Eilu v’eilu: Balancing differing views of God and Prayer

by Jordan Friedman
President, Beloit College Hillel, Class of 2013

In the liner notes to the CD album Ruach 5761, the renowned Cantor and composer Jeff Klepper writes the following:

When I was growing up in the 1960s, during each service the rabbi would invite everyone to “rise as we affirm the watchword of our faith”. Then we proudly recited the Shema prayer aloud in Hebrew and English, followed by a thunderous organ swell and a choral rendition which was impossible for us, the congregation, to sing. This reflected what was then an important part of Reform Judaism’s theology: God was Transcendent, On High, best approached through solemn prayers rendered in archaic English, best serenaded by angelic choirs and cathedral organs. It is different today, reflective of a shift in the way we think about, and talk to, God. For many of us, God becomes present for us in our smiles, hugs, and tears, in the deeds of kindness we do for each other. So, instead of rising and triumphantly proclaiming God’s universal Oneness, we find it more meaningful to cover our eyes while chanting softly, searching for the God who is within our souls.

That paragraph immediately sets up a dichotomy of two opposing views of God and prayer–it would seem, two totally different expressions of Judaism. Need they really be so opposing, though?

If God is EVERYTHING, then God includes both of these views–God must be transcendent, magisterial, and frightening but also personal, indwelling, and intimately loving. God must be male and female, both genders and neither gender at the same time. That is all part of the mystery of an all-encompassing Being. Therefore, should our prayer practice not also reflect the many different aspects of God? I say yes–we owe our heavenly Ruler worship which is humble, reverent, and submissive, perhaps even not without a little fear and trembling. Yet, that same God is also our Eternal, Ever-present Parent and Friend from whom we may receive comfort, love, and understanding in every aspect of our lives. Of course we are meant to find God in everyday interactions, and not just in the sacred atmosphere of an ornately decorated sanctuary surrounded by organ music.

Some Reform Jews, such as those of a persuasion heavily influenced by Classical Reform, prefer to focus most often on the conception of God criticized by Klepper (although it would be foolish to think that they explicitly disbelieve any of the more personal attributes). Others choose to focus on a more intensely personal experience of God through prayer, and would be more likely to pray the Shema in the manner preferred by Klepper. Clearly, both approaches are valid, beautiful expressions of Jewish faith, and both have a place in Reform practice. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim–these AND those are the words of the Living God.

I submit that while both approaches are valid responses to the reality and truth of various attributes and conceptions of God, it is a good idea to incorporate both so that one might be inspired to awe by the majesty of God, yet also be healed and sustained by the loving, indwelling Presence of God. I believe that to focus too strongly on one extreme while paying insufficient attention to the other is unwise, and can lead to a spirituality which is lacking in depth. The summoning of God’s loving embrace through quiet, contemplative prayer is a life-transformingly beautiful experience, and yet sometimes fails to impress upon the worshipper the collective experience of reverence that one finds with awe-inspiring music and formal, UPB-style liturgy. Likewise, a totally grand, lofty, magnificent worship experience with maximal decorum can be cold and even scary unless it is balanced with quiet, personal reflection and meaningful participation.

As Kohelet reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, there is a time for everything. We should not be so arrogant as to impose on people only the decorum-filled formality of Classical Reform worship, nor should we be so immature as to encourage only a me-centered, hyper-individualistic or pietistic form of prayer. We need a balance between old and new, loud and quiet, lofty and worldly, formal and fun, particularistic and universalistic, personal and collective. It is a mistake to dismiss forms which are perceived to be “old-fashioned” simply because they involve concepts which are less comfortable or familiar to us than the current trend of making God into whomever or whatever we want God to be. If the Classical Reformers’ mistake was paying insufficient attention to the spiritual and emotional needs of the individual Jew-in-the-pew, then current Reform Jewish thought is likewise failing to foster the necessary sense of the timeless and eternal, of collective obligation and reverence, all of which I believe are an inseparable part of the Jewish religious experience. Why not strike a healthy balance?

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5 Responses to “Eilu v’eilu: Balancing differing views of God and Prayer”

  1. avatar

    Jordan, what this truly excellent piece doesn’t touch on is the impact of the worship space on the prayer experience. Per his bio, Jeff’s training (as indicated in the liner note you reference) was under the aegis of A.W.Binder — who composed and arranged for the cathedralesque spaces of his day — domed sanctuaries with pipe organs and fixed pew seating — the whole physical atmosphere supporting the transcendent atmosphere of which you write.
    That transcendence is hard to achieve in the multi-purpose rooms with folding chairs and electronic keyboards that prevail today — even if today’s congregants were looking for that particular kind of spirituality.
    As it happens, I worship weekly in such a room, actually in a Kahal (community) which developed under Cantor Klepper’s guidance. With guitar and with many eyes covered — which I can see because mine are not — I believe we are achieving the collective obligation and reverence you’re seeking to foster.
    Maybe it’s because what we bring to prayer is more important than what we take from it.

  2. avatar

    One of the advantages of being a part of Reform Judaism is that we are encouraged to explore and practice so many aspects of our tradition and faith and to do so in a variety of modes. My congregation, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois, provides for both expressions of the Shema as articulated above. On Erev Shabbat, the service attended by most of those in our congregation who wish to share in Shabbat worship, we rise as a community in our Sacred Hall and in one voice recite the Shema in that powerful and awesome manner that does indeed reflect God’s majesty. And then, on Shabbat morning, in the more intimate setting of our small chapel,we pray the Shema, inhaling and exhaling the Breath of Life, eyes covered,expressing those more tender, personal aspects of God. I am grateful that there is a place at my worship table for both.

  3. avatar

    @ Larry:
    I was indeed aware that Klepper Studied with Binder. I’m not sure that it’s so impossible to re-crate some semblance of dignity and grandeur even in the most make-shift of worship spaces. In the end, while organs and choirs help, the attitudes of those present form the substantive determining factors towards the worship ambiance.
    I also think that Binder would have been unhappy with Klepper’s subtle insinuation that back in the day, people did not also believe that God was “present for us in our smiles, hugs, and tears, in the deeds of kindness we do for each other”. Don’t even get me started on his use of the loaded term “cathedral organ”.

  4. William Berkson

    For me the main issue is not standing or sitting, loudly or softly. It is whether the Shema is performance or prayer. It should always be first a prayer. For the leaders there is an inevitable element of performance, but should always be secondary. They should be praying with the congregation, not performing for them.
    Having a choir sing it first, and then be repeated by the congregation, makes the Shema too much into a performance, which to me goes against prayer. When the service comes to the Shema, just chant it together.
    Altogether, chanting is to me an underutilized, and powerful modality, and can be done in English as well as Hebrew.

  5. avatar

    @ William Berkson
    I’m not sure if this will make a philosophical difference for you, but if you read carefully, you’ll see that in the services Jeff Klepper describes, the Shema was first read together in Hebrew and English by Rabbi and congregation, and THEN repeated by the choir with organ. That’s not quite as peformance-like as it would be if the choir did it first.
    I would also point out that as far as I can tell through reading, listening to recordings, and talking to “old-timers”, even that level of congregational passivity wasn’t normative for 20th century CR. It was also common for choir and congregation to sing the standard melody of the Shema TOGETHER with organ accompaniment, after reciting it TOGETHER in Hebrew and English. In that model, there is absolutely NO performance. To my knowledge (and experience), this more participatory format is what is used by the few contemporary congregations which still employ mainly CR minhag, with the exception of Emanu-El in NYC, where the congregation rarely gets to sing anything at all, à la 19th century CR.

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