Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Before saying anything to the topic at hand, in the interests of full disclosure, let me share a few facts about myself. I have been the rabbi of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a large, urban Conservative synagogue in Queens, NY, for the past twenty-eight years. But though I serve a Conservative congregation and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, my educational and experiential background is Orthodox. I grew up in an observant Orthodox family, attended Yeshiva Day School and High School, and graduated Yeshiva University before completing a masters degree in Bible at NYU, and rabbinical training at JTS.
And so it is that I straddle two worlds, both personally and professionally. Leaving Orthodoxy was a conscious decision for me. Years spent at Camp Ramah, and ultimately at JTS, convinced me that the religious world of my youth had become too confining, standing in the way of my religious growth instead of nurturing it. I was suffocating there, and needed to acknowledge that my horizons had broadened in a way that could never be reversed. But even as I migrated to the Conservative world, I retained my deeply rooted love of (and respect for) the regular and passionate practice of Jewish ritual as a whole, and particularly Jewish prayer. I never stopped attending synagogue or being observant, even as I embraced a different conceptual framework within which to observe.
Within Conservative Judaism, at least as it manifests itself in many Conservative congregations (as opposed to Orthodox ones, and the more homogeneous, self-selecting Havurot and prayer communities), that life-long love of regular Jewish practice has, not surprisingly, proved frustratingly difficult to satisfy. Actually, it’s not only Jewish practice that I grew up loving, but also the “given-ness” of that practice, if you will, rooted in the idea of hiyyuv… the sense that said practice is obligatory, and not a volitional act depending on the will (or lack thereof) of the individual Jew. The religious world that I minister to today, in the language of contemporary sociologists, is one wherein the “sovereign self” has almost completely trumped the “commanding presence” of God and its accompanying notion of obligation. Everything religious needs to be marketed, and to the degree that it is marketed well, or effectively, it stands a chance of becoming part of a religious routine. But there is precious little idea of obligation in the world of the sovereign self. Sovereign selves do not like to be told what to do, or what is expected of them.
It is from this vantage point that I approach the work of Synagogue 3000, STAR, and similar organizations dedicated to the re-creation and re-vitalization of the American synagogue. I understand the challenge at hand. I work with those “Jews in the pews” (or not in the pews!) every day, and know the deep sense of alienation that so many of them feel from traditional synagogue worship and ritual. They are profoundly disconnected from that world of Jewish practice that I live, breathe, and so value. But I have a nagging feeling that, though I understand the goals of organizations like Synagogue 3000 and appreciate what they are trying to accomplish, re-creating the synagogue and its worship is, at its core, a flawed enterprise. That’s why I’ve called this piece a “concurring dissent:” an oxymoron if ever there was one. I agree with the problem, but I’m uncomfortable with the solution. We are changing the davening to suit the daveners, and in so doing, we are losing something precious and irretrievable.
This discussion is not, to me at least, about egalitarianism, which I embrace, or the need to make our services more participatory and less of a spectator sport. I agree, wholeheartedly. It is, rather, about being able to appreciate the prayer experience from within, as opposed to critiquing it from without.
Whatever ambivalence I might have about my Orthodox education through my college years, one great blessing that it gifted me with was a remarkable comfort level with synagogue life and practice. The words of our prayers come easily and naturally to me, as do the melodies to which they are traditionally chanted. Those prayers are my spiritual comfort food. No matter what state of mind I bring to prayer, they are the mantra that enables me to access my spiritual self, regardless of setting. Setting helps, to be sure, but it does not determine whether or not I can have a spiritual experience. When I visit a synagogue that I’m not familiar with, even if it’s a place where I would never choose to daven, I can still talk to God there.
Coming from Orthodoxy to Conservative Judaism, I have always thought that we set the bar far too low for our laypeople in terms of expectations. Because so many of them are Hebraically challenged, we’ve added more and more English. Because quietly spoken words of prayer don’t resonate with meaning for so many, we emphasize singing and minimize opportunities for individual prayer (which was always the bulk of the traditional prayer service, but today brings people uncomfortably close to their linguistic and spiritual inadequacies). And perhaps most importantly- we have decided for them that they can’t deal with the traditional service because they’re not equipped to. So instead of raising them up to the bar of tradition, we tend to lower the bar to them. Again, the issue is not egalitarianism, or participation. The issue is prayer itself. Is it possible that Orthodox outreach efforts enjoy the success that they do because they try to change the daveners to suit the davening?
