but to witness many of the other experiments underway in our synagogues and our tefillah to build community, join Jews in learning, and heighten the sense of God’s presence. I am buoyed by this experimentation and the excitement it has generated. I carry tales of what is happening back with me to JTS. Our rabbinical and cantorial students need to know that they—as future leaders or members of synagogues—can help to create davening experiences that are meaningful, beautiful, and compelling. We at JTS need to know what is working and not working, so that we can adjust our curriculum accordingly and better prepare rabbis and cantors who can be agents of spiritual growth and change. More of JTS’s growing efforts in continuing education for clergy in coming years—whether these take place in partnership with the RA and CA or solely under JTS auspices—will likewise focus on issues confronting the synagogue, and especially on tefillah. I want to ask your help in making my reporting of what is happening in our synagogues more accurate and complete. Please let me know what your shul is doing with regard to the transformation of synagogue services in the three areas of community, learning, and tefillah. (You can contact me via my assistant, Victor Wishna, at viwishna@jtsa.edu.)

Let me say, in conclusion, that I do not think this is a time for setting our sights so high that we are doomed to failure when it comes to achieving our objectives. But it would also be a mistake, especially when we have to compete weekly with Orthodoxy, Chabad, Reform, Reconstructionism, and simple disengagement or assimilation—the most widespread choice of all—to aim too low. Mediocrity is widespread enough in contemporary society and culture. We do not need more of it in our shuls or our tefillah. Let us instead build on the achievements of which we can justly be proud in our Movement and that regularly give the lie to talk of our decline or demise. Let’s make sure that every synagogue offers serious, engaging learning at every level—and that Shabbat services are a principal site of such learning. Let’s aim to invite every congregant personally to join in community-building activities of social justice, gemilut hasadim, and Shabbat meals. And let’s not settle for services that are consistently lacking in kavanah.

The work of standing before God, our fellow Jews, and ourselves at Sinai has never been easy. How could it be? It is, however, the work that Torah commands us to do: the most blessed and fulfilling labor that a Jew could possibly imagine.

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1 Abraham Joshua Heschel. Man Is Not Alone (New York, 1951), p. 78.
2 Franz Rosenzweig. Ninety-Two Poems and Hymns of Yehuda Halevi, Richard A. Cohen, Ed., (Albany, 2000), p. 12.
3 Heschel. Man Is Not Alone, p. 78.
4 Heschel. Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, (Albany, 1986), pp. 49–50.
5 Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen. The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America, (Bloomington, 2000). See especially chapter seven and the survey data reported on p. 219.
6 Ismar Schorsch. “Inaugural Address: Stereophonic Judaism” (1987), reprinted in Thoughts from 3080 (New York, 1988).
7 Rosenzweig. pp. 12–13.