Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: When the music brings you home

Kol Nidre... the anthem with which we begin Yom Kippur. We take the Torah scrolls out of the ark and they bear witness, as if a Jewish court of law - a Beit Din - while we hear these ancient Aramaic words chanted.  What, precisely, do they say? Essentially, that we regret any vows or commitments that we have made, we repent for having made them, and we asked that they be discarded, forgiven, and undone; that they no longer be regarded as valid and binding.

Why would we begin this Holiest of days with such a declaration? Is this one of these Jewish legal loopholes, by which we figured it was easier to just nullify promises we made than deal with the consequences of having made them and failing to live up to them? While that's not why these words feature in our liturgy, what is clear is that the power of Kol Nidre in our communities today has very little to do with the words themselves. But first, a quick history of this prayer.

"For all of Kol Nidre’s significance and power, its origins are shrouded in mystery. There are two “histories” regarding the prayer, one popular and the other scholarly. The popular version connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews. In 15th-century Spain, at the hight of the infamous Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a determined hunt to seek out and punish all non-practicing Christians. In response to extreme anti-Semitism earlier that century, a sizable number of upper-class Jews chose to convert to Christianity in order to, at the very least, avoid social disdain. For a small number, their religious conversion was genuine; but for the majority, their “conversion” was in name only as they still found creative ways to practice Judaism in the privacy of their own dwellings. These Jews came to be known as “marranos” and became one of the foci of the Church’s inquistory offensive. The Kol Nidre prayer, according to this theory, was created in response to these Jews’ desire to nullify their vows of conversion...
        Scholars do not wholly refute this understanding of Kol Nidre, but they do contend that Kol Nidre has much earlier roots and probably pre-dated the marranos. According to their research, it is unclear exactly when or where the Kol Nidre legal formula was created. The wording seems to mimic other legalistic contracts of the Babylonian Jewish community of the 6th and 7th centuries. The first undoubtable citation appears in an early comprehensive siddur edited by Rav Amram in the 8th century. Over the next few centuries, the prayer became more widespread and a soulful melody became associated with it. Notably, there were some rabbis who disparaged the prayer as a superstitious attempt by Jewish mystics to nullify vows made by evil forces in the universe intent on hurting the Jewish people. These criticisms were muted by the majority of the people who cleaved to the prayer and aided its spread to other communities."
 (Rabbi Eric Solomon, 2000, 'Examining the Mystery of Kol Nidre')

By the late Nineteenth Century, as the Jews of Europe and the USA sought greater integration into the societies in which they lived, some felt self-conscious and embarrassed by the words of Kol Nidre. They were concerned that non-Jews might regard them as a people who could not be trusted because they would not keep their word.  In Germany, some early Reform Rabbis sought to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. But when a machzor (High Holy Day Prayer book) was published without it, congregations rebelled. They insisted that it be sung anyway. Already, for centuries, Kol Nidre was chanted to a haunting tune. Max Bruch, a non-Jewish composer, set it to the melody (in 1880) that we associate this prayer with today, and it is this that congregations across the world today listen for to announce the opening of Yom Kippur. Many congregations, my own included, begin with the sounds of Bruch's arrangement, played on cello or adapted for some other soulful sounding instrument.

I think there are few other liturgical moments or melodies in our tradition that is as emblematic and central to us as Kol Nidre. In Mishkan HaNefesh, this introduction conveys something of its power:
Rabbi Leizer survived the death camps and returned to his hometown, Czenstochow, Poland. For years following the Shoah, he roamed the streets playing a hand organ. At regular intervals, amid the numerous tunes he played, he would intentionally play Kol Nidre. As he did so, he would look into the eyes of the children who walked by, looking for a hint of recognition. In this way, he was able to bring many children back in contact with their people.
For us, too, Kol Nidre is a moment of recognition -
a sound that brings us back to our people. (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur, p.15)

What other melodies are so part of your sense of identity that they bring you back home in a profoundly spiritual way? What melodies connect you to a sense of your people? When you hear the reverberations of Kol Nidre, what thoughts and feelings are aroused within?

Welcome Home.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, 1927. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Yizkor and Forgiveness

Photo by Roger Glenn
Why do we have a Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur? It is clearly a ritual that has great meaning to many people. In most congregations it is one of the services of the holiest of days with the largest attendance. There's an historical answer to the question, if we want to learn more about the original connection between remembrance and atonement. Certainly, some of us attend Yizkor because its just what you do, and it is what those before us did. But, like most things in Judaism, especially in progressive communities, rituals and times of gathering don't continue to be widely observed unless they have a contemporary meaning and value that is experienced by those who engage in them.

