Leading services - Livre d'Or

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Leading services
Saturday, 12 May 2007 at 09:48 pm

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I've been vaguely planning this post since I led the Progressive service on March 10th (!) Since then I've done various other bits and pieces of running services, doing the egal minyan with ploni_bat_ploni, and then today helping out with the Progressive service again.

I should make it clear that in Judaism, any competent adult can lead the service. It doesn't mean that you're especially holy, and it's somewhat prestigious but less so than some other ritual roles which work out as rather less effort in practice. It's preferred to choose someone of high moral character, given the option, but I don't know many communities where they turn people down for not being moral enough! So when I talk about leading services, it's just a minor skill I happen to have, I'm not showing off about some amazing accomplishment or high office.

The thing that started off this train of thought is that people were being appreciative when I led the service back in March. I found this slightly awkward for two reasons. The people who congratulated me on my lovely speaking voice and my interesting explanations and so on made me feel awkward because it's not meant to be a performance, it's meant to be prayer. But even so, it's undeniably true that there are some elements of stagecraft involved, and the service is likely to be more enjoyable if the leader does have talents in that direction rather than not. And yes, I am good at it on a purely pragmatic level. (Well, apart from the bit where I'm totally unmusical, but in recent months I've been working in tandem with people who make up for that deficiency.) compilerbitch pointed out to me a while ago that I have in fact been doing this sort of thing since I was eight (from 8 to 12 it was children's services and fragments that don't have ritual import, because being an adult is in fact a necessary qualification). So it's not surprising that I know what I'm doing, and she's right too that this kind of skill does overlap with other kinds of public speaking such as presenting my work at scientific conferences.

Even more awkward were the people who gushed about what an amazing spiritual experience it was and how I made them feel closer to God and so on. I suppose that is the aim, but it's a very weird thing to be appreciated for. And that too is partly a matter of technique. Lowering my voice at the right moment, using my expressions and body language to underline the emotional import, judiciously picking music and texts that will evoke a reaction, making lots of eye contact to give the impression that I'm speaking personally to each member of the congregation, even crying a little if it seems apt. Stagecraft, in short, but intentionally manipulating my audience's emotions is more acceptable in a secular context. A generous interpretation is that I'm using these techniques to help people to relate to their own spiritual feelings, and certainly it's the case that what you get out of a service depends ultimately on your own emotional context, however skillful the leader may be.

The thing is, I don't find it possible to be sincerely religious and lead a service at the same time, so I have to fake it a bit. It takes a lot of concentration to hold an audience like this, watching the body language of several dozen people to make sure everyone is with you, and worrying about the logistics and the timing and putting in order what I want to say and reading the Hebrew correctly at the same time. Even if it is partly acting, when it's going well I am making a genuine emotional connection with people I don't know very well, and that takes effort. I am certainly not praying while I'm holding all this stuff together. I usually find I'm exhausted by the end of the service, and it's a real ordeal to be all smiley and friendly afterwards when people come to commend me on a successful service.

And to be honest, I'm not in a very religious phase of my life at the moment. I am doing lots of Jewish stuff, but I'm connecting to the community rather than to anything metaphysical. I do think that sort of commitment to the community is at least as important as personal spiritual ecstasy, mind you. When I lead a service I start with the kavannah, the statement of intention: Behold, I am ready to perform the positive commandment of loving one's neighbour, and that definitely represents what is most meaningful about the process for me. I have this talent, and it's something the community needs, so it's a good fit, a good opportunity to contribute.

Not that the reaction is universally positive. The Progressive group has the usual problem of trying to be all things to all people, and there are people who are annoyed because the service is too traditional and might as well be Orthodox, and other people who are annoyed because I change what they consider immutable. Those criticisms don't really bother me, because they're basically inevitable in this sort of situation. We have a very new Progressive community that doesn't have a strong sense of positive identity yet, and almost all the members are either dissatisfied ex-Orthodox people or seeking formerly secular people. Also, we're somewhat a breakaway group from the main, Conservative community and there inevitably going to be some people who feel threatened by that and don't approve of the Progressive concept anyway.

