The Ceremonial Hall, the Nostalgia Center
And the Davening Club
In his exiting book, “On Being a Jew,” Professor James Kugel warns his readers about three kinds of synagogues that have done great damage to Jewish life. He calls them the “Ceremonial Hall Synagogues,” the “Nostalgia Centers” and the “Davening Clubs.” (1)
The Ceremonial Hall is a synagogue in which the congregation is essentially an audience. It reminds one of a movie house or a theatre in which the participants come to be entertained by several players such as the rabbi and the cantor. It exists principally for the purpose of solemnizing occasions such as major holidays, weddings, and funerals and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. The “worshippers” merely “attend” such occasions. They do not come to seek God or repent but to listen to an often overly dramatic cantor or a sermon “to which they listen with the discerning attention of theatergoers marooned in an unwanted matinee.” After the service is over the worshippers exchange pleasantries and make observations about the service reminding us of second-rate Broadway critics: “He really had it this morning, didn’t he?” or, “Much better than last year, wasn’t it?” or even better, “I am glad that they got rid of that fellow!”
Prayer is a way to turn the inferior into the important,
to transform the trivial into grandeur,
to lift man from the mediocre to the supreme.
The second synagogue is the Nostalgia Center in which the Rabbi is generally the youngest member. A nostalgia center was once a vibrant community, but when the participants become old, it turns into a Kaddish-saying-place in which Judaism is identified with the old and deceased. Its members admire their young rabbi because he represents that which they lost a long time ago. They do not realize the reason for this: when they were young they did not labor to look for ways to constantly revivify Judaism within themselves.
Prayer is not about what “was”
but about what is and will be.
It is the art of setting one’s inner soul to the music
of the light
which God bestows on man every day anew.
And then there is the “davening club,” the “prayer club” in which young people come together to “obdavnen,” that is to pray by routine, saying words the high quality of which is lost on the praying community. No doubt everybody participates in the davening club and no doubt it is the most authentic of all three places of worship, but how many leave such a service with an uplifting feeling that they were somehow transformed by the experience?
“We do not step out of the world when we pray,
we merely see the world in a different setting.
The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel.
In prayer we shift the center of living from self consciousness to self surrender.
God is the center to which all forces tend.
He is the source and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.
Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.
For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God.” (2)
(1) James Kugel, On Being a Jew, Harpercollins, NY, 1990.
(2) Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, NY, 1983.