Let the specialists show you something

Oh, hey Larry.

Larry Kaufman, the most prolific of commenters here at The Shuckle, is fond of pointing out that a lot of what I write about here is of concern only to people he likes to call “specialists.” Most people, he often writes here, just don’t care about the liturgical minutiae that make me excited agitated. I, on the other hand, think that if no one else cares, control should just be given over to the specialists.

So here’s a metaphor that I think explains what I mean. In this metaphor, we are concerned with Person A and Person X. Person A goes to services regularly, but is not very knowledgeable about them. Person X is comparable to Person A. Person X uses a computer every day for a variety of things, but doesn’t know much about their computer.

Person X might continue to use their computer every day and not know that much of what they encounter while using it could be easier. They may not know that they could be browsing with no popups or dealing with a simpler email system that sorts spam better. But if Person X hands over their computer to Person Y–someone who is very knowledgeable about computers–so that Person Y can optimize it, Person X will find their experience improved, even if they don’t know exactly how it was improved.

Person A may continue going to services every week not knowing why there is a blessing for Torah study right before an odd little prayer called Eilu D’varim or why half of something translatable as The Standing Prayer is recited sitting down in their synagogue. In the case of Eilu D’varim, Person A doesn’t realize the elegance of the order of the prayers, though this not much of an obstacle to them. In the case of The Standing Prayer, they encounter something that doesn’t make sense, perhaps without even knowing that it doesn’t make sense.

Now imagine that Person A encountered a new service created by Persons B–a group of people very knowledgeable about the content, structure and order of the service. In the new service, Person A might encounter a siddur with commentary or even live commentary during the service from Persons B about why Eilu D’varim is preceded by a blessing for Torah study. They did not know before that an elegant piece of liturgical logic was passing them by, but now the experience is enhanced by knowing that Eilu D’varim is meant as a symbolic period of daily study and that’s why there’s a blessing for study before it. Person A did not know before that The Standing Prayer was meant as a single unit with many parts, but now that they have experienced a service in which they rise just before it and are seated just after, they see for the first time that all of its pieces are related and that it is a unified section of the service.

My point here is that if you let a specialist fine-tune something you do regularly, you may find your experience of that something improved.

Of course, I can feel Larry just itching to tell me why my metaphor is imperfect. There are emotions involved. People are attached to the way they do it. Or they just don’t really care.

That’s why we have the lucky added advantage–not included in the metaphor–of having congregational rabbis and cantors. These people are where the specialists–who, I should point out, don’t have to be rabbis or cantors–and the Jews in the pews intersect. Their concerns definitely have weight here. But I think my point stands.


, , , , ,

4 Responses to Let the specialists show you something

  1. Larry Kaufman September 12, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Control has been given over to the specialists — the people to whom you addressed your open letter. I don’t know much about their liturgical expertise — they all seem to be pulpit rabbis, but I presume they will lean as heavily on Larry Hoffman and Rick Sarason as their predecessors did. I find the combination of academics and clergy very compelling.

    Your metaphor about the computer coach parallels my experience — my productivity increases whenever I have a session with my cyber-therapist. I seem to remember that when my MS Office program was first installed, there were pop-ups giving me hints and clues, but I quickly disabled them because of the Goldilocks syndrome — they were too basic or too infrequently an issue for me for me to keep my patience waiting for the one that was just right. I think that is probably why rabbis and cantors don’t do more teaching about the nuances of the liturgy than they do — rightly or wrongly, they think that there will be more people who don’t care as well as more people who already know than there are people who would appreciate the insights that might be supplied. (That is probably why the notes and commentary for GOP and GOR were published as separate volumes, to guide those who cared. And a number of essays were published in conjunction with the debut of Mishkan T’filah discussing some of the issues and resolutions. )

    So, absent teaching from the pulpit, the other solution to heighten understanding of the nuances and elegances of the the liturgy would be running commentary in the book. This of course would space, weight, and cost. I haven’t heard a lot of complaints about the white space and “wasted paper” in MT, except from you; and since siddurim are usually purchased by congregations and not by congregants, the cost issue has not been a big topic of conversation — but the same is not true for machzorim, which congregants are typically expected to buy.

    One possibility (and one that could be retroactively considered for Mishkan T’filah) is publication of a version containing commentary, for those who want it — as well as a version without it for amcha. This would be parallel to the publication of MT in editions with and without transliteration. The inclusion of commentary in MSL will probably be a good influence on the editors of MT’sh in the direction of commentary.

    If Mishkan T’shuvah has a format that parallels that of Mishkan T’filah, there will still be rumblings about the format because 80 percent of the people who will be exposed to the new machzor have not really become acquainted at any level with the siddur. But those will pass. And, as I say, they will be about logistics, not about content. The other alternative would be an intuitive linear format, even with stage directions — although I suspect that will be viewed as a regression and will not happen.

    Going back to your computer metaphor, one problem may be that the computer expert (the clergy) will say, these people are technophobes and since they don’t know what they don’t know and don’t really care, why bother? I suspect there are many rabbis out there who would have liked to do more than they are doing, but who have been burned out with the recognition that their efforts were not appreciated. Come see me in the hospital, but don’t bother to tell me that bikkur cholim is one of the obligations without measure.

  2. Lyrl September 12, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    One of your examples – standing during the entire Standing Prayer – was a hot topic at my congregation last year. The rabbi held your view, that it is liturgically important to stand for the whole thing. I (and apparently the much of the rest of the congregation) felt that the discomfort of standing still for so long significantly detracted from the services. We stood for the entire Standing Prayer for about nine months. We don’t anymore.

    Sometimes, its not that people don’t know. It’s that they have different priorities.

    On the whole commentary included in worship publications issue, I think the ultimate solution is going to be ebooks. The technology and social acceptance is probably not there for this go-round, but I’m hopeful it will be for the next one.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 13, 2010 at 1:17 am #

      Lyrl, fair enough. But is it better to assume that people don’t want to stand than to give them both experiences and let them decide? And–assuming you’re talking about a Reform congregation–isn’t having those experiences and making that decision one of the key thought processes of contemporary Reform?

      Although, personally, I’d say that the people who don’t want to stand don’t have to. And then Larry would say that if I don’t want to sit that I don’t have to do that either. And I don’t.

      I will never use an e-siddur. I’m too much in love with the physical collection and with the layers of my handwritten notes and commentary in the margins.

  3. kathleen September 15, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    hmm… well, the house works like that. with specialists. we all got our own thing. you got the jewish thing, and we all ask you jewish questions.

    interesting also what Larry says about e-books. the Vatican is all over new technology, with the Pope encouraging priesty blogging, and especially iPhones/ iTouches, which can contain the full breviary on them for priests on the run. that way priests don’t have to carry around a huge breviary for their 5 daily prayers. not appropriate, of course, for religious orders, so forth, but for diocesan priests, it’s great.

    i’m not sure about how i’d feel about e-books or iphones in Mass, though… too distracting from the Body.