After a recent workout at the JCC, I showered, dressed, and entered the lounge area with my lunch. I was alone and so had the full run of the television. That meant I could surf the channels just the way I like to do and I would drive no one crazy. So I spread out my meal and started clicking. Within a minute or so I stumbled into the religious channels. I stopped on one them: it was a black preacher giving a Bible lesson. I don’t remember his name. But I do remember that he had on a great suit, and that the church where he was preaching was beautiful.
The preacher’s clothing was nice, but hey, I have some nice suits. And even though the auditorium sat 1500 people, we can seat a thousand for the High Holy Days. What drew me in wasn’t even the preacher himself. And I love the style of black preachers: the drama, the power, the charisma? It drives me wild, and I could listen and watch all day. The rhythm and the alternating gentleness and loud declaration remind me of good jazz. In that regard, the extemporaneous mixed with the written is something I have chosen to emulate over the decades.
What drew me in was the congregation. A PACKED auditorium of mostly black man and women over 45 (the kids and teens have their own simultaneous service/study in another part of the building; the session I watched was for the grown-ups). They were exquisitely dressed and of course speaking up regularly, encouraging their preacher with “Amens” and “Yessir”, and “Halleluyahs” and the like. But here’s the best part: everyone in that auditorium – EVERYONE! – had a Bible. And they followed along, avidly taking notes. I was so envious.
As I watched a man came in and sat down. He looked at the tv and then he looked at me. He sat quietly for a moment, perhaps scanning the room for the channel changer. “Uh, Rabbi? What exactly are you doing?” “What am I doing? I’m learning some Torah.” The guy laughed. “No, really. This preacher is amazing! And look! There must be 2000 adults learning with him.” I think he got nervous, and being that this was not a tv show with commercials, he got up and left. At least that’s what I assume. I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the preacher, his congregation, and the Torah he was teaching.
Now look: I understand that the history of the African American religious experience comes from a very different place than the Jewish experience. I know that our roots are very European and our worship style has one foot in Hasidism and the other in German Lutheranism, and maybe an arm in Litvak yeshiva formalism. I know that men and women singing together and even sitting together are relatively new on the timeline of Jewish history. I’m not advocating that we worship in the manner of the folks I watched on the JCC tv. What I am saying is that we could learn a lot from that black preacher and his congregation of learners. What inspires adults who work hard all week to go to church, personal Bible in hand, and really learn some Scripture? What is the particular call of that community? Is it the sense of connectedness? Is it the sense of acceptance and safety? The joy shared by the preacher?
I don’t really know what it is, but I want to think about this some more. I want to learn how to bring more passion, more joy, more!