Devarim, words. Elu devarim asher dibeir Moshe, These are the words that Moses offered…. Up until now, the words Moses recites are almost always preceded by Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, God spoke to Moses. Only after God advises does Moses then speak to the people. Now, Moses is ready to speak on his own, and as we will be reminded towards the end of this book of Devarim, Moses does so best through song. Just as he did at the moment of redemption from Egypt, Moses expresses himself at the end of his life through poetic song. His final words, his final sermon, if you will ,is not understood as Divrei Moshe, the Words of Moses, but rather Shirat Moshe, The Song of Moses. Tradition offers Moses the honorific: Moshe Rabbeinu to highlight his role as our first teacher; but, he can certainly be considered just as well as Moshe Chazaneinu. Moses is the first communal leader, our first Jewish historical figure, to use song as a vehicle for teaching and worship.
Last Shabbat, I was en route home from the annual gathering of the American Conference of Cantors, the umbrella organization of Reform cantors. The ACC, as it is known (not to be confused with an apparently better known athletic conference referred to by the same acronym), includes graduates and ordinees of the Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music and graduates of other cantorial seminaries who choose to affiliate with and serve Reform congregations. Each year, the ACC is joined by members of the GTM. The GTM, The Guild of Temple Musicians, is an organization whose members serve Reform congregations in other non-clergy musical roles – as accompanists, soloists, music directors, choir directors, and composers. Each year, the ACC and the GTM gather together for a week of worship and concentrated study.
Back in the youth of my career (as opposed to what I consider the mid-life of my synagogue service), I attended these ACC Conventions regularly, annually. They provided an opportunity not only to stay tuned to what was current, but also offered the chance to reconnect with former classmates and colleagues. Due to various life happenings, such as finishing a dissertation and taking congregants to Israel, I have not attended an ACC gathering in 3-4 years. It was nice to see my colleagues and to learn some new music; but more importantly, attending this year reminded me of the divine pleasures of Torah lishmah, study for study’s own sake, and of sitting back and being an anonymous member of a kahal, a community.
The impact of the text study sessions will appear in sermons or teaching during the upcoming year, I look forward to sharing what I studied with you; but, most immediately, I’d like to share the experience of worship.
We gather for prayer twice daily at ACC Conferences, every morning before study and each evening before dinner. If only I could bottle the sound. Imagine: 150 voices, voices of people who are not only confident and competent musicians, but who are passionate about Jewish worship. Imagine them all coming together in prayer. The resulting worship trascends the cantorial ego and bravado creating beautiful prayer and spontaneous harmonies in a way that only a group of cantors can acheive. The simplest nigun becomes sublime in its harmonic complexity.
At the same time as there are moments and melodies that inspire me as a worshipper, a religious leader, and as a teacher of prayer, there are also moments of experimental worship, some of which fall short of what I expect was the intended result. Conferences are, remember, first and foremost a place to learn and experience the new and cutting edge. This year, one of these moments occurred during what was billed as “hands-free worship.” Hands-free worship is a trend that is beginning to find its way from the mega-church movement into many Reform and some Conservative synagogues. I purposely attended this service, an evening service, in order to experience it first-hand, or shall I say hands free. Is this something that would enhance our worship offerings at Temple Emanuel? Could this be a tool for re-invigorating our poorly attended Erev Shabbat services, in particular?
Before I share my ultimate ‘come away’ from the experience, allow me to first describe the setting. Generally, hands-free worship involves replacing a prayer book with projected images (imagine a large power-point screen at the front of the sanctuary) with text, music, and perhaps graphics. At the ACC convention’s Hand’s Free Worship, there was no projected text. I am unclear if this was a conscious decision, such a group as ours really didn’t need the words or music in front of us, we know it by rote. There was a big screen at the front of the room, just nothing projected on it (the screen was in the room for the entire conference). At the front of the room was a worship leader seated and leading from a piano and two additional musical leaders seated next to the piano. I believe the intention of the service was to remove any distractions and maximize what we label “participation.” The leaders, all cantors, lead beautifully and with great competence. Indeed, we stood, sat, and sang along on cue. But, the entire experience felt lacking. It is not a style of worship that I will be introducing to Temple Emanuel any time soon save perhaps in a religious school classroom or a First Friday Shabbat as a supplement to (not replacement of) the siddur. My reasons are two-fold.
The first can perhaps best be expressed by my response to a colleague who was lamenting one morning over breakfast how she just couldn’t seem to increase participation in her congregation. No matter how much she tried, she said, she just couldn’t get them to “participate” more. She continued to describe how she walks up and down the isles of her sanctuary clapping and encouraging singing. My, perhaps less than welcome, response: maybe she was limiting her definition of what it means to “participate” in worship. I could begin a rant here, actually. I believe one of our biggest failures in the Reform movement is that not only have leaders limited the definition of participation to far too narrow a window, but that limited definition has then been imposed as the best - the only - goal across the board for successful worship.
Participation does not equal singing along, foot stomping, or clapping. These are valid ways of participation, no argument there; but, so are sitting back and listening, being engaged and inspired by the texts before us, meditating on prayer and Torah perhaps while others around us are singing (one of my favorite ways of participating at ACC worship by the way, not one I can do here in my role as service leader) – these are all also valid ways of participating even if they can’t be measured by an enthusiastic response. Participating often means closing our mouths, opening our ears, and taking in the fullness of a worship experience. As a dear teacher and cantorial colleague, Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer, once reminded me, though there are no congregational refrains in sermons or drashot, your attention, your involvement, is expected. Why do we expect any less for our liturgy?
Even though the “Hands-Free worship” was participatory in the sense that everyone was singing along, it felt performative instead of engaging. We were a front focused audience – a sing a-long one for sure – but not so much a congregation.
My guess as to what made it feel so performative was the lack of a hands on text. I do believe that there is something binding about us being literally on the same page whether we are singing aloud together or not. I don’t care if the text in my hand is paper bound or digital (btw, Mishkan Tefilah is available as a very usable ipad app), but I believe there is value in having a shared text. I didn’t realize how visceral that attachment to text was until it was removed from my hands. On the one hand, this attachment could be attributed to my academic and bookish interests, but it seems to me that Judaism becomes vacuous without text. Why would we want to remove the text or place it further away from us? It is our textual traditions – biblical, rabbinic, and liturgical – that ground us, and these texts belong firmly in our hands.
Devarim – words. On parchment, on paper, on a digital screen -- our liturgy, our poetry is just that, words. It is only one aspect, but an important, aspect of prayer. It is the very combination of our written texts and the oral renderings and interpretations that we bring to the words the make them sing. It is this combination of what is in our hands and what is beyond our hands that give Jewish worship the potential of being a rich and meaningful experience. So, let's keep the words in our hands.