Seeing Beyond the Immediate in the Synagogue

Of the many things that I admire my wife for, one (surely not the most significant) is her ability to walk into an empty room in a house and imagine how it might or ought to look with furniture and everything else that makes up a room. The couch can go there, the rocker there, that painting over there… it’s this remarkable ability to see beyond what presents right now and have an image of what it might be.

Artists, of course, do this all the time. Painters look at an empty canvas and produce something from literally nothing. Writers and musicians do the same. I often wonder, after seeing a great Broadway musical, who it was who actually had the vision that was realized in that play, and how did they get from the vision to the stunning production that I saw. To me, this is a good way of understanding artistic genius. It’s not just about having great thoughts. It’s also, as Sondheim wrote, about “the art of making art.” It’s vision plus inordinate amounts of hard work and creative drive.

Why, you might well ask, do I think about such things? Well, I sort of feel the same way every time I walk into an empty sanctuary. There is, for better or for worse, something of the “production” process when thinking about what a synagogue service can and ought to be in the twenty-first century. There’s a room, an ark, Jews in the pews, and clergy (or not) who are charged with creating the dynamic mix that produces the holy grail (pardon the mixed religious metaphor) of today’s synagogue- a lively, engaging, stimulating and spiritually significant service.

As with the arts, however, there are a few complicating factors that make the task more than a little daunting.

First, there are the Jews in the pews. All those jokes about two Jews, three shuls came into being for a reason.

We are a people who are blessed with strong opinions, especially about our synagogues, and most people are more than happy to share their opinions freely. What suits one group in a synagogue rarely suits all the others. Some synagogues solve this by offering a multiplicity of services that offer people a varied menu of spiritual options from which to choose. But I have always wondered… is what is gained spiritually by creating homogeneous groupings of people for prayer greater than what is lost? Isn’t there some value in having a heterogeneous group of Jews praying together, a group that represents different life stages and experiences? Must a minyan have only young couples, or singles, or seniors?

Second, and no less daunting, is that the act of creation involved in generating a great prayer experience comes with a script. Surely there are some prayer communities that create their own liturgy as an act of creative spirituality, but those rooted in tradition have inherited the Siddur, our Jewish prayerbook. It contains some of our most treasured poems and songs, and has survived over thousands of years because of the richness of what lies within its pages.

And yet, the words of the liturgy themselves can be minefields for people of different sensitivities. Issues of gender sensitivity, inclusion of the matriarchs on an equal basis with the patriarchs, whether or not prayers for physical retribution against our enemies have a legitimate place in our liturgy, and so much more… Having an inherited script is both a blessing and a burden.

And, of course, there is the issue of time… it’s always about time. People want all kinds of different experiences in their prayer services, including more and more singing, stimulating Torah study, greater participation by b’nei and b’not mitzvah and their families, members celebrating significant celebrations or honors to be recognized, and more still… all of which is fine and good. “But rabbi, the service is too long. We really need to find ways to trim it down, because we’re getting out too late.”

Ah, the art of making prayer! Maybe we could use an executive producer… or maybe that’s what we clergy are in the twenty-first century? “This service was brought to you by…”

Shabbat Shalom! Enjoy your services…

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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.