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The Havurah
American Judaism
Riv-Ellen Prell


The Havurah
American Judaism
Riv-Ellen Prell

Copyright © 1989 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48202.
All material in this work, except as identified below, is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of
this license, visit
All material not licensed under a Creative Commons license is all rights reserved.
Permission must be obtained from the copyright owner to use this material.
The publication of this volume in a freely accessible digital format has been made
possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the
Mellon Foundation through their Humanities Open Book Program.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Prell, Riv-Ellen, 1947-
Prayer and community : the havurah in American Judaism / Riv-Ellen Prell.
p. cm.
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
ISBN 978-0-8143-4446-0 (paperback); 978-0-8143-4447-7 (ebook)
1. Fellowship—Religious aspects—Judaism. 2. Prayer groups—Judaism. 3.
Prayer—Judaism. 4. Judaism—United States—Liturgy.
I. Title. II. Title: Title: Havurah in American Judaism.
BM720.F4P74 1989
All the photographs in this volume, except for the one on p. 114, are used with the
permission of photographer Bill Aron. All rights reserved. © Bill Aron Photography.
Wayne State University Press thanks Bill Aron for his generous permission to reprint
material in this book.
http:/ /

To Barbara G. Myerhoff
When she speaks there is wisdom; and the Torah of Lovingkindness is on her lips."
Proverbs 31:17

Acknowledgments 9
Introduction 12
1 Decorum in American Judaism:
The Sacred in Social Interaction 30
2 Havurah Judaism:
Old World Decorum and Countercultural Aesthetics 69
3 A Sabbath Minyan:
Organization, Decorum, and Experience 112
4 The Constituents of Minyan Prayer:
Community, Interpretation, and Halaha 159
5 The Prayer Crisis 203
6 Praying in the Minyan:
Performance and Covenant 239
7 Community, Visibility, and Gender in Prayer 273
Conclusion 316
Bibliography 322
Index 332

From the time I began this research to the completion of this book has
been more than a decade of my life. In this period I have enjoyed shar
ing this work with many people in many ways. My understanding of
anthropology religion, gender, and Judaism has been enriched by these
I am grateful above all to members of the Kelton Minyan who in
vited me to join them in order to leant more about religion in modem
society. This was no colonial encounter. They interviewed me, thor
oughly discussed my intentions, and voted on my conducting research
with them. Yet they took a great risk in allowing me to observe and
understand them. The group no longer exists, though I have enjoyed
the privilege of keeping up with many members' lives through letters,
visits, and second-hand reports. My interpretation of them is unlikely
to be the same as theirs, not simply because I was an observer and they
were participants, but because our perspectives on their experiences are
inevitably different. I hope that those members who read this book will
see in it the deep respect I held for them as people and for the commu
nity they created.
I began this research when I was a graduate student in the Depart
ment of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. I am indebted to the
department for its initial financial support of my training and to the
members of my dissertation committee: Professors David Schneider,
Terence Ulmer, the late Victor W. Turner, and Rabbi Daniel Leifer. Each

was an outstanding teacher of ritual and symbolism and a thoughtful
respondent to my work.
The Danforth Foundation through its Kent fellowship supported my
dissertation research and subsequent graduate education. The Univer
sity of Minnesota, where I am currently a member of the faculty, pro
vided support for further research and writing. I am indebted to these
institutions for their financial assistance.
Several people read many drafts of this manuscript with generosity
and insight. While none of them can be held responsible for the final
product, I believe I benefitted immeasurably from their collegial assist
ance. They are Isa Aron, Harry Boyte, Michael Fischer, Frida Furman,
Steven Foldes, Don Handelman, Lawrence Hoffman, John Ingham,
M. J. Maynes, Louis Newman, Paul Rosenblatt, and Earl Schwartz. The
members of my long-standing weekly research and writing group read
not only the manuscript but the notes for it as well. I am deeply in
debted to Sara Evans, Amy Kaminsky, Elaine May, and Cheri Register
for their continuing interest and our shared pleasure in our work.
I have also had conversations with colleagues who have been essen
tial to my ability to further develop a number of arguments in this book.
They are Barry Cytron, Lary May, the late Barbara Myerhoff, Louis
Newman, Mischa Penn, and Naomi Scheman. Marcia Eaton and David
Noble provided helpful bibliographic references.
All photographs, with the exception of the Minyan mizrach in
Chapter 3, are the work of Bill Aron. They record the activities of other
Jews, not Minyan events or members whose anonymity I agreed to
maintain. Aron's work on Jewish communities is a striking record of
Jewish life. I am honored to include them and believe that a group
committed to new images should be seen as well as described. Some
of these photographs are included in Bill Aron's collection, From the
Comers of the Earth: Contemporary Photographs of the Jewish World,
(Schocken, 1985) which includes a section on the New York Havurah.
At Wayne State University Press, I appreciated Robert Mandel's per
sistent interest in this project. Anne Adamus helped in many ways,
kindly and efficiently, to bring this project to its final form.
I also wish to express my appreciation to those people who pro
vided moral and emotional support for the labor involved in producing
a book. My parents, Mary and Samuel Prell, helped in every way they
could. My friend Marge Goldwater was unflagging in support and
nudging during the final revision of the book. My friends and colleagues
Sara Evans and Elaine May never waivered in their belief in me and my
work. Their friendship is one of the great gifts of my life. My children,

Lila Sima and Livia Sara Foldes, have lived with this book all of their
young lives. It took me away from them when we wanted to be to
gether. Their love as well as complaints always helped, at least to put
things in perspective. Of the many things I learned in the course of
writing this book none was as important as the meaning of my partner
ship with Steven Foldes. There is no aspect of this book we have not
shared, from the research as young graduate students, to the ideas and
writing style. Steven gave his love, patience, respect, and critical mind
to me unsparingly. I cannot adequately express my debt to him, but can
only place it in the context of our shared lives.
The two teachers who were most influential in my training as an
anthropologist died prematurely before the completion of this book.
Victor lYimer was an extraordinary model as man, scholar, humanist,
and religious person. His ability to grasp the multiple meanings of any
religious encounter—ontological, political, aesthetic, and poetic—set a
standard that is impossible to imitate but essential to remember.
Barbara G. Myerhoff, my teacher, mentor, and friend, shared all of
the stages of this work with me until her death in 1985. Her counsel
was always wise. Her insights were always unique and profound. Her
understanding of religion and ritual was virtually unmatched. I dedicate
this book to her and her memory with gratitude and love.

In the fall of 1973 forty Jewish men and women gathered, as they did
every Saturday morning, for Sabbath prayer. They were members of the
Kelton Free Minyan, praying together in the neighborhood of Kelton
University, a large California state university in Los Angeles. Strictly
speaking, a minyan is the quorum of ten people—traditionally male—
required for the recitation of Jewish blessings. In general usage, how
ever, a minyan refers to a group that meets for common prayer. Their
community was not Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. 1 They were
affiliated with no denomination, considering their group first and fore
most an alternative to the American synagogue. They chose, in their
embrace of Judaism, neither to be fundamentalist nor minimally obser
vant. Rather, they remained committed to a Judaism that allowed them
to struggle with the Jewish issues that they believed their parents ig
nored or dismissed, in an alternative form to any available in American
On this particular Sabbath, during the Torah service at the midpoint
of their prayers, Joseph, one of the members, requested the honor of
blessing the Torah (aliyah) 2 As he approached the scroll he asked an
other member, Jay, a rabbi but not the leader of this formally leaderless
group, to recite a prayer following Joseph's blessing. Though this is a
ritually acceptable act, it was relatively unusual and was precipitated by
the Yom Kippur War in Israel that was occurring at the time. Joseph, a
little uncomfortable with his ability to read Hebrew, asked Jay to recite

a prayer that called on the "God of healing" to bring a full recovery to
Israeli soldiers. Joseph had lived in Israel during the previous year and
was considering returning there, perhaps permanently. The members of
the group said "Amen" to the prayer, joining Joseph and Jay in their
support for Israel, where many had lived or visited, and to which all felt
deeply attached. This war coincided with the holidays of the Jewish new
year that brought members together more frequently than their usual
weekly observance of the Sabbath. All of the members followed the war
closely, reading the newspaper, listening to the news, and calling friends
or relatives in Israel for any information. Unlike the Six Day War of
1967, this war did not have a quick and decisive resolution. The future
of the state, and the kind of future it would have, were all in question.
The combination of the war and ritual cycle, therefore, made it a tense
and emotional time.
Later that morning, Joseph, a relatively new member to the group,
again wanted to offer a prayer, but this time for Israel's victory. He asked
Minyan members to pray together for that victory as they were about to
recite the grace after the lunch they shared following their service. This
precipitated a long, serious, and sometimes angry discussion. Many said
flatly that they could not pray for the bloodshed of Arab men and
women. Others questioned what victory was if it did not ensure peace,
so why pray for victory rather than peace. Joseph claimed that if they
were unwilling to pray for victory, nothing was worth praying for at all.
Many members asserted that Judaism had always taken account of the
concerns of all people in war.
Minyan members rarely, if ever, created prayers; normally they
prayed the traditional liturgy from a Sabbath prayer book. However, out
of concern for Joseph and the issue he raised, they discussed the matter
until they were able to agree upon the language to be used. Together
they recited a simple sentence expressing their hope for the peace and
safety of all. Jacob, a founder of the Minyan and one of the rabbis in the
community, concluded the discussion by commenting, "You see how
important prayer is to us. We are willing to fight over it."
That these men and women in their twenties and thirties, mostly
students and some professionals, should turn to community prayer to
express their greatest concerns, and also negotiate what they were will
ing to pray, is only comprehensible in light of that final remark. Jacob's
comment on the event was calculated to remind them all that prayer
was not something to be repeated routinely, but was so significant that
its words were worthy of detailed discussion and negotiation. They
prayed a traditional liturgy with which they did not always agree, but

that did not render them unwilling to carefully weigh the words they
prayed. Prayer articulated their values and perspectives as much be
cause it was "traditional" as because they were willing to examine it.
Prayer evoked both their cognitive concerns and emotional reactions.
This brief, though unusually dramatic, event in the Minyan sum
marizes how prayer and praying expressed personal relations within the
community, as well as articulated identity and a place for each Minyan
member among the Jewish people. Prayer was simultaneously self-
conscious, as their discussion of prayer language revealed, and fre
quently unself-conscious, as their praying of traditional Jewish liturgy
revealed. They did not discuss the war as an abstract problem. On two
occasions they prayed about it, moving from an emotional discussion to
a ritual performance, valuing both equally.
This book is about why these men and women prayed, why prayer
was a language and ritual with which they formulated identity, history,
and values, though it required constant discussion and negotiation. To
understand their use of prayer I address a problem introduced to the
social-scientific study of religion by Max Weber ([1904] 1958). Why
does a religion take the form it does within a particular historical period
and within a specific culture? What are the forces that shape religious
forms and meanings for a particular era and generation? In addition, I
look at religious activities, in this case all aspects of prayer, to under
stand not only how they reflect these social forces, but how these ritual
forms in turn affect the experience of the worshiper. I suggest that the
analysis of religion in any society—traditional or complex—requires
this dual understanding of the broad social/historical context and of the
performance of its ritual activities. The connection between these phe
nomena is less apparent in a complex and pluralist society where main
stream religion has a less direct and encompassing affect on its adher
ents than in traditional societies. Nevertheless, without understanding
both, as few studies of contemporary religion do, one cannot under
stand either what ideas are communicated by religion, or how they are
made effective and authoritative for the worshiper. Nor can one address
why they may not be effective, leaving worshipers with doubts and un
The fact that Minyan members are Jews places some of these ques
tions in a particular context. Their "religion" is the product of the meet
ing between Jewish culture, a way of life, and modem European and
American society, which cast religion as a denominational preference to
be kept separate from work and daily life. The grandparents and great-
grandparents of these men and women came to America from Europe

and most participated in shaping Judaism into a religion by building
synagogues, creating institutions, and maintaining a persistent attach
ment to Judaism, even though they dismantled most of its obligations,
requirements, and theology. Nothing has preoccupied American Jews
and American Judaism more than the maintenance of identity that is
neither exclusively religious nor exclusively ethnic, but both. This book,
then, pays special attention to features of religion that create identity
and focuses on how social relations and sacred concerns meet in prayer.
Only a tiny fraction of American Jews pray weekly, as Minyan
members did, though approximately 40 percent belong to synagogues.
Even fewer would think to address their near unanimous concern for
the safety of the State of Israel through prayer. What set Minyan mem
bers apart from the great majority of Jews in the United States cannot
be explained by the religious observances of their parents, their educa
tions—secular and religious—or their degree of belief in Jewish theol
ogy. Rather, they shared a generation and commitment to joining their
Judaism to American countercultural attitudes so that protesting Amer
ican policy, formulating alternatives to American society, and reconcep
tualizing gender relations were expressed within Jewish rituals, sym
bols, and observances. Similarly, Jewish texts, requirements, and prayer
had to express many of the values and aesthetics of the American coun
terculture, particularly equality and expressive individualism. Indeed,
the discussion of Joseph's prayer caught up the themes of nationalism
and peace and their relationship to prayer, because the Minyan often
discussed these topics as they read their own sacred texts. After the ser
vice when Joseph angrily dismissed Minyan members' opposition to his
prayer as "liberal American idealism," he understood that everything
that occurred in the Minyan was an attempt to synthesize a genera
tional outlook (American liberalism and idealism) with traditional Ju
daism. They believed that this synthesis was unique to their generation
and they rejected all previous generational formulations of American
Judaism and American society.
The Minyan was not a unique community. It was one of many such
groups called havurot (fellowships; the singular form is havurah) that
developed from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, and continued to
flourish in all the major Jewish population centers of the United States.
They had high visibility in the Jewish press and in subsequent scholarly
and popular assessments of American Judaism of that period (Da-
widowicz 1982b; Waxman 1983; Cohen 1983; Silberman 1985; Elazar
1987; Silverman 1987). Those who commented on the havurah looked
for comparable groups that predated the 1960s. Some noted that Re-

constructionist Judaism used the havurah concept decades before as al
ternatives to synagogues (Neusner 1972a). One early work on havurot
traced their true origins to the Jewish Commonwealth in the centuries
preceding the Christian era. Wilderness communities and "fellowships
of the faithful/' were organized in this period. (Neusner 1972b, 1-2).
The havurah movement however, was the first movement in Amer
ican Judaism to criticize the suburban and monumental urban syn
agogue as a viable expression of Jewish life. Its members rejected de
nominations, impressive buildings, and other imitations of American
society and Protestantism. They did not however, reject Judaism, only
their parents' version of it. Instead they created small, homogeneous
groups that prayed, usually weekly rather than daily, studied, and pro
vided a community to share personal events and the holidays of the
Jewish year. The members of the groups were usually close friends.
They were committed to maintaining their small size and their complete
independence from large institutions.
The most accessible expression of havurot is the volumes of The
Jewish Catalogue (Siegel, Strassfeld, and Strassfeld 1973; Strassfeld and
Strassfeld 1976; 1980), which describe a Jewish life that is compatible
with the attitudes and activities of the counterculture. The many con
tributors to the volumes, virtually all havurah members, meant their
own lives as models. The books closely resemble the popular counter
culture handbook, The Whole Earth Catalogue. The success of these books
is legendary in Jewish publishing circles. By the early 1980s, they had
sold more than 200,000 copies. The books are reputed to have outsold
every publication of the Jewish Publication Society, their publisher,
other than the Bible. Hence, the havurah approach to Judaism—per
sonal, independent and activist—spread to many people who may have
had no affiliation with any other Jewish organization.
In the late 1970s synagogues began forming their own havurot.
Soon many American Jews associated with Conservative, Reform, and
Reconstructionist synagogues also thought of themselves as belonging
to havurot. In fact, many synagogue members found themselves prefer
ring the small face-to-face groups because they too found synagogues
large and alienating (Reisman 1980; Bubis, Wasserman and Lert 1983).
Some wanted a different kind of praying where liturgy was interspersed
with Torah reading and discussion. Some sought to explore spirituality,
and some wanted a traditional framework for prayer where women
were accepted as equals. Some synagogue goers simply wanted a more
intimate sense of community. Whatever the motivation of individual
members, what began as an alternative organization in American Ju-

