So, What About the Torah?

When I was little, we read Torah every Friday evening at my Reform congregation.  I believe that they read it on Saturday mornings regardless of whether there was a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as well.  The Torah was removed from the ark, the Rabbi recited its words in Hebrew and English and then delivered a sermon (usually on some issue of current events.)

I learned when I was in college that the Friday evening service was meant to be a short one: songs and prayers to introduce Shabbat followed by the same at home.  I loved this version of Shabbat.  Torah should be read on Shabbat morning, they said.  Sounds good to me!  More time for singing with friends!  More time for good food and wine!  Study in the morning when I am fresh and eager to learn.   Count me in!

One problem.  The Temple is not exactly full on non-B’nei Mitzvah Shabbat mornings!  TBT holds Shabbat morning services regardless of whether there is a Bar Mitzvah and we ALWAYS have at least a minyan.  Those 10-20 people are a dedicated core and they hear Torah chanted every week.  But as for the heart of our community, the Friday evening worshipers, they only hear Torah’s voice two or three times a year.  It doesn’t seem right.  So, maybe we should chant Torah on Friday nights.

Well, that doesn’t work either.  It elongates the service, making it more difficult to make family time of Friday evening worship and dinner.  The religious practices committee has asked us to make a compromise and to make Friday evening Torah readings a sometimes thing.  But, a “sometimes thing” is unpredictable, and habits and routines are good for worship.

I can’t help but feel that the Reform Jewish community is really missing out on the best of Shabbat.  With a short, early Friday service followed by a family dinner, you get the perfect combination of family and community, of worship and song.  Return on Saturday morning for Torah study and worship, which includes the majesty and beauty of Torah reading regardless of whether there is a young man or woman coming of age on that particular day.  It’s an ideal, but not a paradigm in which most of our members would care to participate.

So, what about the Torah?

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Richard Cember on May 13, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I think it is hard to fit any synagogue Shabbat observation into a framework in which people are not particularly committed to being in shul on Shabbat. I will write a bit here about my own shul and my own self in regard to some of the questions that Cantor Neff raises.

    My own congregation is Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt, Maryland. We maintain a dual affiliation, with both United Synagogue and the Reconstructionist Federation – two dissimilar points of view. In effect, it makes us an independent synagogue, affiliated with both but mainly doing our own eclectic thing. Our style in services is basically Conservative, but with a Recon twist. Our rabbi is trained as, and is philosophically in line with, Reconstructionism, but has to serve the whole spectrum in the congregation. We are a small congregation, maybe (I’m guessing) 150 membership units. A better way to indicate our size is to say that our only full-time professional employee is the rabbi. Everyone else is part-time, and has a day job.

    So much for background. I joined this synagogue when I lived in College Park, close to Greenbelt. Originally, aside from its proximity, one of the main reasons that I first walked into this shul was that Erev Shabbat services started at 8:00. That made sense to the New Yorker in me, as well as to the divorced man – it’s not as if I had a cozy Shabbat dinner waiting at home. Most of the shuls here start earlier, like 6:30. That makes sense in terms of what Cantor Neff was talking about, namely, an early service, leaving time for family Shabbat dinner afterward. But that only works if you can get there fairly quickly after work. That in turn means that you either have to leave work early, or work close to home. In cities of nightmare commuting, like Washington or New York, later is better. I myself actually did live fairly close to work at that time, since work, as well as shul, was in Greenbelt. So 8:00 seemed like the ticket: come home from work, without leaving early; catch some dinner; and then go a hop, skip and a jump to shul for a short service and a bit of social life.

    Now I no longer live in College Park, I live in Takoma Park, not so close to Greenbelt, but close, for those of you who might know the geography here, to Silver Spring. Going on Friday night now means a good stiff fight with traffic, whether I use the Beltway or not. That hardly seems Shabbosdik. Better to stay peacefully at home.

    Of course, there are other synagogues near here. I even once took, at her suggestion, my Catholic-raised (then) lady friend to the local Reform shul on a Friday night. In fact, she liked it quite a bit. She found its emphasis on music much easier to relate to, much less foreign, than the Conservative nusach that she had witnessed a few times, which seemed very foreign to her. To me, on the other hand, the Reform Erev Shabbat service was different enough to be unfamiliar, though of course not unrecognizable. I should add that although its use (as instrumental music) in services seems strange to me, I do very much appreciate Reform’s love of music.

    Needless to say, in a Conservative congregation, there was no thought of reading Torah on Friday night, nor of the use of musical instruments.