But I've had a couple of more personal and somewhat upsetting confrontations. One woman backed me into a corner and harangued me for not doing enough. She meant well, she was trying to say that my services are wonderful and she wants more, but it came across as really harsh. Never mind that I'm taking charge of at least some part of the liturgy more than once a month, and doing the bar mitzvah teaching, and taking on a good proportion of the adult education in the Progressive group, and doing a bunch of behind the scenes stuff such as being a member of the board. She made it all my fault that we don't have enough depth of knowledge in the Progressive group, and one service a month isn't enough to create a strong sense of community, and we should be running a comprehensive educational programme for all levels.

Then today a older man from the main community came and had a go at me for dividing the community and stealing congregants away from the main service. He said that he feels empty and spiritually hurt when the congregation is depleted because lots of the regulars come to my service instead. And since the Conservative community have voted to become egalitarian, why do we need to create discord by having an alternative service? (He would have more of a point if he were talking about the egal minyan rather than the Progressive group, because Progressive Judaism is very different from even the most feminist Orthodox-style liturgy.) I have just about enough Swedish now to say vaguely placatory things but this tirade really wanted a detailed discussion of some quite abstract ideas and I couldn't manage that.

*Shrug* This kind of thing is pretty much an expected hazard of the job. Some of the positive enthusiastic people were trying to convince me I should become a rabbi, and I gave my usual flip response that I really don't need to move into one of the few careers that is worse paid and less secure than academia! At this point, though, I think I could make a tolerable job of being a rabbi. It requires a lot more than just being able to lead services, mind you, but it no longer seems like quite such a ridiculous suggestion as it has in the past.

Another good thing about leading services is that it gets me noticed. Now pretty much everyone in the community greets me by name and I've had several invitations to meals as a result of doing the job. For example, last night I ended up going out for a meal with some of the Americans who attended the service. (Foodwise it was nothing special, just mediocre generic Euro-Asian, but it was a nice occasion.) So there's some material reward as well as the satisfaction of using my talents in a way that benefits the community.

Whereaboooots: Stora synagogan, Stockholm, Sweden
Moooood: draineddrained
Tuuuuune: Syd Barrett: Gigolo Aunt
Discussion: 6 contributions | Contribute something

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lethargic_man: reflect
Date:May 12th, 2007 09:45 pm (UTC)
47 minutes after journal entry, 09:45 pm (lethargic_man's time)
And that too is partly a matter of technique. Lowering my voice at the right moment, using my expressions and body language to underline the emotional import, judiciously picking music and texts that will evoke a reaction, making lots of eye contact to give the impression that I'm speaking personally to each member of the congregation, even crying a little if it seems apt. Stagecraft, in short

Speaking as someone who takes services myself, I have to say I can't connect at all to what you're saying here. I thought it might be because what you're doing is more Reformi, to use your term, than I'm used to, but then you say later down that your service was mostly traditional (or perceived as such).

I took the service last night in Yakar; all I had to do there was pick tunes I knew the congregation knew, and sing. No eye contact with anyone was required (they were mostly behind me anyway), no lowering of the voice*; certainly no crying. (I did have to stop myself from dancing a little, because I could hear snjstar and curious_reader, who had spotted it, laughing.) And, whilst it was not as easy to concentrate on the davenning as it would as a member of the congregation, it was certainly not impossible.

So I'm intrigued to know how your service differed from what I am used to that made all of the above necessary. Could I get you to explain, please?

* Obתּוֹכָחָה today: "Lest anyone think I am losing my voice, or have a pressing luncheon engagement..." (No, it wasn't me.)
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livredor: words
Date:May 13th, 2007 12:27 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 12:27 pm (livredor's time)
Hm, those are hard questions. It's difficult to put across what I experience when I lead services; this post was an attempt to do just that, but clearly I've failed to make any sense to you!

I am talking mainly about the Progressive service here. There is a big difference between the role of a service leader in a Progressive context, versus the role of a Sha''tz in an Orthodox or traditional nusach context. I have done both, and the latter involves a lot less trying to affect the congregation emotionally and hold them. But the things I'm saying are still true to some extent with the traditional services I've been leading with PbP.