daism quickly became standard fare for American Jews. In 1984 Abba
Eban, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, narrated an
eleven part series on Jewish history. Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. In
the segment about American Judaism, he described havurot as a wide
spread but uniquely American adaptation of Judaism.
The project of the havurah movement—to integrate Judaism with a
generational outlook and thereby create a more authentic Judaism—
caught up powerful contradictions. At the core of normative Judaism is
halaha, a set of prescriptions for every aspect of life. Halaha structures
activity and provides the basis for community through prayer, study,
and responsibilities to others. Minyan members, like the vast majority
of American Jews, did not feel bound by all the requirements of halaha.
Their ability to adapt some of the requirements to their own lives did
not mean that they did not, in turn, feel obligated by other rules. The
choices made by most havurah members, sometimes apparently incon
sistently, led members of a havurah in Philadelphia to refer to them
selves as "pick and choose Jews" (Weissler 1982). Nevertheless, they
understood themselves to be "observant" and "traditional" Jews and
differentiated themselves from Reform Jews who more willingly reject
halaha. Though some havurot thought of themselves as religiously "lib
eral," in the seventies havurot were more likely to be traditional than
Even a modified halaha was not the only system structuring the
activities and outlooks of Minyan and havurah members. They adhered
strongly to democracy and expressive individualism, which committed
them to equality in all activities and the right of the person to stamp
something of him or herself on Judaism, hence altering it. The type of
discussion about prayer that members had with Joseph, involving cog
nitive reflection and asserting a wide range of values, expressed just this
outlook and was an intrinsic aspect of all Minyan worship.
The obligatory nature of halaha is inevitably at odds with an Amer
ican democratic individualism based on choice and the needs of the self.
I argue that the Minyan's solution to this contradiction was to create a
prayer community that synthesized the poles of normative community
and expressive individualism through what I call aesthetics and perform
ance. Members shared a similar definition of what made prayer desir
able, obligatory, effective, and beautiful within a homogeneous com
munity. They believed that there were no others anywhere in Los
Angeles who shared these definitions. In their view their differences
from synagogues—their informality, lack of formal leadership, discus
sion of disagreements with text, and a style of praying that involved

everyone's active participation—defined their uniqueness. They did not
change the prayers; they altered the aesthetics of prayer by praying dif
ferently than mainstream American Jews. Their aesthetics were put into
practice and made believable and real through the performance of
prayer. Ritual activity formulated through a generational aesthetic gen
erated their conviction of the authenticity and effectiveness of their
prayer and their Judaism.
This aesthetic solution engaged the same issue that has been rele
vant to all generations of immigrant Jews and their children: how to
formulate a relationship between community tradition, and the self
within America. Minyan members formulated those relations in the
way they organized the social relations of their community, their litur
gical services, and in the ways they addressed conflicts that arose be
tween halaha and other values. None of these conflicts were "resolved"
for the Minyan's generation any more than they were for other genera
tions. However, what was unique about the Minyan and havurot was
how they juxtaposed the self and tradition so that aesthetic activities
and prayer performances could constitute solutions to these inevitable
contradictions. Minyan members lived their lives as Jews successfully
when they prayed the words of the tradition and at the same time chal
lenged it through their discussions and debates. Rejecting the syn
agogue in favor of a countercultural alternative constituted for them a
Judaism they found far more authentic than any Jewish movements or
denominations that preceded them in the United States.
Religion in Complex Society
This community, though particular, was an ideal setting in which to
examine how contemporary Jews modified their traditional religious
formulation to accommodate their sense of self, which was caught be
tween the counterculture and that tradition. The significance of the self
within Western culture makes it crucial to understand how the autono
mous person is bound into a system of religious obligation and how,
ultimately, the tensions between tradition and self were minimized. In
the group, these issues were focused on problems of how ritual ex
pressed and transformed experience, how tradition was affected by
changing social relations and changing conceptions of gender, and how
religion was made authoritative in the absence of a homogeneous insti
tutional structure obligating participation.
Though Minyan members were particular, they were not unique.
They were representative not just of their generation but of Americans,

who, despite their doubts and even grave reservations, have a deep
sense of attachment to their religion or church. What these people have
in common is a desire to create identity and personal meaning within a
historical tradition that defines community. Although the traditional
forms require rationalizing both beliefs and doubts within a given sys
tem, they also provide a rich resource for addressing contemporary
problems. Though an issue in the study of religion in modem society is
how precisely to define it, it is these traditional forms that separate de
nominational religion from joggers, anarchists, and other "life styles"
that may well be embedded in complete world views, but lack a history
and traditional system of transcendent authority.
It is a curiosity that the study of American Judaism and American
religion has paid little attention to how religious experience is consti
tuted. Rather, the overriding concern of this field is with how religion
has changed as a result of losing its all encompassing hold over the lives
of adherents. Secularization theorists have argued effectively that a
changing society has altered the institutions, authority, and ideas in
which religion is embedded. Therefore, what is worth knowing about
Jews is, for example, how minimal is their observance of law. For Chris
tians, on the other hand, studies feature church attendance and chang
ing theological beliefs. These studies frequently demonstrate that Chris
tians continue to go to church while believing few of their doctrines.
The most important body of scholarship about American Jews is
sociological, largely written by American Jews. Recently these studies
have been increasingly statistical and social structural in character. Typ
ically such studies focus on ritual observance and synagogue attend
ance, usually cross generationally. The results have been striking and
consistent. Undoubtedly the overt signs of religious life have radically
diminished. Jews practice fewer rituals, attend synagogue less often,
and rarely observe unique Jewish requirements. Cohen notes, as have
others, that a few ritual observances have increased, but these are com
patible with mainstream Christian observance (1983, 49; Goldscheider
1986). Hanukah rituals, such as lighting the menorah, have gained pop
ularity because of their family focus and apparent compatibility with
the celebration of Christmas. Yet Jews continue to join synagogues and
educate their children to be Jews, albeit with some decrease by genera
tional distance from immigration. Judaism does not appear to be near
ing a demise in American culture.
This apparent paradox is consistently explained in light of what so
cial scientists call "ethnic cohesion." In short, this explanation holds
that Jews remain religious in order to remain Jews. Religious articula-

tion of life passages, family events, and history seems to be the way Jews
have found to continue a sense of their uniqueness without jeopardizing
their successful acculturation to American society. In its most extreme
form, those who look exclusively at the statistical nature of Jewish re
ligious practice are driven to see such behavior as markers of identity.
For them, ethnicity is an empty category that stands for nothing other
than Jewishness, reinforced by shared social class. It does not possess a
unique value system, an outlook or consciousness, or require specific
behavior. Religious life is minimal and it merely establishes the social
category "Jewish" (Goldscheider and Zuckerman 1984; Goldscheider
Charles Liebman, a political scientist who has written extensively
and insightfully about modem Jewish life, formulated another answer
to this dilemma in an influential book, The Ambivalent American Jew
(1973). His solution was classically anthropological in that he posited
the development of two kinds of Judaism which he called "folk" and
"elite." The elite formulation is the normative one associated with Jew
ish law (halaha) and practiced by Orthodox Jews. It is clearly on the
wane in modem life; only a minority of American Jews are Orthodox
observers of Judaism. The folk formulation is unselfconscious and emo
tional. Liebman argued it is more adaptive because it is more flexible.
The majority of American Jews who attend synagogue irregularly and
occasionally practice certain rituals have combined nostalgia, ethnicity,
and a selection of Jewish rituals to create a folk Judaism, accepted by
them as authentic. Liebman's claim, while innovative, suffers the limi
tations of all such dichotomies. In overlooking the continuities and ten
sions between folk and elite models, made conscious in the lives and
communities in which men and women are Jews, Liebman and others
fail to see how a religious life is created, omitting a critical part of nor
mative religious life. For the relationship between elite and folk formu
lations, well illustrated by the Minyan, is articulated by both halaha and
modem life. In sharply differentiating normative and nonnormative
expressions of a religion, they ignore their impact on one another. They
also fail to examine the particularities of historical periods that create
certain relations between the folk and elite formulations. The pervasive
force of the normative tradition is overlooked in the analysis; Minyan
members were in no sense free from normative Judaism despite their
willingness to transform it.
My analysis of this community of American Jews reasserts the reli
gious character of Judaism, even when it is practiced by non-Orthodox
Jews. Acknowledging the fundamental transformation of modem soci-

ety from a "closed" and "tradition bound" world into a plural one has
led scholars of religion to abandon the project of understanding both
the sources of religious continuity and the possibilities for religious
change. The social structuralists have discerned accurately a difference
in behavior. They have failed, however, by the limitations of their
method, to explain the significance of that behavior. Although we may
know the occasions on which Jews enact their Judaism, we do not
know what is enacted or what it means. We do not know how Judaism
is created in religious settings as opposed to nonreligious settings, such
as secular philanthropic groups. In short, until recently social scientists
concerned with American Judaism have not asked how Jews are made
Jews and why Jews remain Jews. Explaining religious behavior as the
pursuit of cohesion, apart from understanding the meaning of that
cohesion, is a partial exercise that has often overlooked the most impor
tant question one asks of any religious system: How is it constituted?
What is the historical context that leads to the organization of religious
community and the structure of ritual action within it? That is, what is
the impact of the larger social system on how any system of beliefs and
actions communicates meaning in the form that it does? In turn, how
do religious and ritual activity structure and orient the experience of the
worshiper? What are the sources of authority and the premises of be
lief? Only in ethnographic studies of Jews creating a shared religious life
may such questions be addressed. 3
I contend that these questions can only be answered by studying
religious behavior, like all human behavior, as meaningful in action.
How religion is lived must be understood as well as its normative rules.
It is the relationship of religious rules and action that must be sought,
but within behavior itself, rather than simply measuring behavior
against a single norm. For the patchwork that is created and recreated
as a religion by adherents provides them both the critical continuity and
the possibility for change within a traditional religion. For Minyan
members, as for most American Jews, this constantly innovated religion
expressed their American Jewish lives, constraining them by transmit
ting elements of an authoritative history and observance while allowing
them to place their individual stamp upon it.
In the last decade, many anthropologists have become concerned
with what are called studies of "performance," the enactment of ritual
and cultural events. 4 Rather than focusing on idealized versions of these
events, they have asked what effect the actual performance has on the
participant, the audience, and its meaning in the culture. They share an
interest in "emergent meaning." How does the significance of the activ-

ity develop out of the performance itself, rather than out of a static text.
Though the majority of these writers discuss traditional societies, their
work is crucial to understanding religion in complex society. They point
attention to how meaning is made in society, rather than assuming it is
given. In the act of performing rituals that convey cultural ideas and
assumptions, people come to hold and value them. There are differences
among these writers about how homogeneous such ideas are. Not even
the simplest societies, some anthropologists argue, share a single given
set of assumptions about the world. Performance, then, is crucial in
developing and expanding cultural ideas. People do not simply enact a
given view, but expand and even alter that view in performance. This is
even more true in complex society, where general meanings are made
authoritative and believable in performance because of its capacity to
evoke conviction. Therefore, an emphasis on the performance of reli
gious ritual and its impact on worshipers is an essential focus for the
study of how religion is constituted in complex society. The expressive
self and the authoritative ground of tradition meet in performance
rather than text. I advocate a view of American religion that emphasizes
the study of performance.
Samuel Heilman's survey of the sociology of American Jews (1983)
notes that scholarship on Jews in any period tends to reflect the con
cerns of Jews themselves. The study of anti-Semitism corresponded to a
period of rising anti-Semitism in American society. Similarly, the recent
trend toward ethnographic studies may reflect renewed pride in ethnic
ity. But more importantly, ethnographic research allows one the possi
bility of seeing not only what is practiced but also how and why it is
practiced in the form it is. It allows one to focus on the performance of
religion within normative forms, emphasizing what meanings are trans
mitted and how they are made convincing for participants. This ethno
graphic study focuses on how Minyan members constituted their reli
gious experience. Following on more recent studies of contemporary
religious communities (Stromberg 1986), I examine the fragmented and
varied beliefs that were held within this community to understand how
these beliefs, as well as religious participation, were made plausible,
convincing, and effective for worshipers. In the Minyan I examined
prayer, not only because this was their central activity, but because this
was the arena where the worshiper's convictions (or doubts) were
transformed into religious action in order to create his or her Judaism.
I understand their Judaism to be the product of their own beliefs
and feelings of ethnicity brought to life within a particular social context

and marked by a unique aesthetic. Aesthetics are of particular impor
tance. because when religious beliefs are less firmly planted in the soil
of social interaction and social relations, as is the case in a complex
plural society, they take on a general and more metaphoric quality. The
feelings formed by and associated with ritual activity are focused in aes
thetic media rather than doctrine. Religious beliefs and attitudes are not
mirrored in the world around where people are different, but in person
ally held cultural images, feelings, and a sense of community formed
with people like themselves who are joined and differentiated by aes
thetic media.
They might best be understood as engaged in what I will call a ritual
rehearsal of identity. It is not that the ritual is simply a means to an end,
an exercise to promote family ties and Jewish ethnicity, as a number of
sociologists have argued. To the contrary, prayer in the Minyan enabled
Jewishness (identity) as well as Judaism (religion) because of the asso
ciation of ritual with the covenant, the sign of the continuity of the
Jewish people. Ritual is ideally performed in community. At the same
time, ritual creates a private, unarticulated experience. The performance
of Jewish ritual is persuasive: sound, movement, and engagement are
built into prayer. Minyan members acknowledged that tradition pulled
them into observance, but the power of secular, American values—
which pervaded and dominated their lives—undermined the tradition
and allowed them to remain American. They found in Judaism an alter
native to American life, yet they continued to embrace the liberal egali
tarianism of Western society. Minyan prayer emphasized these various
meanings, both traditional and liberal, by the way it was performed and
organized. Jewish identity was made and refashioned in the commu
The Judaism thus recreated in this community was both radical and
conservative. Members' performance of the tradition demanded the
forms of the tradition; the forms of the tradition required the perform
ance. They were persuaded they were Jews because in their community
they did what Jews do: they prayed the Sabbath liturgy. At the same
time, their community was predicated on the integration of secular val
ues, intellectual debates, gender equality, and the acceptance of one an
other's Judaism, all of which tended to undermine the tradition. The
result was a mutually generating process of creating, retaining, and re
creating Judaism. For the members of the Minyan at least, Judaism be
came more meaningful precisely because it was made to assimilate con
temporary political and social values. This book, then, is about how one

group of modem Jews persuaded themselves that they were Jews. It is
about how they took ritual into their own hands, and with those hands
they grasped the tradition even as they changed it.
This was not a process controlled by halaha. Their Judaism was
more voluntaristic and individualistic, making the self the ultimate in
tegrator of various possibilities. Nevertheless, it was certainly religion,
because religion, a system of beliefs and rituals, is articulated in com
plex society through the person, where virtually all meaning is experi
enced as self defining and identity conferring. This book examines not
only what contribution religion makes to the formation of identity for a
contemporary person, but more importantly, how that identity is au
thenticated through ritual. In examining people who are liberal about
religion and politics, rather than fundamentalist, I suggest that their
struggle to maintain ties to the past in the context of the present needs
to be understood in terms of ritual and community and their relation
ship to generational formulations of social values. I point to the levels
of analysis required for studying the integration of the social and the
sacred, as well as the person and the religion, by focusing on how to
define prayer as an activity rather than a text and analyzing ritual as a
performed activity. In examining activity rather than institution, I hope
to introduce balance to the study of religion in secular society, which
has exclusively focused on what has undermined the significance of re
ligion in the organization of society. Without understanding what con
tinues to make religion effective for its adherents, it is impossible to
understand pluralistic society. I account for the fact that the religion of
contemporary people is an expression of their social class, their ethnic
ity, their gender, and their use of the voluntary association as a medium
of identity in complex society. When the person is the locus where
meaning is made, then the analysis of religion belongs in personal de
velopment, in social relations, in ritual, and in history.
Studying the Minyan
To understand how religion is constituted requires the close obser
vation of participants' performances. This book is based on eighteen
months of participant-observation fieldwork in Los Angeles from 1973-
1975. In many ways this research was an odd choice for an anthropol
ogist. In the past, the cardinal rule of the discipline was to conduct re
search in a non-Western setting with people as different from oneself as
possible. The many recent exceptions to this rule demonstrate that an
thropology is a discipline in transition. Foreign fieldwork, however, re-

