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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Whither Reform Worship?

by Rabbi Richard Sarason, PhD

Parashat Terumah

As you know, the North American Reform Movement is about to publish a new prayer book for a new generation. As one rabbi has put it, “Only let the prayer book voice the aspirations of the people; only let it be inspiring and people will throng to the synagogues.” This vision of prayer book reform—if you revise it, they will come—was not voiced in 2005 at the Houston Biennial, but in 1914 at the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The French, as always, have a well-turned phrase for this: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”—“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, in an article on the platforms and prayer books of North American Reform Judaism, has noted that before each of our five prayer books was published, the hope was expressed that this action would mitigate several ongoing challenges: 1) that the new prayer book would “counter diminishing synagogue worship attendance”; 2) that the new prayer book would help promote a sense of unity in the North American Reform Jewish community; and 3) that the new prayer book would adequately respond to “changes in the Jewish condition and in the wider culture that had rendered the previous prayer book irrelevant or alienating to the community of Reform Jews and that required a new spiritual pedagogy as well” (Kaplan, 26).

Beyond the obvious observations that the new quickly becomes old, and that tastes in linguistic, musical, and liturgical style change both over time and inter-generationally, what do these recurring patterns tell us about Reform worship? Perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, they tell us that the real issues, dear Jews, lie not in our prayer books, but in ourselves. A prayer book, after all, is only a script, a text to be enacted. Worship and prayer, on the other hand, are activities, things that we do. And, since Jews began entering the culture of western modernity over the past two hundred or so years, these activities have become increasingly problematic and by no means self-evident. The big elephant in the room is that many of us are ambivalent, conflicted, and uncomfortable with prayer and worship. Except in moments of extreme danger and extreme relief, we are not inclined to cry out, “O God, please help me!” or “Thank God!” We may not even believe in a personal God who responds to prayers, or we may have profound doubts about what we do believe. And we may feel awkward or guilty about that.

None of this is new; all of it is ongoing. Harry Golden, the popular raconteur of homespun Jewish wisdom in the 1950’s, once related a remark of his father’s about himself and his friend Schwartz. “Schwartz,” he would say, “goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Schwartz.” So it is with many of us—indeed, so it is with all of us, some of the time. And so it has ever been. Jews come to services to socialize with other Jews—and that’s okay. But why else do we come? What are we looking for here? What do we want to experience together in this space? How do we want to be touched? What do we want to leave with? Maybe some of us are too embarrassed to address those questions out loud in the presence of others, but I suspect that most of us, in our heart of hearts, have often felt their force.

Reform Jews in America today are an incredibly diverse group of people, with different sensibilities, different needs, and different thoughts about these questions. We are male and female; black and white and yellow and red; gay and lesbian and straight; old and young; well off and struggling; single and partnered, with or without children; healthy and ill; in-married and intermarried; believers and doubters. We strive to be an inclusive community, to allow everyone’s voice to be heard; and yet we try also to transcend all of these different voices when we come together as Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, in this holy congregation. That is the reason why any prayer book that the Movement produces today will look a bit like a camel, which is to say, a horse put together by a committee. And indeed, Mishkan T’filah, the newest Reform siddur, has many voices juxtaposed with each other on every two-page spread. This can be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity. The hope is that every individual can find something personally resonant in the service, but also that we can together find a larger voice—in the words of the American national seal, E pluribus unam: “Out of many, one.” Or, to cite a Jewish saying from Pirkei Avot, Al tifrosh min hatzibur—“Do not separate yourself from the community.”

But let’s return to the basics: Why are we here? What do we want from this experience together? What do we want the prayer book to map out for us? “Each of us comes into this sanctuary with a different need,” notes a text in the Gates of Prayer. But we are all needy. As frail and finite creatures who are “human, all too human,” we need strength and hope to face the vicissitudes of life. We need assurance that our lives are not meaningless, that we leave behind us something of value after we are gone. We need a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves—to a caring, moral community of faith and fate, to a universe in which matter is never lost, although personal consciousness may be. We often need to be reminded, in the words of a Hasidic master, that human beings are God’s language—that each and every one of us potentially enacts the presence of God in the world. We yearn for a sense of transcendence. And we’re sometimes afraid to acknowledge all this. It’s difficult to admit our vulnerability to ourselves, let alone to those around us.

