2.11.2007

live from the donkey's mouth: WE BLEW UP THE CHURCH OF THE REPONSIVE READING AND NO ONE DIED

Shvat 23, 5767

My basic premise when it comes to tfilah:

If you take a group of somewhat educated American Jews and educate them a few inches further and then you lead them through tfilah with no English regularly for no more than two or three weeks they will never want to go back to the Church of the Responsive Reading.

With that in mind and on the heels of a number of posts in our corner of the Jewish corner of the blogosphere (including this from the newest addition to my "other good things" sidebar) I present you the following story. It has been a tiny bit humorzied through hyperbole. The facts that support the point have not.

This weekend at Temple no one became Bar or Bat Mitzvah. By long-standing congregational tradition, that means that Shabat Shacharit is lay-led. The lay-leaders email group was notified and I, not having had a chance to lay-lead since my return from Israel, let Cantor R that I would like to lay-lead.

I should note two pieces of background. The first being that myself and MD, a fellow lay-leader and an Israeli are planning on beginning our congregation's first all-Hebrew minyan for Shabat Shacharit at the beginning of March. The second being that shortly after Cantor R arrived at our Temple last year a disagreement began between him and the lay-leaders. Seeking more involvement in Shabat Shacharit, the lay-leaders all stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed "LA LA LA LA LA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!", so afraid were they that our lay-leading might be stolen from us. The Cantor and Rabbi S, who was also batting for Cantor R did the same upon hearing that we were opposed. Then our Senior Rabbi, Rabbi F, went on sabbatical for six months, I went to Israel for four months and the entire issue was tabled while everyone stewed over the issue and contemplated different ways to dig their heels deeper into the board room carpet.

I do not like to lay-lead on my own. I like to have someone with something sort of like musical talent helping because by family tradition, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. I told the Cantor that I would like to lay-lead with him. This would mean that I would stand at the left podium and do things normally done by a Rabbi and that he would stand on the right and do things normally done by, well, a Cantor. This inclusive compromise seems to me like the perfect solution to the problem of the increasingly dug-in heels. Cantor though the idea was great. Rather than go through the rest of the lay-leaders and the Ritual Committee, we though we would just lead by example and go ahead and do it.

Our other stroke of genius was to get rid of the English. The Dvar Torah would be in English as would the page numbers, but we decided against responsive readings, doing the V'ahavta twice, and doing an improper Amidah. Further, we would use the Temple's draft copies of Mishkan Tfilah because it has translation and transliteration for everything so as not confuse everyone.
The night before, at Shabat Ma'ariv, I keenly observed that there were no Rabbis present. Only Cantor R was leading. The other Rabbis were away until Sunday with the 8th, 9th, and 10th grade retreat. I asked Cantor R during the Oneg if that meant that there would be no Rabbis at services the next day. He said that was correct. I got a little worried.

No Rabbis means no one to do Kadish (do not ask me why that is the way it is here). Then it occurred to me that I could just go ahead and do it. Understand that it is highly unusual at our Temple for a non-Rabbi to read the Kadish list and then lead Kadish. It was pretty good.

Three strange things happened during that service:
1. There was no English in the liturgy.
2. Cantor and lay-leader got along just fine.
3. A non-Rabbi led Kadish.

Everyone loved it. No one complained, not even under their breath. Most people came up afterward to complement one or both of us.

We set fire to the Church of the Responsive Reading and no one died.







I really hope that was a coherent narrative.

12 comments:

elf's DH said...

Thanks for the link/plug! It's interesting to see what kind of issues are going on in other areas of the Jewish world.

I'm curious -- is this temple affiliated? If so, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative?

I like to have someone with something sort of like musical talent helping because by family tradition, I can't carry a tune in a bucket.
You do not have to be able to carry a tune well in order to lead davening! Really, all you need to do is make sure that whatever you're trying to sing is recognizable to the congregation. Someone will usually pick up and join you. The most important thing is not to stop or switch tunes before they get a chance to figure out what you're doing.

an improper Amidah
What's an improper Amidah?

No Rabbis means no one to do Kadish (do not ask me why that is the way it is here)
Presumably, you mean the Mourner's Kaddish? I can imagine that kind of custom developing because there's a superstition surrounding saying the Kaddish when one's parents are still alive. Ideally, the mourners would all say kaddish on their own, together, at the appropriate time. Unfortunately, in many congregations, the mourners are not well enough versed in Aramaic or are too shy to "lead" in public, so someone has to lead them so they stay together. That task naturally falls on the rabbi (who is thought of as a hired-Jew to do Jewish things nobody else wants to do). Also, sometimes less-educated Jews feel more comfortable when a rabbi does certain things for them (because it lends a feeling of importance to whatever is being done). Of course, there is no traditional reason whatsoever that a rabbi is necessary for Kaddish (or much of anything, for that matter, aside from using his learning to answer questions).

