Monday, March 31, 2008

The Show Must Go On

Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week 2/9/00

I was 18 at the time, a neophyte iconoclast, bursting with hormonal angst and long, shaggy hair. It was the mid ‘70s, and with the War and Woodstock fading memories, the only thing I could rebel against was, of course, religion.

So I went up to the bima of my home synagogue on that fateful Shabbat morning and delivered the sermon (to this day called by many, "THAT Sermon") at our annual teen-led service. I discussed with great sympathy Aaron’s rebellious sons, who were killed in a flash while performing an unusual sacrifice, an "aish zara (strange fire)." Then I went on to offer my own brand of strange fire, critiquing the repetitive, predictable and overly theatrical offering being made by my elders on that pulpit week after week. I called it a show.

For some reason, the rabbi took offense.

It was a show, and the service I lead today is too -- only now I realize that that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've learned that the question should not be, "Is it a show?" but "Is it a good show?" Is this offering pleasing to the Lord? Is it real?

In rabbinical school I was advised that services can't possibly compete with Lincoln Center and Broadway, so best not to try. OK, I thought, so we’re not supposed to aim for that part of people’s souls that cry when they hear Aida or laugh at the banter of Neil Simon. We can’t compete, so let’s just be mediocre, weighed down by rote, suffocated by committee, callused by custom. I was led to believe that the only way to get people to return to services regularly is either by scheduling special events, (meals, guest speakers, honorees, special cantatas, special sermon themes), or by appealing to guilt.

I never bought into that. It's the service that matters, and my goal has always been to build my message from the power of the service itself, not to educate, but to connect; not to teach, but to inspire. I aim for the emotional jugular, all the time. And if that means adding a dramatic pause here and a well-timed joke there, if it means utilizing some of the tools of the actor and playwright, so be it. Each week, I expose more of my inner self than all the guests on Oprah, not to shock, but to share, to engender vulnerability. There's nothing wrong with drama, as long as it doesn't sink into melodrama. It can be real and still be a show.

What people bemoan as clergy-centered "performance Judaism" has little to do with it being a performance and lots to do with it being a bad performance. How does one differentiate good from bad? The answer has little to do with how polished or aesthetically balanced the performance is; it's based more on how intense and authentically human are the emotions evoked by it. Almost always, the people decide. They vote with their tears, their singing voices and their feet.

Recently, my synagogue was privileged to host the New York area debut of "Friday Night Live." Originated by the musician Craig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe, this monthly service attracts upwards of 2,000, primarily young singles, at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. It was inspired in part by B’nai Jeshurun in New York, and although the two styles are quite different, through the use of beautiful, contemporary and sing-able music, the results are remarkably similar.

On a frigid Friday last month, Craig Taubman and his band galvanized a packed sanctuary of seekers. I imagined how my father, a hazzan of the previous generation, would have reacted, as Taubman walked among the congregants with his guitar, interspersing humorous anecdotes and warm commentary between the prayers. I decided that, traditional though my dad was, he would have smiled -- the same way he beamed with pride on the day I offered my "strange fire" sermon a quarter century ago. Taubman presented each melody not as a solo, but as an invitation; and all of us, from expert to novice, total strangers, swaying, repeating, closing eyes and holding hands, sang with a power that I have rarely seen in a synagogue.

Was it a show? Yes. But no one exited that service feeling emotionally cheated or manipulated. No one would rather have been at Lincoln Center. We connected at the deepest level. And when I spoke briefly that night on the need for young, wayward Jews to return home to Judaism, I felt at one with my message.

A few days later, I got a note from one young woman with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who that night attended a Shabbat service for the first time. "It was WONDERFUL," she wrote, "filled with God’s spirit. I felt right at home. I’M SO EXCITED!!!" In reaching out to Jews on the fringe, we touched at least one who had strayed far beyond it. Her letter alone was enough to convince me that this show must go on.

Craig Taubman will be "performing" Friday Night Live at the upcoming Rabbinical Assembly Convention. I urge my Conservative colleagues to listen closely to their own voices singing along. Orthodox Jews will recognize this revolution in the popularity of the Carlbach style of service, which like Taubman's and B.J.'s, is also now being exported to distant places. And Reform Jews need to heed Eric Yoffie's recent cry for liturgical reform.

There is a Darwinian aspect to this that we must understand. That which brings life to our worship will survive, and that which doesn't will not. The Germanic-Eastern European music that energized synagogue life for two centuries did its job well, but its day is done, except as it is being synthesized into contemporary forms. The psalms themselves are imploring us, "Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash," "Sing unto Adonai a new song." The caravan has already moved on to other ways of making our ancient, sacred prayers come alive. Service attendance will continue to decline until we all understand that it's either good show -- or no-show.

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