When Dr. Helen Glueck, widow of the renowned archaeologist and former President of the seminary, Nelson Glueck, delivered a masterful ordination address at the Plum Street temple in Cincinnati more than forty years ago, she said in effect to the about to be ordained rabbis, “You are not social workers, you are not facilitators … You are Rabbis and your job is to be teachers and examples of Torah’s highest ideals.”
So much has changed in Reform Jewish life since the 70s. Services have become less formal, and rabbis have become less ego-centric, less judgmental, (in many cases) and more accessible. All of that is to the good.
But there is one change that I question. Many congregations that I have observed have forsaken the ritual reading of Torah on Shabbat Eve. Not too many years ago, the center piece of the Friday night service was—and in my view should be again—a thoughtful Torah reading, backed by a meaningful explanation of its context by the rabbi and a sermon or Drash that connects the Torah portion to the lives of the worshippers.
Back when I was a student, we never left for our student pulpit without a Tikkun (a Torah text with both vowels and no vowels from which to practice our readings) in our luggage. Before we left, we practiced our Torah readings for the Friday night services we would lead with each other. We practiced some more on the plane headed toward our hinterlands destinations. We knew that our congregations went to great expense to bring us in, and we knew why! We were their source of Torah, and we did not want to let them down.
Speaking as a reform rabbi and as a lifelong Reform Jew, I believe that a Shabbat service-–even a family service—should include serious (and of course, age appropriate) engagement with Torah.
Engagement with Torah to me necessarily includes a well-prepared presentation-–either read or chanted—with interlinear translation so that the text is both presented in the original and made intelligible to the congregation. Such presentation differentiates Torah from Shakespeare or the latest TV commentary, or Internet article that a rabbi might well bring into his or her D’var Torah.
It also strikes me as desirable to take and replace the scroll to the ark with readings and songs that emphasize Torah’s centrality in our lives as Jews.
I freely admit: I do not have all the answers to what will bring Jews back into the synagogue to worship with both keva and kavanah, with both regularity and a deep sense of spiritual directedness.
I do believe, though that when we make the presentation and teaching of Torah the top priority in the worship we lead, we will be on the right path.