David A. M. Wilensky said...

The Temple is affiliated. It is Reform and happens to be the oldest Jewish anything Austin, Tx.

I know all that stuff about leading songs with no ability to sing. I still think its nice to have an actualy musician leading music. I think there are other positive aspects to not having one as well such as community participation.

An improper Amidah. Yes. Sorry about the oblique reference. It probably missed everyone who didn't spend the summer studying the Amidah with David Singer at Kutz. By improper I mean a lot of things. I believe that even if you're going to have English elsewhere in the service, you ought not have it in the Amidah because it can disrupt flow. I also mean standing. Its in the name and it ought to be that way. To do it the way Big Blue does it, you stand for Avot, Gvurot and Kedusha and then sit on down. It upsets me.

You read too much into our Kadish tradition. It is for fear of offending family members by mispronouncing the names on the Kadish list. I don't think most of our congegants have heard ot the superstition regarding ones living parents. Ideally, you say, mourner's ought to recite Kadish alone. In Reform communities this is exteremely rare. I have, in fact, never seen it in a Reform congregation. The general Reform practice, as well as the one I prefer, is for the leader to read a list of names and sometimes the mourners involved or for people to say the names of those they are mourning for out loud. Then the congregation rises together and says the Kadish together. I find this preferable because it keeps mourners from feeling unneccesarily singled out by standing on their own in their time of grief and because there are those for whom there is no one left to say Kadish Yatom and we all ought to take on that responsibility when we are not mourning for someone we knew personally.

elf's DH said...

I believe that even if you're going to have English elsewhere in the service, you ought not have it in the Amidah because it can disrupt flow.
I'm not so sure about that. After all, God understands English too, and there are some traditional places where liturgical poems can be inserted into the Amidah. It can also break the flow of the service, and there is a lot to be said for being able to walk into a synagogue anywhere and pray/hear the same basic service -- which cannot be done in translation.

To do it the way Big Blue does it, you stand for Avot, Gvurot and Kedusha and then sit on down.
For the personal silent Amidah, yes, the whole thing should be said standing. Standing only until the end of kedusha during the repetition is one of the more-or-less standard customs. I'm not familiar with whether your congregation does the silent Amidah-then-leader's repetition thing.

I don't think most of our congegants have heard ot the superstition regarding ones living parents.
I'm always very surprised at what traditions people retain. Because Kaddish and Yizkor are given so much more importance than they actually have, these types of customs tend to be passed on.

unneccesarily singled out by standing on their own
I don't see it as unnecessarily singling out. It's more that it gives the mourners the opportunity to perform their "obligation" to lead the congregation in prayer, affirming faith in God (which is what the Kaddish is all about, not death or mourning) in their time of loss. If everyone says it together, the mourner loses some uniqueness in that (although I guess that's what the name-reading thing is supposed to do).

because there are those for whom there is no one left to say Kadish Yatom
This is one of the other reasons I have seen given for the leader to say Kaddish along with the mourners -- as a representative of those who can't say kaddish themselves or for whom nobody can say it.

David A. M. Wilensky said...

It can also break the flow of the service, and there is a lot to be said for being able to walk into a synagogue anywhere and pray/hear the same basic service -- which cannot be done in translation.
Bingo.

I'm not familiar with whether your congregation does the silent Amidah-then-leader's repetition thing.
The standard in American Reform is currently that the Amidah is done only once in a service and that only the first three bits are done standing. Unless you knew better, which the average Reform Jew doesn't, you wouldn't know the Amidah from that point is of any great importance.

I'm always very surprised at what traditions people retain.
Fair enough.

I don't see it as unnecessarily singling out.
I find that those raised with one custom regarding Kadish Yatom find all others to be in some way upsetting. I feel that way about not standing for the Kadish whether I'm mourning or not.

This is one of the other reasons I have seen given for the leader to say Kaddish along with the mourners -- as a representative of those who can't say kaddish themselves or for whom nobody can say it.
I've never heard that, but it makes plenty of sense.

elf's DH said...

