Donate to RNS

How I learned to pray from Power Point

You add slides. You delete slides. You edit the slides. And sometimes, you hide slides. That is life.

A mural on the wall of a synagogue in Poland. The mural portrays the Jewish exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137).

(RNS) —  January 20 was the second anniversary of the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States.

Which means that it is the second yahrzeit of our ability to see each other’s faces.

For me as a rabbi, the immediate challenge was this: How do I continue to create and maintain a worshiping community? For me and my colleagues, that meant learning two skills that we might not have known before this.

First, the art of Zoom.

Second, the art of Power Point — which I had hitherto only experienced as a presentation tool in in person seminars, but which would now find itself drafted into service as — well, as a Jewish worship service.

I learned how to convert a physical, hold in your hands prayer book, into a virtual, screen bound, seen from afar, liturgical experience.

In many ways, the Power Point service is merely a high tech update of the old creative service, known in Reform summer camps and youth programs. Ah, for the good old days! We would write the service on Wednesday; type it onto a stencil (remember those?) on Thursday; run it on Friday morning; and pray it on Shabbat. By Sunday, it was history.

While the CCAR has produced Power Point versions of its liturgy, my congregants wanted more. Even before the pandemic, they had become accustomed to visual tefilah — the prayers not as words in a book, but as images on a screen.

Visual tefilah has its fans. Many appreciate the fact that the congregation is on the same page — or, screen. When you project the words of prayer on a screen, your face is lifted up, and your voice projects itself with greater presence and volume.

But, since those wild days of my Jewish youth, I had come to prefer praying from a siddur. Judaism is a bookish culture, and I had always enjoyed that. Moreover, when you hold a siddur in your hands during a service, you (or to be more precise, I) had the opportunity to wander through the text at will, reading other prayers, reading commentaries – which is what I invariably do when I in a synagogue in which I am not leading the service.

I had inherited a very fine Power Point service from my predecessor. What to do?

First: every week, it is as if my worship partner, Peri Smilow, start afresh. We add new songs, readings, photographs, and videos,

Second: we delete or change things — material that had simply gotten old, or irrelevant, or that we no longer loved. In the process, I would constantly edit the texts — fixing typos, and making sure that the fonts, especially in in the Hebrew, were consistent. (Yes, I am a Nerd for God).

Third: There would be slide that I would love, and then un-love — and rather than delete them entirely, I learned how to hide them to use at a later time.

This is what I realized.

My weekly preparation for services mirrored the way that Jewish liturgy had unfolded, over the centuries.

The liturgists and sages of old were constantly adding things. As my teacher Lawrence Hoffman taught, there is no one “set” liturgy. LIturgy has always been more of a smorgasbord than a set meal.

Consider the Passover Haggadah. One of my most treasured possessions is the Polychrome Historical Haggadah for Passover, edited by Jacob Freedman. In 1974. The editor goes through the entire text of the Haggadah, and color codes each text — down to each verse — according to the historical period from which that section is dated. An intrepid author could do the same thing with the “traditional” siddur.

I have long loved the words of Israel Zangwill, reflecting on the worship experience in London in the 1800s. The worshipers:

prayed metaphysics, acrostics, angelology, Kabbalah, history, Talmudic controversies, menus, recipes, psalms, love poems, an undigested hotch-potch of exalted and questionable sentiments of communal and egoistic aspirations of the highest order. It was a wonderful liturgy, as grotesque as it was beautiful; like an old cathedral, in all styles of architecture, stored with shabby antiquities and side-shows, and overgrown with moss and lichen — a blend of historical strata of all periods, in which gems of poetry and pathos and spiritual fervor glittered, and pitiful records of ancient persecution lay petrified…all this was known and loved…But if the worshipers didn’t always know what they were saying, they always meant it.

“A blend of historical strata of all periods.” All Jewish liturgy is an archeological dig, a tel.

The scholar digs through the layers, showing us what is revealed at each layer,

The worshiper actually walks through the layers, often oblivious to its nuances, but loving the journey nevertheless.

What about adding photos and videos? My skittishness about visual tefilah began to disappear, but in a rather unusual place. Several summers ago, I visited an old Polish synagogue, and was surprised and delighted to find that there were visual elements – art work and medieval poetry that was not normally in the prayer book – on the walls of the synagogue.

I filed that experience away. Years ago, when I needed to learn Power Point, I remembered it. If that level of creativity was good enough for them back then, it was good enough for us, now.

Second: The dynamic nature of Jewish liturgy also means that we delete things, or change them. My favorite examples is what Reform did with the Avot prayer: not only adding the matriarchs, but also changing the word goel (a personal, messianic redeemer) to geulah (a time of redemption).

Or, in the Gevurot prayer, when an earlier generation of Reform liturgists changed mechayeh meitim (reviving/resurrecting the dead) to mechayeh ha-kol (giving life to everything). But, then again, times changed. A new generation arose (!) that longed for a sense of personal immortality, and the potential of life arising anew out of despair – and so the current Reform liturgy, Mishkan T’filah, has both options.

You might say that the earlier reformers had the “slide” of mechayeh meitim, but they simply “hid the slide” – waiting for the idea to return.

The history of Judaism is a Power Point. We have added slides; deleted slides; and hidden slides for later use.

Come to think of it: our lives are Power Point presentations, as well. As we engage our own narratives, there are the slides we add; the slides we delete; and the slides that we hide from view — our own view, and that of others — and sometimes restore.

Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook was a mystic, and he was the first chief rabbi of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine before it was Israel. He was one of the most remarkable Jewish thinkers and leaders of our time.

These are his words, which he uttered many years ago, but which he might have saved for this time.

Our task is: to make new the holy, and to make holy the new.

That is what has kept us alive —mentally, spiritually, and religiously — during this pandemic.

What are you adding? What are you deleting? What slides are you hiding?