Talkin’ Worship

by Cantor Rosalie Boxt

Man, I’ve been talking a lot. Hours and hours! More than usual, even (In grade school, I was called Ms. Butt-insky for chatting so much.) I don’t love talking on the phone and do not keep up by phone with as many friends as I should, but in the past three weeks, I’ve had a dozen or more hours of conversations, and all about the same thing: prayer and worship. In all aspects of my life these days, I’m talking to people about what makes “good worship” – at a cantors’ convention, at Reform Movement events, and in my synagogue. I’m even consulting some communities about music and worship, repertoire, and meaningful prayer.

I find the worship question (and it is a question, isn’t it?) being asked everywhere in my own life. “How can I teach cantorial students about worship?” “What is the cantorate’s contribution to worship in congregations?” “What does our community (in my case, primarily the Reform Movement) want and need to create ‘good worship’?” What I have learned in these hours of newfound conversation is that the path to “worship that works,” regardless of the community, is about the questions we ask, not about the answers we give – or even seek, for that matter. I get questions about what is new, what are the best trends, and what a community/clergy/group should know in order to add to or enhance their own worship.

I could (and often do) provide a long list of ideas, including tunes, tricks, and tools. They are valid, valuable, perhaps even useful. But when these congregations and leaders call me looking for music or resources, I find that is rarely the only thing I offer in response.

“For what?” I ask. “For whom? And why?” I could randomly throw darts at the problems people identify and want to solve, and hope one works, or I can have a bigger, broader, more important and meaningful conversation with people about the values of their community – a conversation that starts with questions, not answers. There is a meta-communication, Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches, in all the unspoken communication of a community, of a space. What does your community feel about prayer? About God? What are the clergy’s expectations about prayer? The community’s? And in many of my conversations, I learn that these open discussions in congregations or among clergy happen far too rarely. So I’m talking. A lot.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to pray – to try to pray – as well. I love being a part of – as a congregant or shaliach (leader) – the worship experience, and striving for it to be not necessarily “good” (for what is “good” worship?) but good for something. What that “something” is depends entirely on each individual community, group, leader and participant.

But the talking has to happen before the doing. Truth be told, not only am I doing a lot of talking, but I am encouraging those who ask, to get talking themselves. I hope that they, as I am, do a lot of listening, as well.

I do love to talk – about worship most of all – and I hope to do much more of it. But I’m finding that asking questions and getting others to talk may be even more worthwhile.

Cantor Rosalie Boxt is a member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners, the cantor of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD, and Director of Worship for the 2013 URJ Biennial.