Just something to think about…
Ron Wolfson’s response…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik raises important issues in his posting: the notion of hiyyuv – obligation – as the primary motivation for observance, the challenge of making prayer meaningful and accessible to those who do not feel “obligated,” and the need for “synagogue transformation” initiatives.
The first – and most important – point to be made is that phenomenal congregational rabbis like Skolnik “toil in these vineyards” on a daily basis…and understand the challenges facing synagogue leadership better than anyone. In the past year alone, I have visited more than two dozen congregations – Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Independent Minyanim – and most of them struggle with these critical issues.
For me, the great value in “synagogue transformation” efforts is to a) raise these questions and conduct research that reaches beyond anecdote to hard data for the purposes of illuminating the discussion, and 2) raise the bar of expectation in what a spiritual community can be – even for those “sovereign self” Jews who do not feel obligated in any way to participate and engage in synagogue life.
Why is it important to worry about the “sovereign self” Jews? First of all, there are far more of them in our community than “hiyyuv” Jews and I, for one, will not dismiss them, give up on them, or ignore them. Second, I have never bought into the “saving remnant” argument that the community ought to pour its resources into a tiny percentage of Jews who will “save” Judaism for the next generation. Third, in my opinion, we have done precious little to create a truly outreach-oriented, welcoming community in our synagogues. Since Synagogue 3000 “rang the bell” on this issue, some of our congregations have gotten better at creating a culture of welcome in our institutions…but, believe me, we have a long, long way to go.
As for what Synagogue 3000 “advocates,” particularly with regard to worship, let me make it clear that there is no one answer. We are blessed with staff and supporters from across the Jewish spectrum…and we embrace the diversity of goals and strategies that we have been privileged to bring to those interested in our work. What we share is a vision of the synagogue as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community of meaning and purpose. Our Number One challenge is to increase the level of engagement with such communities, even among the members we already have in our midst.
This brings me back to Rabbi Skolnik’s main point: should we alter the davenning or “alter” the davenners? Here too, there is some misunderstanding of what Synagogue 3000 advocates. We have never advocated “more English readings;” in fact, several of the most outstanding models of an engaging prayer experience are almost entirely conducted in Hebrew. Similarly, many of the “independent minyanim” that we have studied in the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute would certainly never think of “watering down” what they believe is an authentic Jewish prayer experience in order to reach more people.
Another “red herring” in this debate is the use of musical instruments on Shabbat. We have never suggested this as “the answer” to increasing the vitality of the worship experience. The issue is not instrumentation; it is what we used to call in our synagogue youth groups and camps “ruach” – spirit; a prayer experience that lifts up participants through a variety of means: participatory singing, serious text study, a challenging message, the warmth of a welcoming community, the celebration of lifecycle moments.
Personally, I wish more Jews felt a sense of “hiyyuv.” But, unless you are lucky enough to have grown up with this sense, I am convinced we need to continue to think of ways to invite the “sovereign self” Jews in, to ignite the spark of spirituality that I believe is just underneath the surface of most human beings, and to engage them in the life of the community in a much deeper way when they do decide to join our membership ranks. Otherwise, I fear we will see more and more empty seats in our pews, even on the High Holy Days (a phenomenon many rabbis report to us).
As for Synagogue 3000, we continue our research into synagogue life through the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and welcome the debate, the dialogue and the heartfelt conversations that Rabbi Skolnik and others are good enough to stimulate.
Dr. Ron Wolfson
Larry Hoffman’s response…
Dear Rabbi Skolnik,
Many thanks for raising the issues you do. In his usual informative and sympathetic manner, Ron Wolfson has already provided our S3K position on them; and there is no point in restating what he has said — better, I expect, than I could have. I do, however, want to reiterate the fact that S3K has never mandated solutions for individual synagogues. As a transdenominational organization with enormous regard for congregations everywhere along the spectrum of practice and belief, we have emphasized new ways of thinking that congregations might or might not find useful (each in its own fashion). In the case of prayer, that has sometimes entailed drawing attention to areas of the service that were being overlooked and that could be attended to with equal ease by everyone — Ron’s best example is “welcoming.” Sometimes it has meant challenging denominational stereotypes that Jews in one movement have of another. Sometimes it has entailed initiating a conversation that was not likely to take place elsewhere.
With the last goal in mind, let me respond in a manner differently from Ron – using another hat I wear, that of a lifelong student of liturgy and prayer. How might we think differently?
