Elliott’s Talk for Kol Nidre 5775 – Fringes and the Future of Judaism

(talk delivered on Kol Nidre 5775 with the Tikkun Olam Chavurah, meeting in Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, PA)

I want to talk to you tonight about why we’re all here to listen to and recite a prayer that is actually more a kind of contractual statement in a language almost none of us speak or comprehend and about why this is meaningful to us and about what that says about the future of Judaism.

So this will be quick.

But before I get to the future of Judaism, I want to detour into the panic about the current state of Judaism. Or, more specifically, the 2013 Pew Research Study of American Jewish Identity, which declared the end of the world, or so it seemed to many commentators from mainstream Jewish institutions. Intermarriage! Failure to join synagogues and JCCs! More and more young Jews who don’t see synagogue-based Judaism as a religion that has any meaning for them! Declining support for Israel! Doom and destruction!

Of the more rational responses, I was particularly moved by an essay Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote for the Tikkun Magazine blog. Instead of mourning the end of Judaism, Rami flipped the script, investigating the question of what forms of spiritual practices might be meaningful to the Jews being surveyed instead of asking them how closely they observed existing practices. As he writes, “The Pew survey seems oblivious to the spiritual hunger of American Jews, and hence does not ask a series of questions about this hunger.”

What Rabbi Shapiro draws from his investigation of the report, and from his life, is the conclusion that rabbinical Judaism, as it’s been practiced for the last many centuries, is, essentially, dead. The version of God that it asserts is not sustainable in a modern, multi-cultural, connected world, and especially not sustainable after the Holocaust. He writes:

The central message of the “Portrait of American Jews” is that the meaning at the heart of rabbinic Judaism – the idea that there is a benevolent Creator God in charge of the universe and in a covenant with Jews in a quid pro quo system of “do good, get good”– is dead. Regardless of denominational revisions, despite the tweaking of philosophers and footnotes in our prayer books warning the reader not to take our prayers at their word, this is still the god imparted to our people through the liturgies we pray, and it just doesn’t fly.

In Fringes, the havurah I co-founded with Karen Escovitz and Hannah Schwarzschild in 2007, we read Rabbi Shapiro’s essay as our Torah Study text last fall, and so began a year-long conversation about what stories we hold sacred and why and what stories we want to have. One month we learned about Rabbi Benay Lappe’s Beit Midrash for Queer Talmud Study in Chicago. In February, grieving and honoring Pete Seeger – most surely a tzaddik if there ever was one – we read aloud from his hearing in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Once we listed, in cumulative alphabetical order, all of the aspects or traits we wanted a divine being to have – and there were WAY MORE than 13.

While certain limitations of Rabbi Shapiro’s essay bothered us – such as how, in his lists of what Jews could be reading that would matter more than the traditional 5 books of Torah he STILL only managed to mention work by men – it also rang deeply true with Fringes and why we were founded and why we’re still meeting more than seven years later.

In the Judaism Next that he imagines, in place of the god and liturgy of rabbinic Judaism, we’ll have:

• a God that is most like the pantheistic God of Spinoza and Einstein
• a worship service that will cultivate reverence, awe, compassion, and justice for person and planet, and invite us into both contemplative silence and transcendent ecstasy
• a theology that will help us as we learn to live with doubt, skepticism, paradox, irony, and uncertainty

All of which sound a lot like the ideas Fringes highlighted in our founding statement:

• space for deep Torah discussions

• feminist liturgy—beyond egalitarian to a search for new words and images that capture the wealth and diversity of all our lives

• a Jewish spiritual practice that is inclusive of perspectives and language that are not God-centered

• emphasis on building experiential Judaism—moving beyond just saying the words quickly in order to uncover, recover, and invent meaningful ritual elements

• anti-war, pro-peace and pro-justice orientation—this includes calling into question, revising, or abandoning prayers that invoke a god of war who slaughters enemies, or metaphors built on war or violence

When we set out, none of us were sure what these ideals would mean for our prayer practice together. We asserted that we would have prayers that sang and songs that prayed. We knew we planned to use almost no images of god as king OR queen, as judge, as husband to a constantly unfaithful wife, as a kind of crazy stalking batterer who would slay children over a small mistake in ritual practice.

