Being in shul so much over the past week or so, I noticed something really strange that I’ve never noticed before — and I’d like to call it the “importance paradox.”
It seems that some of the most important prayers — in terms of expressing fundamental, core beliefs of the religion — exist at the very beginning or at the very end of the prayer services and the importance of the text is inversely proportional to the age of the individual leading the services the bimah. Children, and sometimes very little ones, lead the congregation and I find that this tends to undermine the importance of these prayers and certainly the seriousness of the synagogue atmosphere. In fact, many people associate such prayers as yigdal, ain kei’lokeinu and aleinu with their respective synagogue’s annoyingly off-tune 6-year-old rather than with spiritual inspiration and an emotional relationship with God. Then again, many others don’t associate these prayers with anything, because they don’t realize that there even is an annoying 6-year-old singing them — they’re too busy engaged in conversation because, hey, we must be up to the unimportant part of davening if some kid is leading the services (but they only know that the kid is singing because they heard him last week when their talking buddy was at his son-in-law for Shabbos).
As a child, I remember being in the ain kei’lokeinu rotation, and it certainly made me feel more integrated, more involved, more relevant to the synagogue service. That’s always a problem with ritualistic practice — involving children so they feel important but limiting their involvement as the ritual demands; and with all the barriers afforded by Judaism: the foreign language, the metaphysical concepts, the age/gender restrictions and the demand that particular things be done in such an exacting fashion that perhaps children cannot be entrusted with the responsibility to perform them, there’s certainly a general push to permit promote the involvement of children wherever and whenever possible.
The same is true for gelilah — the ceremonial wrapping up of the Torah after the weekly portion has been read in the synagogue. I sense a more immature, jovial attitude sets in when some people are called up for gelilah, because they think they’re being asked to perform child’s play — Be serious for this? Come on…my nephew does this all time and he’s 8 years old, so it can’t be that important. It is for this reason that I refuse to call a child for gelilah when I’m serving as the gabbai. But should we ban children from singing ein kei’lokeinu? I don’t think that’s the answer — it would be like halting all the semi-rituals with metaphysical underpinnings because too many people have become immune to the deeper meaning, like putting one’s right show on first.
So get a hold of an English translation of prayers like yigdal and aleinu and see what we’re really saying about our God and our religion. If one asserts his or her commitment to Judaism, he or she should realize what it’s all about — and it’s really hard to think about it amid the great disturbance that is all too common in the synagogue when the 6-year-old takes centerstage. And perhaps letting him do so is a necessary evil, but engaging Judaism with meaningful prayers is necessary, too.
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