mains relatively normative for anthropology. Nevertheless, I did not
seek out an exotic setting in which to conduct my research. From the
University of Chicago, where I was pursuing my graduate degree, I
moved to Los Angeles, where my most distressing burden was to find
an affordable apartment in the expensive neighborhood where the Min-
yan met.
Yet my "culture shock" was just as real and just as profound,
though different, as that which I experienced eighteen months later
when I accompanied my husband, Steven Foldes, to a town in central
Mexico, the setting for his doctoral research. The culture shock arose
from assuming the odd role of anthropologist. I was always there and
yet I never belonged. No matter how like me they appeared—and that
counts for a good deal in one's psychological adjustment—I was not
there to join their group. I was there to study it. Of course, I could
"pass" as a member. I was a Jew, a student, and in my twenties. But I
was also different. I was not raised as an observant Jew, and I was not
one by Minyan standards. What I learned in order to enter this com
munity (basic Hebrew, knowledge of prayer, and the festival cycle) I
learned mostly as part of my doctoral degree training in preparation for
the field. What proved critical in my research was to actively work at
undermining my natural sense of affinity with the group's members. My
position was the classically ambiguous one of the participant-observer,
complicated by my unavoidable and unmistakable similarity.
A key step in participant observation has been remarked upon by
other anthropologists: One is resocialized into a new culture. He or she
must become a group member to fully understand the new culture. That
membership implies both the ability to survive in the culture and to
communicate what one learns in the categories of one's culture and the
social sciences. The enterprise is one of translation, of comprehending,
and communicating. I, too, underwent a resocialization despite the fact
that the group immediately "made sense" to me. That resocialization
demanded that I distance myself from what was easily comprehensible
and relearn the sense they made to themselves. The danger was, of
course, that they were not alien enough to allow me to censor my own
sense making. The advantage, which for me was considerable, was
working in my own language so that as their sense emerged, the subtle
ties of it were readily graspable.
I pursued this sense making through classical qualitative methods. I
was the observer, and I observed all formal Minyan activities from Au
gust 1973 to December 1974, then intermittently from January 1975 to
July 1975. The Minyan met for Sabbath and festival prayer services. In

addition, they held two weekend retreats, quarterly evaluation meet
ings, and innumerable smaller social events. From these data I discerned
the formal and informal structures of the group: how it worked. Equally
important were the approximately one hundred hours of discussions
during the services in which members expressed and disagreed over
interpretations of prayer, the Torah, Judaism, and issues in current Jew
ish life. Almost none of these observations could be recorded immedi
ately because of the Jewish prohibition on writing during the Sabbath.
When I once tried to write on the Sabbath I was asked not to again. I
recorded my observations of these events immediately after they oc
curred and those of any non-Sabbath or festival events as they tran
spired. Another major source of data was formal interviews conducted
at least once with virtually every member of the group. In each case I
used the same open-ended questions in order to attain, whenever pos
sible, comparable data.
Although I had no key informant, no individual guide to the com
plexities of Minyan life, I talked with some members at greater length,
particularly those who dominated the public life of the group. Initially I
talked more to “founders" than "newcomers" of the group, more to
men than to women. My status also affected who wanted to talk to me.
I most often interacted with married rather than unmarried members,
academics rather than nonacademics, and, ultimately, as much with
women as with men.
It was impossible to hide my own beliefs and ideas, unless I was to
stay among these people in utter anonymity, which was intolerable both
for me and for Minyan members. After half a year I was enough of a
participant to be expected to take roles in the Sabbath service. I most
often led discussions, offering anthropological interpretations of texts,
alongside the feminist, political, psychological, and normative Jewish
interpretations offered by others. I was neither an observant nor reli
giously educated Jew. I did not hide that I was a feminist when I went
to observe planning meetings for a feminist service (see Chapter 7). De
spite these distinguishing features, by the end of my stay all regular
members had talked to me about what they thought of the Minyan and
their place in it.
How I initially saw the Minyan affected what I continued to see. I
was preoccupied by the group's structure, its organization of social re
lations, and the competition for power. Because the members' organi
zation and their activities and the infinite variations of who was friends
with whom concerned them constantly, these issues also became central
for me. My concern with organization helped me to make sense of them

initially (Prell-Foldes 1978b). Committed as I was to discerning their
sense, educated as I was in social structuralism, their sensitivity to one
another combined with my interest in politics inclined me initially to
concentrate on group dynamics.
But this initial focus drew me away from the substance of their ac
tivities: why prayer and tradition should be the medium through which
they would express themselves. After completing my dissertation I be
gan to rethink who these men and women were. As I read more about
American Judaism, I came to understand the strong parallels between
Minyan members and their parents' generation's constructions of Juda
ism. I was struck by what these parallels revealed about American reli
gion, namely, that religion had been voluntaristic in America ever since
immigrants arrived. What appeared, for example, as a countercultural
rebellion had its roots deep in immigrants' attempts to maintain their
Judaism within American society. Voluntarism of this magnitude re
quired an understanding of how people managed to imbue their reli
gion with the aura of authority and authenticity no longer held by insti
Finally, the results of my research and writing about this group have
been shaped by the fact that I was deeply moved by my experience in
the Minyan. Because my father, the strongest Jewish figure in my early
life, had to work on the Sabbath and thus could not have a consistently
Jewish life, he felt sullied enough to dispense with most of the religious
observance of his late adolesence. The stories he told of himself as a Jew
concerned a distant past when "he really had been Jewish." He wistfully
longed for something he would never have again, as he worked to per
fect a successful American life in business and in the secular organiza
tions of Jewish ethnicity. I glimpsed his lost passions twice a year during
new year rituals in a Reform synagogue where he was never comfort
able. At the family Seder (ritual and meal) he led during Passover, he
told me stories of his mother's devotion to Judaism. His eyes brimmed
with tears—which I never comprehended—as he droned the long grace
after meals while I cleared the dishes from the table. Perhaps his pro
found ambivalence about Judaism, his deep attraction to it, and his
impatience with its laws and requirements that disrupted his business,
contributed to my enthusiastic interest in the remote religions of Africa
that drew me to study anthropology. But in the Minyan and havurot I
saw people healing wounds like those of my father and others of his
generation who could not reconcile the Judaism of their parents and the
American lives they sought. Like their parents, who constituted the first
American bom Jewish generation following mass migration to the

United States, Minyan members also reacted to the Judaism of their
parents' past and an American life of their own present. Their reaction
was one of compromise and authenticity, which I grew to respect. My
identification with that vision came to be as deep as the anthropology
that taught me to understand it. Both are central to this book.
The argument of the book develops in the following way. In the first
two chapters, I assert that during the period in the United States when
an urban, professional middle class was emerging (1820-1910), Jews
were immigrating in large numbers. These Jews, who immediately set
their sights on entering this middle class, brought to their Jewish ob
servance their concerns for respectability, uniformity, and democracy.
The countercultural rebellion against some of these values created
the havurah movement. Though groups such as the Minyan rejected the
decorum and aesthetics of their parents' generation, they maintained
these commitments to autonomy and expressive individualism and
their struggles to maintain Judaism within American culture. The Ju
daism that emerged in the havurah focused on maintaining a basically
traditional liturgy, but it radically altered the way that worship was or
ganized by using what I call organizational solutions to the problem of
how to pray.
I then turn to an analysis of Jewish prayer in the Minyan (Chapters
3 through 6), the primary medium through which they have chosen to
express their Judaism and to integrate their other identities—student,
pacifist, feminist, and others—with it. I suggest that the only satisfac
tory model for understanding their prayer lives examines three funda
mental constituents of prayer: community, interpretation, and halaha.
Prayer is more than text, and its performance in this group relied on a
community with which members mutually reflected on prayer. In so
doing they interiorized prayer, making the text and self reflect one
another. Understanding prayer solely as a statement requiring assent
makes it impossible to understand not only why these members prayed
but what they expressed when they prayed: their relationship to history,
to one another and, for some but not all, to God.
In Chapters 5 and 61 examine a crisis that developed around mem
bers' ability to pray and their attempted resolution in order to demon
strate how prayer aesthetics and performance unified and synthesized
the prayer constituents, making them reflect one another and integrat
ing them with the self. Identity was generated out of this synthesis be
cause it located the self in the social, mythological, historical, and cos
mological relationships created by Judaism.
The final ethnographic event focuses on a Sabbath service in which

women members addressed their feelings of attachment to and aliena
tion from Judaism. This chapter asserts that prayer can be constituted
only when members validate and authenticate one another's participa
tion. Both events taken together, the crises about prayer and gender,
underscore that prayer can only be interiorized when the self is visible
in community and halaha. Performance, I suggest, is the essential way
to engage the self in the formulation of identity. I conclude by returning
to the issues of religion in complex society.
1. These American denominations will be discussed and described historically in
Chapters 1, 2, and 3.
2. The Torah service occurs within regular Jewish liturgical services three times a
week. The Torah is the Hebrew word for the five books of the Bible believed to have been
written by Moses. During this service, a section of the Torah is read from the sacred scroll
where these books are inscribed. This service will be discussed at greater length in Chap
ter 3.
3. Some examples of recent works that adopt this perspective are Heilman 1983;
1976; Weissler 1982; Myerhoff 1979. This perspective on the study of American Judaism
is also advocated by Charles Liebman (1982) in a paper presented to evaluate what re
search approaches a center for contemporary Jewish studies might take.
4. These anthropologists and their views are discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6.

Decorum in American Judaism
The Sacred in Social Interaction
I can remember when I was a child how much Judaism ap
pealed to me aesthetically. I thought Adon Olam [a hymn] was
the most beautiful song I had ever heard. I loved the syn
agogue building. But it was never anything intellectual. I
never wondered how there could be a God with so much evil
in the world.
The grandparents and great-grandparents of havurah members created
American Judaism. As these men and women came to the United States
from Germany and Eastern Europe, first steadily by the hundreds and
then rapidly by the thousands and tens of thousands, they created what
had not existed before the nineteenth century, a distinctive American
Judaism that was to be counted as one of America's three major faiths.
What Judaism became was shaped as much by the America they en
countered as it was by the world the immigrants left behind.
Judaism became Americanized in the latter half of the nineteenth
century as America was confronting massive urbanization. The central
ized government bureaucracy of experts and professionals that domi
nated American society, as well as movements for social reform in the
same period, affected all American religions and what the American
people wanted from a religious experience. Americanization occurred
in a society newly formulating middle-class manners and aspirations
and the meaning of American citizenship in an industrial capitalist so
ciety. Jewish acculturation was as improvisational as were the main
stream American social and religious movements that developed in this
period of dramatic change.
The synagogue was the first and most potent religious institution
created to articulate this encounter between European Jews and the
American life they immediately sought to emulate (see Figure l). 1 Eu
ropean Jews came to America eager to stay. So many fled oppression

Decorum in American Judaism
The Synagogue in America After 1840
American Counter
Synagogue form
Ethnic—2nd gener
ation synagogue
Corporate suburban
synagogue center
Organization type
Lay dominated—
democratic, elec
Lay—rabbi relation
ship within denomi
nation. Bureaucra
Adult males
focus on children
ages 7-13
married or attached
men and women ages
Decorum and aes-
European derived
Degrees of Pro-
Focus on individual
followed by unsys
tematic imitation of
mainstream Protes
tantism. Emphasis
on uniform social
testant imitation
dependent on de
nomination. Per
Emphasis on uni
form behavior and
uniform prayer.
experience and par
ticipation within
community to evoke
both Europe and the
American countercul
Relationship to God
The synagogue is a
home for a God-
made person cut off
from the past.
The synagogue is a
home for the self-
made person, made
by people as monu
ments to their
changing social sta
tus and relationship
to America.
The havurah is a
home for people
seeking self-expres
sion through rejection
of an immediate past
in favor of a distant
that America promised to be home and haven. Immigrants imitated
Americans because they wanted to be Americans. In America the syn
agogue was laity dominated, ultimately to the exclusion of rabbinical
authority in America. The laity was primarily concerned with the form
rather than the content of Judaism, particularly in the early years of
immigration. Though American Judaism remained focused on conti
nuity with the Jewish people through time and space, the synagogue
was particularly committed to evolving forms of worship that resembled
the dominant society. These forms were influenced by the middle-class
aesthetics of mainstream Protestant worship and the values of middle-
class Americans. Jews became American and Judaism became Ameri
canized. These synagogues were later rejected by the havurah genera
tion, but the principles on which they were founded remain powerful.
In the 1970s young men and women accepted lay control of the syn-

agogue and of Jewish worship. In the 1970s activists in havurot rejected
the synagogue as inauthentic and too Americanized. They never consid
ered returning to the hierarchic synagogues or communities of Euro
pean Jewry. Rather, they remained committed to a lay organized syn
agogue created by their parents and grandparents. They chose a form
for worship attuned to their peer group. The havurah, then, is a quintes
sential expression of American Judaism, despite its claim to rest on a
rejection of it.
Nineteenth-Century America: Religion and the Synagogue
Jews fled Europe to escape brutal political and economic repression.
When they arrived in the United States, primarily in large cities, most of
them immediately sought relatives and acquaintances from their small
towns and villages. Most often they joined with them for communal
worship. Such gatherings constituted natural forms of community. At
the outset they existed not only for the purpose of prayer but to main
tain the customs and liturgical music that were unique to one or an
other region. These organizations that were to become synagogues, and
later the foundation of denominations, took shape within a society that
was dominated by mainstream Protestantism, the "arbiter of religious
beliefs, values and practices in American culture." (Bednarowski 1984,
Post Civil War Protestantism promoted activism and a simplicity
emphasizing a few central ideas and a minimal ritual life. (Albanese
1981, 256) Revivalism, a personal relationship with Jesus and purifica
tion of the self and society, emphasized the democratic and inclusive
quality of late nineteenth-century Protestantism. Protestants promised
that all men and women could be saved and that they could work to
achieve social and individual purity. The Protestantism that spread rap
idly through the United States with evangelical zeal was a religion of
and for the laity.
Lay control among Protestants emerged as society secularized and
political power shifted away from the clergy. Jewish immigrants, then,
entered a secular society dominated by a Protestant middle class. So it
was that in the Jewish community the laity created a strikingly different
religious and institutional framework than they had known in their Eu
ropean Jewish communities. Historians of nineteenth and twentieth-
century American Jews have noted the continuities between European
and American Jewry, but the remarkable economic and social opportu
nities available to Jewish immigrants led to transformations in all the

Decorum in American Judaism
basic institutions of Jewish life. Indeed, American Judaism was created
out of the transformation of Judaism as a religion, in the context of
social mobility. As social class aspirations developed Judaism changed,
altering its forms of prayer, synagogue architecture, expectations for
participation, and even synagogue membership.
New formulations of Judaism in America were controlled not by
rabbis but by the rank and file membership. Theology, consistent ob
servance of law, and, initially, religious education were not the concerns
of new Americans. Their vision of Judaism was not laid out in ideolog
ical programs but within institutions. In Europe in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, the rabbis and knowledgeable members of the
Jewish community controlled religious tradition and reform. In the
Jewish communities of Europe, rabbis were not only spiritual leaders
but legal arbiters as well. They set the standards for proper behavior.
When Jews responded to the social changes wrought by the Enlighten
ment and nationalism, liberal rabbis also spoke for change, particularly
concerning community organization and ritual observance.
By contrast, in America the members of immigrant synagogues for
mulated, even if unsystematically, their evolving Judaism. The laity was
concerned with carefully orchestrated forms of interaction and decisions
about ritual matters that would reflect what it meant to be an American
Jew. Ideology followed, shaping these changing and volatile definitions
into the Jewish version of denominations. The synagogue was and re
mains the domain of the laity. As such, it provides the mirror for the
individual's self understanding as an American Jew within, in tension
with, or at the margin of that society. Religious change in America em
phasized form. Synagogues were then like many ethnic churches of the
period. Robert Wiebe, a historian of the nineteenth century, noted the
role of ethnic churches:
The desire for self-determination encouraged the development of
organizations that would express the spirit of community auton
omy .. . They [ethnic groups] faced much deeper hostility from
their neighbors. Partly for these reasons, the ethnic groups placed a
much higher premium on the organization itself. Rather than using
it as a platform for reform, they perfected its contents, its peculiar
American Germanness or Irishness. Nothing served them as well as
their churches. (1967, 55-56)
Immigrants' urgent sense of self-determination, their new-found free
doms in America, and their need to shape a new sense of community

and self within America led to an emphasis on the expressive quality of
the organization and its capacity to articulate identity. Organizations, no
matter how instrumental their purpose, also articulated members' iden
tities. When an immigrant used democratic procedures, he or she was
making a statement about him or herself. Every organization whose
purpose was to preserve or to change the past or present aided in creat
ing a new American's sense of self.
Similarly, every generation of American Jews since the nineteenth
century has brought to the synagogue its needs for continuity, accultur
ation, and an articulation of changing social class. The synagogue has
been capable of expressing these concerns, at least in part, because Prot
estant churches have also articulated its members' relationships with
secular society. As immigrant Jews created American Judaism they
responded to their own displacement within a dramatically changing
America. Nonimmigrant Protestants did not have to join American so
ciety as did all immigrants, but they did have to develop ways to live in
an urbanized nation no longer dependent on face-to-face ties in the
community. Those dislocating and reorienting tasks were also addressed
by their churches. The Jews most likely to identify with Americanizing
synagogues were the aspiring middle class, so those most drawn to the
evangelical churches of cities were white-collar workers who had come
from the rural areas. It was the office or store clerks and not the mill
workers who involved themselves in revival and Sunday school move
ments that tended to be interdenominational and rooted in the local,
rather than denominational, association (Hudson 1981, 297). Both
those Jews and Protestants identified with an emerging middle class
were most likely to use the synagogue or the church as a means of
entering and conceptualizing their place in American society. 2
Another development, the challenge to religious authority in two
scientific areas, affected every aspect of nineteenth-century religion.
Within a decade following the Civil War, scholars accepted Darwin's
theory of biological evolution. It was the subject of public debates and
editorials. These discussions clearly drew the implications for religion.
Science and scientists directly challenged the authority of the Bible.
Simultaneously, scholars in German universities developed new ap
proaches to studying the Bible. They historicized sacred text arguing
that it was authored by humans, over time, and edited to create a coher
ent narrative. This textual criticism was also the source of widespread
popular interest, leading to new publications of the Bible that included
scholarly discussions of its authorship. In 1881 the English Revised Ver
sion of the New Testament sold 200,000 copies in one week in New