Yom Kippur is sometimes described as like a rehearsal for death. The Vidui (confession) that we pronounce several times over the High Holy Days is a ritual that is also meant for one who has the opportunity to say it if they are aware that they are close to death. There is also a nightly vidui ritual, precisely because most of us can never know when our last day will come. So there is something powerful, as we reflect on our own mortality, about turning our thoughts to those who have already died. They have shaped our lives, and we often see things in ourselves that we inherited from them. There are things that we do, and ways we behave that we are aware that we do because of them, or sometimes in spite of them.

Yizkor may be a time for appreciation. It may be a time for us to be inspired by our memories of others to seek to live each of our days so that others will have cherished memories of us at some time in the future. It may be a time to find a spiritual path forward to deal with unfinished business, pain or hurt.

As with each and every step of the High Holy ritual, our new machzor provides prayers, reflective readings, and insights that can help us with all of the above. Here is a piece written by Cantor Linda Hirschhorn entitled Forgiveness and the Afterlife (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur machzor, p.581).
I do have an ongoing relationship with the dead, and I do think about the afterlife - my afterlife, that is - after someone I know dies: what happens to me afterwards, in my life.
Some deaths come too soon; some deaths are unexpected; some deaths we think we are prepared for, but really we are rarely ready: we don't usually know when a conversation is the last conversation, with so much that may be left unsaid, unresolved.
So in this afterlife of mine I am still in relationship with people who have died. I miss them, I talk to them in my mind, I ask them questions about our relationship that I wasn't ready to ask them when they were still alive. I show off my accomplishments, and wish they could witness them; and yes, I still have some of the same old arguments, still trying to prove my point of view. What helps me go forward? How do I resolve these lingering feelings?
Here is what makes the Yom Kippur Yizkor so special - this forgiveness prayer devoted exclusively to those no longer with us, that comes late in the afternoon when we are tired, hungry, vulnerable, and open. During this Yizkor I am given the opportunity to forgive myself for cutting off that last phone conversation with my father - I was always in a hurry; he always wanted to chat longer; and then he died. It's during this Yizkor that I have the opportunity to forgive my mother for her harsh ways; to let go of being angry - for my sake in this world, if not for her sake in the world-to-come.
For this Yizkor to feel honest and meaningful, I don't want to sentimentalize those relationships. I don't just want to remember the ideals and gifts they may or may not have passed down. I want to remember those relationships exactly as they were, and then be able to forgive myself and them for our failings, for what we never got a chance to repair or finish.

May our memories bring the light of loved ones into our hearts. May our prayers help us forgive and receive forgiveness. With remembrance, may healing come our way.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#BlogElul 2 5775: Hineni - Here I am

At the opening of the High Holy Day prayer services there is a traditional prayer leader's confession, Hineni which, in essence, is the prayer leader proclaiming their unworthiness to lead the congregation in prayer and asking God not to hold the community responsible for the leader's shortcomings. I understand its original intent, but it has never been something that I have felt comfortable saying. I think it was meant as an ego check-in - certainly an important thing to do. But, over the years, it has become a moment that has sometimes been accompanied with great cantorial flourish - a performative moment that I have felt expresses the opposite.

I usually begin each of the holy days with an invitation to the congregation to travel through the prayer service in any way that enables them to make it a meaningful experience - to not feel obligated to read along with everything that I am doing; to choose readings to sit with longer, to close their eyes and meditate, to go for a walk and return. Even though my soloists and I have woven together liturgy and music with intention and the hope of creating a vessel for meaningful prayer, I have to create something that I believe will touch upon things that many different kinds of people appreciate and, therefore, is likely to lack something for everyone too. And so we all have to be responsible for our own prayer experience, and for our own shortcomings and sins.

