Over the years I have gone through all sorts of different prayer experiences. And I still find the traditional service meets my “communal” needs. But it is private prayer that satisfies me spiritually. Yet I have always encountered other Jews who disagreed with me. Some preferred the big performance, the big event, the sense of being together, to the modest utilitarian alternatives I tried to recommend. Yet it is right that it should be so. We are not all alike. We have different intellects and tastes and needs. There should be alternatives.
I believe we are living in exciting times. More and more people are willing to experiment. Whereas once this inevitably meant casting off the requirements of tradition, now the trend is to find resolutions without throwing the baby out with bathwater. One of the joys of many Jewish communities where there is a critical mass is that one can shul-crawl on Shabbat to experience a wide range of alternatives and find one that accords with one’s temperament and background.
Despite a common superstructure, services have evolved in response to specific cultural and social circumstances. I believe that more energy should go into trying to find completely new styles of worship than in tinkering with the old. There must, for example, be creative ways in which female spirituality could create totally new atmospheres and experiences without being constricted by established male modes and norms. I approve of choice and, where it is possible, exploring the alternatives in one’s neighborhood.
Regardless of the style of service, or the regularity of one’s attendance, one must, I believe, reestablish the practice of personal prayer outside of synagogual structures. Meditation and contemplation in a totally secular style, or one borrowed from another religion, have brought relief and inspiration to many in the West. But we have our specifically Jewish exercises and meditations. One need look no further than Avraham Abulafia (or in modern times Aryeh Kaplan) to realize such things have been part, albeit a neglected part, of our tradition. We must revive them.
Romantics rely on the experience, the stimulation of beautiful buildings, music, canonicals, and ceremonial to induce a sense of devotion, worship, and spirituality. The classicist works on himself to make it happen. I prefer that, rather than to expect others to do it for me.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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