But knowing what one doesn’t want and knowing what one will do are two very different places to be. To create paths forward out of that particular void we turned to Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism, Chapter 3, “And Not be Silent: Toward Inclusive Worship.” In this chapter she has deep and challenging ideas about prayer and what it means and who has been excluded from creating prayer and how and why to change that. Out of all of that good thinking, three main points shaped every decision I was making about how to shape a service for a feminist, non-zionist havurah:

First, her clarifying question, “If we don’t mean the words we are saying when we pray, then what are we doing?”

Second, her clarifying statement that “prayer is not for lying to God, and is not for excluding any members of our community.”

And third, her lengthy discussion of the concept of the “liturgical field,” which is a broad look at not only the words we say as liturgy but everything we do and sense around those words. How our bodies move, what melody we hear or sing, and what emotional responses and memories are triggered.

Fringes was founded around that first question. The three founders, the 25 of us who gathered in a cold room on a bitter cold February Saturday – all shared the experience of wanting a Judaism whose liturgy meant something to us. We wanted words of prayer that spoke our own hearts, that would crack open resistance, console loss, give voice to our understanding of the beauty and brokenness of the world. For some people, the existing liturgy does this. For all of us, it didn’t even come close. We didn’t want words we were told were prayer, we wanted words that FELT like prayer.

For Adler’s second assertion – “prayer is not for excluding any members of our community” – we were founded as feminist havurah. Not a “women’s havurah” or “divine feminine” havurah. For us, merely changing the male god language to grammatically feminine was not enough. And we were definitely not content saying words constructed around generations of exclusively male experience with a few tweaks to grammatical gender. We wanted new prayers that reflected OUR life experience

And we were committed to a rich liturgical field. And, specifically, a rich Jewish field – we were committed to Judaism, and knew that if we dove in and studied the thousands of different versions of Judaism that have existed we wouldn’t need the shortcut of appropriating Buddhist, New Age, or other traditions, in order fill the gaps we had experienced. Pulling from the diversity of Jewish traditions, we knew we could create a fully embodied prayer practice – one we felt at every level, not just reading words off a page or flipping pages while someone else read.

Which brings me back to Kol Nidre, because what we experience here together every year is not just liturgy but liturgical field. Understanding HOW kol Nidre means, not WHAT the words mean, is to understand how communities create shared religious/spiritual experience. Kol Nidre, for example:

1. is performed yearly – marking time through repetition is a big part of meaningful ritual
2. is performed in community, and not just with people we know – this kind of experience shared with strangers creates a sense that we are part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves
3. is composed of words whose ritual meaning is far deeper than their surface meaning – what we hear and sing carries a hugely complex, passionate experience of looking back, looking forward, regret, hope for change, and more. And it is in a language almost none of us speak or understand so that the surface meaning doesn’t much interfere with the experienced meaning
4. connects us simultaneously to the past and the future so, in effect, transcends time
5. is repeated three times, and, to quote our sage Schoolhouse Rock, three is a magic number
6. has a distinct set of physical, embodied experiences – standing, hearing others in the room, the weight of the prayer book in our hands, the intense, communal listening, the way we find ourselves holding our breath along with the performer on held out notes, the palpable sense of closure in the room when the prayer is finished

But investigating that “why” is important if you want to understand how to build a Judaism that feels authentically Jewish while feeling authentic to our experience. Fringes services are built on the backbone of the shacharit service, with the underlying structure of morning blessings and prayers, psalms, barchu, blessings of creation, revelation and redemption, and so on. These aren’t always obvious, but they are always there. We kept, and sometimes enlarged, the body’s experience of prayer by moving through a pattern of standing and sitting. Consideration of the field, and not just the liturgy, gave us some of our defining prayers, including our version of the Aleynu.

