Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is Missing from Our Synagogues?

As usual, an excellent piece from my professor, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond:

"So what is missing in our synagogues? Prayer is meant not only to comfort us but also to transform us. Shul should be a place where we become fully alive by acknowledging and embracing our private fears, hopes, anger, grief, and joy. It should be a place where we allow ourselves to feel compassion for ourselves and others. It should challenge us to take a moral inventory and to consider how we can lead better lives by embodying the righteousness and compassion that we attribute to God. The person who leaves the synagogue should be different from the one who entered it. And it is this transformational element that is missing in most of our shuls and, I believe, the true source of people’s disappointment with prayer, although they themselves may not realize it.

How do we change this? First, by teaching our congregants that in shul we are meant to, as I like to put it, pray alone together. Prayer should have a private dimension as well as a public one. Congregants need to be shown how to pray rather than simply recite prayers. This agenda has to be made explicit in a way that is both gentle and confident and it needs to be pursued intelligently. Important components include rabbis and cantors sharing their own prayer lives with congregants; (re)configuring the sanctuary so that the clergy are in the midst of the congregation—and this can be done even in so-called cathedral synagogues if there is the determination to do so and the congregation is educated about the importance of this shift; leading prayers in a way that signals that the shaliah zibbur and the rabbi are daveners like everyone else; using niggunim, which should be available at synagogue websites; and offering classes that encourage congregants to talk about their own prayer lives while simultaneously exposing them to the teachings of Heschel, Soloveitchik kabbalists, Hassidic masters, and contemporary works on prayer. These should be taught as Torah, with an eye towards finding relevance for oneself in these teachings."