Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just a little cranky

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.

2 comments:

schmerl said...

Josh,
um, I mean, dear blog entry:
We all come to prayer from a less-than-totally informed place; and often, that place is a cranky place. And yet, we pray. Together.
Thanks for using this blog entry to open up your subjective feelings about prayer for discussion. I guess that means that I can throw mine in as well. I hesitate, because not all subjective opinions are blog-worthy. Here's mine. and I apologize in advance for it not being scholarly.

What role does the notion of aesthetics play in your prayer "world"?
If you're read Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" in college, like I did, you'll probably remember that really cool part in the mystical/numbered statements in the middle where he proclaims:
"Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same."

As an art critic, and, well, a kind of artist, I've always that there's a lot of truth in that. I bring that outlook to my davvening, to my prayerful-ness, to my ability--or not--tolerate/get into/ what's happening in shul.
I should clarify and say that I don't mean aesthetics in the sense of beautiful singing, instruments, etc. I genuinely get turned off by this stuff often, to tell you the truth. Instead, I'd rather examine the fact that notions like getting turned "on" or "off" even enter the discussion. My religious experience and ability to pray "well" if there is such a thing is sort of based on a comfort level. And I'd call that comfort aesthetics. I didn't get too turned off to pray. I felt what I think of as spiritual.
The aesthetics of the cranky, the "informed," the studious are often just the opposite of happy smiling people holding hands (and singing songs). No?

thanks for writing so well and thoughtfully on this.
Now, watch out as the responses fly!
S

elizabeth said...

This is an incredibly interesting post, one which- pun unavoidable- struck a real chord with me.

I am a fairly new davenner and very much still a student, so my response should be taken with a grain of (kosher) salt.

Having been to said Famous Synagogue, I admit to enjoying the music. Not all of it was joyful, some of it was down right sorrowful. And when I wasn't exactly sure where we were in the service, the music allowed me to stay present when I didn't know precisely what page we were on in the siddur.

But more than entertainment value, it helped me feel a part of community. It allowed me to participate.

I suppose I am writing from the perspective of someone who is still discovering what she wants from prayer, but I think music is a powerful uniter and tool, at least, for learners.

The first prayer I was able to commit to memory easily was the sh'ma, after all. No doubt because it has a tune.

This is a longer discussion, but that's my initial 2 cents and has definitely has got me thinking about what it is I want out of prayer..

So thanks,F&C, I continue to love the blog.