by Dr. Eric Caplan, former JRF Board member
The recent convention of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) provided an interesting snapshot of the current state of prayer in our movement. The picture that emerged makes possible the following three assertions about the way many contemporary Reconstructionists pray.
I am happy that we have embraced the words of Kol Haneshamah and have stopped searching for new alternative formulations of the inherited liturgy. Although I believe that the content of what we pray is important—especially when assertions of ethical significance are made—finding replacement words that will satisfy all members is an impossible task. What we currently have before us is more than sufficient for us to pray with moral and intellectual integrity. Moreover, I share Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view that the major challenge of our prayer life is not what to pray, but how to pray, or even whether to pray at all.
Indeed, the majority of Jews in our time have chosen to abandon Jewish communal prayer altogether. I thought of them often during the recent convention. Is our prayer culture likely to speak to these Jews?
Our prayer style has much in common with Israeli shira b’tzibbur (communal singing), a gathering with deep cultural meaning. In both frameworks, the community assembles to sing words that express an idealized sense of self, the things that it wants to be. In shira b’tzibbur, the songs are about brave soldiers who are caring lovers, fighters who want peace, people who balance hard work with heartfelt celebration, people with a deep connection to the land. In Reconstructionist prayer we sing about being lovers of Torah, of the Jewish people, of certain core values, and of striving to be moral persons. In both frameworks, the words are addressed to each other and to ourselves individually. There is little sense of singing to a higher power. Reconstructionists seem to speak more about God and the values that we associate with godliness than to God. Great emphasis is placed on being accessible, open to all who wish to participate. In shira b’tzibbur, the words to all songs are projected on a screen placed in front of the audience. Reconstructionists use a prayerbook that has been typeset to help people find prayers easily, which has a readable English translation, and that includes an educational commentary aimed, in part, at novices. We sing fairly small portions of the text, repeating the same lines over and over with increasing levels of kavannah (intentionality), making it easier for the uninitiated to join in.
Most importantly, both frameworks foster a strong sense of community among participants, and for a movement that needs to grow as Reconstructionism surely does, this may be their greatest strength. For although there is much research indicating that North American Jews hesitate to join communal organizations, they still crave community. They still want to have connections with other Jews. And our shira b’tzibbur prayer aesthetic might provide a non-threatening, accessible avenue to explore these connections.
But for our prayer services to be powerful Jewish experiences, the words need to be sung primarily in Hebrew. Much of what we sing about is of universal concern. Our desire for peace, our appreciation of the natural world, our moral values, our need for physical and financial security; these are sentiments that all humans share. They become Jewish when expressed in Jewish vocabulary. Every nation can praise God for “bringing on the evening.” But only Jews speak of God as ha-ma’ariv aravim. And, ultimately, people come to synagogue in search of Jewish experience. Prayer services that sideline Hebrew are less likely to provide this experience.
In the convention minyan led by our Israeli guests, Psalm 150 was chanted in Hebrew to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s, “Hallelujah.” This union of cherished ancient words and beloved contemporary melody triggered deep feelings within me. This was a liturgical moment that was open to all and yet deeply Jewish. It was both hip and timeless. And I am thoroughly convinced that it would have been a less powerful experience if the Psalm had been sung in English.