Bizarro temple

“People from the North think that Virginia is the wilderness.”

“I resent that.”

“I represent that.”


So it finally happened. I went to a place where they sing the Barechu. There was a choir. It was the Reform temple. I brought my sister there because a week ago she was asking questions about Judaism, and she agreed to go talk to the rabbi there. (Of course, she later denied this, but by then I made an appointment for her anyway.) Anyway, the choir sang everything—to the point where I really just wanted them to sit down already.

Contra David (see link above), I am adamantly against singing the Barechu like a song. It’s not a song. I have a suspicion they’d still sing it without a minyan, too (no chance to ever test that one though; that place was packed). Call me old-fashioned. But it has a specific purpose, and it’s not there for decoration.

They sang the Kaddish. They sang the part after the Shema that you’re not supposed to sing (baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed). And by “they” I mean the choir and definitely not the audience.

Which brings me to my real complaint. Now, finding myself in the Reform temple five months after my last visit, I can more easily discern the differences. I quickly noticed that the people were afraid to do anything that might call attention to themselves—they were afraid to even rustle. OK, so I was just complaining about how people were chit-chatting the whole time last week, but this is like the bizzaro version of that fateful night. It reminded me of that guy in the Middle Ages who, apparently disgusted, said we should take note of the decorum of our gentile neighbors (then he later converted to Catholicism). To make it more jarring, there was about three or four times as many people as we usually get at the Conservative shul.

Of course, they didn’t really have too many chances to sing the songs anyway, given that they were basically being taken over by the choir. I saw some poor people trying to bow during the Barechu but they couldn’t because the choir was mumbling and you couldn’t really hear anything anyway.

Then we had Torah service. All I can tell you is that the rabbi somehow got in “bring gold jewelry, also whoever has skills may use them in service of the Temple” into the English translation of the parashat that came after every paragraph, which she read in Hebrew as if she was reading an index card, not the Torah. The point was that we all have our own unique skills we can bring to the service of God, as she made clear (I couldn’t find any mention of “skills” when I read the chumash on Saturday morning at the Conservative place, but anyway). Well, whatever. There was also no chumash to read from because I guess the assumption is that no one can read Hebrew there. It was a parsha that said “Those who don’t obey the Sabbath will be put to death”, which she translated into English quite boldly, and I was kind of surprised about that. I wonder how everyone else took it.

My sister liked the choir though, and I guess that’s what counts.

It just seemed very superficial. They lit Shabbat candles after Shabbat started; they only read a little sliver of the Torah; there was no Birkat Hamazon; they talked about their treif chili picnic coming up; the cantor played an accompaniment of piano through his computer; they chop up the Amidah, everything’s in English—it just seems like everything is for show. Even the building is rather utilitarian. I think it’s just an example of how Judaism dies without Jewish law. Maybe it’s just not a good group of people for me. It’s like they were there because there was nothing on TV. It’s like how people say Judaism dies without Talmud study, which I suppose is true too.

Oh, and at the Kiddush, the rabbi said, “Now turn to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself.” I said to my sister, “This is church!”

7 thoughts on “Bizarro temple

  1. Wait, did they do a Torah reading on Friday night? I’m confused.

    “I think it’s just an example of how Judaism dies without a binding Jewish law. Maybe it’s just not a good group of people for me. It’s like they were there because there was nothing on TV. It’s like how people say Judaism dies without Talmud study, which I suppose is true too.”

    Now think about what you just said here. Didn’t you say the place was packed? You might not like the product, but people are buying it. If, by “Judaism dies” you mean “things get weird and different,” then your statement is vacuously true, because of how you define your terms. Here, at least people are showing up.

    Not my speed either, and I can understand finding it unsettling, but that’s certainly not a proof that Conservative shul is “better” than Reform, or anything like that.

  2. Yeah, they read the Torah on Friday night. Since that’s the only day they have services, it’s a step up from not having any reading at all, I guess.

    People were definitely buying it (it’s easy to like something that doesn’t really assert any hard and fast position so much as it does one that’s so vague you could read almost anything into it). And I won’t deny that this is totally subjective, but it seemed a little soulless to me; which, again, might just be our local place. Yes, it was weird and different. But I also don’t deny that I think it’s not only different, but incorrect—not just the choir, which I suppose is custom (*cough* Christian custom); but messing with the Barechu and the Amidah and so on. I have to repeat this though—I’m not collectively rejecting all people who are Reform so much as rejecting the Reform institution and its platform etc.

    Hey, lots of people show up to pagan campfire rituals too, you know.

    And megachurches are also quite popular.

  3. Well, given that I believe that halacha is normative and defines proper Jewish practice, I am compelled to agree with the basic “they’re incorrect” statement, because Reform explicitly denies as a movement that halacha is binding. But most of what you describe above probably could be somewhat justified in a halachic context nonetheless.

    The Monday/Thursday/Saturday morning Torah reading is not d’oraisa, it was instituted by Ezra as a takanah for the explicit purpose of keeping the people familiar with the Torah. Mondays and Thursday were the days that the courts met, among other things, and hence were days that more people might be congregated in the cities. Given that now Friday night is the only time they can get people to shul, it would be in the spirit of the original takanah to read the Torah then. The Conservative movement holds that a takanah can be revised or abolished in the present day based on changed circumstances, especially when, as is the case here, the reason for the takanah is known explicitly.

    The Levites sang as a choir in the Beis HaMikdash. Perhaps the choir is chukas goyim because it really was copied from the Christians, but the Levite choirs were around before that religion existed.