Some people, like Schwartz, come to pray—to communicate with a personal God who hears and responds; others, who may not believe in a personal God, come to meditate, to reflect, to find a moment of calm, to sense a cosmic rhythm; still others value the expressiveness of the hallowed words and melodies of Jewish, and Reform Jewish, tradition in Hebrew or English—and the stability over time that they enact: for some of us, in the synagogue you really can go home again. And there are those who come also out of a sense of mitzvah, of divine and communal obligation, as part of a religious discipline that enacts a way of life.

The “worship wars” in our Movement over the past generation have really been about competing visions (often intergenerational) of Jewish liturgical identity and aesthetics—musical style, literary style, behavioral style—and the visions of personal and communal Jewish identity that these enact. We can debate whether or not change is always for the better (it isn’t), but we dare not be so caught up in our own enthusiasms that we disenfranchise any generation in our multigenerational congregations or disparage their long-held Jewish identities and convictions.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman, the editor of Mishkan T’filah, made a very wise stipulation when she agreed to take on this grueling and often thankless task. She remarked that introducing a new prayer book served no purpose unless it was used as the occasion to generate a larger discussion about congregational worship—its nature, its purpose, its meaning. So that’s what I’m attempting to seed here this evening.

I think that worship must enact a sense of belonging—a sense of deep, inclusive, and caring community—and of communing both with “the better angels of our natures” and with that aspect of the universe that resonates with them, whatever we choose to call it. In worship, we acknowledge our ultimate concerns—our hopes, our fears, our longings—and we express them both through our own words and through the words of our historic tradition. That expression is heightened through gesture and through the exuberance and poignant longing of musical expressiveness—through chant, song, and instruments, sometimes listening, sometimes joining in together. In worship, we act out both who we are and what we want to be. In the best of circumstances, we may be profoundly moved; ideally, we will leave with a richer sense of our humanity and of our moral bonds to, and responsibilities toward, each other.

But this doesn’t happen automatically. It’s not primarily a function of what’s on the prayer book page or of what’s happening on the bimah—though both may either facilitate or get in the way of such an experience. Sometimes we are indeed caught up by surprise in a mood or an insight that comes to us from outside. But more often than not, it is what we bring to this sanctuary, to this encounter, that determines what we get out of it. It doesn’t just happen; it’s something that must be prepared: “the readiness is all.” We cannot be passive; we must become active participants.

Here is a poetic congruence (or is it, perhaps, a divine message?): Both the title of our new Reform prayer book and its motto come from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. God tells Moses to instruct the Israelite people to bring gifts, from every person whose heart so moves him. These gifts will be used to build the mishkan, God’s portable dwelling-place on earth, in the midst of the people. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, says God: “Let them build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.” But we can also read this verse midrashically: “It is only when they build me a sanctuary that I will dwell in their midst.” In other words, the action initiative must come from us. The mishkan, God’s dwelling place, is built only with what each of us brings to the task, with what our hearts are moved to give. Our new prayer book is called Mishkan T’filah, the Tabernacle, or Dwelling-Place of Prayer. But in reality, it is only a script, only a blueprint—only what our Torah portion calls tav’nit hamishkan, “the pattern of the Tabernacle.” The real mishkan t’filah is all of us here in this holy congregation. It is what we as individuals and as a community bring to this time and this place, to this potentially sacred moment, from which God’s true sanctuary is built. Worship is not what is in the prayer book. It is what we do, each and all of us, here, now, and always. The true worship ultimately is about how we live our lives in the presence of each other and of the divine.

May our worship here together this Shabbat inspire us to greater acts of caring and compassion, that we may truly become God’s language. May we live our lives with reverence for all life and with humility before the mystery of the universe and of our own being in it.

Ken yehi ratson: Be this God’s will, and our own.

Rabbi Sarason is professor of Rabbinical Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. This piece appeared originally in Ten Minutes of Torah ( in March 2006.

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