Ritual and Reform at Denver’s Temple Sinai

Rabbi Richard S. Rheins had no idea how appropriate his comments to me would for this blog.

I’m in Denver this weekend so I headed to Temple Sinai last night for services. I was not encourage by what I saw when I arrived. I assumed this was just some large Reform congregation using Mishkan T’filah. But I was pleasantly surprised.

After services, I had a couple of questions so I introduced myself to Rabbi Rheins.

Question 1: On my way in, I spotted a rack of MTs off to the side. It seems this congregation owns a few copies of the light blue version of MT with no transliterations. So I asked Rabbi Rheins why the congregation had decided to purchase copies of both versions of MT.

Question 2: Services had been in a very particular style. There was little in the way of English readings, the service taking place mostly in Hebrew. Kabalat Shabat was cut short, but other than that, the services was structurally intact. Music Director Bryan Zive sang and played guitar the whole way through and seemed to have a thing for Josh Nelson and the like. In short, this service was about as far from Classical Reform as you could get and still be in the URJ mainstream. And then there was the the Torah service. So I asked what the thinking was behind the juxtapositions of a very non-Classical aesthetic and the very Classical practice of including a Torah service on Friday night. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. I was mostly curious about what had led to the combination.

It turns out that the answer to both questions was basically the same. Rheins pointed out that there was once a time when you could say generally what Reform congregations do and be right about most Reform congregations. But he added that if there’s anything you can say generally about Reform now, it’s that Reform Judaism provides a level of access for every Reform Jew, alluding, I suppose to the big tent.

What he meant is that there are members of Temple Sinai that need transliterations to follow the Hebrew. Yet there also members of the community that know their Hebrew and find the transliterations distracting. Likewise, some will come to Friday night services. Others will come on Saturday morning. Why only give Torah to those who come on Saturday morning. Perhaps, he said, some came on a Friday night, one of the only they’ll attend all year, just to say Kadish. How, he asked, can we watch them come and go without giving them some Torah?

So what Rheins was describing is a kind of ideal version of Reform Judaism. And his ideal for Reform is that it gives something to everyone, allowing people many points of entry for Jews from any background. That’s nice, and Rheins is certainly living that as in the ways that he can in the community he leads.

I hate to sound ungrateful and whiny, but poor pitiful me, I’m over-educated. I find that there is no longer a point of entry for me because I know too much, which is kind of absurd. Whine, whine, whine.

Shabat Shalom.

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14 Responses to Ritual and Reform at Denver’s Temple Sinai

  1. Larry Kaufman January 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Several interesting issues here. Let me start with transliteration. This is the first I have heard of omitting them because they are distracting to those who know the Hebrew. As someone who knows the Hebrew, I find them easy to ignore. I had previously heard two objections to including them:
    1. Those studying for b’nai mitzvah might be tempted to use them as a “pony” — do they still use that word? — and cop out on really learning the Hebrew.
    2. Including transliterations might demotivate people from learning Hebrew. (Rabbi Hillel Gamoran had an op ed piece in RJ Magazine a few years back, inveighing against transliteration.)

    I see the decision to produce the edition without transliteration along with the transliterated version as political and commercial rather than ideological. There is no doubt in my mind that without transliteration, Mishkan T’filah would not only have bombed, but would have been interpreted as a slap at newcomers to the synagogue, whether with Jewish roots or without, for whom the translit is a point of entry or access.

    My guess is that most of the untransliterated books were bought primarily for schools, a few for ideologues — but I’ll try to find out.

    Friday night Torah reading. I had never thought of it as a Classical Reform thing, and I note that the 1940 UPB ends the Amidah — Those congregations that read the Torah, turn to page 94 — which suggests it was even then an option.
    The Classical Reform congregations I’ve known best held brief early Friday evening services (5:45), sometimes called vespers, and put all their emphasis on Saturday and/or Sunday morning services. When the new rabbi came to Temple Sholom in Chicago, with a mandate to transition it from Classical to mainstream, he introduced 8 PM Friday services, with Torah, recognizing that his Friday night crowd was not coming again on Saturday, and wanting everyone to have a crack at Torah. I don’t know if anyone has stats on this, but I suspect that you’d find Friday night Torah more often than not across the movement. A few years ago, when Beth Emet moved to a 6:30 kabbalat Shabbat, Torah reading was eliminated (the entire Sedrah is read each week at our minyan service, in English, and our kahal service reads the triennial portion, part in Hebrew and part in English). After lots of complaints about its absence, a brief Torah service was re-instated twice monthly at kab Shab. As I have said before (with more than partial approval), the great ideological principle of Reform is Clocks rule.

