A friend of ours invited us, and anyone willing to make the effort to get, to his shul (synagogue) in Tel Aviv for his 80th birthday celebrations. The highlight was a show-stopping Shabbat morning prayers by some of the best Chazanim, (Cantors--Jewish prayer leaders,) in the world. Being close personal friends, we were put up in a nearby hotel, though there were people who walked miles to pray to the accompaniment of the world class Chazanim and Choir.
The stars were the legendary Sol Zim, Mordechai Sobol, who led the choir and organized the "event," Yisrael Rand and Yaakov Motzan. The members of the choir were also top-notch. I'll blog in more detail about the Ramah Synagogue, 159 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv; enter via an alley and park; I think that there's only regular prayers on Shabbat--worth going.
Now, back to the "experience."
As I told the expert cantors during the post-prayer Shabbat lunch, it had been decades since I had heard anything comparable.
The prayer experience in Shiloh is very different. In simple words, it's more participatory. It's led by our neighbors and guests, who take on the role as "Shaliach Tzibur," Messenger of the Congregation with varying musical talents and traditions. Some have excellent voices, some inspiring "soul," and some combine the two. But one thing we always enjoy is that we all sing along. It is not a performance.
Your professional opera-like chazan is something else, especially when he's accompanied by a choir, and even more so when the choir includes chazanim who can carry the entire service solo. That was the experience we had on Shabbat.
I can't deny that it was beautiful.
I can't deny that it was thrilling.
I can't deny that it moved me. I actually found myself dancing; the music, a cappella of course, had such power.
But the crucial question, when it comes to prayer, Jewish prayer, is:
Did I concentrate on the words? Did I think about what I was hearing and saying?
In all honesty, no.
I had a great experience, but was it spiritual? No it wasn't. Maybe, in my pre-Israel, pre-Shiloh, pre-Hebrew comprehending days I would have found it spiritually uplifting, but I've been spoiled living in a community like Shiloh.
A number of years ago, my cousin's son came to Shiloh for a Shabbat. He was a typical American Jewish high school boy with a superficial knowledge of Judaism, not totally assimilated, but not Torah observant either. On Friday night, he went with my husband and sons to our synagogue for the Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) prayers. His reaction was an amazed:
Everyone understood what they were saying!
Yes, that's prayer, when you're actually speaking to G-d in the words written and compiled by our sages in the siddur, prayerbook.
Don't think that I'll avoid good chazanut. I won't. The five hours (instead of the two it would have taken at home) sped by. I was even disappointed when some of the prayers were done in a rushed manner. You could say that once the Chazanim had started, I was a "glutton" for more, like "pigging out" (bad expression) on my favorite ice cream. I got a kick from their obvious enjoyment of their rendition of Adon Olam at the end of the prayers.
Maybe I should get to a Chazanut concert and see if I enjoy it as music, rather than prayer.
Have a wonderful week!