Sermon: on diversity and innovation in worship

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 October 2013

Something amazing is happening right now.
It’s happening upstairs in this very building.

In the Youth Hall, as I speak, a new idea is being tried out.
A new way of doing worship
A new approach to prayer

Upstairs, for the very first time, our liturgy – part of the wonderful textual heritage we inherited from generations before us, is being merged with a new generation’s texts in the Horrible Histories Explanatory Family Service.

Now this might not seem so amazing to you.
“Ah, Josh”, you might say, “What’s another family service, what’s another gimmick?  You like your family services; you like your gimmicks – it’s not a big deal.”

But it is a big deal.
Because what it represents is something very significant.
It speaks to something fundamental about our values as a community and our understanding of the role of prayer, of worship in our Jewish lives.

Put simply, we believe prayer matters.
Not all rabbis do.
Not all communities or Jewish institutions do.
Some institutions say that we can live a full Jewish existence without religious life – don’t worry about services – they are a niche interest.
But one of our values as a community is that prayer matters.
That it is a central element of the lives of Jews, a fundamental form of Jewish expression.

This is true – I believe – irrespective of personal theology.

I have no idea what the different beliefs about God are in this room this morning – I imagine they are varied and contradictory.  But irrespective of where we might place ourselves on the spectrum of personal belief, prayer matters; is a core element of a full Jewish life. Whether we take a supernaturalistic or naturalistic approach to prayer – whether we believe it is for God or for us, either way engagement with prayer is a core element of a full Jewish life.

There are other ways of expressing Jewish identity, of course, but without Avodah – without worship – something is missing – we are not living fully as Jews.
So, we would like more Jews to do more prayer more often.
And – a big and – not just for them to pray but for it to be meaningful for us too…

Another value of our community is that prayer should move us, should be meaningful – should not be a mechanistic exercise from duty alone.  The form of worship is sacred, but so is the experience of worship – prayer matters, but so does how we pray – it needs to be good prayer, too.  Not only to encourage us to do it, but because the experience is fundamental to the act.

Prayer is therefore worth an investment of time, thought and effort to craft properly.

At the forefront of this sort of thinking is an American rabbi and academic whom Mark and I quote probably too often called Lawrence Hoffman.  Hoffman is the Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College in America.  He has written extensively on synagogue development, on Jewish liturgy, on aspects of Jewish practice. But one of his most important works is one of his least particularistic – The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only.

In this extraordinary work, first published in the late 80s, he explores why worship doesn’t work for so many people who otherwise come to it with strong religious or cultural identities.  One of the challenges he identifies is that while some religious communities remain relatively uniform, in others – and he could have been talking about Alyth – the real diversity of society is reflected in a diverse community.  And, he argues, in those it is unrealistic to expect that one form of worship will work for the whole congregation.

“The problem” he writes – and I apologise for the length of the quote – “is soluble only by granting the validity of different individuals and multiple lifestyles… subgroups who share common concerns and identities should be encouraged to adopt their own worship script.  What will emerge will be a strong statement of personal identity and the discovery of religious reality. Asking everyone always to pray with everyone else in the same standardized way at the same time and place is bound to achieve only one result: what people care about most, their own personal identity, will be shared with like-minded people anywhere except the sanctuary.  To be sure, they will ritualize their lives together, but not religiously. And they will continue to report that worship – that is, what goes on in the sanctuary – is meaningless.”

As a community we have taken this problem seriously.
Because we believe that worship is an essential element of a full Jewish life and we believe that worship needs to be meaningful for a diverse range of individuals within the community, the response has been exactly has Hoffman suggests – to enable different groups “to adopt their own worship script”.
Kollot, the Big Bang, L’Chaim Minyan, not to mention the continuing evolution and importance of this our core community service which hosts the celebrations, and responds to the prayer needs of generations of Alyth members; the extraordinary breadth of prayer, study and reflection at the High Holy Days – Alyth is an exemplar of thoughtful and creative diversity in worship.

This is not without its challenges.
At a recent European Union for Progressive Judaism conference, another participant was discussing the challenge of diversity – and the Alyth model – with Mark.  Mark expressed the challenge of being perceived as ‘dividing the community’.  This young German Jewish community leader stopped Mark in his tracks – “You are using the wrong mathematical symbol,” he objected, “you are not dividing, you are multiplying”.
A diverse and flourishing community is not the same as a divided one.

Which brings me back to what is happening upstairs.  Because it is something amazing.

Not only because the Horrible Histories Explanatory Service is a great idea, and my colleagues will be bringing Tefillah to life right now, upstairs in a creative and dramatic way.
But because it reflects our commitment to continued multiplication – to continuing to express these two values in our community life – that prayer matters, and that it has to be meaningful for the full diversity within our community.

This week’s new idea is an experiment.  From this month, on the first Shabbat of every month we will be trying something new.  We are calling it our ‘Tefillah Laboratory”.  Sometimes, as this week, it will be for families – sometimes it will be for adults.  Some services will be driven, we hope, by those for whom worship is already a central part of their Jewish lives, who are searching for different types of meaning, and speaking with us about it.  Others will be our attempts to reach out to the many for whom it is not – yet.

Each will express our belief in the possibility of enabling all of us to find something new in worship, in liturgy, in prayer.

Something amazing is happening right now.
We invite you to be part of it.