Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

How many times did you stare at the clock this Rosh Hashanah?

Isaiah cried out, “What need do I have for your sacrifices?” Jeremiah audaciously declared that the sacrifices were not even commanded, but rather only to follow God and listen to God’s voice. Samuel rhetorically asked what is more important to God — all the sacrifices or hearkening to God’s voice? What bothered the prophets so much that this theme of questioning the necessity of the sacrifices repeatedly surfaced?

Maimonides went right to the heart of the matter:

But the commandment that sacrifices shall be brought and that the Temple shall be visited has for its object the success of that principle among you [of hearkening to God’s voice and following God].. You, however, have ignored this object, and taken hold of that which is only the means of obtaining it…” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32)

In other words, you have sacrificed the very purpose of the sacrifices on the altar of technical proficiency and performative perfection. You have done this at the expense of achieving what the rituals are actually meant to achieve. You leave from them accomplished in their performance but empty of meaning.

Does this at all sound familiar? From California to New York the same familiar scene repeats itself in Orthodox and other traditional synagogues daily, but reaches its pinnacle on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There are a small group of engaged participants during services and a much larger group of disengaged, turned off and bored people. Some people will be staring at the ceiling or their hands. Other people will be engaging in chatter. You can often observe people quietly engaged in Jewish learning or simply reading a book. There will be those who read this and offer a counter-example from this synagogue or that synagogue, but those exceptions prove the rule.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, service leaders are chosen who have a pleasant voice and a competency in Hebrew. They stand in front of the congregation for hours chanting every word, and in Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogues, often in a near constant dirge that is interrupted with the occasional communal singing using the same melodies sung for the past generation, if not longer. The actual text of the prayers have been mostly untouched for centuries. The vast majority of additions to the liturgy are piyutim composed several hundred years ago representing the stylistic and cultural references of those times. These piyutim were introduced specifically to deepen meaning for participants and now accomplish, for the vast majority, the exact opposite.

In addition, the Torah and Haftarah are read by competent members of the congregation. Each honored member who receives an aliyah also gets the honor of a lengthy prayer for their family after their aliyah where they get to list each member of their family by name and the gabbai repeats those names, one by one.

What is the congregation doing during all of this? Why do we have services, Torah and Haftarah readings in the first place? In the words of Maimonides, have we mistaken the means with the object? Have we lost sight of what we are meant to evoke and bring about both during the High Holidays and every day during prayer?

How have we tried to remedy this in recent years? Countless new works have been published by some of the leading lights in the Jewish community on the philosophy of prayer. These works have been incorporated into new prayer books as commentaries running alongside the text. Stories are told of the great rabbinic luminaries of the recent past who were able to connect to the services as they currently are. The message is essentially that if you are disengaged, it is not the service that needs work, but rather you. What if we come to admit that it is actually both.

There is a classic tension expressed in rabbinic literature between kevah and kavannah, classically translated as rote and intention. Prayers are meant to have a prescribed order and are also meant to be from the heart. The rabbis throughout the ages have grappled with this tension. Perhaps, a more apt translation of this concept for our times is comfort and discomfort. The liturgy as it now stands is comfortable. The tediousness of the hours of chanting by the prayer leader is comfortable. It is uncomfortable to step out of that and think of new models and new paradigms. Can we find a balance between maintaining some elements of the kevah, of the comfortable, while introducing some kavannah, some discomfort?

Can we imagine synagogues on Rosh Hashanah 5778 filled with people engaged and interested in what is happening? Can we imagine people not looking at the clock throughout but rather desiring more when the services have concluded? This may seem like a dream and it will certainly remain so unless we as a larger Orthodox community can grapple with this and make real decisions beyond who has the most pleasant voice to chant in the front for hours.

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software developer in Tel Aviv. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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