Chanukah VI – B’nai Jeshurun is nice, I guess

13 months ago, last time I visited B’nai Jeshurun, I was so obsessed with ideological and liturgical minutiae, albeit less knowledgable about both than I am now, that I was totally unable to enjoy the services. This was a recurring theme in my prayer experiences last year.

A few years ago, BJ was dying congregation with an aging population. Now, with a sprinkling of South American clergy, and a band (hand drums, guitar, cello, mandolin, etc.), they’ve become arguably the most musically dynamic congregation in America. Their programming and the dedication of their volunteer is tremendous. They have classes and social events targeted at different age groups (paritcular 20- and 30-somethings) nearly every day of the week. They have two services nearly every Friday night, they’re Conservative, and they have a morning minyna every day. As of a 1995 rennovation, the sanctuary is overwhelmingly beautiful, without seeming gothic or imposing.

Did I mention the music? It’s incredible. I’m rarely happy with the music in a synagogue, but theirs offers something different without seeming needlessly rocking and folksy. It’s modern fusion sephardic or something. It’s great. In the midst of their complete–thank God–L’cha Dodi, they switch melodies to an overwhelmingly upbeat tune and people leap from their seats to join in a dance train that weaves all around the packed space. The dancing is kind of where I draw the line, actually, but I’m glad other people get some Shabat kicks from it. Renditions of Ma’oz Tzur and Mi Chamocha to the tune of Mi Yemalel were particularly good tonight.

A team of devoted volunteers is required to help find seating for people. The room fills up fast–well before services start–and by the time Kabalat Shabat is over and the service has started in earnest, the balcony is overflowing too. I happened to run into Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, whom I met at Kutz this summer. We sat together and chatted before services. Geoff had the night off from his own pulpit. Evidently, BJ is where other Rabbis go on their night off!

As much as I was enjoying Kabalat Shabat, I couldn’t help but feel that something was off. The aesthetic was good–amazing, even. But aesthetic alone, as I am often reminded, is not enough. I found myself wondering if there was any beef, any substance to this.

And I discovered that there was none this week. A sermon was delivered on a load of mystical claptrap. The chazan (I think) giving the sermon asserted that there are a total of 36 candles lit on the eight nights of Chanukah. He told us to trust him that this was so, which it isn’t. The number is 44! He assured us that some Kabalist nut or the other had once noted that these 36 candles represented the 36 hours of pure divine light that Adam and Chavah experienced during the first 36 hours of their existence, from mid-day on the first Friday, through the end of the first Shabat. Problems? 1) Whose ass did this pure divine light just get pulled out of? It was dark all night at the beginning of that Shabat, just like every week. 2) WTF? Who cares? What does this mean?

He then informed us that the Hebrew word Or (light) appears 36 times in the Torah! Goly gee. How fortuitous.

Which is why my skepticism of really beautiful services continues. Is the trade-off for good music and attention to liturgical detail really that I have to sit through a few minutes of mind-numbing Kabalistic number coincidences? Gag me.

Shabat shalom. Chodesh tov. Chappy Chanukah.

8 Responses to Chanukah VI – B’nai Jeshurun is nice, I guess

  1. jepaikin December 26, 2008 at 11:01 pm #

    Well. Wow. Aren’t we just feeling slightly shul-snobby this evening?

    A few things. And then I’m sure, some more will follow…

    1) There are 36 candles if you don’t include the shamash each night.

    2) I’m not sure I see what the sermon has to do with the liturgical merits of the congregation…

    3) As I happen to already know, you’re not a fan of mysticism… Could it just be that this isn’t your piece of pie? Were there other people disturbed by the sermon? After all… it is a dancing shul…

  2. davidamwilensky December 27, 2008 at 7:25 am #

    I am feeling a little snobby, but everything I say here is honest.

    The sermon has nothing to do with liturgical merit, you’re right. But I guess I’m just a little pissed by going to services that are pretty ideal, liturgically, and then being bombarded with a useless sermon.

    It could just be that this isn’t my piece of pie. Everyone else seemed fine with the sermon, but being in the minority doesn’t make me wrong.

    Kutz is a dancing shul too, you might say. But, as an occasional sermonizer at Kutz, I hope we pack a little more real content into our divrei torah than some load of Kabalist hoohah.

  3. Rich December 27, 2008 at 8:18 am #

    I’ve heard claptrappy and marvelous sermons in the same context, and when I am the darshan, I tend toward sermons with a point, but for some, “hey, check out this cool thing!” is enough. If you keep going you may see some variation in the sermon style.

    As for the 36 hours of divine light – that would not be daylight. this reading follows the midrash that the light created with יהי אור was supernal light that was squirreled away for the righteous; don’t have the citation handy, but I suspect if you’re doing sefer habloggadah, you’ve read it more recently than I. That light would not have been available outside Eden, and its availability would not have been determined by the position of the heavenly bodies.

  4. David December 27, 2008 at 6:02 pm #

    8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 = 36

    Live from Brooklyn!? When did that happen? I’m jealous.

    See you in a few.

  5. David December 27, 2008 at 6:02 pm #

    Also, this weird snow effect thing made me think temporarily that I was having a seizure.

  6. davidamwilensky December 27, 2008 at 8:18 pm #

    9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2=not 36

    I’m in Brooklyn for the month, subletting while I work for Limmud.

  7. BZ October 3, 2010 at 9:35 am #

    They have two services nearly every Friday night, they’re Conservative, and they have a morning minyna every day.

    BJ isn’t Conservative (anymore) – it’s not affiliated with any denomination.

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