Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shavuot 5771 - Plugged In to the Torah

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Wednesday morning, June 8, 2011.)

Have you been on the New York City subway lately? You might have noticed that a hefty percentage of your fellow travelers have earphones tucked into their ears. What they are listening to one can only guess. Classical music? Classic rock? Hip hop? Reggae? Or maybe NPR podcasts (my personal favorite)? Regardless of what we listen to, many of us are plugged in.

Two weeks ago Cantor Frieder and I were at the annual Cantors Assembly convention in Toronto, and one of the featured speakers was Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. (For those of you who do not know, JTS is the primary teaching institution of the Conservative movement, and includes the rabbinical school where Rabbi Stecker and I were both ordained, and the cantorial school where I was invested as cantor and where our own hazzan teaches, and taught me as well.)

Speaking to a room full of hazzanim, Dr. Eisen spoke about the importance of making tefillot / words of prayer meaningful to our congregations. He suggested the following image, which I really love: When we engage in tefillah, when we pray, we should all be wearing stereo headphones. In one ear, we would hear the sounds of tefillah: the liturgy, the nusah, the congregational melodies. In the other ear, we would hear a running commentary: the meanings, structure, themes, history, development, choreography, everything that goes into making a prayerful experience valuable and attainable.

Of course, Dr. Eisen did not mean this literally. He did not suggest investing in the electronic infrastructure such that we can all be plugged-in during services. On the contrary: his idea is to equip everybody with the knowledge that will enable them to fully participate as if they were wearing these theoretical headphones. That is, to teach tefillah. To teach the context, the understanding, and not just the words and the melodies. To arm each of us in the pews with the tools to gather spiritual meaning from this central act that we do together as a Jewish community.

Let’s face it: tefillah is not easy. And don’t think it’s just us: there’s a very telling quote in the Talmud Yerushalmi, when four rabbis (R. Hiyya, R. Bun bar Hiyya, Shemuel, and R. Matnaya) collectively lament their inability to concentrate during tefillot. One admits that during his whole life, he only found true kavvanah / intent once. Another says that he counts chicks while praying (and he meant baby chickens, not attractive members of the opposite sex). Another says he counts layers of stones. The last one admits that he gives credit to his head, which knows when to bow by itself.

Point is, these ancient rabbis, who were immersed in learning, had difficulty focusing. All the more so for us, whose heads are filled with far more distractions than were found in the ancient world.

As Dr. Eisen reminded us, “our movement is defined primarily by synagogues; synagogues are defined primarily by worship services.” As such, it should be our goal as a community to make the tefillah / prayer experience meaningful. Otherwise, our synagogues will be the spiritually empty shells that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel mourned in an oft-quoted address to Conservative rabbis in 1953:

“The fire has gone out of our worship. It is cold, stiff, and dead... Yes, the edifices are growing. Yet, worship is decaying. Has the temple become the graveyard where prayer is buried?”

And then Heschel takes to task the rabbis and cantors of the American synagogue:

“There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray. There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?”

Dr. Eisen thinks that Heschel was too harsh; that the reality lies somewhere between services that are deeply meaningful and moving and Rabbi Heschel’s bleak emptiness of tefillah by proxy in stunning buildings led by brilliant clergy.

Nonetheless, the critique is valid. Tefillah is hard. And, let’s face it, are we indeed equipped with the knowledge streaming from those imaginary headphones? Are we tuned in to what’s going on on the page, in our hearts, in our minds, and on the bimah?

The giving and receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is depicted as a having been something like a wedding. God asks the people if they will accept the mitzvot / commandments, and the Israelites respond with, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will listen. What better way is there to commemorate this holiday by re-dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of meaningful prayer, to the pursuit of tapping into our spirituality.

We here at Temple Israel are prepared to offer you some help and guidance with that. We can build those figurative headphones. ($6 Million Man reference: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology...”) We already have opportunities in place, like the Havurah tefillah discussion that happens every 2nd and 4th Shabbat of each month, one-half hour before the Havurah service in the Multi-Purpose room. My discussion-based service, The Whys and Wherefores of Shabbat Morning Tefillot, met this past Shabbat, and will be resuming again in the fall; this is an opportunity to dig further into the words that we recite. As those who attended this service found, every word in tefillah contains multiple layers of meaning; every sentence has depth and breadth.

Dr. Eisen further suggested that every service include a devar tefillah, a brief note about meaning or connection that we can find in tefillah. Rabbi Stecker and I now regularly give kavvanot at weekday morning minyanim; you can read mine on my blog, where I post new ones usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and sometimes Wednesdays.

But I actually did not want to limit my discussion today to tefillah. Actually, the story is much greater than that.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, when I suggested in this space the Five Pillars of Judaism, ours is a complicated tradition. It’s not easy to learn. Even those who are very serious, dedicated and learned continue to learn throughout their lives. That’s how much material there is. As I often point out to families that attend the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Workshop that I run a couple of times a year, the Jewish bookshelf contains many, many volumes of collected knowledge spanning at least 3000 years. In rabbinical school, I learned the equivalent of just a few of them. I continue to learn, and we all should do so as well.

The greater message that Dr. Eisen mentioned in Toronto was the following: that we need to transform our congregations from places where people come to drop off their kids for Hebrew school or celebrate semahot or listen to a High Holiday sermon, to communities where we all strive after the Torah, where we cling to its words, where we dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to uncover the treasures found within.

Temple Israel, after all, is not a “temple.” It is a beit kenesset, a gathering place. The Greek word, “synagogue,” means exactly that. Yes, we gather to pray here. But more often, we gather to learn. And we need to learn more.

And even with all this learning, you will undoubtedly still find kavannah / intention elusive, like the four Palestinian rabbis. But you will also derive new comfort and power in exploring and parsing Jewish text with friends old and new. And it will be gratifying just to be “in the know,” to be able to answer questions about your own religion and heritage.

That is, in fact, the message of Shavuot. Let’s not just wear the headphones during tefillot, but all the time.

Maybe some of you saw the article in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago entitled, “Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?” The article graphed statistics that compared level of education and income against religion. And, no big surprise here, Jews came out on top; only the Hindus have more advanced degrees, but the Jews make more money, on average.

Frankly, the article made me a wee bit uncomfortable; in the wake of our fellow tribesmen, high-profile thief Bernie Madoff and the banker and philanderer Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Jews really do not need any more publicity that invokes traditional stereotypes. But the author did say the following, which I think is quite telling: “Some of the income differences probably stem from culture. Some faiths place great importance on formal education.”

Judaism, Jewish life, and Jewish culture have always valued learning. We have always been plugged into education. In the wake of the Enlightenment, those of us who opened up to secular studies focused some of that traditional inclination to learn in areas other than the Torah.

It is time, my friends, for the pendulum to swing back.

I will conclude with a few words from Pirqei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah which is simply saturated with the rabbinic imperative to learn the words of Jewish tradition (Avot 2:15):

רבי יוסי אומר:... התקן עצמך ללמוד תורה, שאינה ירושה לך

Rabbi Yose taught: ...
Perfect yourself in the study of Torah -
It will not come to you by inheritance.

That is, don’t wait for the Torah to come to you, just because it is our yerushah, our inheritance. Get plugged in, now.

We commemorate today the giving of the Torah. And not just the Torah, but the entirety of Jewish learning, which includes that most central of Jewish activities, tefillah. Tefillah is learning; learning is tefillah. And that’s just the beginning.

Let’s turn Temple Israel into a learning community. That is our heritage, and it is also our future.

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