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The Worship Revolution
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie. In response to the prevalence of predictable prayer services in Reform congregations, the URJ president proposes a new Reform Movement worship and ritual revolution based on a three-way partnership between rabbis, cantors, and congregants—complete with resources for congregations that wish to get started. Spring 2000.

RJ Spring 2000

The Worship Revolution
I propose that we proclaim a new Reform revolution which
will make synagogue worship our foremost concern

by Eric H. Yoffie

Reform Jews are rediscovering the power and the purpose of prayer. We sense that our Judaism has been a bit too cold and a bit too domesticated; we yearn to sing to God, to let our souls fly free. And we feel that through prayer we can rediscover our inner selves, and tie ourselves to the collective body of Israel.

There is nothing surprising about this. Prayer is an irrepressible expression of the human spirit, and we Jews appeared on the historical scene as a praying people. Yes, we know how hard prayer is. We know that moments of true inspiration are rare; we do not expect that every Shabbat we will leave the synagogue personally transformed. But we do expect to be gently moved each time we come to temple. And we do expect, from time to time, that our prayers will make us feel closer to God.

Does this mean that Reform Judaism is abandoning the rationalism and intellectual rigor which are the foundations of Jewish belief? Heaven forbid. When Reform Jews enter the synagogue, we refuse to check our brains at the door.

Reform Judaism welcomes exuberance and song as well as ideas, celebrates the cerebral but pulsates with emotion. Judaism has always prescribed two paths to tradition: the path of the mind and the path of the heart. Torah study is the way of thinking, prayer the way of feeling. And even though these paths are parallel, the Jew has always been required to walk them both. Therefore, the Reform Jew must be both a studying Jew and a praying Jew.

We must ask ourselves: What is happening with worship in our synagogue? I have found that the prayers in many congregations are heartfelt, the music uplifting, and the participation enthusiastic. But far too often, services are tedious, predictable, and dull. Far too often, congregants pray without fervor or concentration. Far too often, the music is dirge-like and the Torah readings lifeless, incapable of triggering true emotion and ascent. Forty percent of Americans attend congregational worship every week; for Jews, the figure drops to 10 percent. We joke about two-day-a-year Jews, but we know in our hearts that the fault is not entirely theirs. We need to ask ourselves why so many of these Jews feel religiously unsatisfied in our synagogues.

There is a certain irony in these numbers. The Jews gave prayer to the world and authored the Psalms -- the most passionate, poetic, and beautiful prayers ever composed. How is it that we are today the least worshipful of peoples in North America?

It is also ironic that we Reform Jews find ourselves in this situation, because our Movement came into being as a liturgical revolution. Reform Judaism did not begin with ethics, social justice, or personal autonomy; it was a reaction to the chaos, incomprehensibility, and mechanical mumbling of the then-dominant forms of Jewish prayer. Worship reform was the very heart of early Reform Judaism; classical Reform Jews, then as now, brought a deep earnestness to issues of prayer.

So what happened? Nineteenth-century innovations no longer suffice, but we are uncertain of what should come instead. And we Reform Jews are, on the whole, quite conservative in our worship patterns. We say we want prayer that is authentically Reform, but this usually means "what I remember from my temple when I was growing up." And no two of us ever seem to remember the same thing. Generational differences are particularly pronounced. Our congregations, therefore, often confront a multiplicity of conflicting worship demands. Older members threaten to vote with their checkbooks if worship is changed, while younger members threaten to vote with their feet if it is not.

The pressures of the worship wars have created a turf consciousness unusual for our Movement. Caught in the crossfire, rabbis and cantors sometimes insist they alone have authority over worship. Lay leaders seem to alternate between indifference and the expectation that their rabbi will do their worshiping for them. And finger-pointing is all too common. Lay leaders complain to me that their rabbi has introduced too much Hebrew, or too little Hebrew, too many changes, or too few changes; and that their cantor does not let them sing, or sings music they do not like. Rabbis and cantors tell me how frequently their members greet every new idea with that well-worn refrain: "But we've never done it that way before!" In such an atmosphere, even some of our most dynamic congregations have grown fearful of innovation.

But there is no reason for despair. A collective resolve is emerging in our Movement to overcome this paralyzing fear of change. We have leaders and congregations whose creativity and commitment to renewal will light our way.

I propose, therefore, that we proclaim a new Reform revolution. Like the original Reform revolution, it will be rooted in the conviction that Judaism is a tradition of revival, redefinition, and rebellion; and like the original, this new initiative will make synagogue worship our foremost concern.

I further propose that this worship revolution be built upon the premise of partnership: rabbis will be its architects, cantors its artists, and lay people its builders. This has always been our way. No other religious movement in Jewish life has been as democratic, as open, and as rooted in the collective partnership of rabbi, cantor, and lay person. And prayer is not a noun but a verb; it is not something that is done to us or for us, but by us; it is not something that you create and give to the congregation; it is something that the congregation creates with you. So it is critical that vested interests be put aside and that the laity be admitted into the dialogue, even as we acknowledge that Jewish wisdom is ultimately the rabbis' expertise.