I think part of the difference is that your community is made up of people who know what they are doing. Mine isn't. Stockholm doesn't have a minyan worth of people who are frum, knowledgeable and inclined towards egalitarianism; pick two. That means that even when I'm doing the traditional thing, acting as Sha''tz and just standing in front of the congregation davening to give them some pacing, I have to guide people a lot more than you do at Assif. Ploni and I are trying to create something that feels spiritually engaging, it's not a thing that is already there and we can just tap into it.

Another thing is that you're relying on music to do the emotional work. I obviously can't do that, and even with musical support from my co-leaders, nobody here knows the tunes. So they don't get that automatic emotional buzz of a familiar melody.

Clearing up some semantic issues: I didn't say I can't daven while I'm leading, I said I can't pray. If I'm doing traditional nusach I am davening pretty much by definition, and even with the Progressive service I use the silences to catch up on running through the davening for my own sake.

And the people who complain my Progressive service is too Orthodox are flat-out wrong, they don't really know what an Orthodox service is. What gets that reaction is things like: if we recite the Shma with the Barchu, I expect to have at least a skeleton of the blessings before and after. The Progressive liturgy is in flux at the moment, but in its current version they either skip blessings altogether, or they cut them at an arbitrary point in the middle so they are missing the chatimah. I put some of that back in, which a few people associate with being "Orthodox".
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lethargic_man: default
Date:May 13th, 2007 12:56 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 12:56 pm (lethargic_man's time)
Thanks; that does clarify things.
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hatam_soferet: default
Date:May 13th, 2007 02:39 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
Behold, I am ready to perform the positive commandment of loving one's neighbour

I didn't know that. That's beautiful.

I'm with you on the stagecraft. Last night we went to a davening which was competently done, but it wasn't led. We usually go to HIR, whose Friday night shlihei tzibbur have the art of leading a congregation emotionally, very much as you describe, and the difference was tremendous. A shaliah tzibbur who can take a bunch of weekday people and pull them through emotional highs and lows into Shabbat using only the liturgy is a skilled being. It takes a hell of a lot of experience and a fair bit of talent to do that well - just standing up there and singing doesn't compare.

Sorry about the upsetting bits. Good thing you have enough sense to see past them.

But don't be a rabbi, you're brilliant as a scientist, and you'd be a perfectly good rabbi too, but you always wanted to be a scientist! All the liberal movements have this messed-up thing going where anyone who has any Jewish skills is expected to be a rabbi (the flip side of this is that if you aren't a rabbi, ppl assume you haven't any Jewish skills). The career rabbinate is desperate for lay people like you, rabbis like having congregants who know stuff and do Jewish and can do services and get involved and all that.
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livredor: words
Date:May 13th, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 12:46 pm (livredor's time)

I can't remember where I got that kavannah from. I know I started using it in Oxford, which means it probably comes frome the Pluralism group, which means quite likely I should credit Lisa Grushcow. But I am not absolutely certain of that. I think when it was taught to me it was what you say when you read the Torah but don't have an aliyah, and I expanded it.

I completely agree about the lay versus rabbinate issue. Absolutely we shouldn't go about ordaining everyone who has the least bit of clue, and absolutely rabbinical training shouldn't be the only way to go beyond the most basic level of Jewish knowledge. And it's completely true that we need a strong laity almost above any other communal priority. For me personally, though, I can at least ask the question whether I'd be more use to the community as a rabbi than as an active lay person. Also whether I'd be more useful to the world as a rabbi than a scientist. Part of the reason why I'm thinking like this is because I'm losing my confidence in my ability to be an effective scientist, but you know. I think it is probably best on balance for me not to go and get ordained, but I'm just mentioning that it seems less like an utterly ridiculous idea than it did a few years ago.
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kassrachel: judaism
Date:May 13th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry
I can't remember where I got that kavannah from.

I learned it from the Reconstructionists; it appears in beautiful calligraphy at the beginning of shacharit in Kol HaNeshamah, and in many of the places where I daven it's chanted or sung at the beginning of the service, which I love.

The Progressive group has the usual problem of trying to be all things to all people, and there are people who are annoyed because the service is too traditional and might as well be Orthodox, and other people who are annoyed because I change what they consider immutable.

Oh, yes indeed. I know that feeling well. :-)
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