Decorum in American Judaism
York (Hudson 1981, 266). There were a variety of responses to these
challenges to authority. The nineteenth-century developments of liberal
evangelical Protestantism and fundamentalism and the rise of new and
Orientally inspired religions have all been traced to this attack on tradi
tional authority. 3 Just as Protestant Americans were in search of their
identities in their churches, so too Jews sought their identities in the
new American synagogue. Jews forged their acculturation on the an
vil of changing formulations of religious authority and a nineteenth-
century Protestant emphasis on the church shaping and reflecting indi
vidual experience.
Tfaditional Authority and Synagogue Development
At two different points two different groups of Jews developed im
migrant synagogues. German Jews who arrived after 1820 constituted
the first mass of Jewish immigrants. By the time Eastern European Jews
began immigrating in 1880, German Jews were already well established
in the American middle and upper classes. Their synagogues were now
identified with the Reform denomination that had begun in Western
Europe in the early nineteenth century. European reformers asserted
that Judaism was incompatible with their new civil status as citizens. In
the earliest years in Europe, the rationale for reform was often more
aesthetic than doctrinal, a rationale shared later with new Americans.
Reform leaders wanted Judaism to abandon what seemed alien to Eu
rope and conform to "reason," the idea dominating the age. By the
1840s in Germany, Reform had become institutionalized, led by rabbis
and committed to a theology, a new prayer book, and developing reli
gious expressions compatible with German life. Jewish Messianism was
interpreted as a human commitment to social welfare in the present.
Reform Judaism ultimately flowered in the United States, where by
1880 almost all of the two hundred synagogues were affiliated with it.
Religious Eastern European Jews, as opposed to secularists, were
far more pious than their German predecessors. They arrived in the
United States after 1880. German and Eastern European communities,
however, underwent similar processes of first establishing small lay
dominated synagogues, followed by building larger synagogues as
members of the family moved to better neighborhoods, found more lu
crative jobs or expanded businesses, and began to climb the social lad
der within American society. 4 Even the secularists, or at least their chil
dren, ultimately succumbed to American Jewish norms and joined
synagogues. Though they brought secular Jewish associations, such as

trade unions and mutual aid groups, to America, they did not flourish
and continue to grow. Only synagogues did that (Woocher 1983, 2).
Religiously liberal synagogues dominated new neighborhoods, though
the liberalism was relative to how observant these men and women had
been. Jewish denominations developed in the United States as commu
nities became more acculturated. Each wave of immigrants, then, gen
erated successive types of synagogues, each reflecting increasing ac
culturation, each articulating different ideas about the relationships
between Judaism and American society for Jews. At later points the
immigrant communities overlapped and created synagogues together,
but originally their synagogues made different statements about these
critical relationships. By the 1970s such distinctions broke down and
both denominations consisted of offspring of Eastern European Jewry.
The synagogue developed as the domain of the laity because of the
historical circumstances that kept rabbis in Europe and brought the less
educated Jews to the United States. Virtually all differences between
European and American Judaism for the German immigrants who ar
rived after 1820 may be attributed to either the absence of Jewish au
thority or a traditional religious structure in America. Without rabbis,
access to kosher meat, or the communal enforcement of the obligations
of Jewish law, no Jewish community existed as it previously had. Be
cause such a community did not exist, its most pious members could
not come to what was essentially a wilderness. Secularized German
Jews were equally unwilling to come initially because of their identifi
cation with German culture and their conviction that America was far
behind Europe, intellectually and culturally. Those who came in the
1820s came because little held them, and when they arrived they im
provised religious lives because they had no other choice.
The life that immigrant Jews left behind posed one question for men
and women: "What do I do to be a Jew?" The answer had been pro
vided by Jewish law, upheld and interpreted by the community gov
erned by religious authority responsible to a local noble or monarch. 5
Individual Jews were responsible to traditional religious authority. The
majority of Eastern European Jews had lived in homogeneous, tra
ditionally bound communities since the sixteenth century. Their in
digenous authority, the kehillah (polity), originated in Poland in the
seventeenth century and was intermittently outlawed and revitalized. It
guided all civic and economic as well as religious matters through a
combined executive body of the wealthy members of the community
and religious experts. The organization oversaw a wide range of volun
tary associations that controlled and organized the lives of many indi-

Decorum in American Judaism
viduals. Charity committees and the burial society were some examples
of such groups (Goren 1970, 5-8).
Immigrant American Judaism, by contrast, reflected the place of
religion in American society. For the nineteenth-century Jewish immi
grant, Judaism for the first time was a "preference," a choice. From the
point of view of American society, religion was a voluntary activity, not
a govemmentally controlled one. 6 This was the first time many Jews
had not lived in a church-dominated nation. Tradition in America was
enforced communally, if at all; it was not the concern of the state. Many
immigrant Jews underwent a transformation as a result. They had once
lived within a Jewish culture, and now they practiced a religion called
Judaism. Obviously more cosmopolitan Jews in Europe had been ex
posed to pluralist enclaves within society. But no immigrants had expe
rienced the total separation of church and state enjoyed by Americans.
The traditional question for Jews, "What do I do?" was replaced by the
new American question, "How do I complete this religious require
ment?" Shortly, the question also became "Why do I do it?" Judaism
increasingly became the concern of the individual rather than the com
munity and was focused on option rather than obligation, and on per
sonal identity rather than group norms. 7 Immigrants' work lives hurtled
them into economic success and aspirations for Americanization. The
synagogue came to answer the newly acculturating immigrants' ques
tions about how to be Jews in the new world. 8
The First Wave: The German Jewish Synagogue
In the United States in 1820, there were hardly any Jews. In 1695
the one hundred Jews in New York were descendants of Portuguese
Jews expelled from Portugal and Brazil. By 1795 only 350 Jews lived in
a city whose population numbered 33,000. They shared a single syn
agogue and maintained an elite subculture identified as neo-Portuguese
throughout the nineteenth century (Mitchell 1978, 23, 25). Between
1820-1850 more than 245,000 Jews arrived, mostly from Germany.
They moved beyond New York, and synagogues and Jewish settlements
proliferated throughout the United States. The absence of authority and
hierarchy within the community did not signal the end of Jewish ob
servance for these people. Though Judaism became a less demanding
system of observance than it had been, it persisted. The synagogues
were media of acculturation, but they also provided links with the past. 9
The early nineteenth-century immigrants to America came wanting
economic freedom, and their piety was then necessarily compromised. 10

For most it was virtually impossible to avoid violating religious prohi
bitions because of the need to work constantly. People worked on the
Sabbath and Jewish festivals, which the tradition forbade. Some laws
and observances fell into disuse. The immigrants' lives required a differ
ent kind of synagogue and Judaism than they had known in the tradi
tional communities of Germany."
Synagogue leaders in America did not receive Jewish educations of
any substance in Germany. They therefore lacked the ability to under
stand much beyond their own experiences and needs; hence, lay syn
agogue life focused on only those needs. Religious authority became
what members remembered from their childhood homes in Germany
and what was necessitated by the American life style. No one exhorted
them to Sabbath observance. They could not seek out a rabbi for an
swers to questions about the requirements for observances. Necessity
and sentimentalized religion counted for more than the authority of
classical texts that guided the highly educated European rabbinate. The
laity chose and discarded laws according to their new lives (Dawidowicz
1982b, 19). Domination by the laity in America began as a necessity.
Synagogues were created and then chosen by people on the basis of
affinity with peers. One sought a synagogue where other men from
one's hometown worshipped. Synagogues were initially the domain of
men. Though women attended at certain times of the year, usually for
short periods, sitting behind the curtain or in the gallery mandated by
Jewish law, they were literally only peripheral figures. What a man
sought from hometown ties, as noted above, was not only friendship
but familiar worship. In a hometown synagogue the same prayer melo
dies and all the minute, particular customs and local variations in the
liturgy were available. Though Jewish liturgy is virtually standard, its
melodies and associated gestures vary even within the same country or
region. (Blau 1976, 30, 49). The familiar music, faces, and customs in
worship made the past available in the present. America was a long way
from that past, but through prayer immigrants could bridge the dis
In time rabbis came to America, as did increasing numbers of the
educated Jewish elite. The failed liberal 1840 revolution in Germany
forced many such people to leave. Those who preceded them, however,
were not anxious to cede their power to experts, and laities continued
to dominate. Rabbis served rather than led (Jick 1976, 69-70). Thus,
immigrants who had been at the bottom of the Jewish hierarchy in
Europe came to regard themselves as the only necessary authorities on

Decorum in American Judaism
The laity was affected not only by its release from traditional com
munal structures and authority but by its attraction to democracy as
well. Jewish immigrants and their children were known for creating
organizations, miniscule or grand, that boasted elaborate bylaws, con
stitutions, and meetings conducted according to parliamentary proce
dures canonized in Roberts' Rules of Order. Slates of officers demanded
extensive electoral politics. Democracy was institutionalized in syn
agogues as it was in subsequent family-based social clubs. "Cousin
clubs" were formed by the children of these immigrants. The cousins
and siblings now met formally because upward mobility made it pos
sible for extended families to live in separate houses and neighborhoods
(S. Rosenberg 1965; Mitchell 1978). 12 Lay leaders invoked American
political ideology to support their control in religious matters. As a re
sult, not only was the power of rabbis undercut, but the possibility of
creating a single kehillah-like structure for American Jews was pre
cluded in the dense population of New York. 13
One nineteenth-century attempt to create a synod of congregations,
for example, was defeated by member synagogues with voices of oppo
sition like this one from the Congregation Beth Elohim of South Caro
All conventions founded or created for the establishment of any
ecclesiastical authority whatever ... are alien to the spirit and ge
nius of the age in which we live and are wholly inconsistent with
the spirit of American liberty, (cited in Temkin 1973) 14
Lay control of the synagogue made changes in Jewish liturgical ser
vices a relatively easy matter. Initially, the changes were rarely grounded
in doctrinal disagreement. Beliefs were not the subjects of conflicts in
America as they were at the same historical period in Europe. Contested
issues concerned decorum or etiquette (Sklare 1972; Jick 1976, 47;
Hoflman 1987). American Jews were concerned with the common-
sense meaning of decorum, "good taste," in their religious lives. It pre
occupied them because a changing society had altered their sense of
what "good taste" meant. Lawrence Hoffman describes decorum as
"prayer service choreography," contrasting it with prayer content and
structure (1977, 140). Jews achieved this "good taste" through altering
choreography. Decorum has been a matter of importance to sociologists,
historians, and Jewish laity and rabbis because of its centrality to the
development of the synagogue in both Europe and America. Decorum

involves what Erving Goffman (1959) called "impression manage
ment/' a presentation of the self to the self and others carefully con
trolled to communicate particular meanings. 15 In the prayer context, it
refers quite specifically to how people behave as they pray, as they listen
to others praying, and how their participation in general is orchestrated.
Impression management extends from the individual to the environ
ment for prayer he or she creates. Synagogue appearance, interior and
exterior, also reflects issues of decorum because it symbolizes and regu
lates statements about the self in relationship to others.
The "Orientalism" of traditional European Jewish prayer, as Ger
man Reformers put it, was judged offensive. Jewish worship appeared
to their increasingly American eyes and ears as chaotic, lacking har
mony and Western aesthetics. Men prayed apart from women at their
own pace, mumbling, shuffling their feet and swaying their bodies. Can
tors used chants with Oriental origins. There were no weekly sermons
to parallel ministers' lessons on the Bible. There was no singing in uni
son. European synagogues customarily auctioned off honors associated
with the Torah reading. On certain holidays men would pay for the
honor of blessing the Torah, most of them unable to read the difficult
Hebrew in which the Torah scroll is written. That money, like other
funds raised by appeals during services, went to support the synagogue
and rabbi. The conjunction of money and the sacred was judged coarse
and inappropriate by Americanized Jews and their children. Most im
migrant Jews highly regarded the use of English in the service, as well
as rabbis who could "preach" in English rather than Yiddish or German.
They also desired an orderly service freed from private side conversa
tions that characterized the old world shul.
Nineteenth-century immigrant decorum changed dramatically
within the German Jewish community over time and subsequently dif
fered in the German and Eastern European communities. Initially the
hometown synagogue provided the decorum for the first gatherings for
prayer of new Americans. It was derived from the traditional Jewish
service of European orthodoxy and most resembled the sort of service
described above. As Jews began to acculturate in the immediate decades
following the first wave of immigration in 1820 much of this prayer
choreography changed. Within a decade the laity of these synagogues
turned its attention to matters of decorum, passing rule upon rule dic
tating how people were required to behave. Though head covering was
still required for men, for example, the appearance of head covering was
legislated. Variation in hats was considered undignified and ugly. Some