I begin as you did: with personal candor. I am a Reform Jew who has arrived at these positions as part of the way I think my own movement ought to approach the issues of prayer. At the same time, I, like you, come from a positive childhood experience of traditional prayer. I learned to daven well before my bar mitzvah, and appreciate the traditional siddur, especially since I have the added benefit of studying it in such depth as an adult, whose scholarly field it is. On virtually every page I am tempted to stop and admire the story behind what I see; I love the different sounds of our musical tradition, and the psychological feel of the whole experience. This past Shabbat (second day of Shavuot) I attended an Orthodox shul where the davening took 4 ½ hours. The “regulars” apologized to me for its length. I, by contrast, enjoyed it from beginning to end.
But here is the rub: most Jews today do not know what I know, have not been brought up as I have, have different sensibilities than I do, and (as a consequence) think altogether differently about prayer in general. We have three options. 1. We can ignore or dismiss them as anything from ignorant to sinful. 2. We can alter the service – with English, let us say — so as to speak to them, but take a dim view of what we are doing: call it pandering (at worst), watering down (a bit better), or a temporary measure necessitated by the difficult times but intended to raise the ignorant to our own superior position of knowledgeable appreciation “for the real thing.” Or, finally (3), we can decide that there really is no such thing as the real thing; that we are not the first generation to claim the right to adapt the past to the present; and that there are many alternative criteria that we might adopt to guide the way we adapt.
Appropriately, as the committed Conservative Jew you are, your own view is determined by how you view halakhah, which, since the Middle Ages, has indeed codified certain practices as proper. I, by contrast, see halakhah as a richly textured testimony to the way Jews then had adapted Jewish prayer, but not necessarily how I should. The prayer book was codified in more ways than one – the ninth-century version of Rav Amram became probative, as it happens. But Amram and his scholarly colleagues regularly explain their custom by saying, “That is what how we do things here [in Babylonia],” knowing that theirs is not the only option. All of this is readily countered by a halakhic Jew who can easily find older, apparently more elemental, assumptions – “Rav Amram and his opponents at least agreed on the basics of the Talmud,” let us say. But as you know, the two Talmuds differ also on a great deal, and were you then to say that they both follow the Mishnah, I would contend that the Mishnah too has many alternatives. You know all this of course. You will agree with my facts but disagree with their implications. My whole line of thought may be irrelevant for someone committed to a traditional view of rabbinic authority as provided by the codes, and I do not argue it as a better way to think. I state it only to demonstrate that there is another way to think, and that depending on this bedrock starting point, one arrives at different criteria for what can or should be done today. Even if there were but one way to approach the question, I see no way to arrive at it without begging the question we want to approach.
To begin with, I do not concede your point that because of a sovereign self, people do not, as a rule, feel commanded (or even obliged) to pray. I prefer thinking that the sovereign self means simply that people are more apt to try on commandedness and obligation in their own personally idiosyncratic ways; that if they knew how, they would as readily seek out God’s will for us as did even the most pious Jews of the past; and that the problem is not them but us, the knowledgeable rabbis who want them to seek God “more conveniently,” meaning “the way we think we did.” My first point, then, is that those years are over; it is not just pointless but incorrect as well to mourn their passing; we need to appreciate what sovereign selves in fact do, insofar as they have any interest whatever in what might sometimes look to them like our own rabbinically arcane ways of thinking.
Second, I warn against setting ourselves up as curators of a Jewish museum. Insofar as we take the position that we must take care to guard the tradition against those who would dismiss it, trash it, or water it down, we are apt to lose perspective on what we are guarding. Sometimes even the greatest museums prune their holdings, putting some once-loved treasures in storage until, perhaps (but only perhaps), another generation reclaims them. Even as guardians, we ought to be wary of what needs guarding and what does not.
More troubling is the very image of ourselves as guardians. It presupposes adefensive response to Philistines at the gate, whereas I do not consider the sovereign selves in any way to be Philistines. I prefer thinking of ourselves not as guardians of art already finished, but an extension of the artists themselves – a chain in the Jewish People’s artistry. That is not the same as a chain in the Jewish People’s tradition, which might indeed presuppose a bedrock essence that is crystal clear to anyone who peers under the museum’s glass casing. If there is such a thing, except for truisms like Jewish monotheism, I do not know how we can arrive at it – and even there, what counts as appropriate expressions of that monotheism is not at all self-evident. That artists can go too far is clear to anyone who studies the history of art, but how we know just when the artist goes too far is harder to determine. At the very least, we know that the final say is available only after the fact, when history judges the work properly “artistic” or not. We know also that artists never work as fully sovereign selves – they create in response to traditional artistry with which they become familiar – so starting altogether de novo is not only wrongheaded but, in the case of serious Jewish artistry, even impossible. “Strong poets,” says literary critic Harold Bloom, are in agonistic struggle against with predecessors. New composers create variations on old ones. Standards of art can change – they do change, they must change — without debasing the excellence that defines the nature of art. The issue becomes the criteria for that excellence.
