While spending Shabbat on Manhattan’s Upper West Side a few weeks ago in order to attend programs relating to the “Zamir at Fifty” celebration, I found myself in the unusual position (a dramatic understatement!) of having to decide where to go to Shabbat morning services. I realize that “shul hopping” is a time-honored sport of that particular neighborhood, and there are plenty of Jews who do it in my neck of the woods, too. But I rarely get to indulge that urge to try something different on a given Shabbat…
And so it was that my wife and I found our way to Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue on Central Park West and 70th Street. It was on the way to where we had to be, neither of us had ever been there, and we were more than a little curious.
Our curiosity was amply rewarded. The sanctuary was absolutely stunning, and we were fascinated by the studied formality of the service relative to the efforts I have made in my own synagogue (as have many others) to move away from that particular style of worship. The clergy were robed in what I’m sure were exactly the same style of garments worn by their predecessors hundreds of years ago. There was a (magnificent) men’s choir that sang at different points in the service. The Cantor and Rabbi carefully walked a predetermined number of hesitating steps up to the Ark to return the Torah scroll after it was read from, and each of the men who received an honor in the service bowed carefully and ceremoniously to the other men gathered around him. So much pomp and circumstance! It was, really, like walking into another century, and my wife and I both found it fascinating and enchanting.
Shearith Israel is, of course, an Orthodox synagogue, and the women sit in an upstairs balcony section of the sanctuary, far removed from where the service itself is taking place. For my wife, this was a very different experience than her usual Shabbat morning in our home synagogue, which is fully egalitarian. She is passionate about the ritual empowerment of women, and all who know her are aware of that. And yet she gladly went with me to that service, and was able to say afterward how much she had enjoyed it.
For those who might ask how that might be possible, the answer is both simple and profound. She is blessed with what I like to call spiritual elasticity- the ability to find spiritual meaning and pleasure from a setting that is outside of one’s own comfort zone. It is a quality that enables you to attend different kinds of religious services and relish their spirituality, even if that particular brand of spirituality isn’t your own model. I actually love going to services that are different from my own, and only wish that I had the chance to do it more often.
Of the many lacks in today’s religious Jewish communities, spiritual elasticity is one of the most glaring. In my own movement, the tendency towards smaller, boutique-type minyanim has helped to produce Jews who can be spiritual only in their own spiritual context, with other people who share their preferences. Some can abide only smaller, more intimate services, others will only daven where congregational singing dominates the service, and still others want nothing more than a great Hazzan. Some relish a great sermon; others see it as an archaic form. And that’s just within my own movement! If we want to bring in examples of those who would never set foot in my synagogue to see how we daven…
Spiritual elasticity… it’s a quality much to be admired, and cultivated. The Jewish world would be a much kinder and gentler place if we had more of it.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation