Global, Religion

The Sad State of Tefilah in America

On March 26, I attended the Shefa Conference, the first-ever event organized by the Shefa Network. Shefa bills itself as the “Conservative Jewish Activists Network,” whose listserve is a virtual address for people with a passion for reforming the Conservative Movement along more progressive/educated/participatory lines. Unfortunately the conference fell far short of my expectations and those of the under-35 set I talked to, despite some great quotable moments from the always-awesome Judith Hauptman. Still, it was mostly nothing that an experienced group facilitator/conference planner couldn’t fix.
The craziest thing about the conference, though, was an email that one of the participants sent to the Shefa listserve afterwards, raving about how much he had loved the davening at the conference. He wrote:

What I learned is that when Shefa people daven, Shefa people really daven. Standing around the room, totally involved in the moment. The responses of baruch hu u’varuch sh’mo and amein to the full hazarah and to kaddish filled the room. And then came tachanun, restored to its traditional place in mincha. When this group of people soulfully sang the 3 verses of “shomer yisrael” together, I found myself closing my eyes and tapping on a nearby table in a moment I shall keep with me as a personal reminder of what davening might be. Turns out having a woman as shlichat tzibbur and adding the imahot doesn’t have to mean removing the hazara and dropping tachanun. In Shefa’s dreams we can have it all

First, I can’t even begin to imagine how bad davening is out there in the wider (Conservative?) world if this particular mincha rocked this guy’s socks. It was straight ahead, no frills, standard Conservative nusach davening, led by a woman. But, oh yes, we actually sang Shomer Yisrael (to the Conservative tune, not to the Carlebach tune that kicks its proverbial butt) and– gasp– there was NO TALKING during davening. My reaction during mincha (even before I read the email) was, “Yawn. We just went from singing this great niggun [the band Shirav played a few tunes in between the talking and the praying] into davening such a boring mincha. But whatever. I daven mincha every day and you can’t expect it to be exciting all the time.” This guy and I were clearly on totally different planets.
What a sad world it’s become if quiet during davening, the active participation of the kahal, and the singing of one old song have become someone’s vision of “what davening might be.” Anyone looking for a more expansive vision should consider this an open invitation to come daven your lungs off at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute or Hadar or Kol Zimrah .
And finally, I truly hope the penultimate sentence of that email was meant to be ironic. Yes, Virginia, having a female sha”tz and adding the imahot “doesn’t have to mean removing the hazara and dropping tachanun.” Give me a break. I thought we solved that one years ago. As BZ likes to note, these ideas about gender and liturgy conform to the common Orthodox-oriented frame that there is a “left” (egalitarian in participation and liturgy) to “right” (serious davening and full liturgy) spectrum. And you can only move linearly on that spectrum, in one direction or another. Thanks again to my favorite communities for exploding that particular myth. Grrr.
So, all of you holy prayersayers (as Zelig Leader is wont to say), get out there and keep davening to high heaven. Maybe it’ll catch on some time soon.

8 thoughts on “The Sad State of Tefilah in America

  1. Wait a sec, you call Hadar the epitome of great davening? It’s soulless and sleep inducing. And, yes, I like their service better than just about any I’ve been to. If this is the best we can do, G-d help us.

  2. This reminds me of when my dad told me I just had to come check out the “Shabbat Zimrah” service at the big Conservative shul where I grew up. It’s very hard to imagine this is the most songful that davenning gets there, and that services on other Fridays could possibly be any less “Zimrah” than that was.

  3. Davening in the wider conservative world simply sucks, to be blunt. A lot of it has to do with being brought up on the Kavannah Killing Koir doing all the work, and their parents are too lazy to teach them different. Get people away from that, and they find themselves yelling (tunefully and otherwse) thumping and clapping again.
    It doesn’t have to suck, and it doesn’t always. It just varies a lot from place to place, and once you find your place, its very good.

  4. Let us all keep in mind that in the larger Jewish world, across all movements, davening is not so exciting. With the exception of Jerusalem it seems that everyone is trying to jazz up tefilah. Lets give it some time to marinate.

  5. I’m glad the nigun worked – it brought out a depth for the conference, I think. I know that suburban tefillah needs a lot of work – trust me – I’m a pulpit rabbi outside of Boston – it needs work. The true test will be if the clapping and soulfulness can infiltrate these bastions of high-church tefillah. Chazzanut and protocol are chief in most rabbis’ and ritual committee’s minds – anyone with enough passion to read a blog is exactly who can tip the scales. I can’t wait to -really- daven with you all.

