Dennis W. Carlton on Keeping the Balance

Dennis W. Carlton

Keep the Balance

Marc Slutsky asked me to describe my “visions” for Aitz Hayim and I do so with some reluctance. I do so only because of the high regard I have for Aitz Hayim and for Marc. I under stand that, in subsequent issues, others will present their “visions” and thereby expose the Aitz Hayim community to the ongoing debate as to where Aitz Hayim is headed and where it should be headed — and specifically the balance between study and “innovative forms of prayer.” By its nature, this debate involves the presentation of conflicting views, but one desirable purpose of debate is to learn others’ views and hopefully achieve some consensus. That is my purpose here. It is not my intention to offend, and my apologies to those who take offense. Although debate can raise tensions, it is precisely the raising and resolution of such tensions that make people think hard about their Judaism and thereby deepen their appreciation of it. If we all thought alike, Aitz Hayim would become pretty boring and debates would cease. Such debates are central to the development of Jewish thought. Indeed, the Mishnah begins with a debate over how to say the Shma. Although not the Mishnah, there should be a discussion about what are Aitz Hayim’s goals and how prayers (and the forms of praying) fit into those goals. I will limit my remarks about prayers primarily to the Shabbat service but most of what I say is applicable to other Aitz Hayim activities.

Aitz Hayim should be a community where being Jewish is simultaneously meaningful and enjoyable. And for many it may be enjoyable precisely because it is meaningful while for others, the reverse may be true. For Judaism to be meaningful to me, I want to know the history of Judaism, the debates that have gone on, the moral and ritual rules (and their rationale) of our forefathers, and I want to know how to use that knowledge to help me make decisions today. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a front page story on the Jewish Free Loan Society that stopped lending to non-Jews. What does Judaism teach about taking of interest, of repayment, of obligations to lend? Why did these laws develop and what principles, if applied today, would they imply for evaluating the actions of the Jewish Free Loan Society or of the Jewish United Fund or for responding to a relative’s request for a loan? Or, to take another example, how would the rules of war, discussed in Jewish sources, apply to how the Shin Bet treats Palestinians suspected of terrorism? And, what about the current ethical issues regarding cloning, assisted suicide, or care for the aged? The list of current hard questions is endless. The real issue for me is how Judaism can help give insights (not necessarily the answers) into those questions. I want Aitz Hayim to be a place where I can search for those insights.

From its beginnings, a probing for such insights was central to Aitz Hayim’s service — whether through discussions of the prayers or Torah or presentations by outside speakers. However, a service cannot be only an academic discussion. Accordingly, prayer too was also integral to the service. The Aitz Hayim service was a balance of such a probing with prayer. (Indeed the two could be viewed as closely linked with several prayers being the foundation from which probing begins.) From the beginning, we wanted the service to be participatory, zippy and short. But, especially of late, the services are getting longer, with an increasing amount of time spent on “innovative” prayer and a decreasing amount of time spent on discussion. Aitz Hayim must maintain a balance and not succumb to the temptation to replace probing with more prayer and “Aitz Hayim ritual.”

As Aitz Hayim develops, the decisions that we make about our goals and how to achieve them will have a tremendous influence on who counts themselves as a part of the community and who counts themselves outside of it. In its first few years, Aitz Hayim strove to build a community interested in meaningful interaction with the tradition. For some, this meant an intellectual searching, fulfilled through Torah discussions and explanations of the content of the prayers. For others, the search for meaning was embedded in visceral involvement in prayer through chanting, swaying, group exercises, and dancing. From Jewish history, we know that these two approaches generally describes the stances of the Mitnagdim and Hasidim. For the first years, we seemed able to bridge the gap between these two approaches and create a balance with which most people were comfortable. However, over the last year, the balance has shifted and tensions have developed. Those who want the visceral involvement are pushing for innovations that 1) by their very nature, consume the time originally set aside for discussions and 2) by their form, make those members who prefer not to participate feel uncomfortable and excluded. The Mitnagdim and Hasidim were unable to compromise and Judaism ended up with two extreme movements. Will such a division be the fate of our community or can we learn from history and take the best from both traditions?
Aitz Hayim has stimulated many people to become more interested and knowledgeable about Judaism. I want that to continue. I do not want Aitz Hayim to be known as the place of strange rituals (e.g., Rising in Remembrance). Instead, I want Aitz Hayim to be known as the place where people learned about Judaism that affected how they behaved, where they enjoyed services connected to tradition, where they made friends to whom they could turn for comfort in time of pain and with whom they could celebrate in time of joy.

I was initially reluctant to write this “vision” because I usually find such statements vague, pompous, too long, and reveal the author to have a glorified sense of his own importance. Let me avoid at least the first criticism by being concrete in my suggestions. Have Shabbat service for two hours. Have one or two discussions with a maximum combined time of 45 minutes. Have the pre-Torah service last no more than 35 minutes. Avoid the temptation to innovate just for the sake of innovation. Innovative rituals that continue to make several members uncomfortable should be discussed, modified or dropped. Form a group with the responsibility for leading discussions and gathering materials to stimulate thought. (Several of you have already responded positively to participating in such a group.) Encourage participation in the group. Those are the directions Aitz Hayim should go. And, I’ll know we are successful when so many show up for Shabbat services that people complain that they are losing the sense of participation and community. Then we should add another service so that more congregants can participate.