By Rabbi Paul Freedman
The word is out. Attendance at Shabbat services is up. Certainly in Radlett we have noticed the trend. I was sure it was because we offer something special and, in some cases, that is true. But something else is going on. It’s the hordes of prospective applicants for places at Jewish schools, picking up synagogue attendance points for their Certificate of Religious Practice.
Some are pleasantly surprised to find something they like: a moment of contemplation or connection, of community or reverence. Their attendance may even continue into the future. But some, perhaps, really are just there for the points. It’s a bit of a chore to be honest, but those are the rules of the school admissions game. If the entire service can be reduced to a tick, I wonder, what would be your perfect Shabbat service?
Let me describe mine. First of all, I would be leading it so that I didn’t have to worry about somebody else doing it in a way that wasn’t exactly my preference, but I would be sitting in the body of the congregation without feeling any responsibility for the service so that I could just relax and concentrate on my own prayers.
I wouldn’t want any surprises or even to feel nervous that there might be some coming up (prayer should be comfortable) but nor would I ever want it to be routine or predictable. I would only ever be praying the ancient words of my ancestors, but would want the words to speak the language of today: to address real issues and concerns, to express a living, relevant theology. In fact, I would want the words to be the familiar words of a fixed liturgy that give me the security of a service I know well, but I would want the freedom to pray “as the spirit moved me”, to express the prayer of my soul, unfettered by the restrictive words on the page.
Of course the text of the liturgy wouldn’t really matter that much because although it would be important to be able to pray every word and mean them all literally, I would only pray in Hebrew anyway, so that the words were more like a mantra through which I would have an entirely different prayer experience altogether. I’d especially enjoy singing a few appropriate songs – liturgical texts – in English, as I might outside the synagogue, but wouldn’t want it to sound “a bit Christian”.
The service would be intellectually satisfying and stimulating, though it would enable me to make an emotional connection; it would move me “in my kishkes”.
I would want plenty of silence and to be able to forget that I was surrounded by people, so that I could be alone in my connection with God, but it would be important to feel connected to the holy community around me, for it is in our coming together that we, as it were, create God.
The service should be grand and dignified with a decorum that befits God’s majesty, while being relaxed and welcoming and intimate to create an atmosphere of meeting and meaning.
Our voluntary choir of angels would sing in perfect four-part harmony, leaving us in silent awe while simultaneously being moved to sing along, whether we were blessed with tuneful voices or not. Single people would feel at home along with whole families who would sit together, perhaps four generations united in prayer, while the youngest children and a good number of their parents played outside in the crèche, so as not to distract anyone else.
I wouldn’t want to miss out any prayers that I felt were required by the traditional liturgy, and I would furthermore want to include
some more modern prayers, and I certainly would not want to feel that the service was in any way rushed, but you really can have too much of a good thing. So I think it’s important that services are kept suitably short. I prefer a small, intimate service that everybody comes to.
Now, I accept that what I have described is a very personal preference. Not every service ticks all the boxes, but actually one of the most important elements – perhaps the most important element – of my perfect service (did I mention?) is feeling that I am part of a religious community.
Wasn’t that what the Certificate of Religious Practice was supposed to demonstrate? But if all you need is a tick in a box for a school place, then none of that matters.
Rabbi Paul Freedman is Rabbi at Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue