My colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman wrote about his first experience at Shira Hadasha over this past Shabbat. Andy focused on the large number of American Reform rabbis he noticed there, and wondered why these non-Orthodox rabbis (many of whom, I imagine, were in town for the Hartman Institute’s annual summer learning program for American rabbis) were drawn to a self-described Orthodox synagogue. “I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues,” Andy writes. “I wondered if they’re spiritually lonely. I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.”
I don’t think this is limited to Reform rabbis–I think it’s true of American rabbis in general. Even in an Orthodox shul, where we like to think of ourselves as serving a more Jewishly-educated laity (a claim which I think is generally true, and one of the major attractions of Orthodoxy), most rabbis I know still feel “on,” performing a role. The Orthodox rabbis I know who attend Shira Hadasha while in Jerusalem report a similar sense of “vayinafash,” uplifting and renewal, as a result of the davenning experience there.
I went to Yakar for Shabbat morning this past week. In many ways I see Yakar as a precursor to Shira Hadasha: a place that has been singing beautiful, harmonious, slow melodies, creating the kind of musical aesthetic for which Shira Hadasha has become famous, for a generation. And they still have it: fabulous singing and harmony, a rich feeling of tefillah. (For davening snobs: they actually sang Shlomo Carlebach’s Mimkomcha–the one from the 1950s that he recorded on HaNeshama Lach–which you almost never hear anyone try, certainly not in the U.S. at any rate.) And at this point Yakar feels like a retreat from the tourist attraction that Shira Hadasha has in many ways become.
But I missed the sounds of women’s voices at Yakar. Though I know they were singing, the setup at Yakar–with a front-back mechitza dividing men from women–makes it hard for the men to hear the women (I don’t know how it is for the women). And aesthetically I felt something missing, which I identify as the thing that makes Shira Hadasha very special during its best moments: the actual feeling of a whole community, men and women, praying together. It’s not just that people know the words, that they know the tunes, that they can harmonize; it’s not only that they can keep themselves from clapping at the wrong times or letting the tempo get carried away. Those things describe Yakar as well as Shira Hadasha (and some other minyanim too). The difference at Shira Hadasha is that I can really feel the whole kehillah, the whole congregation.
Most of the students who have gone to Shira Hadasha this summer have focused on the experience of having women actively leading in parts of the service, which is an unusual sight in a shul with a mechitza. When they ask what I think, I tell them that I think the expansion of women’s roles is not the primary issue at Shira Hadasha, but that it acts along with and in service of the broader issue of offering our best tefillot, our deepest and richest communal prayer. To focus simply on when a woman is leading is to miss the point. The greater point is that Shira Hadasha, at its best (and there are moments when it falls short), creates a space for avodat Hashem, the service of God, that is uniquely inclusive, beautiful, and inspiring.