Decorum in American Judaism
synagogues required that all men put on identical paper caps provided
by an usher.
The changes in decorum multiplied and became more dramatic by
1840. Jews began disregarding the tradition's laws. As Americanizing
Jews began to create a more American service, they took more liberties
with halaha, the content of the tradition. Men stopped covering their
heads in the synagogue. Men and women sat together in “family pews"
introduced by Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise in Albany, New York, in 1851.
Rabbis took pulpits and were expected to preach sermons in English, as
Protestant ministers did. Organ music was introduced. New prayer-
books were written, primarily in English, excising portions of the tradi
tional liturgy. 16 These changes did not constitute a systematic program.
They were piecemeal, as were German Jews' observances of religious
law, much to the chagrin of Reform rabbis from Germany who were
among the first to come to America after the failed liberal revolution of
1848. When David Einhom, one of the great proponents of classical
Reform, arrived in 1855, he was horrified by the melange of ad hoc
innovations he found in synagogue rituals. American Judaism pre
sented to him a strange conjunction of total laxness in personal piety
and selective conservatism in the synagogue. He explained to his first
congregants that a real reform of Judaism, modeled on the movement
in Germany, could not be completed in this manner, but needed to be
consistently and truly radical. His own followers ignored and criticized
him. Early Reform rabbis moved from synagogue to synagogue rather
often over such disagreements (Jick 1976, 167; Raphael 1984, Chapters
2 and 3).
By 1870 the changes were far more dramatic. Lay boards trans
formed liturgy and law creating synagogues, particularly among the
elite, that were replicas of churches. Once impoverished immigrants of
the early 1800s were now firmly established, affluent Americans, con
stituting a society of their own. Their mode of worship signaled that
arrival. Stephen Birmingham's description of Temple Emanu-El, one of
the most famous synagogues of New York's German Jewish elite, clari
fies what the synagogue symbolized.
The attempt to bridge opposing worlds is apparent in the physical
structure of Temple Emanu-El itself. Inside, with its pews and pulpit
and handsome chandeliers—where hatted women worship along
side the men (unhatted), and not in a separate curtained gallery—
it looks very like a church. But outside, as a kind of gentle gesture

to the past, its Moorish facade calls to mind a synagogue. (1967,
The changes that accompanied such architecture reflected acculturation
on the way to assimilation.
The developments in the American synagogue reflect the common
and opposed interests of the rabbinate and the laity. The Reform rabbis
who came to the United States wrote the prayerbooks that carefully
reflected developing theologies debated among colleagues. It was the
rabbis, in fact, who created an American Reform denomination and
began rabbinical training by the 1870s. Though these activities had lay
support, they were not lay motivated. The laity maintained control at
the local level within the synagogues. And while the denomination was
interested in continuity and ideological platforms, the rank and file cre
ated synagogues and passed rules that maintained social class homoge
neity and a Judaism that would reflect their growing affluence and place
in American society.
Though these Jews called themselves Reform by 1840, it was dec
ades before their Judaism resembled the movement envisioned by the
nineteenth-century founders of Classical German Reform. And it was
the rabbis who actively created that resemblance. The new Americans
were not interested in applying Jewish messianism to contemporary so
ciety to create a liberal utopia. In the nineteenth century in Germany
and Eastern Europe, a deeply ideological battle was waged among Jews.
Reform Judaism developed platforms and tenets of belief that were used
to differentiate it from traditional Judaism. Reformers conceptualized a
Western rather than an "Oriental" religion. They wanted to return to
the biblical origins of Judaism and to exclude the rabbinic laws, asso
ciated with what they called Orientalism, that gave normative Judaism
its shape. These changes, they believed, would bring European Jews
who had left their religion back to Judaism and would place Jews at the
core of Western life (Heller 1966). But few American Reform Jews, even
the most philanthropic, saw themselves as "a light to other nations," or
a model for social justice and equality. Rather, the Reform the new
Americans constructed was an outward form of accommodation to a
society they yearned to enter without abandoning their uniqueness
(Jick 1976, 140).
By 1850 German Jews were remarkably successful economically.
They solidified the link between synagogue and social class by exclud
ing new immigrants, some from Germany but most from Eastern Eu
rope (Jick 1976, 140). They fashioned an American Judaism that was

A classical Reform synagogue in Los Angeles built in the
early twentieth century. The use of human figures in the
wall decorations, the absence of a women's balcony, and
the grand style all communicate the members' aspiration
to Americanization.

directly imitative of mainstream Protestantism. They and their leaders
sought continuity with American culture, minimized their differences
from Protestantism, and created a decorum that in the end was like
American Protestantism: uniform, using Western aesthetics, and mak
ing the rabbi into a minister. Birmingham, in fact, notes that during the
Civil War when Reform Rabbi Samer was examined by an army board
of chaplains, they listed his denomination as "Lutheran" (1967, 131).
His attitudes and ideas were apparently compatible to the point of being
indistinguishable from the dominant religion.
The synagogue remained the place to pray to God. How one prayed
became a powerful expression of social status, of acculturation, and of
Americanization. Synagogue decorum modeled and reflected American
life. Every ritual gesture seemed worthy of consideration for what it
communicated about the immigrant and his or her children's relation
ship to America. The appearance and comportment of members in
prayer defined a synagogue for a prospective member, indicating the
degree of acculturation and prosperity of the membership. These social
indicators usually signaled that traditional Jewish practices were dra
matically altered. German Jews in America generated philanthropic or
ganizations, social clubs, and a world of socializing. But unlike the syn
agogue, none of these activities bore the primary burden of maintaining
and transmitting Judaism. Hence, the synagogue was a volatile institu
tion, constantly changing and reformulating its articulation of Jewish
and American worlds.
The immigrants of the 1820s and 30s appeared to have little interest
in maintaining the decorum of their hometowns for more than one or
two decades. The more cosmopolitan Jews who came after the 1840s
were acculturated and minimally observant. Over the span of fifty years,
a recognizable institution emerged: the German Reform synagogues of
German Jews in America. While there were variations across the coun
try, this type of synagogue emphasized Western decorum and a dramat
ically altered liturgy. Reform Judaism stood for liberalism and a Judaism
that was compatible with America. The synagogue was only one of the
concerns of these German Jews in America. However, it was important
enough to remain in the control of the laity, setting the pattern for lay
domination of synagogue life.
It was in this task that they differed most dramatically from non
immigrants who were at the comparable period seeking purity: temper
ance and an end to political corruption. Native-born Christians were
trying to find their place in an America that had grown in scale and
dimension far beyond what most knew from their small towns. Their

Decorum in American Judaism
attraction to religious movements aimed at reforming society and the
self aided in giving them a sense of control in a society that was taking
a new shape (see Wiebe 1967). Jewish immigrants flourished economi
cally in this society but they also struggled to grasp their place in it, not
through movements but through the synagogue and other organiza
tions. Few could abandon their Judaism or be singularly encompassed
by it. A Judaism that was only generally, rather than particularly, tied to
the tradition within a Western aesthetic was their answer. Irving Howe's
description of Eastern European immigrant life is remarkably apt for
German Jewish immigrants as well:
Released from the constraints of Europe but not yet tamed by the
demands of America, Jewish immigrant life took on a febrile hurry
of motion and drive. After centuries of excessive discipline, life
overflowed—its very shapelessness gave proof of vitality. Moral
norms, while no longer beyond challenge, continued to be those
implanted by Orthodox Judaism, but manners changed radically,
opening into a chaos of improvisation. The fixed rituals that had
bound the east European Jews broke down under the weight of
American freedom. The patterns of social existence had to be re
made each day. (1976,170)
While the German Jewish, late nineteenth-century synagogue and reli
gion minimized tradition, those who followed, the Eastern European
Jews, formulated a Judaism for America far more evocative of tradition
through a different vision of synagogue and decorum.
Eastern European Immigrant Synagogues
From 1840 to 1880, American Judaism appeared to have taken a
decisive shape that would determine all future development. In retro
spect that shape was peculiar to one period of German immigration,
though the power and influence of those more established Jews remains
today. What followed was to be more significant for the creation of
American Judaism at large. The final mass wave of Jewish immigration
began in 1880. It was the largest, ending finally in 1924, interrupted by
World War I (Goldstein and Goldscheider 1968, 2). These Jews, origi
nally from Eastern Europe, came in such large numbers that their orga
nizations and ideas about Jewish life overwhelmed any that preceded
them. In 1880 there were fewer than 250,000 Jews in America (Gold
stein and Goldscheider 1968, 1-2). From 1870 to 1924, 2.5 million
Jews migrated to the United States. As different as Eastern European

and German Jews were, their synagogues developed in a similar fash
ion. Decorum emerged as the singular preoccupation for Eastern Euro
peans as well. They, too, were ready to take control of their religious
lives, despite their far deeper commitment to traditional Judaism and
Jewish authority.
East European Jews came as the poorer, coarser, and embarrassing
kinspeople of the now successfully acculturated German Jews. Both
their own and their children's upward mobility and acculturation were
equally meteoric. By 1940 their children entered commercial occupa
tions and professions and lived in affluent areas (Eisen 1983, 26-27).
They were established in the suburbs having left behind the dense and
homogenous ghettos epitomized by New York's Lower East Side where
they initially lived. They also left the adjacent areas of the "second
settlement" in order to move to the "third settlement"—the residential
areas that ring the city. They shared their neighborhoods with more
Protestants than Catholics, with more higher status Jews than lower
status ones, and with fewer Jews than in the previous settlements. If
they wanted to attend worship, they found either large Reform syn
agogues or a few small Orthodox congregations available (Sklare 1972,
68; Glazer 1956). These neighborhoods demonstrated the successful
rise in status of immigrants and generated alternative synagogues as
In this environment. Eastern European Jews created a new syn
agogue and a new decorum. Again, the purpose of the decorum was to
bridge old and new worlds and to make worship expressive of that
bridging process. These immigrants came to America either as Orthodox
Jews, like their German predecessors, or radical secularists, something
unknown in Germany (see Howe 1976). Their offspring, the second
generation, initially participated less in religious activities than any pre
vious generation of Jews. 17 Most of the synagogues that flourished in
the dense Jewish ghettos of the first settlement resembled their early
German Jewish counterparts. They consisted of small groups of laity
who had lived in the same shtetels (small villages) or urban ghettos of
Europe. They first formed tiny storefront shuls or synagogues (Howe
1976, 191). These landslayt (fellow townsmen), like the earlier Jewish
German immigrants, shared styles of worship, melodies for chanting the
Torah, and customs in ritual observance. Even when more substantial
Orthodox synagogues were built in the areas of the first settlement, their
membership continued to reflect the hometowns of participants. Debo
rah Dash Moore's excellent work on second generation New York Jews
describes such immigrant synagogues in an area of Brooklyn (1981,

Decorum in American Judaism
124-31). All the synagogues followed Orthodox Jewish ritual and
barred from membership men who violated the Sabbath. Even these
institutions, however, were caught up with Americanization. Moore
cites the constitution of one such synagogue. "Every member is required
to conduct himself quietly, and not wander about the synagogue during
services. During such services he must also refrain from conversation
with others" (1981, 125). Moore also notes the lack of aesthetic attrac
tiveness of such synagogues. Generally, smaller ones were housed in
rented spaces such as basements or lofts. These small synagogues were
ubiquitous in New York's Lower East Side, appearing on every street.
They were religious and ethnic in nature, meeting daily for prayer and
providing financial and moral support for members in times of need.
These immigrant shuls, however, were not transferred to the more
affluent suburbs where immigrants and their children moved as quickly
as possible. Like the German Jews a half century before, synagogue
membership reflected economic homogeneity based on neighborhood
and a shared decorum. By 1924, only 100,000 Jews remained in New
York's Lower East Side, where more than 250,000 Jews had previously
resided (Moore 1981, 19). The synagogues of the poorer suburbs were
not dramatically different from storefronts. They were slightly more af
fluent and orderly. They continued to emphasize the European aesthetic
associated with Ashkenazic Jewry. Order was maintained in behavior
rather than prayer. Manners concerned the laity, but so did the mainte
nance of tradition as it was known in Europe.
The Reform synagogues of the new residential settlement initially
held little attraction for Eastern European Jews. The radical transfor
mation of Judaism created by the Reform denomination was unpalat
able for them. Instead, they identified with the growing American
movement of Conservative Judaism. The third settlement produced
loyal adherents who built synagogues and offered a constituency of up
wardly mobile immigrants and their offspring. 1 ® When religion in gen
eral revived in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, Conservative
Judaism became the most popular choice for American Jews (Glazer
1972, 122-23). In their rush to Americanize, not only did formerly Or
thodox Jews join the more American synagogues, but those who were
secularists and previously unaffiliated did so as well. Religion and the
suburbs went hand in hand to articulate postwar middle-class American
values of consumerism, progress, and generalized ties to tradition.
Conservative Judaism as it is practiced in America began with the
endowment of a theological training institution for rabbis, the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America. The institution was supported pri-

A contemporary Los Angeles storefront shul like those
created by Eastern European immigrants. These men are
engaged in daily morning prayer which requires the male
worshiper to put on the arm and forehead leather straps
and a box containing biblical phrases (tefillin). If women
are present they are seated behind a curtain adjacent to
this room.

Decorum in American Judaism
marily by wealthy American Reform Jews for the purpose of providing
leaders for the newly Americanized Eastern European Jews, who found
Reform synagogues unacceptable. It defined itself in opposition to the
Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College. Conservative Judaism was
associated with a greater commitment to traditionalism, and its leaders
invoked the term often. 19 The seminary was also committed to the prin
ciples of modem scientific scholarship and differentiated itself from Or
thodox Judaism less in terms of religious observance than the faculty's
willingness to understand sacred texts in light of the German ideas
about biblical criticism. For all the prominence of the seminary, Con
servative Judaism is thought of as a lay movement because the men and
women who formed the first synagogues in the suburbs chose settings
for worship that, in the words of one early Conservative partisan in
Minnesota, “promote Modem American Judaism, the old traditional
form of the Jewish ritual, [and] omitting such portion of it that would
not interest the younger folks and the coming generation" (cited in Ra
phael 1984, 92). Conservative Judaism developed in its seminary where
rabbis were trained and in its synagogues where members tried to pre
serve Jewish tradition and make it compatible with a suburban, affluent
life. The seminary was always more conservative than the synagogues.
The laity and the seminary often ignored each other, leaving rabbis in
the middle. This dual organization within Conservative Judaism al
lowed these Jews to both maintain a Commitment to tradition and en
ter the mainstream of American life.
Over time Conservative synagogue decorum in the third settlement
encompassed more than the regulation of behavior in worship. Local
synagogues embodied an entire approach to Judaism, including service
choreography, education, and social organizations. Uniformity per
vaded worship as well as manners, not unlike in German American
Reform synagogues. In both cases the primary aesthetic was shaped by
mainline Protestants. Conservative synagogues differentiated them
selves from Reform synagogues precisely around their commitment to
religious tradition and law; however, where they relaxed religious ob
servance they maximized an assimilating aesthetic: the use of an organ
on the Sabbath or allowing men and women to sit together for worship.
The larger the synagogue the more its services necessarily resembled
spectacles, orchestrated events that coordinated sermons, choral and
cantorial performances, and English responsive readings. Sociologist
Marshall Sklare recorded the reaction of a congregation member to his
new third settlement synagogue:

I was bom and bred in an orthodox shul with the accompanying
multitudinous prayers, jams of people and children all joined to
gether in a cacophonous symphony of loud and sometimes raucous
appeals to the Almighty. Here it was different on Yom Kippur [the
new year Day of Atonement]. A large group of Jews, men and
women, sitting quiedy together for hours at a stretch, subdued
prayers, no mass nlovements, no rustling and busding, no weeping
and wailing, no crying children, just the music of the choir and
cantor being the only sounds heard.. .. The Machzor (holiday
prayer book) was clear, concise, and arranged in order so as to be
easily followed when the rabbi announced the page numbers.... I
listened to the sermon and understood what it was all about. After
the services I sat for a few minutes and pondered. What was the
score? Which of the sects of Judaism is getting to the ear of heaven
first? (1972, 112)
As Eastern European Jews left the first settlement, their Conserva
tive synagogues developed a decorum sensitive to the maintenance of
tradition within America. With the increasing affluence of American
Jews, the synagogue became more remote and bureaucratized than
hometown based associations. It resembled the society in which Jews
American Judaism and the Third Generation
Both German and Eastern European Jews came to America in a
century characterized by the classic Protestant ethic. The dominant
ethos encouraged hard work, savings, and sacrifice. Success could be
measured by what one amassed. It was the era of the producer (Susman
1984). The goal of the successful individual was to amass and build, not
to have and consume. Productivity and sacrifice remained central values
for Jewish immigrants with their eyes on success. They worked hard,
expected little, saved a great deal, and rapidly created a middle-class life.
They saw themselves as producers.
Subsequent generations of American Jews, the descendents of these
producers, lived in a dramatically different America for which there
were rather different expectations on men and women. Social historian
Warren Susman suggests America moved from a producer to a con
sumer society after 1910, most dramatically in the 1920s and 1930s
(1984). Clearly American society felt the effects of that consumer ethos
beyond the Second World War and until the 1960s counterculture. As
Jews Americanized fully, living in suburbs, moving up in their jobs, and