  6. The ability to formulate a positive comment was the craziest thing about the conference? Really? BTW, I’m under 35 and spoke to at least one other who enjoyed it so perhaps your survey missed a few people? Anyone who wants to see more about Shefa is welcome to browse to and
    I do believe simple davening can be meaningful in and of itself. You might call it crazy but it’s true. Standard nusach, standard liturgy, with just a little spark of soul, can work. Heck, even davening k’yachid can work. Carlebach is great and I’m sure his niggun is terrific, too, but that doesn’t mean an old standard is automatically yesterday’s junk. With respect, my finding meaning where you did not does not make me crazy, nor does it indicate that I am a naïf who ought seek out your services for some remedial davening experience (but thanks for the thoughtful invitation). More likely it means nothing more significant than different strokes for different folks. Different people find meaning in different places. “When we come to stand together, is there space for us to disagree?” (-Shirav lyric)
    Yes Virginia, at least for me, “quiet during davening, the active participation of the kahal, and singing” are indeed the ingredients of meaningful davening (“old”/traditional songs and new ones alike, even bleah “Conservative tunes” and “Conservative nusach”). We sang, as you put it, “to the Conservative tune, not to the Carlebach tune that kicks its proverbial butt.” It was a Conservative group; why the surprise and disappointment at encountering Conservative tunes? Disdain (or more likely disappointment) for all things “Conservative” is evident throughout your writing, but my failure to share in that disappointment, and to find joy and/or meaning even in things “Conservative” makes me neither “crazy” nor ignorant of the joys of various flavors of fantastic hassidishe and neo-hassidishe davening. You suggest that my ability to find meaning in an experience you found so bland is proof positive of the “sad state of t’filah” generally. I’m not convinced. It could just as well be that your inability to find meaning in a traditional davening is what is indicative of a problem. You write, “We just went from singing this great niggun. . . into davening such a boring mincha.” I don’t see it that way. For me, we went from singing a great niggun into davening a great mincha which was itself better for having been preceded by the niggun. The music helps and enriches the davening—it should not push it aside, eclipse it and gradually replace it as the new ikkar of the experience. The ikkar is the davening—if the davening becomes boring and uninspiring in comparison to the music then we have done something wrong. The idea is to use the music to create an excitement that we then carry over into the davening—that’s how it worked for me, that’s an important part, I think, of why I felt good about that mincha. I think there is something to learn from your and my different experiences in the same room but the sad state of t’fillah generally to account for how I could have enjoyed such an allegedly rotten prayer experience isn’t it.
    “And finally, I truly hope the penultimate sentence of that email was meant to be ironic. . .” Not that you asked me, but yes, I suppose you could say it was an “ironic” comment, as I thought was apparent from the context. It was ironic because as you say davening in the Conservative world has often become pareve and stale as it has become more egalitarian and progressive. (I rather hope Professor Eisen is listening, and from what I’ve gathered thus far, it may just be that he is.) One answer to that problem is to reinvent the davening and liven it up with new exciting niggunim and I think that’s an important component to any response to the problem. But it’s not, and should not be, the only component to the answer. Many people, and not only older people, are still moved by the traditional forms and these do not necessarily need to be completely replaced for everyone everywhere even if that is what, at least right now, works best for you. Another approach is to find ways to improve and be inspired by the simple little things—the traditional liturgy and nusach of the boring little humdrum everyday moments of prayer. I respectfully submit that if my comments about mincha were indeed “crazy,” then a little more nuttiness in the world would be a small step in a positive direction.

  7. As I understand it, “the traditional forms” aren’t what Rooftopper Rav is complaining about. (Speaking for myself as a Reform expatriate,) boring Conservative davening is a very different animal from boring Orthodox davening. The former is far more toxic.

  8. Wow! Debate over davening – which kind kicks ass, which kind sucks, which kind stupefies. I love this shakla ve-tarya (give and take). It’s so cutting edge, yet so Amoraic at the same time. This ain’t a new debate, y’all. They didn’t all daven the same way in gemara times, and we don’t now. Do you resonate with the rabbi who bent and bowed so much during t’filah that he ended up in a different corner of the room from where he started? Or the guy who had so much focussed energy that birds who flew over his head when he davened were incinerated on the spot? Or what about someone who stands perfectly still, knowing that a candle flame that doesn’t sputter gives out the most light (that one is hassidic, much more recent). I’m stoked that at least everybody on this blog-ersation cares enough to look for the holy grail of davening (sorry. That was a terribly mixed metaphor); I know far too many Jews (and others, as well, but this is about us), Conservative or otherwise, who couldn’t care less about prayer – as if that most difficult, essential and rewarding of human activities was as relevant to the post-modern individual as, ummmm, cuneiform production.

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