Not for Lightweights by Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher) just showed up in my feed. (It looks like a repost; not sure when he wrote it.) He talks about using a sabbatical from his job as a pastor to explore other churches, some quite different from his own. In this post he talks about going to a Byzantine Orthodox service. What he wrote resonated for me:
Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn’t too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer. [...]
After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book [which was a summary/guide, not complete text]. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open. [...]
In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.
When I started attending synagogue services, I sometimes found myself at Orthodox or Conservative services. I could barely read Hebrew, and what I could read, I read very slowly. I sure wasn't keeping up. When I got lost, I would find the next kaddish in the book and listen for it to get back on track. (Kaddish shows up a lot of times in a traditional service.) Some things I knew well enough to say; most went over my head. Each time I went I learned a little more. I am still not fluent in the traditional service, though I like to think I would be had I joined a traditional congregation instead of a Reform one.
The Reform movement, for all the good it does in other areas, fails profoundly in supporting prayer growth. That's because the norm is to aim for the lowest common denominator. It's not just that they removed a lot of stuff from the service; it's that what they kept they still simplify. If you're lucky the simplification is just to read a prayer in English, but it's more likely to be a song containing a single phrase from the prayer or, too often, a loosely-related creative English reading. They do this in the name of being welcoming, to make sure everybody there can have a comfortable experience, to make sure no one has to work.
We lose so much by doing this. By trying to make everybody completely comfortable, we impede growth. Growth means going beyond what you already know. It means stretching. It means being temporarily less comfortable.
I'm not saying I want to spend three hours every Shabbat morning listening to rapidly-mumbled Hebrew I don't understand (even though we get to sit for a lot of it). But I want to grow. I want to increase my fluency. And I want to plumb the depths of our actual tradition before ditching that in favor of some modern English poetry that too often misses the mark. There is so much to learn, and every time my congregation replaces a Hebrew prayer with something else, I feel the loss of support from my community in doing that growth.
My Shabbat morning minyan has more traditional content than the norm for Reform, and it was hard-won. Our previous rabbi built that community competence over three decades; when we got a new rabbi who sometimes switched to English for parts we actually know, I took him aside and said "please don't take away the parts we worked for" (and he listened). So far, maybe because he's comparatively new, he hasn't pushed us add more, and sometimes new songs take away some parts and then catch on and now we're singing one line where we used to do a prayer and we've lost another one. And maybe it's a very nice song but it's still a move away from engaging with the prayerbook's traditional content. While I enjoy singing and learning new music, I feel the loss when this happens without some offsetting increase.
I could, I assume, get the growth I seek by going to a traditional synagogue every Shabbat -- it might take years, but just as I went from sounding out basic prayers to reading and comprehending them at speed through repetition and concentration, I assume it would happen there too. I wish I had a path for that growth within my current community. I wish it were considered more acceptable to ask people to work a little, to stretch gradually. If we're there for God -- and I acknowledge that not everybody is -- then we should want to try to do more, shouldn't we?