Steven Bayar

Weaponizing Zmirot

I’ve enjoyed many fulfilling experiences on the pulpit. Fortunately, they overshadow the (much) fewer disturbing interactions that have stayed with me. Of them all, perhaps the saddest one I ever experienced was at The King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

During a congregational tour of Israel (at the time of the first intifada — when our tour bus was literally the only one around) I was accosted by one of the participants. She complained that I, as her rabbi, did not appreciate that her family was the most observant in the congregation, and that she was one of the most skilled active participants as well. “I have never once even heard a ‘thank you!’ from you,” she exclaimed.

It was not one of my finer moments as my natural inclination took over, and I simply said, “thank you,” thereby cementing an enmity that continues to this very day.

But this conversation highlighted what I began to see as a danger point in congregational life. As liberal rabbis, we encourage observance and from the pulpit, many elevate those who choose to be more observant to a status in which other congregants defer to them as “better Jews.”

Never was this more apparent than after the kiddush luncheon after Shabbat morning services, when a couple of tables of congregants (of elevated status) would begin to sing the zmirot of Shabbat.

The traditional songs sung at Shabbat meals can be one of the most spiritually uplifting — and potentially divisive — Shabbat customs. The key is intention — for the songs can be used to enhance what could be a spiritual experience, or create a status-driven group within a congregation.

While the intention of some of those at those tables was to celebrate Shabbat, there was also (for some) a bit of one-upmanship, showing off their knowledge to the rest of the congregation members trying to have conversations in the room.

In effect they were putting up a sign saying, “LOOK AT ME, I’M BETTER THAN YOU.” And saying to the rabbi, “if you don’t acknowledge that we are better than the rest, you can’t be one of us.”

I chose not to be one of them. If we espouse that no one is “more” equal in the eyes of God, how can they be “more” equal to us?

The irony of trying to grow a congregation is that being inclusive means accepting all who wish to come. Yet at some point the congregants who were attracted to this inclusivity are only interested in attracting like-minded individuals and thus become a force for exclusivity.

So it came as a total surprise when after Shabbat services lunch here in San Antonio, where I am Interim Rabbi, I witnessed what is now our weekly group of Shabbat singers engaging in a spirited, inclusive and welcoming set of zmirot.

Looking around at the faces, I saw a group of people with no more intent than glorifying their Shabbat experience, welcoming those who did not know how to sing and sharing their enjoyment with those who chose not to — all without a judgmental comment or glance.

I continue to learn more about congregational possibilities than I ever thought possible.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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