Shabbat services are designed to be much more than a retreat from the world, which would only serve to shield us from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s pointed calls for spiritual accounting. Rather, the synagogue should be a place where we learn how to live as our best and unique selves.
The joyous ushering in of Shabbat via the ancient song “Lekha Dodi,” immediately followed by welcoming the week’s bereaved families into the sanctuary illustrates the fact that we come to synagogue to face life: to celebrate but also be awakened to reality; to find solace but also be shaken from our complacency and wrestle with our fate; to be comforted by our tradition but also to question it.
BJ’s rabbis strive to make sure that happens — to court controversy and to raise disturbing questions many would be more content to leave in the background — and certainly outside the synagogue.
We engage in prayer with kavanah — deep intention and inner devotion — as a way for us to feel the full intensity of life that Heschel spoke of. Through this kind of prayer we can feel wonder, joy, comfort, and gratitude. But we may also feel revulsion, outrage, and righteous indignation about our lives and the world.
“At Shabbat morning services we have eschewed the conventional sermon. Instead, we offer a d’var torah strictly based on the parasha of the week, in which we analyze classical and modern sources which we frequently distribute to the congregation. But even taking these sources into account, our ancient texts sometimes contradict our modern sensibilities. In the tradition of Judaism’s intellectual rigor, we neither ignore the disturbing aspects of our tradition nor apologize for them. Instead, we confront them in light of the sources and make every effort to learn from them.”
These powerful feelings are unleashed when we pray with kavannah, which we call for in the service, whether by challenging words or sweet or discordant melodies. When we make every effort to pray with kavannah from the bema ourselves (rather than merely “leading services”) and by pushing congregants to reach inward toward a genuine intention, people are moved in often unexpected ways. For this reason we offer classes on prayer, the music of our services, and texts to inspire and guide. Only this spiritual intention can take melody to such heights and prayer so deeply within. This is why many people at BJ cry or sing or dance, or clap with every fiber of their being.
Our services endeavor to be anchored by time for quiet reflection, especially at the beginning of Shabbat evening and during Shabbat morning’s Shacharit and then again with quiet niggunim at the end of many climactic melodies.
A BJ service would not be complete without specific teaching of Torah by a rabbi or visiting scholar or social activist to provoke the very deliberate consideration of difficult personal and social issues.
But allowing ourselves to feel or be provoked, whether during contemplation, Torah study, or passionate prayer, is only the beginning. Our feelings must awaken us to questions: What do we do with the feelings? Who are we, in response to those feelings? How do we transform great joy into gratitude, and gratitude into an overwhelming desire to care and give back? How do we convert dismay into the uncontainable urge to redress and repair? How do we make out of anger the righteous indignation that propels each of us to take a stand?
These are the questions whose absence from modern Jewish religious and secular life leaves a void in our souls. And they are exactly the ones that we continually ask ourselves and put before our congregants.