The room began to shake with the reverberations of a response. Amen. Uh huh. Indeed. Having had the pleasure of attending the 25th Annual Jacksonville Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast last Friday, I was excited to hear keynote speaker Reverend Dr. Bernice King, the youngest child of the late Martin Luther King Jr. Bernice King gave a rousing speech, a true tribute to her father and a charge to continue his legacy. Minutes into her sermon, I jumped at the unexpected — or at least unanticipated – “uh huh” from a vast majority of the room. The 2000-plus attendees were reaffirming what Bernice King was say and with each response she seemed to be uplifted with renewed energy, to make her message a little bit clearer and push her message a little bit further.
Her preaching style – commonly found in many African-American and Southern churches, focuses on the power of oration. The inflection and timing of the words spoken encourages a response from the congregation. The preacher thus is doing far more than preaching; the preacher is succeeding in engaging his or her community in a sacred conversation.
Although I appreciate the positive feedback I receive from congregants when the words of a sermon resonate with them or when a particular prayer service is meaningful, I yearn for such call-and-response experiences. In fact, such call-and-response experiences are a part of the Jewish tradition.
Using the various forms of the prescribed Kaddish as an example, the congregation often recites specific words reserved for the prayer leader: reciting a yitbarach (meaning, may God be blessed) here or a b’rich Hu (meaning, blessed is God) there. We even add an additional “Amen” to the beginning of the Kaddish – not included in the prayer book and seemingly spontaneous at some point, but eventually becoming a permanent response to the call of Kaddish, regardless of the fixed written words of prayer on the page. Additionally, we regularly add in the words Baruch Sh’mo (Blessed is God’s name) or Baruch Hu u’varuch Sh’mo (Blessed is God and Blessed is God’s name) whenever we hear one say the beginning formula of a blessing aloud.
So why are we so silent during services? Are we uncomfortable with the sound of our own voices? If prayer and sermons are about communication with God, we must strive to continue those conversations. Prayer is not meant to be a short conversation; it is an ongoing dialogue and dialogue is not only one-way. Dialogue does not just come from our rabbis, cantors, or shelichei tzibbor (service leaders.) Dialogue must come from all voices, without worrying about whose voice is best or loudest.
We worry too much about saying the words or pronouncing the Hebrew correctly. We worry so often that we lose sight of the prayer experience entirely. When we do participate, we may read a script instead of sharing our own prayers and speaking our own words. We must make time to add our own words to the written words of the siddur and we must feel comfortable doing so aloud, instead of remaining silent. We are self-conscious, but prayer isn’t supposed to be easy. That is why we come together in community for prayer. We support each other through the struggle of having a meaningful prayer experience, even if that looks different for each individual. Instead of worrying what those around us think and remaining silent, let us shout!
While there is time for silent meditation and personal prayer, I encourage noise. I look forward to the time when I hear shouts during my sermons. Until then, let us raise our communal voice. The many praying as one is far more powerful and meaningful than the many sitting and watching the few. Can I get an Amen?!?
-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky