Monday, August 5, 2013

The Post-Modern Prayer Service

I've been in a funk lately, as regards to my religious life. Frankly, lately I've been finding that much of the prayer service bores me. The routine has become...routine. How can I get that old time religion?  How to get some passion back into the service?  Comic books perhaps??

Until recently, I'd never say that to anyone in public for fear of appearing like a total heathen. But what if the slings and arrows of modern life have left your faith worn out and depressed? If you're not connecting spiritually at Temple, where to go next...meditation?

The internet comes to the rescue!  There are now websites (or at least, one website) which allows you to create and customize a prayerbook online. I'm thinking specifically of Build-A-Prayer.  This website, designed by BBYO, provides you with a form with a series of check-boxes which allows you to specifically customize your own prayerbook. Every prayer in the Jewish prayerbook is offered as a check box option, along with fields for you to add your own original content.

How would a congregation use such a prayer book? Well...probably by requiring that each prayerbook include the shema, and let everything else be a check box option.  This is not to say that entire service is optional, only its important for Jews to connect with their prayer books, and providing for a way for an individual have some say in the content of the text is a good idea.

But there's a slight problem: if everyone in a congregation prints out their own customized version of the siddur, would the result be cacophony when the group tries to pray together in a synagogue? Yes and no. I'm envisioning a prayer service where there would be only two or three mandatory prayers, such as the "Shema" and "Shabbat Shalom". Every other part of service would require your own editorial involvement. Jews often joke to themselves that Jews never agree with each other. This website (Build a Prayer) isn't laughing: it recognizes that for what it is: a problem. No one likes to be dictated to (unless those who feel that they need that kind of structure); so instead of sitting there bored and unhappy, create your own version of the siddur (using congregation's text as a reference point)

You might ask yourself, "if everyone is praying out of their own personal prayer books, what's the function of the bima? If no one is "on stage", where do we direct our attention?" Answer...on your singing.

Here are my ideas for redesigning the prayer service so that it includes more meaningful participation by congregants. First, print out your own version of a siddur on Build-A-Prayer.  Then, to address other issues that crop up as a result of this change, consider this additional commentary:

[1] Use a multi-purpose room instead of the sanctuary. The sanctuary functions more as a theater than as an ideal place to encounter the divine (at least the ones I'm familiar with), due to its architectural layout.  Sitting in round minimizes the "rock star" factor, with no one being on stage.  The sanctuary, with it's beautiful architecture, is better suited for bar/bat mitvahs, concerts, and real theatrical productions. No service should create idols, include rock idols. Minimizing the "look" and "feel" of a theater would minimize problem.

[2] Have the service in-the-round; Put the focus on the Shabbat candles, the goblet of wine, the challah and its cover, and possibly the Hebrew text of the ten commandments (or even just the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet), and the Torah. This station (or stage) would be in the center of the service, serving a place to focus our attention, and a mnemonic device to actually remember for the ten commandments actually are. 

[3] Put the focus on singing. I was happy to learn that the Torah is actually supposed to be sung. When kids get their bar and bat mitzvahs, they have to chant a section of the torah using a very specific melody.  The entire Torah is supposed to be chanted, not spoken. God created torah by singing (that is, chanting) it.  So, you should sing too!

I've always admired the gospel choir. At times, I've thought, "how come Jews can't get that gospel spirit?!. I think it would be great to see Jews totally excited about  singing Jewish ritual music as if they were Ella Fitzgerald or or Big Mamma Thornton. There are actually Jewish drashes (i.e. commentary about a Torah portion) about how God likes it best when Jews pray with kavanah. So you want your prayers heard? Belt it out!

If there is to be more focus on singing, then there must also be classes in how to sing. I'm sure that a little vocal instruction would go a long way. How about having the congregation offer classes in how to sing? I'm sure congregants would love it.  I know I would love it.

Anyway, I discovered this website called "Build-A-Prayer", and it got me thinking about all kinds of related issues that crop up once you create your own private prayer book (that you intend to bring to a synagogue). One tenant of Reform Judaism (as I see it) is that it caters to a multiplicity of views.  The website "Build-A-Prayer" does a great job of doing just that.

Central to a congregations's identity is it's choice of a prayer book. I call this blog entry "The Post-Modern Prayer Service" because it's not advocating a fixed reference point (that is, the prayer book), with a fixed translation, nor a fixed table of contents.  With the internet, with websites that create customizable forms with check-boxes, we now have a new question: can a congregation be unified around a customizable website rather than a prayer book? I'm beginning to think that that yes, it's possible...and probably the way to the future.  But you'll have to bring your own Chumash.

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