    On Shabbat morning, sometimes it can take a while at Mishkan Torah to get a minyan. Usually by the time we get to Borchu, we have one, but it is not guaranteed. I have only been there on Saturday morning a half dozen times a year anyway in recent years. Partly this is because I have too much to do on the weekends. Not fun activities; I mean bills, laundry, house repairs, food shopping, etc. In short, everything that is NOT for Shabbos. Partly it is because in the months of pleasant weather I don’t want to be in shul on a Saturday morning. That probably has as much to do with the architecture of our synagogue as anything else. (I’ve been to Beth Torah in Nyack and I can imagine that I might feel differently about it there, with the tremendous amount of light that comes in from outside.) Partly it was because often on Saturday morning I was with my (then) lady friend, who was not Jewish, so going to shul was, although not out of the question, not naturally first on the agenda.

    The times that I do go on Shabbat morning tend to be the times when I am asked to read Torah. I know Hebrew fairly well and trope not at all. When they have a week when they are really stuck for Torah readers they call me to do it on short notice, and I may read most or all of the aliyot. (These would be the seven relatively short aliyot, plus maftir, of the triennial cycle.) I can do that because with not too much preparation, maybe an hour or two, I can prepare to read from the Torah scroll in a narrative style that the people who know just a little bit of Hebrew like a lot, because it makes them feel that they can somewhat follow the Hebrew, if they keep one eye on the English. Personally, I think Torah without trope is a bit lame, but when I do it it is popular. A true mainline Conservative synagogue, which we are not, would probably not accept that, however.

    So that works out for me; if they never called me in to pinch-hit (or to be the relief pitcher; which is the right metaphor? neither, really), then I might never be in shul. And I would know less Torah. So I’m glad they call me in once in a while.

    Of course, there are other people that are always in shul on Shabbat morning and can read Torah properly, and indeed do so on a more or less rotating basis. Then there is a larger group of people who have to really struggle and prepare, and for them it is an important life event when they read one aliyah, because they really had to work hard to get there, learning it all as adults, sometimes as adult bnai mitzvah.

    And all these machinations (speaking again now of my own case) would be unnecessary if my life were actually more Shabbos-oriented. (I don’t say “shomer shabbos”!)

    One compromise I did for a while after moving to Takoma Park, i.e., too far from shul for Friday night, was to do no “m’lacha” (work, in that certain sense) on Erev Shabbat, only read or study if my daughter was not at my house that night; otherwise, if she was at my house, of course, be a father. So I would have a sort of half-shabbat.

    Anyway, these are just a few rambling reflections, one man’s and one synagogue’s case study in the problems that Cantor Neff raises.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Richard Cember on May 13, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    PS In writing the above at a late hour I never got around to saying the following: I agree from the peanut gallery with Cantor Neff. I think it would work better to try to cultivate more of a culture of Saturday morning shul attendance rather than occasionally reading Torah on Friday night. You might get two totally different crowds, but that’s OK. The two services are very different, and that is a good thing; it’s appropriate: “Hamavdil bayn yom u’vayn laylah…”

    Reply

  3. Posted by Larry Kaufman on May 16, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    At our congregation, we read Torah on Friday night twice a month, once at a 6:30 service and once at an 8:00 o’clock service. (The late service is a regular event, on the second Shabbat of the secular month…the other weeks are all 6:30.) There is a relatively full ritual for taking the scroll out of the ark, a hakafa, one aliya, typically only reading a few verses, and a very brief return of the scroll service. My interpretation of what happens, as a Jew in the pew, not privy to the conversations in the Ritual Committee, is that people want to see and touch the scroll, more than they actually want to hear its words.

    We also have at least two Shabbat morning services (three if there is a bar/t mitzvah). Our “Minyan” reads the entire parasha in English (although the scroll is present and open); our “Kahal” follows the triennial cycle, offers three aliyot, of which two are read or chanted in Hebrew, the third read in English.

    The greatest overlap of attendance from one service to another is on Friday night, when most of the 6:30 people also come the week that services are at 8, but the 8 o’clock service has its own constituency that doesn’t come at 6:30. Perhaps half a dozen people come both at night and in the morning. Friday night attendance hovers at about 75 to 100, as does the Saturday morning Kahal. The Saturday morning Minyan is typically just that — 10 or so. If they have nine, they count the Torah as their tenth; if fewer, they proceed without barchu, reading from the scroll, mourners’ kaddish. (I would think they would walk into the next room and join the Kahal, but we Jews are a funny people.)

    I should also note, in line with Mr. Center’s comments about cultivating a Shabbat morning culture, that our Friday night constituency expects a clergy-led service; our Shabbat morning community is pleased when the clergy come and join us in the pews.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Richard Cember on May 20, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    An interesting case study, also — thanks! RC

    Reply

  5. Posted by Beth Levine on July 31, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    It is an age old struggle. When I was at TBT I often attended the Sat morning Study group followed by the service. It was one of the pleasures in my life. But when attending service on Saturday became difficult for me, I missed hearing Torah very much and wished that TBT would chant Torah on Friday evenings on a more regular basis. But then again, Sat. morning is really the RIGHT time to do it. It is where it belongs.

    Reply

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