I spent the better part of the last 24 hours singing Yom Kippur services as a “ringer”in a temple choir. I also sang for Rosh Hashanah this year, and while I’d never suggest that this experience gives me any license to make claims about the Jewish liturgical life, I found (as I often do) that praying with a less-familiar religious group helped me to clarify my thoughts about worship.
I felt more at home at the High Holidays services than I have at many at services of Christian denominations. My guess is that this comfort has to do with two elements that were present in these Reform Jewish rites: focus on God and focus on community.
One would think that focus on God could go without saying when describing a worship service, but this is not always the case. This weekend there was no doubt on whom the focus lay. The assembly declared the attributes of God, the promises of God, God’s working in the world throughout history. Over and over we sang Baruch atah Adonai, blessing the One who has no need of blessing but who believe treasures our blessings. These blessings are seemingly frivolous, unneeded, but they are to us essential. Our souls exhaust themselves attempting to describe that which cannot be described and to praise that alone which can be praised.
While looking out to God the prayers of the liturgy also focused on the community, on the “us”. In my view, the best liturgy reminds those worshipping that we are an “us”, a group gathered in time and place, connected across time and place with those who also worship. Our “us” is not just a gathering of individuals but the intangible ties between people that create true communities.
If we focus on God and on “us“, there is little room left to focus on “me”. As indulgent as navel-gazing can be, if we truly seek salvation we cannot be looking inward. It is through others that virtue is expressed, that we respond to God’s call to live in grace. Worship is not a place for our personal devotion, even less a place to examine ourselves. I spend enough time focusing on myself.
These thoughts are incomplete, but since I’ve committed myself to academic study of liturgy it would be a bit anti-climactic to exhaust all my reflections on it in one blog post. I have no plans to change cult anytime soon, but things felt right today as joined another community in their worship. I find freedom in blessing the name of the Lord, setting aside any other concerns, remembering the appropriate object of my attention and expressing the praise I was created to express.
(NB: I really struggled with whether to use G_d or God when writing this post, or whether to use other titles in each reference I made to the Creator. Something feels icky about using Judaism as a springboard for my reflections and then tromping all over one of their customs, but I decided using G_d would just be too precious.)