Wednesday, December 20, 2006

425. Pinch of salt

The Velveteen Rabbi's astute and beautiful post about prayer as cooking, and the shaliah tzibur as a chef who decides when to add a little more spice or simmer, instead, for the comfort of the congregation, got me thinking about how I pray. On the one hand, services at my synagogue are traditional; we follow Conservative liturgy, all in Hebrew. Within that framework, however, change is constant; melodies, harmonies, personalities and pairings of prayer leaders shift on a weekly basis. It's not a democracy, and all decisions are made by clergy without benefit of a ritual committee. But congregants are close partners, with our input happening at the moment of prayer--and since the rabbis and cantor pray with us, not at us, they can improvise to fit the mood as needed. Fixed prayer becomes fluid, fluidity predictable. In many ways our style of worship goes against all prevailing wisdom about how to make people comfortable during religious ritual--and yet people show up, lots of them.

I'm reminded of my painting studies in college (while pursuing that most practical of majors, Art). I decided, as a freshman, that I didn't like color; there was just too much to think about. I only wanted to create in black and white. So I stretched this as far as possible: huge charcoal drawings, tiny, detailed pen and ink studies, panoramic landscapes rendered with 15 different weights of pencil and 12 varieties of eraser. The world of black and white seemed endless. Eventually I had to surrender to oils and acrylics, and did make peace with Alizarine Crimson and Cerulean Blue. But nothing was ever as much fun as pencil on paper.

Sometimes constraint--ritual--can be the best fuel for creativity. Shlihei tzibur and congregants alike at my synagogue honor each others' role in the process and share unusual levels of trust: the congregation in our service leaders, to keep prayer fresh and challenging within a fixed liturgy; and leaders in each other and in the congregation, to allow space for taking chances and for honest, immediate responses. Some people find the whole thing very weird and foreign, and prefer less surprise. Others assume it's all scripted, the work of some distant master chef. It's hard to imagine such rich flavors could arise organically, with pinches of salt added by the customers themselves--yet they do.

I've always been attracted to this kind of tension... do I follow the recipe, or invent my own? I want to take the easy way out, yet hate to cede control. For whatever reason, the flavor of prayer at my synagogue--the stock of the soup, the blend of spices, and the particular freedom I have to stir it myself--satisfies both of these opposing sets of tastebuds.


alto artist said...

Thank you--and just say when (about stealing away)!

Mata H said...

I think that you would enjoy Polanyi's book "The Tacit Dimension". Your post made me think about modern dance instructors who insist that their students learn classical ballet first, or jazz teachers who make students learn classical pieces first. Formal prayers are like that for me -- the classical piece from which the rest of prayer extemporizes and improvises. The rules become tacit, like the ability you honed in drawing -- you no longer have to consider the basics of how to create perspective in a drawing, because you have learned that to the point that you can forget it when you draw -- it is no longer front of mind -- it is there, tacitly, but in a way that gives you a root from which to create a larger piece. Does that make sense? I suppose, to use the recipe analogy, once you have made the meatloaf 10 times, you start throwing in some rosemary or savory. You understand the fundamental form enough to give the dish a new vibrancy without changing its identity or function.