    Finally, from your description of Sinai/Denver, its service doesn’t sound all that different from ours, although we do more Kab Shab, and as I have said, less Torah. I don’t recall any Josh Nelson, but we have a very eclectic music mix, almost all intended for sing-along. And as I travel the circuit, I see our esthetic replicated more often than not.

    I have made the comparison before between Reform and Chabad that both are good at taking Jews wherever they are on the practice spectrum, but Chabad is more aggressive at moving them on the personal practice spectrum, where Reform settles for moving them on the worship spectrum. But neither assumes or caters to the over-educated, to use your self-categorization. The contemporary rabbi, like Moshe Rabbeinu before him/her, has to deal with amcha, and hope that the elite will come along for the ride.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 2, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

      Your reasons for excluding translit. are similar to what I meant. I do find it distracting because I can read Hebrew well, but not as naturally as I read English characters so I find it distracting/a crutch. And I think that your point about translit. discouraging people from learning to read Hebrew is applicable to the overall point about providing many entry points. If you’re at a point where you want to learn to read Hebrew, here’s the movement providing you with that access point without making you buy a sidur that will set you apart from your URJ congregation. Until this synagogue, I mostly knew of people owning either being people like you and me or being Rabbis.

      I think that if I came to Chabad and said here I am and here’s how much I know, they would be good at teaching more of what they think I ought to know. The URJ is so unsure of what they think you ought to know or ideologically opposed to even thinking that they could or should know what people should know.

      • Larry Kaufman January 2, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

        In another recent post, you set up a pretty good set of distinctions among the Reform movement, the URJ, the Reform intellectual community, and Reform Jews/Reform Judaism. Within the framework of your distinctions, at the very least your last sentence above should be amended to “The Reform movement is so divided about….”

        The glory and the curse of Reform Judaism today lies in our pragmatism. Hence the obsession I have noted elsewhere with the clock; hence the rubric of guidance, not governance, hence even the joke that the Aseret dibrot are the Ten Suggestions. There is an underlying assumption that, if you create guilt, people will respond by staying away, but if you tell them their current practice is acceptable, they will be more comfortable coming back. This is part of your “point of entry” in action; this is mitzvah goreret mitzvah, with averah goreret averah removed. Yes, I know that “autonomy” is supposed to refer to informed choice, but congregational rabbis live in the real world.

        Which takes me back to my original observation taking the URJ out of your equation. The URJ’s job is to serve congregations, and it would not be serving congregations if it supplied materials that set a standard significantly higher than congregational rabbis are willing to set for their congregants. So blame for any ideological opposition should be laid at the door of the CCAR and/or HUC/JIR, not the URJ.

        When I was in religious school, at a Conservative synagogue, most of my text books were published by the UAHC — maybe the best way its successor, the URJ, has of setting forth what should be taught to kids. Your religious school education preceded today’s URJ Chai curriculum — which my wife, who has been teaching in Conservative day schools and Reform Sunday schools for forty years, says represents a marked improvement over what was available before. And we’re a long way from the time when the day school rather than the supplementary school will be normative in the liberal movements.

        In the meantime, I often find myself in situations, not only in the synagogue, where I feel more educated than those I am with — but nonetheless, I often find there are things they can teach me, just as I often find there are things I can teach them. But you can’t teach anybody more than they want to learn, not even if you’re the URJ!

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm #

          Your point about my use of terminology is fair enough.

          But if you want me to believe that the URJ has no ideological role, they’re gonna need to stop passing those pesky resolutions.

          • Larry Kaufman January 3, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

            I just went and reviewed the nine resolutions adopted by the 2009 Biennial. There are those who argue that resolutions on social issues are outside the purview of a religious organization — but I see the emphasis on social action as the proudest legacy of Classical Reform, and I find nothing pesky about it, or about the resolutions that ensue. You have already taken apart the resolution on congregations using technology, but whatever it is or isn’t, it isn’t ideological.

            The only 2009 resolution that approaches religious issues is the one on eating Jewishly. http://urj.org/about/union/governance/reso/?syspage=article&item_id=27522. While it can indeed be characterized as pesky, I don’t find it very ideological.

