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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
Remarks to the Executive Committee - Feb 2000

Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President
To UAHC Executive Committee February 7, 2000

My comments on worship at our Orlando Biennial have generated a response that far exceeded my expectations. Much of it was positive, some of it was questioning, and some of it was critical, but everyone, it seems, had something to say, and almost all of it was passionately expressed. The specifics of my argument I suspect were less important than the fact that the Union was putting prayer at the center of its agenda. Most of our members, I believe, understand that worship is the very heart of the synagogue, the central act of a believing Jewish community. Without worship, Judaism is emptied of God and emptied of life, and they were grateful for our suggestion that they enter into a dialogue on prayer with their rabbis and cantors. And most of our rabbis and cantors welcomed it as well; they know better than anyone does that it is prayer that feeds our souls and gives us the strength to go forward.

I have received many thoughtful comments about what I said, and I would like to share a few of those comments with you.

A number of rabbis and lay people pointed out that I did not discuss the extent to which the atmosphere of our synagogues impacts on our worship. I agree; this was a significant omission. I know from my extensive travels that sometimes the local Wal-Mart is friendlier than the local synagogue. Most of the time, the people at Wal-Mart show real appreciation for your presence and your business. And the reason for this, of course, is that they are driven by the notion that you might actually want to come back.

Synagogues may or may not have learned that lesson. Have you ever been to a restaurant where you got the feeling that people were doing you a favor by taking your money? Not a few synagogues give a similar impression. Virtually every survey ever conducted indicates that Jews are looking for friendly synagogues, and the most frequent criticism of a congregation is that it is not friendly enough. Interestingly, every congregation that I have ever been in tells me that it is a friendly place, but this often means that active members are friendly to each other, and not to the occasional worshiper or to outsiders.

One of the reasons that I suggested going to another congregation as part of the synagogue self-study was that many of our leaders have forgotten what it is to be a guest, and occasionally you need to put on visitor shoes and see how it feels.

So I agree with all those who suggested that no matter how powerful your music or inspiring your liturgy, it is not likely to make any difference unless your congregation is the kind of place where guests are treated better than they would be at the Ritz Carlton or at Disneyland.

A second comment that I heard with some frequency was that I had ignored the importance of belief in God. Some of my rabbinic colleagues told me that they agreed with most of my suggestions for reforming worship, but they doubted how much difference this might make; many of their members, they said, simply do not believe in God, and therefore were unlikely to come to synagogue, no matter how the worship services were conducted.

I do not share this view. Jews have normally theologized less than Christians, and in any case, theology is not the same as religion. Judaism is more than acceptance of well-formulated beliefs. And most of the time, belief is a product of experience, and not the other way around. Theology emerges from successful prayer; it does not precede it.

Almost a thousand years ago, Maimonides was asked how you teach children to pray. The way you teach them to pray, he said, was to pray with them. In other words, you do not begin by teaching them theological doctrines; you expose them to the liturgy, the chants, and the experience of community, and most of the time, this will give rise to some form of belief. Again and again I have seen doubting, skeptical Jews who participated in an intense prayer community, and then were able, at the very least, to open themselves up to the possibility of God.

So to those who say: "first theology, and then prayer," I would respond: "no, first prayer - and the theology will take care of itself."

A final comment that I heard came some of our cantors, who believed that my call for warm and accessible music was a surrender to popular culture; that I was expressing a preference for guitars and "la-la-la," - for music, in other words, that they identify as bland, low-quality "camp music." These cantors expressed the fear that by seeming to reject East European cantorial styles, I was proposing a worship model that would deprive them and their congregations of the dignity, reverence, and beauty of traditional chazanut, and that the result would be a decline in aesthetic awareness and musical expertise.

These are weighty matters, and I take them seriously. I would note, in the first instance, that as a graduate of NFTY and Union camps, the term "camp music" for me generates only positive associations; I have the fondest memories of worshipping at camp, where guitars and "camp music" were standard and where I first discovered celebratory, joyous prayer. But I am no expert in music, and I know that the vigorous pluralism that applies to all areas of Reform belief and practice surely applies to musical tastes as well. And in any case, I strongly agree with those cantors who have said that it is possible to offer high quality, sophisticated music that is also music that the congregation can sing. Indeed, that is precisely what we did at our Shabbat morning Biennial service. In short, the purpose of the worship initiative was not to make judgments about one musical style or another, but rather to emphasize the role of music as a community-building tool and the need for broad participation in whatever musical style the congregation chooses to adopt.

But I do not mean to give the wrong impression. Most of what I heard following Orlando reflected the broad agreement that exists in our movement on matters of worship. We agree on the need for serious self-examination of our worship practices. We agree on the importance of congregational participation in communal prayer and on the danger of prayer as a spectator sport. We agree on the centrality of music. And we agree on the value of rabbi, cantor, and lay person working together in partnership to make things better.

And this most of all: We agree on how hard it is to change, even when we want to change - indeed, are desperate to change. One after another I have heard rabbis, cantors, and lay people tell me how resistant we have become to reforming our worship practices. Sometimes it is a matter of ego, and sometimes a matter of turf. Sometimes it is a matter of a rabbi or cantor who is set in his ways. And sometimes it is a matter of lay people who have simply forgotten how to respond to spiritual needs, and how to be open with one another-lay people, that is, who no longer recall what it means to be a people of God.

Our iWorship on-line discussion contains some poignant accounts of lay leaders who tell us about temple boards that are embarrassed even to talk about prayer, and congregations that have resisted even the most vigorous efforts of cantors and rabbis to draw them into heartfelt prayer.

But on balance I remain very optimistic. We have opened a door that many of our congregations are glad to see opened, and many have already begun to walk through.

Our task is not to impose a single style of worship, heaven forbid; we could not do that, even if we wanted to.

But it is our task to encourage congregations to begin this dialogue, to help them overcome their fears and inhibitions, and to do all this without pointing fingers or laying blame. It is our task to push them a little bit when we sense they are ready. It is our task to go home to our own synagogues, and urge them to be part of this great experiment that we are now undertaking.

Because to pray is to say yes to Jewish life.

It is to affirm Jewish faith and hope.

And it is to strengthen the synagogue and every Reform Jew.

Tell me. Are there Reform Jews who are fervent in their prayers but alienated from Judaism? Perhaps, but I have never met one.

It has been said that prayer is the secret language of the Jew in all places and at all times. And this Union has no more important task than helping our members to learn that language and learn it well, and in so doing, to become a part of the great chain of Jewish being.


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