We are living in turbulent times. In the wake of violence, upheaval, and discord in our nation, we often find ourselves polarized, a dark cloud over our lives. But it isn’t just the divisiveness in our nature or community. Individually, many of us are also spread too thin, our brains overloaded with information (mostly stressful or negative). We are over-programmed and always on the go. Is it any wonder why this year synagogues and temples saw an increase in attendance, despite the growing trend of smaller crowds? Our souls are reaching out, hungry for something more, asking for peace, to be calm, to be centered. Naturally, as Jews, we look first for those needs in the form of prayer and worship. At Temple Israel, we welcome you to our services, both Friday evening for a carefree musical experience, and Saturday morning, for a traditional and ritualistic service.
But in these days of turmoil, are we experiencing prayer as we should? We would be remiss if we did not remember that prayer engages both sides of the brain. When we read the words in the siddur, we engage the left side, our rational, analytical side of our brain. And while this can be an experience of tradition, we risk focusing too much on language and reasoning, and the power of it dwindles. Music, therefore, is one solution to engaging the ride side of the brain for an emotional connection to our prayer. As Rabbi Mike Collins notes, “it is no coincidence that the most successful liberal synagogues…make their services into one long song. Prayer bands are sweeping the Jewish world and almost every liberal synagogue in a big city has at least one service with live, contemporary music.”
Rabbi Collins teaches that far too often we constrain our bodies “In the formal structure of theater-style seating,” and thus preventing “bodily movement,” which is a source of emotional expression. When we are able to relax our bodies, let them feel the music of prayer, our mind relaxes as well. We see this strategy in the Orthodox as they rock back and forth in a what is known as “shuckling,” in order to connect better to the words they so quickly recite on the page. Over the past year, I have attempted to bring contemporary, moving music to our worship space so as to help center ourselves and bring expression and meaning to the all too familiar words on the pages of our siddur. So, get into the music! Sway, clap, close your eyes, and let your soul be nourished.
Of course with all the new additions, such as an increase in Hebrew, and new melodies, it is understandable that some in our congregation may feel overwhelmed or lost at times. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein once noted, “People hate being ignorant. If you don’t know Hebrew, even if you go to a Reform service, it’s an immediate feeling of, ‘I’m a PhD in neuroscience but I can’t figure out what page we’re on.’ It’s very hard for adult Jews who are literate in everything else to become illiterate publicly.” Because of this common challenge, I, and other rabbis, have attempted to teach that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, to let the mind wander during services, following where your spirit leads you. Mishkan T’filah, our Reform Siddur, creates opportunities for this with poetry, meditations, and commentaries on the pages, so as to let you explore different meanings of the prayer in the hopes that one might connect with you. As Rabbi Laura Geller testifies, “For me, a lot depends on the prayerbook. When I’m sitting in the congregation I’m often off with the poetry and reflections and meditations.” So, get into the other words in the siddur! Turn the pages even if we’re not there yet. Comb through Mishkan T’filah and find your favorite passages while the rest of us are singing, and we’ll meet you back at Sh’ma.
Finally, I think it important to note that one thing that may be stopping us from finding our spiritual center in worship is what Rabbi Jay Michaelson calls “the preposterousness of prayer.” He teaches that it is certainly okay, and healthy, to “concede that traditional prayer is intellectually incoherent.” In other words, in the intellectual world those who need prayer are often painted as weak, i.e. fundamentalists, or New Agers. But, is there a way to achieve the necessary emotional peace from prayer? Rabbi Michaelson says yes, and that it is achieved by “permission given by the mind to the heart.” At Temple Israel, no one should feel embarrassed to feel moved by prayer, to let the heart cry out without hesitation. No one should sit in our sanctuary in fear of “the religious equivalent of hipsters too cool to dance to simple music.” I remember sitting in seminary just a few months away from the end of my five-year journey, watching a brand new rabbinical student sing along to the words of Mah Tovu in services. Her eyes were closed, she was rocking back and forth, her hands out in the air almost grabbing the feelings around her. And while I looked at her, I noticed there was not a shred of self-doubt or shame looking back at me. I was instantly inspired, and a bit jealous at the same time. Why wasn’t I able to achieve what she was achieving? I had put far too much emphasis on the academic aspect of the prayer, understanding its origin, and not what feelings it could evoke. I have therefore attempted to make Temple Israel’s worship spaces a safe place; to let the cynical aspects of our lives fall away and allow our congregants to be themselves. So, don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing. In the words of my generation, “you do you.” Maybe you’ll inspire someone next to you!
The outside world can seem cold and difficult, with our minds overstimulated with negativity and criticism. Why not let Temple Israel be the refuge from that place? Come in, sit down or stand, alone or with friends, sing or don’t sing, pray or don’t pray. Just feel. Center yourself, and let your mind be cleansed from the noise and distractions, and let prayer overcome both sides of your brain, fusing intellectualism and emotions, keva and kavannah. Together, let us open our hearts and our minds, and pray.