I'm back - thanks for waiting.
There’s a scene in Robert Greenfield’s novel, Temple (a book that was read by me and the two other people I told about it) where an elderly man returns home from morning prayers, and is asked, “Hostu gut gedavvent?” and it throws him into a reverie for a while: what does it mean to pray well?
I wondered the same thing the other day, when people asked me “how was it?” after my visit to a Famous Synagogue, well-known for the particular care it spends on orchestrating the Friday night liturgy. But hob ich gut gedavvent?, did I pray well? Hmmm. The singing was fine, thanks.
There seems to be more and more singing in synagogues these days. Rabbis like it, because it makes the customers – I’m sorry, the congregation – happy. It leads to joy, says one; it keeps them enthusiastic, says another. I still say, hmmmm.
It’s not that I’m such a purist about using the traditional melodies and modes, because I’m not really; or that I’m just cranky, which I kind of am. And it’s not only when there are some times when it seems to me that enthusiasm and joy are what you don’t want. Why, for example, do we sing what are essentially campfire songs on Tisha B’Av?
My deferral is that I’m not convinced that joy and enthusiasm are necessarily indicative of good prayer. Or that they’re even necessary to keep people involved.
People sit zazen, or work on their quads, or practice viola, or undergo psychoanalysis -they devote themselves to all kinds of activities, sometimes even paying money to do so, without looking for fun, as such. “How was your session?” “Great!! Dr. Rosenblatt had this great new Carlebach tune for ‘I think you’re avoiding thinking about your mother.’”
The thing is, we know more or less what we want from our meditation, or workout, or practice session, or even (sort of) the analysis. There is stuff we want to accomplish, and if we do, then it was a good session.
Whavtever else prayer has going against it, if you don’t know what it’s supposed to accomplish there’s no way to know if it’s being done well; there is no “done well” to measure it against. And then the liturgy will necessarily suck, because all it’s going to be is going through the motions. Not “prayer”, but “prayerism.”Singing is especially seductive because you can tell if you’ve sung well and if you’ve had a good time doing so, and the ‘service” can deliver on its promises. But not all singing is prayer, and not all prayer is singing, and if we don’t have a sense of what prayer ought to be, what it could be, that lets us know when we’re doing it right, then at some point we’re going to stop trying altogether. And we’ll look for the place with really good singing.