February 8, 2009

Song and Survival

Shabbat Shirah is marked at Temple Micah (DC) — as in many congregations — with extra emphasis on the Song of the Sea, the Israelites’ praise-song to God after their escape from Egypt (Exodus Chapter 15). At Micah, the much-anticipated annual celebration incorporates special readings and musical selections; each year presents several settings of “Mi Chamocha” [“Who is like you, God?”] — the pre-Amidah prayer, taken in part from Exod. 15 and recalling the Israelites’ offering of “a shirah chadashah” [new song].

At this year’s service, Rabbi Danny Zemel offered a teaching — based on the verse “Then Moses sang” (Exod 15:1) — on praise-singing even in the most difficult times. I took away an additional lesson on the Jewish people — Reform, Orthodox and otherwise — learning, through difficulty, to sing “a new song” together.

In the Torah portion, “Moses and the Israelites” sing, and then “Miriam…and the women” sing (and dance).

On this particular Shabbat, as on many, I participated first in a large, mixed-gender Reform service and then joined a small, Modern Orthodox women’s tefillah [prayer] group (Kesher Israel‘s Alper Memorial Women’s Rosh Chodesh T’fillah/Study group).

Worshipping within the tension between these two worlds can be difficult, sometimes jarring; most often, however, it is also creative.

On this Shabbat Shirah, I thought
— of the biblical Israelites needing those birds to teach them to sing in the desert;
— of the Rabbi of Chelm bringing the birds to modern Israel to ensure the people’s ability to praise and survive;
— of all that I gain from worshipping and learning in the Orthodox world, and how much of that I can’t help but bring with me, when I sing at Micah;
— of all that I gain from worshipping and learning in the Reform world, and how much of that I can’t help but bring with me, when I sing at Kesher.

I thought of all that hinders a wider exchange of prayer experiences across these worlds — from halachic [legal] issues in observing Shabbat and conducting prayers to geographic distance and prevailing attitudes. I thought of all that is lost in this separation.

Perhaps it is not necessary to the collaborative survival of the Jewish people for Orthodox Jews to participate directly in a raucously transcendent Reform service conducted by professionals, complete with choirs and instruments. Maybe Kesher members need never set foot in Micah’s newly expanded, lovingly-dedicated contemporary building.

Perhaps it is not necessary to the collaborative survival of the Jewish people for Reform Jews to participate directly in a quietly transcendent Orthodox service conducted by members, leading unaccompanied and unrehearsed voices. Maybe Micah members need never set foot in Kesher’s small, well-worn historic “Bayit” [house] — or enjoy hospitality from the just-remodeled kitchen below the sanctuary next door.

But I do think it is necessary for Reform, Orthodox and other Jews to participate directly together in finding a common language to discuss prayer and other experiences at the heart of Judaism.

Without that kind of dialogue, I fear we are headed for a place in which the tensions between the two worlds are no longer productive. With that kind of dialogue, we can inform and inspire one another’s singing — even if we don’t (always) do it in the same room.

One chance to be in the same room will be the “This Is My Prayer” inter-denominational conference on March 1. Consider joining the dialogue and the song!

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midrash, prayer

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