Until now I have struggled with what to do with the Hineni prayer. Perhaps my feelings about it have been colored by the old joke:

During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.”The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing." Seeing this, Levy, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed: "Look who thinks he's nothing!"
On the High Holy Days we are all meant to enter into this time of deep introspection and communal reflection as equals. There is no difference between one congregant and another, or between clergy and congregant. This year I have a Hineni that I feel able to read, and one that I will be able to invite each and every person in my congregation to read - each of us quietly to ourselves, as we prepare to enter into the ritual vessel that we are creating together with mindfulness:

Here I am,
one soul within this prayer community
Like those around me, I bring my own concerns and yearnings to this place,
hoping they will find expression in the time-hallowed words of my people and in the traditions cherished by generations before me.
May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days,
approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus on the deep questions of this season:
Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed?
This night I take up the challenge of the Days of Awe:
cheshbon hanefesh - a searching examination of my life,
a moral inventory of my deeds, words, and thoughts.
During the next ten days,
let me face the truth about myself and listen to Your still, small voice.
Taking comfort in your promise that I am always free to change,
released from staleness and routine,
let me know the joy of beginning again.
May I gain strength as I share this task with those around me, united by our common purpose;
tikkun midot (improving our characters) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
I now prepare myself to pray - one soul amidst this holy congregation.
(copyright CCAR, 2015; Rosh Hashanah Evening Service, p. 16)

It is another of those moments that the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh have provided alternative ways to encounter (the traditional Hineni is still there too). I am grateful for a text that better reflects how I would like to begin. And, of course, the core questions asked in the text above do not need to wait for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This month of Elul is the time to begin to ask ourselves: Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed? Our inventories of deeds, words, and thoughts are likely to be long. We can take the time we need to review and begin the job of return.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Let's get real

Speaking with a colleague the other night, I was hearing how it is not uncommon to hear from those training for the rabbinate that they struggle with liturgical prayer. While this does not surprise me, it may be something that surprises, and perhaps troubles our congregants.

I can only speak personally, but I've traveled my own path to making prayer work for me. It has taken time - years, in fact. I suspect that most people don't have the patience, but it seemed rather important to me, given my desire to serve as a rabbi to the Jewish community.  I've learned to love the 'back stories' (known and theorized) behind why our liturgical prayers came into being. Context and history provide one way in. But getting beyond the literal, and even getting beyond what might have been the original intended meaning, theology, and message, to recast liturgy to speak to us today, has helped me find moments of deep, thoughtful, prayerful experience in the midst of Jewish worship.  Music helps a lot too.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, the High Holy Day liturgy can be particularly challenging. In the Reform movement this year, several hundred congregations will be praying out of a brand new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul).  I am so excited by the potential that lies within the pages of this new prayer book. Perhaps, more than any other single thing I can highlight about what makes it so special, is the opportunity to get real.

What do I mean, by 'let's get real'? I think the best way to illustrate what has been missing for me in some of the liturgy (especially the english language readings) of our previous high Holy Day machzor and what is now available to us in our new book is to share one of the new texts with you. Here is a new text that introduces the Vidui (Confession) on Yom Kippur morning.

Because I was angry
Because I didn't think
Because I was exhausted and on edge
Because I'd been drinking
Because I can be mean
Because I was reckless and selfish
Because I was worried about money
Because my marriage was dead
Because other people were doing it
Because I thought I could get away with it

I did something wrong.

Because I'm in pain
Because I wish I could undo it
Because I hurt him
Because I lost her trust
Because I let them down
Because I was self-destructive
Because I was foolish
Because I'm ashamed
Because that's not who I am
Because that's not who I want to be

I want to be forgiven.

bring down my walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness.
Help me to stay in humility.
Please - 
give me the strength to do what's right.
copyright CCAR, 2015 (p. 293, Yom Kippur morning service)

I can't read this and remain on automatic pilot. I can't read this and coast through the ritual of reading words out loud in a room full of others, disconnected with the purpose of this holy day. I can't read this without being pulled out of my lethargy and denial and acknowledging that I have been so many of the things listed above. They ring true for me, and speak in a contemporary language that resonates with my experience in a way that some of the traditional words do not. There are other words that are part of the traditional vidui that are much easier for me to read as being about somebody else.  But Yom Kippur is not about somebody else. It is about me, what I have done, who I am and who I want to be. And for the ritual of spending designated time in extended communal gatherings and prayer at the High Holy Days to be useful and meaningful, I need tools and texts that will take me to the places that I need to go if I am to emerge at the end feeling like anything has changed (even knowing that I'll need another 're-set' next year).

This year my #BlogElul posts will all feature new texts or new translations from Mishkan HaNefesh. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of moments within the prayer journey we take over these Holy Days, to familiarize ourselves with the gifts provided by new texts, and to begin to do the work of Soul refinement that can help us enter the New Year with greater intention.  I invite you to join me, and share your own reflections to add to the conversation in the comments section. Together, let's make it real this month of Elul.