Now a fully halakhic Jew, in the sense in which I think you understand halakhah, would not have to deny my artistic analogy. At stake would be the criteria by which the art is measured, and here we return to our bedrock assumptions about the role of the law codes, the Talmud, and legal precedent. In their own ways, modern Orthodoxy and Conservatism too — no less than any other serious grappling with Jewish past — do not know what is right until after the fact. We are all in the same boat, or, at least, in parallel boats buffeted by the same waters. We stake our Jewish lives on different assumptions about the proper boat to get into, the criteria (that is) by which we will be measured; and where we agree on criteria (the continuation of the Jewish People, for example) we take bets on what the best strategy will be to attain our desired end.
With all of that in mind, I turn to just one real-life example from our time, the one you mention so prominently, the use of English. Let us posit the common goal of preserving Hebrew as the indispensible language of our people. We now must decide what strategy is most likely to attain that end. That some of us will continue to appreciate fully Hebrew services is likely. That is not at issue. What we wonder about is the growing number of people who do not appreciate Hebrew davening. That they even bother to attend prayer is, as I say, a sign of commendable adult search, a sign of openness, at least, to the possibility of Jewish meaning. If they find that in poetic English, the way our ancestors (or even you and I) find it in Hebrew, what is wrong with that? To be sure, the English liturgist may go too far, but who is to say that the adamant curator of the Hebrew museum does not go too far in the opposite direction? Only time will tell. We rabbis who are charged with making such weighty decisions must be properly humbled by what is demanded of us. That is why you and I are engaged in this machloket l’shem shamayin (“argument for the sake of heaven”).
I supply the English (“argument for the sake of heaven”) for less Hebraically knowledgeable readers who may actually choose to read this exchange of views, and who should not have to feel that they must be able to get the “esoteric” references in the original Hebrew. A further question might well be whether knowing Hebrew (and operating with the references) helps further the appreciation of the debate. I think you and I would agree that it does. I suspect that first-time readers engaging in this exercise will slowly learn some of this “in-language” that we like to quote. And similarly, I think newcomers to exceptional prayer in poetic English may come to appreciate the warmth and texture of traditional Hebrew prayer. If so, however, the goal is not that competence for its own sake! In one case (our conversation) it is appreciation of the argument for the Jewish People and for the purposes of God. In the other case (prayer) it is the human intuition (and, perhaps, divine will itself) that God and we be in dialogue.
I suspect Hebrew helps in both cases. But I also suspect that replacing Hebrew as universally better than the appropriate English parallels would rob each aspiration of its full possibilities for success – at least among many of the Jewish “searchers” we are discussing. Having appreciated the finesse of English in prayer, I, for one, cannot go home again: I want the best of both worlds, the Hebrew I learned as a child, but equally, the English I learned as an adult. My prayer is deepened by one as well as the other.
You raise so many magnificent issues! I am tempted to attend to them all. But I hope my overall point is clear enough as the matter stands. By no means do I advocate my own artistry over someone else’s. I argue only for a deep and passionate regard for other artists, and the recognition that their canvasses may be equally rich in Jewish value, equally appreciative of Jewish tradition, and no more a threat to the disappearance of our historical treasures than our own predilections, if taken to extremes.
Hence, to put back on my S3K hat, our S3K insistence on interdenominational conversation. We are not curators but artists, outfitting (rather than protecting) the museum of a Jewish eternity (not just a Jewish past). You and I have somehow found our way into adjoining rooms in this Jewish museum, committing ourselves to adding the newest touches of paint to a different vision of what the canvass might become. From time to time we wander into each other’s room to appreciate the alternative that we see there. We return enriched by what we have seen, better able to develop insight into our own project of the ages.
Warmly and with appreciation,
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Steven M. Cohen’s response…
The Rabbi is Right, uh, Conservative
This may be a case of the Fiddler joke that ends with, “But they both can’t be right.” “You’re right too!” – Or, maybe not.
