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.


  1. Might the liberal congregation's desire to always "be creative" and always innovate actually make worship less meaningful? Like an addict that always is looking for the next fix to satisfy them, is it possible that we continually expect more and more from our services and clergy and cannot be satisfied? Or, perhaps, by constant change in the quest for innovation we make it hard for people to feel engaged when we make changes to liturgy and worship practice just when comfort has set in. Also, the non-traditional service has become so focused on making worship more palatable to the congregation that it has turned most worshippers into passive spectators (with the exception of singing catchy melodies, usually without worshippers understanding what they are singing). Might it be that more traditional worship avoids some of the problems we face by not trying to "engage" individuals in prayer, but performing the rituals that have been inherently imbued with meaning through centuries of tradition? Even if first approached by rote, the Torah teaches us that by doing we will eventually understand: “na’aseh v’nishma,” “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

    1. Thank you for the comment. I am fascinated by this idea. I have given great thought to just these notions many times. While my history is in the liberal movements, I have, on occasion, tried traditional worship. One obvious problem for me comes in congregations and communities that have not adopted a full egalitarian structure for ritual and davening. For me, this is a non-starter. I suppose an even bigger hurdle is my 21st century mentality that I need to understand before I do, and blind "doing" is anathema.