Decorum in American Judaism
getting better educations, they too felt the effects of these changing ex
pectations, which were reflected in their synagogues. The transition to
the suburban synagogue was begun by Reform Jews whose first grand
synagogues directly imitated the Protestant churches of the upper
classes. Conservative synagogues also reflected their neighbors. Syn
agogues inevitably would reflect this consumer society. They con
sciously marketed more activities for families with increasing leisure
time. Churches and synagogues competed to capture the additional
time available to their members through expanded, often secular, activ
The third generation encompasses the children of the native bom. 20
Those men and women were socialized into the Judaism of America.
Most lived in the third settlement and the suburbs. They lived in the
postwar affluence that characterized the increasingly consumer ori
ented, suburbanized society. Most identified themselves as Conservative
Jews. Their Judaism was marked by several powerful experiences. They
were raised during the American religious revival, a period when Jews
and Christians were more involved and active in churches and syn
agogues. Members of the third generation belonged to the synagogues
their parents joined as a result of their birth. Their parents understood
their Judaism as compatible with life in America. Indeed, for the second
generation being a good Jew and being a good American were virtually
the same thing (Eisen 1983, 41).
Jews increasingly identified themselves with certain types of Juda
ism, with denominations that were either Reform or Conservative. Fi
nally, they belonged to synagogues that aimed to meet a vast array of
needs quite apart from worship. The synagogues sought to dominate
many of the activities that families either did not participate in or partic
ipated in elsewhere: social activities for children, clubs for "young mar-
rieds," and an array of educational and leisure events. In short, the sub
urban synagogue was increasingly directed to socializing children into
a denominationally defined Judaism, keeping them within a Jewish
sphere within Jewish neighborhoods. That socialization was upheld by
American society and accomplished by the newly developed synagogue
center, the type of synagogue that reached its apogee in the third settle
In 1964 about three-fifths of all American Jews were affiliated with
a synagogue (Hertzberg 1975, 15). 21 The early sixties was the period of
Minyan and havurah members' adolescence. They, like most Jews, be
longed to synagogues. In the late fifties, sociologists Sklare and Green-
blum conducted a major quantitative study of Jewish attitudes and ac-

tivities in a Chicago suburb, as well as historical research on that
organized Jewish community. From 1957-1958, in a generally affluent
Midwestern area occupied by German and Eastern European Jewish
descendants, 87 percent belonged to synagogues during the eight years
of their children's religious education (1979, 181-82). Among the third
generation of Eastern European descendants in that area, 96 percent
affiliated with synagogues during those years. This affiliation rate is all
the more remarkable because regular synagogue attendance was, and
remains, very low. For example, a study of Boston Jews in 1975 re
vealed that only 32 percent of Jews attended synagogue on an occasion
other than the new year holidays (Cohen 1983, 56). There was no ques
tion that more American Jews belonged to synagogues during the post
war years than ever had before, but the significance of that membership
for their religious lives, or the significance of religion in their lives, has
not been understood systematically. 22 Precisely because personal reli
gious laxness was high and Jewish education of that generation was
minimal, and because Christian suburban families were affiliated with
churches, the synagogue appeared as the only stage on which to articu
late and present Judaism, particularly for children. For example, one of
the older members of the Minyan, raised in a New York suburb in the
1950s, belonged to a Reform synagogue that he often attended alone
without his parents. At the same time, he remembered the "magical
aura" of the synagogue that he loved; he also remembered his "pleasant
memories" of Christmas. "We hung stockings and Christmas was a big
thing. My parents kept observing some form of Christmas until my first
year at Hebrew Union College when I said I wished they would give it
up." This man received all of his Jewish education within the synagogue
his suburban parents joined, even though they kept up their protest
against their Orthodox immigrant parents by celebrating Christmas at
The most significant figure in defining the surburban Conservative
synagogue was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who sought to formulate the
unique nature of the Conservative synagogue. Kaplan, a long time
member of the faculty of the Conservative seminary, ultimately founded
another denomination. Reconstructionism, considered the first thor
oughly American Jewish denomination, which remained connected to
Conservative Judaism ideologically. 23 Out of his loyalty to Conservative
Judaism he stayed at the seminary until the 1970s and influenced dec
ades of rabbinical students who were to provide the leadership for the
suburban congregations.
The synagogue Kaplan envisioned was a "synagogue center," an

Decorum in American Judaism
idea he introduced in 1918 but that did not take hold fully until the
1920s and 1930s. Kaplan was convinced that Judaism must be lived as
a "civilization" rather than as a "religion" (1981). He encouraged Con
servative Jews to develop the nonreligious aspects of Judaism, to meet
all the needs of synagogue congregants. He wanted Jewish life to focus
on the synagogue. The synagogue center included—in addition to facil
ities for worship—gyms, libraries, youth groups, meeting rooms, clubs,
and kitchens. Many observers of the period noted that one could make
extensive use of the synagogue without ever participating in worship
(for a vivid description, see Dawidowicz 1977). Indeed, quantitative
studies of synagogue attendance demonstrate this very point. This was
completely contrary to Kaplan's intent, yet the dominant nonreligious
aspects of Judaism that his vision enabled created a different Jewish
experience than that of other denominations. It would have been un
necessary to create such a synagogue for Orthodox Jews, for whom
worship and study were not acts of choice but requirements, and the
variety of secular activities would simply be a distraction. Reform Jews,
having rapidly attained a higher class, would have found such a center
both unnecessary, since leisure needs were well met, and inappropriate,
as it might attract lower-class Jews. But the synagogue center, like Con
servative Judaism, was a powerful expression of American Jewish life.
The suburbs necessitated concern with the transmission of Judaism
because Jews were now a minority, as they had not been in the less
affluent settlements they first occupied. In the second settlement, Jewish
community centers, modeled on the Young Men's Christian Associa
tions, were a dominant community association. They emphasized the
development of the normal Jew who could do everything done by oth
ers, and their primary activities were sports and group work. (Moore
1981, 134) The synagogue was centrally concerned with uniqueness,
with the maintenance of Jewish tradition, religion and culture. In the
suburbs one was forced to be more conscious of Judaism and what it
meant, because the surrounding world of neighbors did not reflect or
enforce Judaism. In New York, synagogue building reached its pinnacle
in 1929. Synagogue centers were built in the uptown portion of the city
as well as in the suburbs (Moore 1981, 135). In this period of growth
and building, these synagogues were independent and urged to affiliate
with a denomination by a confederation of synagogues. The majority of
centers, because they sought to define themselves "in the middle,"
joined the barely developing association of Conservative synagogues,
the United Synagogues of America.
As these synagogue centers were pioneered by the second genera-

tion and flourished in the suburbs, they continued to define the Jewish
religious experience beyond World War II. Sociologist Marshall Sklare
asserts that the Conservative synagogue, a more modest facility than the
synagogue center, emerged as the crucial institution of Jewish life in the
1950s and 1906s. It was in this period that Kaplan's vision for the syn
agogue center was realized far beyond New York. From the 1920s to the
postwar period, Jews moved to and remained in suburbs and joined
synagogues in unprecedented numbers.
Along with the synagogue center and the growth in the number of
synagogues, the Reform and Conservative movements emerged as dom
inant forces in American Judaism. These increasingly organized denom
inations were attached to elaborate institutional frameworks. 24 As
Marshall Sklare so ably demonstrates in his study of the Conservative
movement, denominations committed considerable energy to replicat
ing themselves. The denominations did not simply produce rabbis to
lead congregations; they also provided leadership in formulating the
directions for youth groups, camping movements, education systems,
men's and women's divisions, and the host of activities generated by the
synagogue center. Because these various divisions were increasingly
"denomination specific" after the war, they necessitated an increasingly
complex bureaucracy. These activities helped cultivate the loyalty of
young Jewish men and women to the Conservative or Reform Judaism
they would then perpetuate. One identified oneself as a Jew through
these affiliations. One was, for example, a Conservative Jew now, no
longer simply a Jew.
As Lavender (1977) shows in his 1971 replication of a 1949 Univer
sity of Maryland student survey, only a tiny minority thought of them
selves as Jews without denominational affiliation. Goldstein and Gold-
scheider's 1960s data on Providence, Rhode Island, revealed that 95
percent of their sample identified with a Jewish denomination (1968,
176). Respondents in various studies were likely to comment that their
observance of dietary laws, or the Sabbath, indicated to themselves, as
well as to others, whether they were Conservative or Reform. One Min-
yan member raised in a Conservative synagogue and Jewish parochial
school explained that Judaism was defined for her by what she was told
to do and to observe. "I had no kinship feelings with any other Jew who
wasn't Jewish as I was. If you are Jewish you do certain things." The
denominations defined what was to be done. Denominational identifi
cation does not necessarily indicate synagogue membership. Even the
unaffiliated often identify with a denomination, though they do not
choose to belong to a synagogue.

Decorum in American Judaism
Postwar American Judaism retained the pattern of a lay-dominated
decentralized community, despite the national and institutional nature
of denominations. Though denominations had centralized bureaucra
cies, in reality they were shaped at the local level in synagogues. De
nominational youth groups were particularly powerful agents for reli
gious socialization. In the synagogue, denominational styles created
loyalty to a particular vision of Judaism. Synagogues were still con
cerned with decorum, with appearances, with manners, with how to
behave and how to pray. Denominations sanctioned what was done in
synagogues, and synagogues affiliated with them because their mem
bers felt compatible with that denomination. Nathan Glazer illustrated
this point in his discussion of what occurred at denominational summer
What is the good, it has been asked, of taking children away for a
summer to a Hebrew-speaking camp so they can leam to say
"Please pass the butter" in Hebrew? It makes one no more of a
believer to know how to speak in Hebrew than in English. What is
happening, however, is that the Conservative Jewish leaders ... are
trying to provide an example of a Jewish life so that it will not be
necessary to argue and put out apologetic literature—it will only be
necessary to say, "Be a good Jew" and give an example. (1956, 24)
Glazer here distills the very essence of suburban denominational Juda
ism. Judaism was transmitted by showing people how to be Jews. How
ever, this quotidian of cultural transmission was altered thoroughly. For
it was not the family showing one how to be a Jew; it was the syn
agogue or its denominational camp. It was not the parent or even one's
own rabbi showing, but leaders trained by denominations. And it was
not the showing of prayer or the traditional forms of Jewish life that
taught people how to be Jews. Rather, Jewishness was defined at a peer-
oriented camp setting, where Judaism was made normative through
knowing the Hebrew word for butter, a secular concern at best. The
camp Glazer describes is not even a Zionist camp committed to sending
children to Israel, which would logically require knowledge of Hebrew.
It was a Conservative Jewish camp teaching people to think of them
selves as Jews through finite particulars and activities that are not so
much religious as Jewish. Camps are not as localized as synagogues, but
the camp is reinforced by the synagogue where a similar, though not
identical, set of particular actions—music, discussions, prayers, and
peer relations—are enacted.

Several Minyan members attended this particular camp in the East
and Midwest. One woman described her experience. “There was my
camp experience which tied Jewish things to beauty for me. I went
every year from 1958-1969, except for the year I lived in Israel. The
camp really raises to an art Judaism as an aesthetic and beautiful expe
rience. There, beauty, creativity, even anti-war sentiments were put into
a Jewish frame." She learned from the camp what Judaism could be,
even if it was not realized in her own synagogue experience, and it
created a positive Jewish identity for her.
As religiously lax as the homes of most of the campers may have
been, the parents wanted their children to leam to be Jews and remain
Jews. They agreed with their denominations that through activity and
example they would leam what an American Jew is. They chose their
synagogue or denomination according to their level of comfort as Jews
and Americans, by the look of the synagogue and the ability of the
synagogue "staff" to make them feel comfortable. The postwar family
was the synagogue consumer.
Why the denominations provided, in conjunction with the local
synagogue, an accessible and useful formulation for one's Judaism is a
more complex process than the simple sociological truism that institu
tions replicate themselves. The denomination had a different effect on
the second and third generations. For the second generation Jews who
swelled the ranks of the suburban Conservative synagogues, Conserva
tive Judaism, as Sklare noted, provided the best repository for their own
childhood memories of Judaism. Their immigrant parents brought and
immediately altered their own European Judaism. Yet they seemed to
have instilled a concern for Jewish tradition in their children that their
German counterparts had not. Conservative synagogues maintained
more of the traditional liturgy and ritual prohibitions, alongside services
that were still American and decorous. They Americanized worship
without rendering it unrecognizable. The second generation of Ameri
can Jews used American Jewish institutions, both for their own social
and religious needs and as models, to "fashion their own moral com
munity." These institutions were "instruments of self perpetuation" re
inforcing the participants' Americaness and Judaism simultaneously
(Moore 1981, 9). They perpetuated a communal Jewish life, and did so
under a religious, as opposed to secular, banner. Denominations flour
ished in America. Orthodoxy did not die as predicted; it was shaped by
the denominational model into modem orthodoxy (Liebman 1974).
Reform and Conservative Judaism solidified their institutional bases.

Decorum in American Judaism
Each had hoped to speak for all American Jews. Each came to recognize
it would not, concentrating instead on developing a denomination.
Because the third generation, children of the native bom, was the
first generation raised predominantly as Conservative Jews, they did not
expect or need a repository for memories because their childhood ex
periences were not tied directly to Europe. Hence, the denominations
for this generation were agencies of socialization charged with ensuring
continuing Jewish identification by these children. Precisely because
synagogues were capable of socializing children through their schools,
they came to play a new and essential role for American Jews. They
took over the basic form of Jewish socialization that a century before
was associated with the family (Ackerman 1969). In addition to teach
ing Hebrew and sacred texts, the denominations and their synagogue
centers institutionalized the "child orientation" of Judaism. If, as Her
bert Gans suggested, the major question facing second generation par
ents was "how to make them [their children] feel they were Jews," the
answer lay in a child oriented synagogue Judaism (1956a, 426). As
one synagogue official said at a 1948 convention of Conservative syn
Conservative Judaism maintains dignity in Judaism.. . . After all,
why did we drift away from the so-called Orthodox point of view?
Because we recognize that. .. [it] is obsolete in America. We want
to create a service that should be applicable to our children and to
future generations. (Sklare 1972, 96)
Conservative Judaism's orientation to children focused community
resources and synagogue programs on children's needs and problems.
Adults "abstained" from Jewish activities and communities because
they were not drawn to the synagogue by the obligations of Jewish law
or the force of community. The traditional Jewish community is and
was oriented to adults, and children learned to be adults by preparing
to assume adult functions (Gans 1956b, 556). Indeed, a study of the
Boston Jewish community reveals that parents with school aged chil
dren are most active in Jewish life and most likely to belong to syn
agogues (Cohen 1983, 125). As imperfect as the suburban Jewish edu
cation might have been, it provided children the norms of Jewish life.
Most families usually generated the sentiments that would attach their
children to Judaism, but synagogues had to provide the rest.

One Minyan member commented on how he acquired a religious
education and how his parents participated.
My parents were not religious people, but because they had grown
up in a small town they thought it was very important to be around
other Jewish people. In the third or fourth grade, my father asked if
I wanted to become bar mitzva. I asked what that was. I said yes
and he said it was up to me, but I would have to go three afternoons
a week and on Sunday. I did that for six years. By osmosis this stuff
got to me, though I learned almost nothing. I became very pious.
My parents never got more observant. My mother's not natural at
observing things.
This institutional orientation to the child was by no means unique
to Jews. It tended to characterize the entire American middle class. Be
ginning with the period of demand for reform early in the twentieth
century, America's new middle class seemed unusually preoccupied
with children and focused more of their socialization within institu
tions. Christopher Lasch noted that educational reformers hoped the
schools would, rather than merely educate, socialize by isolating the
student from other influences. In the eyes of Progressive reformers,
the schools were preferable for socialization precisely because they were
centralized and bureaucratized, the very conditions of American life that
emerged to create an urban middle class (1979, 233, 239). The Progres
sives viewed the child as the hope for a new world they envisioned. If
Americans in the nineteenth century viewed the process of molding
youth as "like cyclically reproducing like," then the Progressives
thought of that molding as "fluid progress," a process demanding con
stant attention (Wiebe 1967, 169).
American Jews participated centrally in the orientation to children
begun early in the twentieth century. For the children molded by syn
agogues and families were not like their parents or grandparents and
required religious educations to instill not only ritual knowledge, his
tory, and a certainty about Judaism but a place to feel normal as a Jew
among Jews. These were no longer immigrants creating an ad hoc de
corum. Rather, parents looked to experts and specialized institutions to
provide an important service that they felt unable to provide.
As denominations grew in numbers and expanded their activities,
American Jews, as noted, became less observant. What the synagogue
sought (increased commitment of all Jews) was not achieved. Stuart
Rosenberg summarized the "common denominator" of American Ju-

Decorum in American Judaism
daism as "laxity, compromise and non-meticulous concern with the
comprehensive regimen of religious conduct which the tradition re
quires" (1965, 206). His assertion was borne out by the major commu
nity studies that demonstrated that in the 1950s and 1960s individuals
attended the synagogue four to eleven times per year. Attendance was
minimal, but more widespread than home observance of rituals (Sklare
and Greenblum 1979, 62-64; Cohen 1983; Kramer and Leventman
1961, 152-53, 159; Goldstein and Goldscheider 1968, 171-205). How
ever, Jewish "identification" remained palpable. Jews continued to join
synagogues, educate their children religiously, and encourage their par
ticipation in youth groups (Herberg 1950). One Minyan member who
described his father's ambivalence about being Jewish, nevertheless re
membered that when he was five his father bought a menorah (the nine-
branched candelabra lit on the festival of Hanukah) saying, "You should
know that you are a Jew."
The synagogue-oriented transmission of Judaism focused on "being
a Jew," or what came to be called identity. Jewish identity was expressed
through synagogue membership for a great majority of the Jewish com
munity. From the perspective of individual Jews, what was sought was
a continuing expression of Jewishness articulated occasionally through
prayer. The needs of institutions and American Jews met in that denom
inational codification of Judaism, Jewishness and American middle-
class suburban life. Historian Arnold Eisen noted that the second gen
eration produced almost no Jewish theology, interested instead in
ideology and loyalty. He calls the Judaism of that generation a "halfway
covenant," concerned with tradition and not God (1983, 178-179). De
nominational Judaism flourished in the soil of organizational loyalty.
Occupational specialization was linked to affluence, and a special
ized synagogue provided identity without demanding the total commit
ment of orthodoxy. Middle-class identities were continually segmented
between loyalty to religion, profession, family, and leisure interests. The
synagogue drew in all members of the family and often drew its mem
bership from a limited number of professional and commercial occupa
tions. But it could not integrate the identity of its members in a society
that had fragmented them. Its most important function was to keep the
religious-ethnic identity alive and vital.
The children who grew up in the suburban synagogue centers, amid
often unobservant families, were the recruiting ground for membership
in groups like the Minyan. They focused on the contradictions of the
suburbs. Deborah Dash Moore noted the effect of these contradictions.

