A long, long time ago, when I was a newly minted rabbi, the way we prayed in a Reform service was really different from what we’re doing here. The guiding principle of Reform Jewish Worship of the day was “decorum.” “Behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety.” Being decorous was expressed with our clothing (formal); our language (almost entirely in English and very little Hebrew); musical instruments (only the organ and the human voice); our expressions of emotion should be kept to a minimum, except of course for some occasional righteous indignation!
“Spirituality” believe it or not, was not thought to be very decorous. Spirituality could be messy, emotional, uncomfortable and unpredictable. (When I went to the Hebrew Union College for my interview for rabbinical school in 1978, I was strongly advised NOT to use the word “spiritual”. It could make the committee uncomfortable. They might think you’re some kind of meditating, spacey, hippie or something.
I was once chastised for wearing brown shoes at services. We were warned against “osculation” on the bema. (Kissing someone “Shabbat shalom”). Not tolerated were the sounds of young children; the sight of an open collar with no tie; guitar playing; facial hair, etc. It was a different world.
We’ve come a long way. (Last Friday night at services I happened to have on a suit and tie. More than one person came up and asked, “Why are you so dressed up? What’s the occasion?”)
We also didn’t talk about God all that much. Even on the bema. Especially from the bema.
Now take this as a compliment, because it’s meant as one: you Jews today are much harder to please with prayer and worship than the Jews generations past. And that’s a really good thing. Truly a complement. Much was left unquestioned in the decades of the past. People excepted the music they’d always heard, people recited the prayers more out of habit, without great concern for their meaning.
But today, so many of our people, of all ages, want to understand what we’re saying. We want to ponder who that God is that’s being addressed on these pages. We want the words we say to be authentic and ring true.
These changes are wonderful! And they go way beyond the sanctuary.
Weddings are really different: What people look for in a ceremony has changed dramatically over the years. Most of the couples who came into my office in the 80s or 90s all said the same thing to me: “Rabbi, if you could not use too much Hebrew, and please don’t make it too Jewish; and if you could keep it really short.”
It’s so different today! Couples now come in with incredible curiosity about each little part of the ceremony, sometimes wanting to revive old traditions, sometimes wanting to create new ones.
And these same conversations are equally interesting whether it’s two Jews, or with an interfaith couple, or with LGBTQ couples, or folks who converted. We all want to understand what we are saying and to Whom? People want to be very careful with the God language in their weddings; they put a lot of thought using only words they actually believe.
(BTW: One thing hasn’t changed. Everyone still wants it short. No one has ever, ever come up to me and asked, “Rabbi, could you please make our wedding ceremony really long!”)
Folks as young as our 12 and 13 year-olds can be wonderfully demanding too in wanting to understand this “praying stuff” and “this God stuff”. It used to be rare for a bat or bar mitzvah kid to think so deeply about God. Now a good number of these young kids have serious and brilliant God questions.
More than a few times a year David, Shira or I will get a call from a parent who’s a little embarrassed to tell us that their daughter or son isn’t sure they want to have a bar mitzvah because they don’t believe in God.
But please don’t be embarrassed or feel awkward to tell the rabbi or cantor that your kid is not sure he or she believes in God. Cause that’s a really cool kid! Our response to you is “Good for you, good for your kid!” Most of us don’t think much about prayer and God issues until we’re well into adulthood!
So if you’re lucky enough to have one of those kids who is curious, and asking hard questions, and is even a bit strident in their thoughts, then Mazal Tov! You have a thinking caring soul on your hands. And we all look forward to engaging in good discussion with them.
Many of our 15 year-olds have deep and serious questions. Every year when we prepare for Confirmation our 10th graders have a sheet of sentence completions that they fill out.
The place I feel most comfortable is . . . ?
When I grow up I would like to . . . ?
If I could change one thing in the world it would be . ?
My favorite Kol Ami memory is . . . ?
I’ve used the same sheet for many, many years.
Then all of a sudden a few years ago one sentence completion became very contentious.
“A time I felt close to God was . . .” Complete the sentence. That one used to seem kind of innocuous; pretty straight forward. Bur recently they began to find that sentence very presumptuous; a question that a) presumes you believe in God, and b) presumes that there was a time when you felt close to God. That’s a lot to presume.
And the kids are asking, “Hey, what if I’ve never had a time where I felt close to God. What if I don’t believe in God? Am I still a part of this?”
We’re not in the business of telling young people what to believe; rather our job is to give them the tools and the spiritual vocabulary to engage in their own life long journey; wherever it takes them. And most often it takes them to good places.
So what’s the modern Jew supposed to do?
There’s this great little morsel of wisdom that may help: May have been written a few centuries ago, but it certainly helpful for us here today with our really hard God questions.
“Pray as if everything depends on God;
and act as if everything depends on you.”
[St. Augustine or from Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan Tephillah.]
In this teaching you have the praying and the doing.
What do we pray for almost every time we gather?
We have that prayer for healing,
the prayers for peace,
the prayer to bring comfort to someone who recently had a death in the family,
the prayer about feeding the homeless or clothing the naked,
the Amida in which we have now fully embraced the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition.
“Pray as if everything depends on God; and act as if everything depends on you.”
It doesn’t say “or”. It doesn’t say “act OR pray”! How brilliant that it says both:
Pray AND act!
It’s like a redundant back up system. Think of yourself sky diving; you’re never going to jump out of that plane unless you have both your parachute AND your emergency chute. Pray and act.
How do we Jews pray AND act?
The Prayer is the Mi Sheberach: we sing the prayer for healing. The Action? When we visit people who are ill, when we call them, when we check in on them or make a bowl of soup.
The Prayer Oseh Shalom: Maker of Peace: The Action? Any time you have eveworkedin your life to prevent war, or protest, or write a letter, or supported a war you thought might bring peace; or when you have meeting with elected officials?
The Prayer to console the bereaved. The Action: when you show up for shiva, and give that hug.
The Prayers about feeding the homeless and clothing the naked. The Action: When we create and sustain a Food Pantry on our own property; when we have bags in the Atrium filled for us to take to someone who could use it; When we create a magnificent Thanksgiving dinner for the people from the Coachman.
(Do you know what our kids will be doing across the way tomorrow morning?: They’ll be praying and acting. After a Yom Kippur service they will be packing up donated food for the homeless, as we do every year with Feeding Westchester. Kol Ami is one of their largest donors, giving each year literally thousands of pounds of food for hungry people. Our kids . . . praying AND acting.
The Prayer, the Avot and Imahot, in which we now fully embrace the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition. The Actions?; when we fill up busses to go to DC, or NY or White Plains to act for Women’s equality.
Singer Sam Smith recently wrote a beautiful song that captures our dilemma: Smith is a British fellow who’s about 26 years old. His first songs were mostly love songs. But a couple of years ago he travelled to Iraq with a charity called War Child, an organization that works to provide assistance to children living in war zones.
Smith says that he “…spent five days in Mosul and came back embarrassed that [he] had known so little about the world and other people’s lives.” He was deeply conflicted about what to do? And with this song he captures the essence of these hard questions: When should I pray? Do I believe? Are You there? Where do I start? I’m confused!
Sam Smith’s song, Pray:
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say
Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray
You won’t find me in church reading the Bible
But I’m still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
When I try to explain, the words run away
That’s why I stood here today
And I’m gonna pray (Lord), maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Won’t you call me?
Can we have a one-to-one, please?
Let’s talk about freedom
Oh, and I’m gonna pray,
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Maybe I’ll pray,
I’ve never believed in you, no, but I’m gonna pray
(Pray by Sam Smith. Sung by Melanie Barest)