    “Messing with” the Barechu is brought down as an accepted custom by the Artscroll siddur. While not conclusive, I tend to think that if both common Reform practice and Rabbi Artscroll agree that something is acceptable, I’m not in a position to question it.

    I don’t know what they did with the Amidah, which may be the most important part, so I can’t really comment.

    When the public Torah readings were originally instituted, they also came to include a Targum, a publicly read Aramaic translation (still done in the Yemenite tradition), because the purpose of the Torah reading was for the people to understand the meaning and words of the Torah, and Aramaic was the vernacular of the time. Translating the reading into English seems well in line with the basic idea there, too.

    As for the rest of the service being in English, the halacha, according to everyone I know of, is that it is permissible to daven in Hebrew, or in any language you understand (though Hebrew with understanding is preferred, of course). The halacha may be different regarding public prayer, but as long as everyone present understood English, they probably were at LEAST yotzei b’dieved for whatever they did do.

    Regarding the computer, electricity at least is subject to all kinds of halachic debate. This debate is closed as far as normative orthodox practice today, but there are some Conservative opinions that explore this, and it at least used to be that electricity was permitted by observant Sephardic communities.

    Lighting candles after the zman, assuming it was REALLY late (i.e. after Rabbenu Tam’s latest opinion even), I do not think there is any possible justification (unless the person lighting wasn’t bar/bat mitzvah, which I doubt). This is, however, clearly an attempt at preserving a central traditional practice despite the difficulties of the modern workday, so give them credit for trying, at least. How many Conservative families light by the zman every week (in Boston, that means 3:45 pm in the winter)? How many light at all?

    Again, I agree, it’s really weird stuff to my eyes, and I personally hold by opinions that don’t allow most of it. But let’s not make idle comparisons between our fellow Jews and actual avodah zara.

  4. Whoa, what does Rabbi ArtScroll say about the Barechu? I will have to look at that next time I’m around that siddur.

    Well, they break up the Amidah into pieces, so they say Avot and Gevurot, then they skipped the Kedusha, and I recognized a piece of Avodah, but the choir sang that part. That was annoying, but I also knew I was the only one who was going to go home and do it over.

    They lit the candles at about 7:45 PM, and the zman here is 5:51 PM. And I didn’t really mind the English, or the translation into English, but more so that the place had become so comfortable in the fact that their congregants wouldn’t know even how to follow in Hebrew that there were no chumashim; even just as an aid to those who DID choose to learn Hebrew. There was no option. That is just one example, but to me it points to a more general problem of not even encouraging education (or greater observance) to an undereducated laity.

    Anyway, I try to judge favorably, but I was just taken aback by the stark contrast between the two. I sometimes wonder what the members of the Reform temple would think about the Conservative synagogue if they were to actually attend for a while (and vice versa). The two don’t really interact, and I find the dynamic kind of interesting.

  5. From the Artscroll:

    “In some congregations the chazzan chants a melody during his recitation of Borchu so that the congregation can the recite ‘Blessed, praised …” and there’s some little paragraph to recite, kindof like a modim d’rabanan.

    “then they skipped the Kedusha”

    You’re never going to find a Ma’ariv Kedusha in the Artscroll (or Koren), either, because traditionally only the silent Amidah is said at night, not the repetition (naturally you will find the short “Kedushas HaShem” blessing for the silent Amidah). The most common explanation for this is that the reason (one of two reasons, really) why we have the prayer services we do is based on when the daily Korban Tamid was brought in the Beis HaMikdash, and there was no evening offering.

    One of the bigger problems in the Amidah from a halachic standpoint is the common Reform innovation to substitute “m’chayei hakol” (?) for “m’chayei meisim” in the Gevuros blessing. FWIW, the Orthodox view generally says the same thing about the common Conservative innovations of including the Imahot and editing the Avodah, etc.

    “They lit the candles at about 7:45 PM, and the zman here is 5:51 PM.”

    FWIW, I looked up Roanoke, and the latest nightfall opinion I could find (according to Rabbeinu Tam, of course) was 7:26 last Friday, so 7:45 pm would be definitely Shabbos according to all opinions, and not bein ha-shemashos (i.e., uncertain day/night).

    “it points to a more general problem of not even encouraging education (or greater observance) to an undereducated laity”

    Yes, absolutely. Certainly in times past there might possibly have been an equally uneducated laity(?), but the lack of encouragement or desire to be more educated is a big difference, I think.

  6. Right, but it sounds like the Barechu is still a two-part reading, not a choral piece.

    OH RIGHT—no Kedusha at Ma’ariv. Of course. Well, that makes sense. I do wonder, though, if anyone knows there’s sixteen other blessings to the Amidah, because in Hebrew class, someone kept referring to Avot as “The Tefillah”.

    Yeah, I remember “m’chayei hakol”, which I was confused about. Is it an attempt at inclusion? It seemed like a nitpicking thing to me, but I don’t know. I’m not really into adding the Imahot either, and at my shul at least we don’t do that. I just think there are bigger problems than changing the wording around all the time. I’d rather have them include female grammatical versions (“modeh/modah”, for example) than worry about making sure all translations that say “men” say “men and women” etc.

    Re: Educated laity, I continue to be taken aback in Hebrew class at the temple when people struggle through the few lines of the Shema. Today, someone was learning “baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va-ed”, and I was rather worried that she never recognized what she was reading.

  7. Mchayei hakol is a substitute that is used to avoid asserting that God does or will resurrect the dead.


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