So successful were they [the second generation] in binding middle-
class norms to visions of Jewish fulfillment, that their children often
could not disentangle the two. In the children's eyes even the over-
stuffed furniture of their parents home reflected a middle-class syn
thesis, as utterly bourgeois and Jewish as a decorous synagogue
service. Though second generation Jews did not jettison their Jew
ishness, they rejected much of their immigrant background as "for
eign," and adopted American styles instead. (1981, 11)
The Power of Synagogue Decorum
In the beginning of the twentieth century, a period in which the
majority of American Jews acculturated, Conservative Judaism devel
oped and Reform Judaism consolidated its gains as an urban American
middle class emerged. Historian Robert Wiebe suggests that this social
class was increasing in numbers and influence in the 1890s (1967, 111-
12). The new social class was not well defined. It encompassed men and
women in law, medicine, teaching, architecture, business, labor, and
agriculture. Though diverse in occupation, they held in common their
professional specialization, their ability to contribute to the new urban-
industrial system, and their expertise certified by special training and
degrees. The occupations of the middle class provided an identity
(Wiebe 1967, 113, 129). Indeed, these men and women, full of confi
dence and drive, Wiebe asserts, had not broken cleanly from their ethnic
pasts because the feelings invested in that past were "too powerful to
destroy" (1967, 131). Perhaps it was in response to their own outsider
identity that they sought to make achievement the basis of success in
American society and to merge loyalty to their ethnic or religious ties
with loyalty to America. The children of Eastern European Jews and
second and third generation American German Jews aspired to and en
tered many of these very professions in their search for social mobility,
though not until the 1930s. They were people focused on action, the
hallmark of the new middle class. They committed themselves to budd
ing synagogues and creating settings for their children's religious edu
cations. Ironically, they rarely participated in worship, but founded the
synagogues as monuments to their own ideas of a Judaism consistent
with America, to be used by their children. People for whom being a
professional was a key element in achieving an American identity were
people in flux, men and women who were creating new identities be
cause the old ones no longer worked. Judaism was a key component in
that identity, and their search is more than apparent in the development
of American Judaism.

Decorum in American Judaism
Members of the professionalized and occupationally specialized
middle class were consumers. Work was in large part motivated by con
sumption. Work provided an identity for the professional and consumer
goods for the family. Consumption, suburban living, and work all con
tributed to family members' identities. These self-definitions were self-
made and self-expressive. They did not rest entirely in history, in place
of origin or extended family, but in what came to be called the lifestyle.
There were no master identities, one version of reality that encompassed
all others. The professional identity was important, but in the case of
Jews, it did not erase one's connection to Judaism. As Wiebe noted,
ethnicity was not wiped out. Rather, this crucial time from 1890-1930
marked the period in which Jews began to occupy new professions,
move to new areas of cities, and to create new kinds of synagogues.
Following the Second World War Jews were fully associated with the
consumer society. Their synagogues did not create Americanization, but
they effectively responded to it by socializing immigrants and then their
children to that society. As Harold Weissberg put it:
American Jews reflect the general social and economic changes
since the war and possess strikingly similar institutional apparatus
and ideological attitudes to those of the general American-leisure-
consumption status class. They manifest so many of the traits which
sociologists and social critics attribute to the new American bour
geoisie (the familiar affluent society) that they may be said to epit
omize it. (1972, 349)
Through a chosen decorum, those at prayer communicated to
themselves and others who the people at prayer were. In a pluralistic,
rapidly changing society that fostered mobility, self-presentation was
the constant concern of acculturating people. The synagogue was ex
pressive of Americanization and served as a bridge between worlds and
a medium for formulating identity in part through decorum. The syn
agogue also constituted a community, one that represented the Jewish
people themselves. Identity then was formulated and expressed within
the synagogue, symbolic of the Jewish people. Because synagogue
decorum articulated the relationship between Jewishness and Ameri
canization for Jews collectively, it mirrored Jews together relating to
America and to themselves. Even though Jews infrequendy prayed,
synagogue membership was an essential component of Jewish identity
and uniqueness within America. Their synagogue had to enable that act
of identification. Frequently Jewish identity took form and was re
inforced in relationship to the synagogue.

Uniformity came to characterize American decorum. 25 How uni
formity was articulated within decorum became one of the major divi
sions between synagogues. The more traditional the synagogue was, the
more its participants were willing to enforce uniformity in behavior, but
not in prayer. In contrast to immigrant, first settlement synagogues,
both acculturating German and Eastern European Jews, at various
points on the social-class ladder, were committed to keeping people in
their seats quietly and forbidding private conversations. Both commu
nities were concerned with issues of good taste and American standards
of attractiveness for their buildings. However, they did not agree on ex
tending decorum to praying. It was only Reform Jews, and the most
acculturated and suburbanized Conservative Jews, who thought deco
rum should govern how people prayed and who legislated the tone,
volume, and pace of prayer. These more acculturated communities en
compassed all of religious life into an aesthetic of uniformity and order.
The cacophony and responsiveness that typified Ashkenazic prayer
were banished (Heilman 1983). Prayer was to resemble mainstream
Protestant worship, so that Jews could assert continuity between their
own worship and that of their American neighbors.
Historians of German Reform and American Judaism inevitably as
sociate decorum with an early stage of religious change. Decorum is
presented as paving the way for the more serious issues of theological
developments. If ideological platforms, prayerbooks, and theology were
the provinces of rabbis, decorum was the province of the laity, and an
embarrassing one at that. As Temkin writes:
Trivial as the differences in practice might seem when viewed
against the philosophy of religion and the history of Judaism, they
assumed great importance in the eyes of the unlearned and could
lead to discord within congregations and strained relations between
them. (1973, 7)
I have understood decorum, the province of the laity, as key to the
formulation of Jewish identity in America. Decorum engages the indi
vidual at the juncture of the social and the sacred. It symbolizes social
identity more readily than theological meaning because it emphasizes
form and convention. It is enforced socially and not by religious law
(Grimes 1982, 40). Precisely that juncture, however, was and remains
vulnerable for persons whose ability to fit into America is itself a reli
gious issue. How to remain a Jew and hence maintain Judaism was the
bedrock issue for all Jews seeking uniqueness within their Ameri-

Decorum in American Judaism
can lives. Decorum—formal and conventional synagogue action—sup
ported claims to both Judaism and Americanization. Immigrant deco
rum evolved and changed as the meaning of Judaism was altered for
each generation. The producer's decorum was not that of the consum
er's decorum. The suburban Conservative synagogue sought to define
more than etiquette; it attempted as much to create a Jewish identity
within a middle-class framework as it sought to create a middle-class
identity within a Jewish framework. The suburban synagogue empha
sized activity, organization, and finite, concrete expressions of Judaism.
It was neither a benevolent society nor exclusively a house of prayer. It
was an extension of middle class suburban life that could maintain one's
compatibility with America and ensure one's uniqueness as a Jew. Lit
urgy, education, and social clubs within the synagogue shifted Jewish
forms to make a general Jewish message of continuity with tradition
most palatable.
Synagogue activity and decorum are examples of what Erving Goff-
man called a "focused gathering," an encounter fenced off from every
day life by gates (1961, 8). Reality is to some extent held off by these
artificial fences, but is nevertheless introduced through them. The world
provided by the fence introduces, but controls, the larger reality (1961,
78-80). In the earliest immigrant synagogues where decorum was a
fence that regulated behavior alone, the alien and desired society of
America was there to be imitated. Wealth was to be produced, and
America was to be claimed. The early synagogues were proving grounds
for the possibility of Americanizing Judaism. The fences became more
complex as Eastern Europeans wished to retain more of the Jewish tra
dition and to maintain their compatibility with America. Decorum then
became one expression of the creation and perfection of that developing
This identity carried the weight of the answer to their question,
"How and why do I observe Jewish law?" To know oneself as a Jew
through activity and organization sanctioned by the synagogue directly
replaced traditional law as the expression of Judaism. "How do I act as
a Jew?" the question which the entire synagogue addressed, overshad
owed the question of tradition, "What do I do to be a Jew?" The latter
question was the product of a closed culture, a culture not similarly
preoccupied with identity. The traditional Jew sought to accurately per
form the law of God. He or she asked "Have I done this properly and
with the right intention?" The answers appeared to be free of time
and space because they were offered by authorities who were eternal
and immutable—divine texts.

The questions of American Jews, who seem above all concerned
with the meaning of their identity, are not focused on what are the right
traditional acts. They rejected the unambiguous answers of orthodoxy
that provided a series of right actions that did not take account of Amer
ican society. Acculturating Jews are people who live in a "leaky" rather
than a "closed culture." American Jews are not so much concerned with
getting it right, that is, fitting in. Judaism is viewed by these adherents
as a historically based religion, no longer an unchanging or eternal one.
And it must now be acceptable to one's diverse neighbors, relevant to
the issues of one's secular American life and era. That acceptability was
tested by the standards of one's immediate world. One can negotiate an
absolute religion because the basis of negotiation is much clearer. The
fragility of American Judaism rests on the fact that negotiation is diffi
cult because the foundation for change or continuity is uncertain. The
fragility of the unchanging formulation was evident in the American
experience, however, because its claim was total. When a total Jewish
experience was impossible, all was threatened. Tradition as a total way
of life collapsed. What remained was "being Jewish," or identity. Deco
rum seemed the most potent medium for translating world view to
identity, the timeless to the historically relative. 26 Ronald Grimes (1982)
suggests that decorum is a social matter displaying roles and statuses.
Among American Jews, decorum borrowed ritual authority because it
was endowed with religious significance. Decorum was the medium
through which Jews articulated the significant messages they wished
their religion to convey. These often contradictory messages emphasized
identity, continuity, and change.
The religious enterprise potentially roots its adherents by defining
reality both broadly and particularly. To know who and where one is in
the world is to embrace a world view. Synagogue decorum did and does
this. What is both striking and predictable in American Judaism is that
because a synagogue decorum evolved that broke so radically with
childhood, it transformed the synagogue into an assimilating vehicle
that helped "relocate" what had been dislocated.
While decorum may guide behavior, it engages an internal experi
ence as well. In fact, the synagogue audience is a rather narrow one.
One's suburban Gentile neighbors do not watch a service. They see the
outside of a synagogue, not the minute matters of head covering or
conversation inside. If the decorum of the new world turned old-world
Jews into Americans, the audience for this transformation was other
Jews and, most importantly, the self. Like all ritual, etiquette and deco
rum are actions that necessarily precede belief. As they acted out syn-

Decorum in American Judaism
agogue decorum, they became convinced of who they were, where they
belonged, and what aspirations they might have. Synagogues looked
American and sounded American, even those that also echoed the
sounds of tradition. In performing a ritual, one rehearsed one's own
identity and became convinced of it. Synagogue attendance not only
renewed the old but asserted and defined the present. 27
The synagogue, then, followed the pattern for Jewish participation
in all of American life. It acculturated Jews. But, in addition, it pre
served and maintained continuity with a Jewish past that was religious,
communal, and appeared less likely to change. The synagogue kept
alive the rich symbols of Jewish life, even while it changed them. It
provided a context for individual rites of passage, making sure a Jewish
setting was available. And it was there for the festivals of the Jewish
year, even as participation in these events dwindled. By providing a
transitional context for acculturating Jews, the synagogue continued to
maintain the volatile relation between ancient tradition and secular so
ciety that would be constantly readjusted.
The synagogue has waxed and waned in popularity. Even in its
most popular times, it has never been successful at attracting the major
ity of American Jews to attend even monthly Sabbath services. It no
longer provides a transition because contemporary Jews no longer re
quire Americanization. Yet the "empty gestures" of decorum remain full
of significance. They continue to preoccupy Jews and continue to act as
the basis for the acceptance or rejection of a synagogue or Judaism itself.
The Minyan and groups like it attacked the decorum of Conservative
Judaism because of its aesthetics, its blend of tradition and American
society. And like all the generations that preceded them, Minyan and
other havurah members preferred to create a new decorum rather than
to challenge theology or liturgy, attack tradition, or take on the entirety
of its requirements.
The year the Minyan was founded, sociologist Marshall Sklare
wrote, "It is hard to find a principled opponent of the American syn
agogue" (1971, 124). What appeared to one generation as a bland and
completely acceptable fixture of the American Jewish landscape was to
be another generation's rallying point for a "new" Judaism.
1. John Bodnar's (1985) analysis of immigration in this period stresses that the
ethnic church was vulnerable to strains and conflicts experienced by no other immigrant

institution (Chapter 5). My argument in this chapter suggests why religious institutions
would be vulnerable to such conflicts.
2. David Martin notes that a voluntary association like a church could play this role
only because the scale of society was still intimate enough so that meaning could be
expressed within organizations that provided relationships. Massive industrialization de
stroys the relational nature of society, he argues, and focuses human beings on the mass
media, where their empathy, rather than relationships, rapidly turns to apathy (1978, 91-
92). I argue throughout that the voluntary association is still a viable form for expressing
meaning because mass-scale society necessitates the creation of relationships between,
rather than within, the institutions of complex society.
3.1 found useful discussions of this period in Hudson 1981, and Marsden 1980.
4. Bodnar (1985) argues that the normative pattern for immigrants was for earlier
generations to model middle-class behavior for newer ones (118). German Jews not only
provided a model but actively worked to demand middle-class behavior of Eastern Euro
pean Jews through their distribution of philanthropic funds.
5. For a discussion of the transformation of traditional Jewish authority in Europe,
see Katz 1971; 1981.
6. Goldstein and Goldscheider describe this process as a "triple melting pot, single
structure." They claim that ethnic or religious differences maintain visibility, while a single
structure homogenizes and encompasses them (1968, 240). Handlin suggests this is true
for all nineteenth-century European immigrants as well (1951).
7. Bellah et al. (1985) argue that since its eighteenth-century founding, America
has been a society that promotes individualism and has remarkably underdeveloped ide
ologies of community. The rapidity with which European Jews acculturated to this indi
vidualism is noteworthy.
8. Perry Miller's essay "Errand Into the Wilderness" (1964) addressed how succeed
ing generations of Puritans descended from America's European settlers shaped their
Christianity. He notes that subsequent generations were preoccupied with their spiritual
failures, actually cataloging them in church. They turned to a preoccupation with work
and success as a result of their failure both in Christian ideals and in living up to their
forebearers visions. Any immigration that originally and subsequently took on religious
symbolism inevitably led to a transformation of that religion.
9. See Will Herberg (1960) for a discussion of the evolution of the "immigrant
10. See Feingold for his discussion of the economic opportunities German Jews en
countered (1982, 27-55).
11. I am indebted to Leon Jick's excellent work (1976) on the Americanization of
the synagogue for much of this discussion.
12. In his study of New York family clubs, William Mitchell (1978) notes that cousin
clubs had elaborate governance procedures. While there was a great propensity to form
and join organizations, there was also a persistent insistence on "maintaining personal
identity within a group." A disorderly democracy emerged from the contradiction, which
he contends is characteristic of American-Eastern European Jewish culture.
13. Arthur Goren describes the New York Kehillah that existed in the 1920s, the one
attempt to recreate the polity. The founders sought "to establish a comprehensive com
munal structure. [They] envisioned a democratically governed polity which would unite
the city's multifarious Jewish population, harness the group's intellectual and material
resources and build a model ethnic community" (1970, 3). Goren also explains why the
model could not be sustained.

