November 18, 2018

Are Today’s Sephardic Synagogues Spiritually Attractive?

In his well written and thought provoking article recently published in the journal Conversations, our SEC President Neil Sheff mentioned that during our annual Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) Shavuot Retreat in Palm Springs last May, “we held a town hall discussion as part of our Erev Shavuot study program.” Titled What's Wrong with Organized Religion, and How Can We Fix It?” we spent the evening discussing the state of affairs in our local Sephardic synagogues. Our audience was all young Sephardic families who are active in various Sephardic synagogues in Los Angeles. Some serve on boards and committees, many attend Shabbat services on a regular or semi-regular basis, and all have kids who, in one way or the other, are connected to these synagogues. The common denominators here were age group (all young families) and a very strong commitment to Sephardic synagogues and Sephardic Judaism.

As in any diverse audience, the comments varied. Some said, “I wish the synagogues focused more on our kids,” others felt that the rabbi’s sermons “did not reflect current issues.” Some felt it was “too much about the rabbi and hazzan and not enough about the community.” Some liked the “warmth and intimacy” of their Sephardic synagogues, and others said “I can’t say why, but it just feels like home.” The provocative amongst the group said, “I feel like I get more spirituality from my yoga teacher than from my rabbi,” or “Sephardic rabbis are backwards and out of touch with the modern world.” When the teenagers were asked to chime in, some felt the synagogue was “a turnoff,” others said “I don’t really love it, but as Jews, going to synagogue is part of what we have to do, so we do it.” Many of the teens said, “I wish our Shabbat services were as fun and meaningful as the services we have on these SEC Shabbatonim and retreats.”

Reflecting back on that evening brings to mind these powerful words I read many years ago:

          The modern synagogue suffers from a severe cold. Our services are conducted with pomp and precision. Everything is present: decorum, voice and ceremony. But one thing is missing: life. Our motto is monotony. The fire has gone out of our worship. It is cold, stiff, and dead. True, things are happening, but not with prayer, rather with the administration of synagogues. Buildings are growing, but worship and prayer are decaying.

Spoken in 1953 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, these words continue to describe many of our synagogues, including in the Sephardic community.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik also offered an interesting perspective on this issue. In a personal reflection on prayer written in 1964, Rabbi Soloveichik said:

          Judaism has always grasped prayer as a “worship of the heart,” a heart overflowing with desire of the divine, full of yearning and wonder and dissonance. I imagine a Kol Nidrei night in the Beit Midrash of the Baal Shem Tov or the Tanya z”l. They did not use “music,” choirs or glorified tunes and pompous song. They certainly had no carpeted platforms, flowers or “rabbis” trained in elocution and etiquette…form was totally lacking, but for that reason there blazed upward a storm of faith, a tremendous love and desire for the Creator. The worshippers must have all swayed like trees in a forest swept by a hurricane.

Neither Heschel’s biting critique or Soloveichik’s pensive reflections were born out of experiences from Sephardic synagogues, because neither walked in Sephardic circles nor prayed in Sephardic synagogues. However, much of what they said can ring clear to many Sephardic congregants today (myself and my family included). Their words reflect many of our questions for our Sephardic synagogues today:  where’s the fire and passion, why are so many Sephardic services so boring, dry and void of spirit, and why has strict adherence to formality and decorum taken over what should be a “service of the heart?”

Sephardic synagogues have such great potential. The Sephardic cantorial traditions (known as Maqqamim) offer some of the most beautiful, inspirational and uplifting tunes for the prayers and Torah readings. When a good Sephardic Hazzan knows the Maqqam and feels it in his soul, his voice can light up any synagogue, filling the sanctuary’s seats and the worshippers hearts.

Many Sephardim feel this passion most potently once a year, during a section of the Yom Kippur services which, in Ashkenazi synagogues, is typically somber: Selihot (the penitentiary prayers where we admit to our errant ways and ask for God’s forgiveness). Both Heschel and Soloveichik would delight in the uplifting spiritual energy, joy and passion felt in Sephardic synagogues during the chanting of Selihot. It’s not somber at all, but fun, upbeat and deeply spiritual. My kids love and look forward to Yom Kippur just for these tunes. Hashem Melech, Anenu and Hatanu L’fanekha can energize the sanctuary like no other prayers. The challenge of Sephardic synagogues is to create that same energy every Shabbat.

