Image: Cartoon of three rabbis, dancing. (pixabay)
A lot of newcomers to synagogue are intimidated by the choreography of Jewish public worship. People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door (what?). There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too. What on earth?
One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance. Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. (Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.)
Recently I walked one of my Intro classes through the choreography of the service as it is practiced in most Reform congregations.
First, a few general principles bear repeating:
1. WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK: If you are curious about a gesture or practice, ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask one of the service leaders (after the service!) It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn. As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!
2. MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?
3. EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY: Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.
- If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
- If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
- In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
- Show respect to the Torah Scroll: Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it. Stand when the Ark is open.
4. RESPECT THE BODY: It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.
5. ESCHEW OSTENTATION: Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else.
For more detail, you can check out this handout I gave the class: Choreography of the Service. Happy dancing!
For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:
Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.
What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.
What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.
Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.
What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.