Getting ready for our first service, we kept coming up blank on how to do the Aleynu. We couldn’t find a single version we liked, and yet we knew we couldn’t just skip it because the experience itself is so powerful – standing together, bowing, the way voices fall hushed when we bow then burst forth again when we rise – all of these mattered. And yet its finale – the assertion that the world will be healed when everyone acknowledges OUR god is THE god. Really? None of us remotely believed in that kind of triumphalism, but we did want to believe in a time of healing and reconciliation. Only days before the service, Hannah solved the problem by proclaiming, “This is ridiculous. Look, why don’t we just hum the damn thing?”

Which is, it turns out, perfect. It keeps the power of the ritual movement, AND is a reflection of our belief in a time of healing AND our belief that such a time will be created only through meaning shared with many others.

When we do the Aleynu here together over the next 24 hours, I invite you to try just humming or lai-lai-laiing. Take your focus off of the words and let yourself experience the prayer. Listen to how the voices muffle and then rise. It’s beautiful.

It’s beautiful and, as Jews, it’s ours. And experimenting with doing it differently is probably not new, and not even particularly radical. After 5000 years of constant migration, acculturation, and experimentation, a change has to be pretty darn big to be “new” in Judaism. That’s why I describe Fringes as “traditionally radical” – because Jewish prayer is a living tradition, not a museum. There has never been such a things A Judaism, only Judaisms, ever-changing, adapting, taking in new ideas from other cultures. Before printing technology made standardized prayer books possible, many Jewish communities had poets who created new pieces, in local spoken languages as well as Hebrew, nearly each week. Prayer, for these Jews, was contemporary, local, accessible, and created by someone with a name. We don’t think of that very often – the prayers in our siddur were written by someone, or created by someone from gathered Biblical verses. They’re not ancient words magically, and anonymously, passed to us. They are made human objects.

And it is our challenge, our right, our necessity to go on making and remaking them. Together, in communities. What the constant surveys declaring the imminent demise of Judaism seem to never get is this – that fact that many of us are searching for a different kind of Jewish practice matters. While we may be “unaffiliated” to any traditional Jewish institution, we choose to go on being affiliated to our Jewish lives.

When the Pew study in question asked people what being Jewish in America today means, “affiliation” with a synagogue wasn’t an answer that mattered. What did matter?

73% of respondents said remembering the Holocaust
69% said leading an ethical life
56% said working for justice and equality
43% said caring about Israel
followed very closely by 42% who said having a good sense of humor.

Sound like any group of Jews you know, ones who might be sitting in a Mennonite church within a chavurah that seeks to base social activism in Jewish spiritual meaning?

We are, all of us, here because we want a different kind of Jewish meaning, because existing institutions aren’t meaningful enough to us. Tikkun Olam Chavurah exists because a group of Jews want their social justice work to grow directly from their Jewish spirituality. Fringes: a feminist, non-zionist havurah exists because a group of Jews want a Jewish spirituality that grows directly from our social justice work and beliefs.

And all of us are here because we are creating a Jewish practice that meets our innermost need to be fed, to be challenged, to be part of something intimate and yet bigger than ourselves. What you’ve experienced here tonight in Kol Nidre is something you can go on experiencing. You can build the Jewish practice that you want even if you don’t yet have exact words for that want. You can come to Fringes services and see how they feel, and then come back or use what we’ve learned through doing it to start something new. You can commit yourself to work with Tikkun Olam Chavurah. You can decide you believe in all of this and yet have no time and so just throw money at us. I promise you we won’t duck if you do. You can decide all this talk of fields and Gaza and Palestine and Ferguson gets in the way of the deep meaning you find in the traditional prayers. That’s okay too. Really.

You can make and practice a Judaism that feeds you and through which you can feed others.

You can, in the words of poet Susan Griffin, cut through the layers of expectation and resistance and the sense of not being satisfied with what you were told to do, to be, to believe, and take everything apart and then rebuild what you want and feast on it:

So it remains
Susan Griffin

So it remains to reassemble
whatever we can
on this holy or unholy day
on this day like any other
remembering
letting words fall into our mouths
like bits of a
shared meal
scanning the numerous texts,
rendering all the possible
readings,
scriptures various as
seeds, the many meanings
of this feast
the spilled wine of
our living.

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