            While I object strenuously to the characterization which we see from time to time of Reform Judaism as Judaism Lite, we certainly provide a home for those who want to practice Judaism Lite, as do the other so-called liberal streams. Both URJ and its constituent congregations have to come to terms with this, as do USCJ and JRF.

            As someone who is not a product of the Reform movement, I note that its system has produced a number of serious young Jews, a sign of success. Hopefully some will choose at some stage in their lives to light candles instead of cursing the darkness.

            • David A.M. Wilensky January 4, 2010 at 12:14 am #

              This blog isn’t all that I am, Larry. I don’t just “curse the darkness.”

  2. Randi January 2, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    I find that there is no longer a point of entry for me because I know too much, which is kind of absurd.

    I don’t know anywhere near as much as you David, but I was given some advice last year by the now soon-to-be senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, brief advice that ended up being very helpful.

    We were at a URJ regional biennial, and I had not enjoyed the erev Shabbat service much at all: The mega-service aesthetic just doesn’t appeal to me.

    On Shabbat morning, I happened to be sitting next to this rabbi and mentioned my discomfort with the setting at the start of the service. He simply said “Let it go–forget the amps, the electronics, the jumbo-tron. Experience the energy of the people around you.”

    And for some reason (which surprises the hell out of me,) it worked. I’m not one given to following such a Zen-like directive, but I did just let it go, and had a satisfying communal prayer experience.

    Unexpectedly, this message was reinforced a couple of weeks later when I was in a (non-URJ) music workshop. (I play accordion in a klezmer band.) Working on a musical phrase of a kleztune, the teaching musician stopped me, took my chart away, and told me to forget the notes–just “pray” this phrase with my instrument.
    And then it was beautiful.

    I still yearn for a kind of pure t’fillah experience where the ocean of Hebrew keva flows freely and swells up underneath me like a breaking wave to be spiritually surfed. But those kind of waves don’t often break where I live.

    However, when I can manage to forget myself, the transliteration, or the notes, sometimes I still hit a beyond-rational current that carries me along a little while before I have to start paddling again…

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 2, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

      Energy? That may be a bit much for me…

      But if it works for you, mazal tov.

  3. ML January 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    Isn’t this kind of service the norm now?

    My dad, who is of the classic Reform variety, can’t stand going any longer. Then again, he complains if more than the Sh’ma, Barehu and Kaddish are in Hebrew (yes, I know the Kaddish is in Aramaic).

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

      Stylistically, this is slowly becoming the norm. But it often lacks the feeling of genuineness this service had. I felt from the shlichei tzibur at Sinai Denver that they were really into the style and really thought it was a good way to go. So often, leader jump on this stylistic bandwagon because they think it will attract more people. They don’t actually get WHY it might attract more people and so it comes off as fake.

      Also, structurally this very much not the norm. The structural norm remains a regular butchering of the Amidah, skipping Haskiveinu one week or Ahavat Olam the next week. Sinai Denver had their structure together, aside from their totally incomplete kab shab.

      • ML January 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

        They did a full Amidah? And skipped nothing from Ma’ariv? If true, then you’re right, it’s very out of the norm.

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 5, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

          To be clear, they didn’t say every word, but each prayer was represented. And the Amidah was the usual first three out loud, finish the rest at your own pace.

          • ML January 7, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

            That’s cool. I usually find the “finish at your own pace” to be about 60 seconds at most Reform services.

            I also forgot to mention that someone gave me a Bryan Zive CD at Hava Nashira a couple of years ago. I can’t seem to find it at the moment but I’m pretty sure it was produced by Josh Nelson.

  4. Jordan Friedman June 25, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    About that whole mega-service aesthetic with amplifiers and electronics—I am normally a total pluralist, maintaining that while some things are not for me, other people can and should do them if they find them meaningful. However, I can honestly say that if I could somehow prevent anyone from ever worshipping with the aid of electronics (other than electric lighting and maybe a microphone for the reader), I would. I find that prayer should be totally organic and non-technological. The only means of sound production should be the human voice and acoustic instruments such as pianos, pipe organs, non-amplified guitars, etc. There’s something so wonderful about hearing natural-sounding voices and instruments amplified naturally by good acoustics that completes the whole experience. I am usually not stubborn or preachy about anything, but I do happen to think that even people who claim that electronically enhanced worship is meaningful to them would benefit from a return to acoustics alone. Anything else just gets in the way, and this is coming from a computer geek/audiophile, too.