To elaborate …
The backdrop for this stimulating exchange between Rabbi Skolnik and Dr. Wolfson is critical: Notwithstanding the familiar but often over-stated and premature pronouncements of the death of denominations, Conservative and Reform embody striking and healthy contrasts. The contrasts are both worth noting, and, in my view, worth keeping.
For its part, Reform Judaism is remarkable for its agility and for the premium it places on creativity and innovation. It is attuned to the ever-shifting and diversifying Jewish market place. In so doing, Reform temples manage to attract far larger numbers of intermarried Jews and converts than do their Conservative counterparts down the road, or in town.
At the same time, taken as a group and compared with Conservative shul members, Reform congregants are more tentative about their engagement with congregations. More of them drop out of congregations with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of their youngest child. What’s more, the tendency to dis-affiliate at that moment is even more pronounced among intermarried than in-married congregants. On most of the standard measures of childhood Jewish education, Reform congregants score lower than do Conservative members. They score lower on equivalent measures of current Jewish engagement, e.g., the importance of being Jewish or frequency of attendance at services.
In short, Reform congregants are more tentative in their commitment (on average), less Jewishly well-educated (on average), and more recently arrived at Jewish engagement (on average). As such, they pose distinctive challenges and demands, very different from those posed by Conservative congregants.
Reform Jews need rabbis, cantors, educators, leaders, community and Judaism who are attuned to their needs, interests, language, worldview, and so forth. Hence, the adaptability and innovativeness of Reform is both necessary and, I would argue, proper for these Jews. Even the most traditional Jew who cares only about more Jews doing more mitzvehs ought to say, “Baruch Ha-Shem for Reform Judaism.” The purpose of Reform Judaism is embedded in its very name: to re-form Judaism, and to do so in line with the times, and the needs and sensibility of its prime constituencies.
In contrast, Conservative rabbis are dealing with a very different constituency. It’s older, more ethnic, more in-married, less converted, more tied to Israel, more familiar with Hebrew prayers and their melodies, more resident in areas of higher Jewish density, more tied to Federations, JCCs and other Jewish organizations, and on and on. The graduates of Ramah and Schechter schools, as well as today’s day school parents, are over-represented among the more active Conservative shul members and among the regular daveners.
In this environment, the Conservative approach is to treat the inherited and prevailing cultural patterns as “authentic.” Change in liturgy and tfilla undermines the claim to authenticity and to the compelling nature of Judaism. To many Conservative davenners, shorter services, instrumental music, the sound of English, an emphasis on social action, and divrei Torah that fail to emphasize textual analysis, all seem like concessions to the influences of the larger society (in general) and of Christian churches (in particular).
Conservative leaders therefore work to preserve the compelling image of authenticity by resisting visible change, especially in ways which can be interpreted as yielding to larger social forces and cultural patterns. Thus, Conservative Jewish leaders (both clerical and lay) do what Conservative Judaism does best: they conserve Judaism, as they understand it.
To bridge the gap between what they see as authentic Judaism and an under-committed and under-educated laity, Conservative rabbis and educators invest considerable time and effort in growing the skills of their worshippers. One rabbi’s proud remarks about his achievements stick in my mind as emblematic of this approach. To paraphrase: “When I came here, maybe three people could leyn. Today, if I need someone to prepare shlishi on the spot, forty hands go up.” [Translation: At one time, only three worshippers could prepare to read from the Torah on Shabbat mornings. As a result of classes and training, many worshippers now are able to do so with minimal notice.]
In other words, if one is confronted with a liturgy that appeals to very few worshippers, as I learned from my friend and colleague Prof. Lawrence A. Hoffman, one can change the liturgy or one can change/teach the worshippers (or do both). Reform tends to invest more in the former approach; just as Conservatism tends to invest more in the latter approach. And, Synagogue 2000, and now Synagogue 3000, has tended to emphasize the manifold ways to adjust the services, while not particularly developing new approaches to teaching and learning synagogue skills.
Hence, Rabbi Skolnik does have a point. The S3K effort with which I am proud and pleased to be associated is not explicitly Reform, but its methodology has what my teacher Charles Liebman, z”l, would call, an “elective affinity” with Reform Judaism.
So, as I said at the outset about Rabbi Skolnik and Dr. Wolfson’s comments – they’re both right – or maybe they’re not!
Professor Steven M. Cohen