The revolution that I propose will require an accurate understanding of what we mean by "tradition." The heart of the worship tradition is the order of prayers that has become standardized over the last two millennia. And while Reform has revised this liturgy so that it is fully inclusive, the Shema, the Amidah, and the Torah service are not very different from what they were in the synagogue of the third century.

However, everything else -- the chanting styles, the music, the aesthetics -- has been ever-changing. In fact, much of what we now refer to as "tradition" is not tradition at all, but a reflection of 18th- and 19th-century European culture.

Yes, communal prayer requires recognizable constants that bind worshiper to worshiper and congregation to congregation, but we need not be bound by cultural precedents that no longer resonate. Eighteenth-century Minsk is not our worship ideal. Neither is Berlin of the 1850s nor suburban America of the 1950s.

And just as we reject nostalgia disguised as tradition, so too do we reject "contemporary" worship that is faddish or trendy. There is no Jewish worship without age-old prayers and time-honored chants. In short, we need not choose between "traditional" worship and "contemporary" worship. As Reform Jews, we insist on the best of both worlds: continuity with our tradition and constant reformation.

Finding the right balance requires both innovators and conservators--those who push the envelope and those who hold back. At this moment, it is the innovators we need most. We must give our leaders the freedom to experiment and to develop forms of communal prayer that are both Jewishly authentic and fully indigenous to North America.

What will be the single most important key to the success or failure of our revolution? Music. Every congregation that has revived its worship has begun with music that is participatory, warm, and accessible. Our wisest synagogues invite their members to join in song because they know that Jews feel welcomed, accepted, and empowered when they sing. Ritual music touches people in a way that words cannot. Music converts the ordinary into the miraculous, and individuals into a community of prayer. Music enables overly intellectual Jews to rest their minds and open their hearts.

There is nothing new in this. At the very moment of Israel's liberation, Miriam led her people in song on the far shore of the Red Sea. But somehow, for some reason, many of us have lost our voices. The music of prayer has become what it was never meant to be: a spectator sport.

That is why our cantors, soloists, and choirs are working so hard to sing with us, and not for us.

In many instances this work is just beginning. It is not easy for a congregation that has never sung to begin to sing. And when the congregation finds its voice, the prayer leader -- whether cantor or soloist, rabbi or layperson -- may find it difficult not to be completely in control. Also, because East European melodies -- soaring and rich -- are often difficult to sing, a simpler American nusach is only now being developed.

Still, despite these challenges, I am convinced that music will be the foundation of our worship revolution. And this means that Jews in large numbers will return to our sanctuaries only when we offer them music that is vibrant, spiritual, community-building, and that speaks directly to the soul.

The other great challenge of our worship revolution is to bring young families and young children back into our sanctuaries. A 27-year-old rabbi, newly ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will often look out at her congregation on Erev Shabbat and find that she is the youngest person there by several decades. Why has this happened?

Many of our leaders have suggested that we may have unwittingly driven young people away. Convinced that exuberant children could not be accommodated at regular Shabbat worship, and that their baby-boomer parents would not be drawn to the somber melodies of the older generation, we created the shorter, more energetic, and more spontaneous monthly Shabbat family service. And it has succeeded. The average family service, while a bit disorderly, is filled with wonder and dissonance and natural enthusiasm, and our sanctuaries are often filled to overflowing.

But by creating the family service, we may have signaled that young parents and children are not welcome at other times -- that for them, in effect, Shabbat falls but once per month. How do we change this perception and put Shabbat back on their weekly schedule?

Some suggest that Shabbat morning is the best time for family prayer. But this means confronting a myriad of conflicts, including the choice between soccer and synagogue. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has put it: "The God of soccer is a vengeful God." An even greater obstacle is the Shabbat morning bar or bat mitzvah, which in most cases has alienated the uninvited, young and old, and appropriated the worship service as a private affair of the bar mitzvah family. This is far from a simple matter. For many Reform Jews, the rite of bar mitzvah is the single most significant religious event in their lives, and we should be respectful of its impact. Still, Judaism is a collective enterprise, not a private pursuit, and we must be troubled by the prospect that a family celebration is displacing Shabbat morning communal prayer.

But Reform Judaism is ever-evolving. And so some of our congregations have proclaimed that the regular Erev Shabbat service will no longer be the domain of adults and a Shabbat morning service the domain of b'nai mitzvah families. Instead, every worship service will be intergenerational, welcoming all. Others have undertaken to provide family-oriented worship, in addition to regular services, not once a month but every week. Whatever the solution, young children and young families in our community must be part of our revolution. The children in turn, through their simple faith and playful eagerness, will help us to breathe new life into our prayer.