Sephardic rabbis can offer unique angles on Jewish life that many of their Ashkenazi colleagues cannot, simply because Sephardic rabbis are typically not part of the Ashkenazi denominational world. This brings potentially refreshing perspectives on halakhic issues, communal challenges and global concerns. If some Sephardic rabbis were to simply “globalize” their sermonic messages to the point where their young congregants felt that the rabbi actually “has something important to say to me on what’s happening in the world,” perhaps the teens would start filling the seats.

Many Sephardic synagogues today are quite successful. Through my work with the SEC, I feel blessed to count amongst my good friends a group of Sephardic colleagues across North America and Mexico, who all run successful synagogues, are passionately devoted to the Sephardic tradition, and are quite talented at singing Sephardic liturgy as well as articulating sophisticated positions on many issues. Next week (February 26/27) I am privileged to be the scholar-in-residence in the Syrian community of Brooklyn, the most successful of all Sephardic communities in the United States. I look forward to being in that special community, whose young generation is now carrying the torch of their community’s Sephardic traditions and values into the 21st Century. The following week (March 4/5), I am back in Los Angeles, joined by 5 distinguished and beloved Sephardic colleagues for a special program where, as a panel, we will discuss many of the issues I am addressing in this article.

But for all of the success stories, a larger number of Sephardic synagogues are dragging their feet, struggling to maintain their congregant’s interests. The comments we heard at our SEC retreat last Shavuot are still clear in my mind. What can be done to change this?

I know that I quoted two Ashkenazi thinkers on this issue, so I will conclude on a Sephardic note, with the wise and sage words of Rav Bension Meir Hai Uziel, z”l, the illustrious Rishon L’Sion and Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (became Chief Rabbi in 1939, passed away 1953).

In a beautiful essay on the ideas and values of Shabbat, Rav Uziel lays out a vision for what makes an ideal synagogue experience. He breaks it down to two main ingredients:

          The communal sanctity of Shabbat is expressed in two forms: sacred gatherings and sacred studies.

In other words, gatherings that reflect sanctity, and gatherings rooted in sacred studies, are the key ingredients to a spiritually uplifting experience in synagogue on Shabbat. Rav Uziel explains:

          Sacred gatherings on Shabbat are expressions of peace (hence “Shabbat Shalom” as a greeting on Shabbat), and every individual is called upon to adapt peaceful ways within his/her community. Our synagogues become spiritual venues by virtue of our own peaceful behavior. “Where is God found?” ask our Sages. Only in a place where peace and brotherly love are prevalent. In such places, one finds people clinging to God, growing closer to God, and being elevated to new spiritual heights.

In order for a synagogue to be a spiritual place where we can find God, it is the responsibility of the rabbi – the “spiritual leader” – the hazzan (who leads us in the spiritual act of prayer), and all community members, to come to the synagogue and – through their behavior – create a sacred spiritual environment for the community.

As to sacred studies, Rav Uziel explains:

          Our sages taught: “Moshe established a ruling that Jewish communities must read from the Torah in public on Shabbat, holidays and Rosh Hodesh.” What is the nature of this public Torah reading? This public Torah reading must be accompanied by a public sermon whose purpose is to teach, explain and offer deep insights into the Torah reading, so that everyone will become enlightened by the Torah’s teachings.

The public Torah reading on Shabbat is not an endless parade of aliyot, honors or memorials, nor is it a cash register for donations. The Torah reading is meant to offer a framework of study, where the congregants can read and then listen to explanations of God’s sacred words, offering them enlightening moral lessons that inspire them towards a better life.

          To summarize:

          Ingredients for a successful Sephardic synagogue on Shabbat:

          A. Peaceful behavior that inspires a spiritual environment
          B. Torah study that teaches, enlightens and inspires the congregants

          Add to this mixture a talented Hazzan whose knowledge and love of the Sephardic melodies inspires joyous and meaningful worship, and a rabbi who inspires peace, intellect and education. To reduce the fat and carbs, cut down the number of aliyot, replace those calories instead with a delicious Sephardic Kiddush.

These are the ingredients. Let’s start cooking up a Sephardic storm.

Shabbat Shalom