The standard in American Reform is currently that the Amidah is done only once in a service and that only the first three bits are done standing.
Probably the closest you can come to turning this into a more traditional custom is to have everyone stand during the whole thing and say "Amen" to the blessings, which I think is what you proposed initially.

Another way is the "heche kedusha" - a shortened version of the silent Amidah/repetition - in which the reader leads the congregation through the kedusha. Then, the congregation starts their own silent Amidah (omitting the kedusha) while the leader continues his own Amidah silently. The procedure is slightly changed at Shacharit, where the congregation says the first two blessings together with the reader, and, following the kedusha, continues from the point they left off instead of starting on their own.

Curiosity question (as it's been a while since I've been to a Reform service) -- is this practice also followed at Ma'ariv when there is traditionally no repetition/kedusha?

I find that those raised with one custom regarding Kadish Yatom find all others to be in some way upsetting. I feel that way about not standing for the Kadish whether I'm mourning or not.
There are two different issues here. One is who *says* kaddish, and the other is what the rest of the congregation is doing while they're saying it. From what you described, it looked like the custom of your synagogue was that mourners do not actually say kaddish, but the rabbi does on their behalf. There's actually nothing wrong with that. My comment was more of an aesthetic judgment. The most common traditional custom is for the mourners (and only the mourners) to say kaddish while everyone else stands and responds "Amen" and "Yhei shmei rabba m'varach l'alam ul'almei almaya". For some reason, in most Conservative synagogues (and in very few Orthodox synagogues), the custom developed for the mourners to stand and say kaddish, while everyone else sits. My personal practice is to follow the congregational custom, and to stand during the kaddish if the congregation has no established custom.

HW said...

The Reform custom for everyone standing during the Kaddish has two explanations that I have heard. The first is that the tradition started after the Holocaust because there was no one left to say Kaddish Yatom for most of those who perished. However, in reading through the history of my own Reform congregation, the first recorded instance of everyone standing for Kaddish was in about 1938 or so which leads me to believe the Holocuast explanation is not correct. The other explanation, which I heard from my Rabbi is that because so many American Reform Jews did not go to Temple to say Kaddish, it was embarrassing for the whole congregation to have 20 names read out and only 2 or 3 people stand. So they asked everyone to stand.

elf's DH said...

The real question is not where the custom to stand came from. It's the question of where the custom to sit came from.

David A. M. Wilensky said...

hw, Holocaust reason acknowledged, public recitations of Kadish began for a similar reason. During the Crusades, whole villages would be wiped out by trigger-happy knights on their way to Israel.

elf's dh, it is not the Rabbi saying it for everyone, but with everyone. In our tradition all stand and all recite Kadish.

elf's DH said...

In our tradition all stand and all recite Kadish.
OK. Misunderstood that bit. All standing is probably the "original" Ashkenazic custom. All reciting is a bit weird, considering both the superstitions surrounding the kaddish (which seem to have been eliminated from Reform!) and the particular timeliness of the Mourner's Kaddish to mourning/Yahrtzeit.

Another cultural question (which you may or may not know the answer to) -- do people in your congregation still consider it an obligation to be in synagogue on the day of (or closest Shabbat to) a Yahrzeit?

BZ said...

Elf's DH writes:
Curiosity question (as it's been a while since I've been to a Reform service) -- is this practice also followed at Ma'ariv when there is traditionally no repetition/kedusha?

Yes. In most Reform services in my experience, there is no distinction between the amidah in shacharit and ma'ariv, except for the text (i.e. in ma'ariv, "atah kadosh veshimcha kadosh" is said out loud instead of the kedushah, and Shalom Rav is said sitting down at the end instead of Sim Shalom). I speculate about how this came to be in another blog comment (and 5 months later, I can't figure out my own obscure Phish reference - I was referring to a line in a song, but don't remember which). Basically, in Classical Reform, the trend in liturgy was toward more orchestration and less individual expression. I don't endorse this, so don't shoot the messenger. :)

As for kaddish, I like Kol Zimrah's minhag hamakom: stand if you want to stand, sit if you want to sit, say kaddish if you want to say kaddish.

David A. M. Wilensky said...

elf's dh: In our congregation (and, I would assume, in most Reform congregations) many people feel obligated to come on a loved one's yartziet, but, as with most things that involve Reform Jews, many are too busy watching TV or doing something else useless to show up half the time. In addition, many may not know. Many probably don't even know when their relatives' yartzeit is!

BZ said...

Oh duh. The Phish reference was to "Silent in the Morning".