To realize the worship revolution, I urge each UAHC congregation to devote a major segment of two upcoming board meetings to define a worship agenda. The starting place for worship reform is a forward-looking lay leadership, invested as partners by rabbi and cantor, assuming responsibility for congregational prayer which they see as theirown. The UAHC has prepared a suggested plan for these board deliberations. [To order "Engaging Worship: Two Study Sessions for Congregational Boards," contact the UAHC-CCAR Commission on Religious Living, (212) 650-4193, fax (212) 650-4229,]

Second, I propose that we call upon all our congregations to do what many have already done: enlist the best and brightest to serve on the temple ritual committee, transforming it from one that too often has focused on ushering and High Holiday tickets to one that works with rabbis and cantors on worship renewal. The ritual committee must now become the primary venue for rethinking the congregation's worship agenda. The first step is studying, with the rabbi or cantor, the history and theology of Jewish prayer. Just as one cannot pray without appropriate preparation, one cannot engage in the transformation of worship without preparation and knowledge. The Union has created a detailed curriculum for course leaders. [To order "Let Us Learn in Order To Do: A Study Program for Worship/Ritual Committees," "Guidelines for Worship/Ritual Committees," and "Bringing About Change: Case Studies in a Team Approach to Worship Change," contact the UAHC-CCAR Commission on Religious Living as shown above.] Ritual committees also need to undertake an in-depth self-evaluation of current worship practices. Does Shabbat prayer capture the heart and soul and kishkes of the congregation? Is the music uplifting? Are congregants creative worshipers or captives to sameness? As part of this self-assessment, I recommend that each synagogue evaluation team commit itself to visiting at least four other congregations. We are sometimes terribly parochial, unaware of what our sister congregations have done to bring dignity, reverence, and beauty to their worship. It is important that rabbis and cantors be included in these visits; we ask our clergy to be experts in matters of prayer, and yet it is difficult to lead if one lacks exposure to other models of tefillah. The UAHC has assembled a comprehensive self-study document that congregations may use both to evaluate their own worship practices and to assess the practices of others. [To order "Entering the Dialogue: A Procedure for Self-Study of Congregational Worship," contact the UAHC-CCAR Commission on Religious Living as shown above.]

Third, I propose that we initiate an on-line, Movement-wide dialogue on prayer. My hope is that hundreds of temple presidents, ritual chairs, laypersons, rabbis, and cantors will join this on-line discussion, and that the number of participants will eventually reach into the thousands. [To participate in iWorship, an e-mail discussion group about Reform Jewish worship, please send your name, congregation, city/state, temple position, and e-mail address to, fax (212) 650-4229.]

Fourth, I propose that the Union, the College-Institute, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the American Conference of Cantors cooperate in sponsoring retreats for rabbis and cantors, where our worship leaders can consider the scholarly and professional dimensions of worship reform and generate many of the creative ideas that will power our revolution and assure its success.

Fifth, I propose that we enrich our worship by undertaking a program of adult Hebrew literacy. Some see the increased use of Hebrew in prayer as contrary to Reform principles, but I disagree. Every Reform service contains an ample number of English prayers so that all worshipers can pray with comprehension. And the Hebrew language is more than a vehicle of expression; it is part of the fabric and texture of Judaism, vibrating with the ideas and values of our people.

The division that exists in our Movement is not between those congregations that use more Hebrew and those that use less; these differences are not very significant. The important division is between those congregations where many worshipers know some Hebrew and those where they do not. Why? Because absence of Hebrew knowledge is an obstacle to heartfelt prayer; because inability to pray with the congregation at peak moments becomes a source of frustration; and because the full participation for which our members yearn is that much more difficult without some access to the sacred language of the Jewish people.

Let me put it plainly: we value Hebrew for many reasons, but it is most of all the great democratic tool of Jewish worship, the vehicle which "opens the gates of prayer" to the average Jew. If we fail to learn at least the basics of Hebrew, then we are treating our rabbis and cantors as priests -- as an ecclesiastical elite which enjoys sole access to the secret code of Jewish worship. But they do not want to be cast in this role, and we should not force it upon them. We want to be empowered to pray on our own, and this is so much easier when we turn those little black dots and boxes on the page of the siddur into a conversation with God.

The UAHC is developing two Hebrew primers exclusively for adults. They focus not only on phonetic reading but on comprehension of basic prayers and texts. I propose that following the High Holidays next year, our congregations make use of these texts, offering ten-session adult Hebrew courses in both the fall and spring.

I do not wish to mislead you. The revolution that I am calling for is as daunting a challenge as any that we have faced. We Reform Jews are never more recalcitrant than when we deal with issues of prayer. But I am convinced that our Movement possesses the spiritual courage for just such a revolution. Indeed, it is already underway.

Let us then join together in creating a synagogue that is a center of Jewish life in all its sweep and scope, but that is first and foremost a center of avodah -- of worship, reverence, and awe. And we will do this because we are the most creative movement in Jewish life; because, in the absence of prayer, all our crowded congregational calendars are for naught; and because to live without prayer is to live without God.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This article is adapted from his Presidential Address to the UAHC General Assembly in Orlando, FL on December 18, 1999.


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