From Kol Nidre to yoga nidra

“Follow the bouncing felafel.” That, it seems, is the essence of community.
On Yom Kippur I am in Los Angeles and attend services at Temple Isaiah. A huge screen on the bima displays many of the prayers, in Hebrew and in transliteration. All eyes focus on the bima, where the action is, instead of down, in isolation, on the prayerbook. A thousand worshipers become one.
Two days later, in Phoenix, my wonderful Jewish hostess enthuses about yoga nidra, a technique for relaxation and spiritual exploration, and the monthly kirtan meetings at her home. Synagogue services, she says, leave her cold. To demonstrate the kirtan, she plays a CD of the people who lead the responsive Hindu devotional chanting. The chants are very melodic and the words are simple; it is easy to see how one can get into it. The praise in this instance is of Ganesha, the elephant deity: lord of success, placer and remover of obstacles, patron of letters. The kirtan then moves on to the multipurpose shanti [peace] om: “Shanti om, shanti om, shalom, shalom.”
Shalom, shalom? It is, as one of the rabbis at Temple Isaiah says, a matter of community. The family that prays together stays together. The people who chant together stand together, at least long enough to release the spirit. Look at the screen and follow the bouncing felafel.
After the French Revolution, huge outdoor singalongs were held as part of the process of nation building. In Israel, hundreds of secular people gather to sing songs about building the land—long after the land is so filled the only way to build is up. Hundreds of Hassidim crowd around a rebbe’s tisch, singing and chanting together. Sufi Muslims chant and dance in unison, for hours on end.
The repetition may induce a spiritual trance. But it also creates an ad hoc community, one that in the Western world can replace the lost community of the village, the shtetl, the extended family. And it is that sense of community that buoys the spirit, allowing it to rise.
Is there a lesson in this for American Jewry? I think so, and Jewish Renewal is learning what the Baptists knew long ago. Chuck the responsive *reading,* perhaps the most boring part of the service, and sing instead. Sing and chant the whole service and let it do what you say your synagogue does: create a community. Perhaps, then, in song, the spirit will soar.
Copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of this text may be used by anyone else without the express permission of the author.

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3 Responses to “From Kol Nidre to yoga nidra”

  1. Sandi Greenberg Says:

    Wonderful, Esther! You caught the ‘spirit’ of the whole thing in your clever, succinct way! So pleased to have been a part of it. Jai, jai…. Sandi

  2. Iris Chayet Says:

    I so enjoyed this article, especially because I was at the Temple Isaiah services with you. You captured the essence of the holiday experience as well as establishing an interesting connection. I forwarded it to our clergy.
    Well written and entertaining.

  3. Mordechai Y. Scher Says:

    Very interesting post. I must say, though, that the description of the temple in LA sounds too much (to me!) like a cult scene from a science fiction movie. I must be missing something here. Technology, in my limited experience, moves us further away from the experience of deep prayer; at the same time lulling us into thinking we’ve now experienced ‘it’. In the end, we neglect to do the long, sometimes hard work of worship and settle for the easier and lesser experience, as Rav Kook notes in Musar Avicha.

    I will definitely agree that whatever passes for ‘community prayer’ nowadays is uninspiring and accomplishes little in most places. But was does one do when people aren’t invested deeply in prayer, and regularly; and then show up at their local congregation expecting something to happen?

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