Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Leading services

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.
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