Public and Silent Worship. Part II: The Private in the Public by Rabbi Golomb

If you went to an American public school, you began each morning with the Pledge of Allegiance; day in, day out, five days a week for thirteen years (Kindergarten through senior year of High School).  This regimen comes to over 2300 recitations.  I would wager that you can recite the 31 words (29, if you went to school before 1954, and did not say “under God”) to this day.  It is pretty well burned into your memory.  But, what did it mean?      I am not referring to proper definitions of the words of the Pledge, but rather to what import did have on you; what was the overall aim and purpose in reciting it daily?  Did it work?  If one of the purposes was that you would remember it, it probably was successful.  Has the Pledge actually reinforced a sense of allegiance in you, to either the flag or the U.S.?  Maybe!  I am certain, however, that one purpose was indeed achieved: the school as an institution had publicly bonded itself to the country and its flag.      

This last assertion is important.  Reciting the Pledge may or may not create within you a sense of patriotic loyalty, but your saying the words established that loyalty for the institution in which you said it.  Thus, from the institution’s point of view, not everyone actually has to speak the words of the Pledge.  Somebody does, but you might be exempt.  During the recitation, you might let your mind wander.  Occasionally, you might even focus on the words of the Pledge – not all the words, perhaps, just a phrase or two – and ponder what they really mean to you.      

The Pledge of Allegiance is an apt model for traditional synagogue worship.  There is a fixed liturgy, and from the point-of-view of the institution (in this case, the congregation in the synagogue), the words ought to be said.  They need not be said by everyone.  Classically, congregations have selected a sh’liah tzibbur [literally, the congregational representative] to recite the liturgy.  (The sh’liah tzibbur can be a volunteer, or a professional like a cantor [hazzan] or rabbi.)  The rest of the minyan is then free to recite the prayers along with the leader, or to focus on something else.      

As a matter of practice, the sh’liah tzibbur does not recite everything aloud.  Much of the service is carried on in silence, or near silence, as it is not unusual to hear congregants singing or reading softly to themselves.  The sh’liah tzibbur generally only announces through bits of liturgy where the minyan is in the service.  Congregants are confident that the sh’liah tzibbur is actually reading the liturgy, freeing each of them to do what they wish.  One would expect that many, having chosen to attend the service in the first place, would take this opportunity to meditate on the personal meaning of the liturgy to themselves.      

In Part I, I introduced the key concepts of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion).  Through the employment of a sh’liah tzibbur  and the liberal use of silent or personal reading,  Jewish liturgical practice takes the rhythm of prayer, its rote repetitiveness and familiarity, and allows it to be turned into the possibility of personal devotion.      Actually, kavanah is not possible with keva.  Services move by too fast, making reflection and meditation nearly impossible.  When the service becomes really familiar – like the words of the Pledge – mostly through regular attendance, then one is free to pick and choose among the prayers; to spend the silent stretches creating a personal bridge to the divine through bits and pieces of the liturgy.    

 When Vassar Temple holds its early evening Shabbat service, it is offering each congregant to bring kavanah to the keva of the liturgy.  Clearly, the practice works better for those already familiar with the service.  When, however, the Temple conducts a later evening service, it employs a more classical Reform Jewish approach to the liturgy.  In Part III, I will discuss the reasoning behind that style of service.

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