Decorum in American Judaism
14. Timothy L. Smith argues that the claim that lay domination of American ethnic
religious organizations was the sole result of immigrants' encounter with democracy in
host societies misunderstands the importance of the laity in central or southern European
religion (1971, 241). However, Smith does not discuss how a tradition of lay domination
was affected by the absence of religious leaders, nor does he acknowledge the implications
of the laity refusing to give up its power for the practice of religion in America. His conclu
sions, nevertheless, agree with my own, that new citizens focused on "their own needs"
in fashioning religious communities, and that these needs were conceived in both new as
well as traditional terms.
15. Lawrence Hoffman described what 1 define as decorum in the following way:
"The very act of worship takes on the function of identifying for the worshiper what he or
she stands for, what real life is like, what his or her aspirations are" (1987, 67).
16. See Hoffman (1977) for a discussion of the development of Reform prayer books.
17. The "generational hypothesis" has been a particularly popular one in the sociol
ogy of American Jews. Distance from immigration is interpreted as a major determinant
of religious behavior, profession, education, and the place and type of residence. These
differences are dramatically marked for the three to four generations that followed mass
Eastern European Jewish migration. Homogeneous behavior between generations in the
last decade has been demonstrated (Goldscheider 1986). In other words, the children of
native-born Jews and their offspring will not differ as dramatically from one another as
the foreign bom and their children and grandchildren differed from one another (see, for
example, Sklare and Greenblum 1979; Goldstein and Goldscheider 1968; Gans 1958; and
Kramer and Leventman 1961).
18. See Moore (1981) for a thorough discussion of second generation Jews in New
York. Lucy Dawidowicz also wrote about this generation, characterizing it, in part, by the
fact that at least three-fourths of the first generation of Jewish parents neglected to educate
their children as Jews. This fact obviously contributed significantly to their estrangement.
(1982a, 60)
19. Hoffman (1987) argues similarly that all American Jewish denominations are
created in opposition to other groups that appear on the scene. Hence, every denomina
tion and prayer book's self-definition was necessitated by the presence of a new movement
or group from whom they were differentiated (67).
20. Generational reckoning must inevitably be fluid because each decade brought
masses of immigrants who differed in age. Hence, the first generation of Jews included
men and women who were acculturated at different points, and who, depending on their
ages, acculturated with varying ease. Moore suggests that the second generation was more
"cultural" than "chronological." The transitional generation shared "experience" rather
than a rigid chronology (1981, 10). One could argue a similarly homogeneous experience
for the post-war generation.
21. While Hertzberg was willing to make this guess, Marshall Sklare wrote that there
are no reliable statistics indicating national rates of synagogue affiliation. Smaller com
munities of Jews have higher affiliation rates than larger cities. He notes, for example, that
Flint, Michigan, with a population of under three thousand, had an affiliation rate of 87
percent. Communities with ten thousand to twenty-five thousand Jews commonly have
an affiliation rate of about 70 percent. In Boston, where there is a larger Jewish commu
nity, the rate is 50 percent. But in New York, where no reliable statistics exist, the affilia
tion rate, observers suggest, is measurably lower than other cities. Membership is "widely
diffused" through the population (1971, 123-24). These developments are subsequent to
World War II because, Glazer notes, in the 1930s membership in all forms of the syn-

agogue represented a minority of American Jews (1972,105). The trend may be reversing
itself. In the late 1970s, only one-fourth of Los Angeles Jews were affiliated with a syn
agogue. This percentage is the smallest of any major American city (Dart 1986,4).
22. Both Sklare (1972) and Liebman (1973) note this paradox.
2 3. Kaplan's ideas are set forth in Judaism as a Civilization (1981).
24. While denomination is the familiar term for the divisions of North American
Judaism, it is not an entirely accurate term because differences between them do not rest
on theological disputes. Partisan organization might be more appropriate (see Herberg,
1950, 318).
25. J. M. Cuddihy wrote about the decorum of European Jews in his analysis of
Freud, Marx, and Levi-Strauss as thinkers who resisted Western culture because of their
Judaism (1974). Robert Alter's review of this book largely rejected Cuddihy's perspective
on European decorum for misunderstanding the social class distinctions among Jews as
well as their integration within European society (1975).
26. This discussion of "leaky" and "closed" cultures owes much to a conversation
with the late Barbara Myerhoff in 1983.
27. Hoffman's claim (1987, 3) that it was choreography above all that remained
faithful to the past is a view I reject. Decorum was altered from the start; otherwise the
synagogue would not have been as effective an institution of acculturation.

Havurah Judaism
Old World Decorum and Countercultural Aesthetics
Once I had a religious experience. I came
out of a drug trip and had a tremendous
feeling I was one with the universe. It was
just like what I had read about in books.
But it wasn't Jewish, and because of that,
it wasn't religious for me.
Following the Second World War, American Judaism at last appeared
to conform to a stable pattern. Upwardly mobile, suburban Jews had
Americanized and settled their religious differences by forming three
separate denominations. Most were Conservative Jews. Synagogues
and philanthropies absorbed holocaust survivors from Europe, but
these institutions were not transformed as they had been by previous
waves of immigrants. Not only were Jewish children now native bom
Americans, but so were their parents and some of their grandparents. If
the second generation longed to create a Judaism that would appeal not
only to themselves but to their children, then their suburban syn
agogues and youth groups seemed to have succeeded. By the 1960s it
appeared that the distance from one generation to another among
American Jews had narrowed at last.
By the close of the volatile decade of the 1960s, however, groups of
college-aged American Jews asserted once again that American Juda
ism required dramatic alterations in order to speak for its young adults.
Again the synagogue, and alternatives to it, became the stage on which
the definition of Judaism, and American Judaism in particular,* was
contested and redefined. The era of the consumer was under attack from
the "youth culture" of the 1960s and 1970s, who rebelled against all
that suburbia exemplified, particularly its fragmentation. The relation
ships between the individual and society, between making and consum
ing, between membership and community, and between instrumental-

ity and authenticity were the issues that dominated the formulation of
Judaism advanced by havurah founders.
The havurah generation recast Judaism partially in rebellion against
its parents, but this was not their only motivation. For these men and
women "created" Judaism as they emphasized their continuity with the
past, their inheritance of a tradition, and their urgent desire to reassert
its true meaning. Anthropologist Michael Fischer has written about the
phenomenon of second generation American ethnicity in his analysis of
autobiographical writing. He reads this genre insightfully and under
lines the dynamic struggle required to assert ethnicity across genera
tions. Fischer argues that each generations' ethnic identity is newly
made, because, for example, being Chinese American is not the same as
being Chinese. One must leam how to be an ethnic as one lives as an
ethnic. Those who seek to understand their ethnicity, often in search of
a unified and coherent life story, individually "invent" and "reinterpret"
their history in every generation (1986, 195). This interpretive process
is necessary because second and third generation ethnic Americans in
evitably define themselves through "inter-reference" between the cul
tural traditions that surround them. Hence, Armenians, Chinese, and
Mexicans, as they hyphenate their traditions to America, define that
ethnicity in light of one another (1986, 201, 230). Every assertion of
ethnicity in America takes account of other ethnic groups. Differentia
tion, then, is not necessarily an art of isolation. So, too, the Jews who
founded the havurah were particularly affected by the Black Power
movement and the cultural politics of the 1960s and 1970s associated
with American minorities. They incorporated much of the language of
these movements into their own definitions of their ethnicity.
The generational search for an American ethnic identity often leads
individuals to traditional forms and relations (Fischer 1986, 231). This
inevitable conjunction between what is inherited (traditional forms)
and what is created (individual interpretation) allows the individual to
experience transformation, the sense that one has found a past and
made it one's own. The development or establishment of an ethnic iden
tity expands the frame of possibilities for an individual to an entire his
torical tradition. The "cultural artifice," as Fischer calls tradition, is es
sential for authenticating and framing the ethnic identity. It is more like
a mythological charter than a closed system of rules and provides an
authenticating but open-ended framework in which the individual,
often in interaction with other cultural traditions, creates his or her eth
nicity. The "creation" works precisely because the person feels her-

Havurah Judaism
or himself to be discovering or uncovering what was always his or
her own. 1
The entire havurah movement was an exercise in this construction
of the meaning of third generation Judaism by American youth. Its par
ticipants sought their ethnicity within the cultural forms of traditional
Judaism, but continually recreated those hallmarks of European Jewish
life within the context of the youth-dominated America of the 1970s.
Indeed, the decorum developed by havurah members acted as a coun
terdecorum to normative American Judaism and the America of their
parents. They established a new generational rendering of Judaism built
upon a new aesthetic and new organizations more suitable in their view
to the creation of Jewish community.
The Judaism of the third generation provided a surprising context
for a countercultural statement. This period in American history was
characterized by men and women who advocated denying limits and
social norms. Whether cultural and political groups longed for a new
utopia or a mythological past, they imagined a world that embodied
freedom. By contrast, Jewish tradition and its historical and cultural
forms necessarily impose limits. Both the imposition of chosen limits
and the will to abandon them represented a cultural critique, and each
made the individual the ultimate authority in drawing boundaries and
acceptable constraints. 2
American Judaism in the hands of the 1960s generation revealed a
new set of answers to concerns about Jewish uniqueness within Amer
ican society. These young men and women sought their mythological
past, one that would inform, though not control, their present and fu
ture. If they found radicalism in prayer and Torah, or saw secular polit
ical protest as a vehicle for Jewish identity, it was because they invented
their ethnicity even as they inherited it. They seemed to stand for con
tradictory things. They yearned for continuity even as they separated
themselves from their parents' and grandparents' lives.
As havurah members created new forms for prayer communities or
political protest, they were inventing and inheriting social, cultural, and
personal expressions of ethnicity and religion. They negotiated that pro
cess within their historical moment. This generation offered their own
transformations of the key themes in American Judaism: authority, de
corum, and organization. They neither transformed the voluntary struc
ture of the'American Jewish community nor abandoned organizations,
chiefly the prayer community, as a source of Jewish identity. Rather,
they refashioned the nature of Jewish organizations in light of the aes-

thetics of the American counterculture and found a new generational
articulation of Judaism for themselves. Their counteraesthetic and alter
native decorum constituted a means by which they differentiated them
selves from their parents and from American society. 3
Organizational Life: The Suburbs versus the Counterculture
At the turn of the century voluntary organizations in general, and
religious ones in particular, effectively allowed newly urbanized Ameri
cans to articulate their own emerging middle-class identities as well as
their programs for a progressive America. Ethnic Americans tended to
use their churches as places to perfect their changing status within
America. They decided what language to use and what customs to in
clude for weddings and other rites of passage within an ethnically ho
mogeneous environment. Their cumulative decisions developed into an
ethnic identity within America, maintaining some uniqueness within
an acculturating process. Newly urbanized Americans, at the same time,
used independent Christian organizations to change people spiritually
and to alter the lives of the needy within a progressive program for
I return again to such voluntary religious organizations because
they continued to play a central role in articulating an identity and pro
gram for "newcomers." These postwar newcomers, who were the sub
urbanites, and their children often used organizations to express their
central values and ideas in a society that was pluralistic and segmented.
As the ethnic church could be the staging ground for a developing iden
tity, so voluntary organizations also could provide the models for the
ephemeral community of the suburbs, or the social transformation for
the counterculture. Precisely because such organizations in urban areas
were separate from work and family, they were good settings to express
issues of identity and community. Expressing identity can never be the
sole responsibility of the family or workplace, which never encompass
the whole person. Like other Protestant and Jewish voluntary organi
zations before it, the havurah played this role in the context of the six
ties and seventies.
Voluntary organizations had a unique place in suburban communi
ties following World War II. The early twentieth century "cult of person
ality" and self-realization was harnessed to the needs of a new type of
community. Organizations placed increasing emphasis on the unique
person, on being liked and expressing oneself. The Organization Man,
William H. Whyte's incisive critique of corporate America and its domi-

Havurah Judaism
nation of family, leisure, and religion, described an era where organiza
tion became associated with what Whyte called a "social ethic," which
he related to the society's emphasis on self expression (1956). The or
ganization, whether it was corporate, voluntary, leisure, or residential,
required certain attitudes and values. Whyte, and many social scientists
of the period, noted a shift in the basic values of American society. The
individual and the Protestant Ethic, mainstays of the American experi
ence, yielded to the demand for well roundedness, for suppression of
uniqueness, and above all for an emphasis on utility. The transience and
rootlessness that resulted from urbanization were then compounded by
the national or international corporation that continuously moved its
employees and their dutiful families. All relations outside the nuclear
family were necessarily temporary, resulting in what Whyte called
"pragmatism" or "utilitarianism," not simply as an expedient but also
as a "moral imperative" (1956, 435). That expedience required loyalty
to the group, to peers, to the organization, and to the community, all
representatives of the corporation. Suburbs drew together friends with
out family in a flurry of activity, which created shallow but overlapping
roots. Such communities required conformity to coalesce quickly and
meet general needs. The ability to adjust was the individual's greatest
virtue. It made it possible for everyone to get along. What social histor
ian Warren Susman saw developing at the turn of the century, with the
increasing importance of "personality" over "character," reached its cul
mination in the 1950s. Consumer society and corporate society met in
the suburbs, where a world of "personality" and "well roundedness"
made conflict unnecessary and conformity essential. Susman notes the
direct and developing relationship between the feeble "rituals of the
external world" and the value on an "inner self" (1984, 272). With
the attacks on all the authorities noted in Chapter 1—religious tradi
tion, the stable American town, and continuity with parents' occupa
tions and residences—the individual's inner life and self-expression
took on greater significance. But that inner life became relegated to the
need for conformity to society as the organization dominated family life
and work life. Emphasizing personality meant teaching people to get
along, a skill that was useful to the corporate world.
Religion in the fifties followed this pattern of orienting individual
needs to group ends. This was the era Will Herberg described in which
religion encompassed and replaced ethnicity for most Americans. Par
ticipation in church was high, but apparently not motivated by doctrinal
allegiance, according to quantitative measures of church participation.
As Martin Marty argues, the scholars of religion of the period were con-

vinced that a pervasive secularization was afoot and that religion
masked and even redefined religion in the secular theologies of the
period (1983, 276-77). No period in American Protestant history, for
example, demonstrates more cooperation between denominations, or
more predictions of the possibility of an imminent unified Protestant
church. Whyte's study of a 1950s Chicago suburb supports this view.
Protestant suburbanites formed a unified church and actively worked to
overcome denominational differences. Churches were capable of coop
eration precisely because they wanted to put doctrinal differences aside.
The underlying purpose of religious affiliation in this period seemed
to be what Whyte called "social." Church became a good setting for
making friends in a new community. It promoted the ties of the nuclear
family. In Chapter 1, I described a similar trend for the suburban syn
agogue and synagogue center. Most sociological studies of Judaism
point to this period for the strong overlap of ethnicity and religion in the
Jewish community. Under the influence of Protestant neighbors, Jews
attended synagogue more often than before, though for the most part
their personal observance of Jewish rituals and laws decreased. Utility
was a strong message from the synagogues. The synagogue was good
for the family, good for maintaining Jewish identity, and good for help
ing Jewish children establish their identities.
My concern is not so much with secularization as with the middle-
class penchant for joining churches in order to achieve community and
find identity. Sociologist N. J. Demerath demonstrated that the Christian
and Jewish middle and upper classes join churches, but that lower
classes who less frequently join churches verbalize more religious senti
ments and beliefs when interviewed (1984, 334-40). More than a
place for believers, the church draws people in search of the like-
minded or socially equal. Organization seems to be a key issue in the
middle classes' understanding of their own lives and the place of reli
gion in it.
By contrast, organization took on a radically different meaning in
the sixties and seventies within the flourishing counterculture. Not only
did participants criticize social utility for lacking authenticity but vol
untary organizations took on new meaning within the counterculture.
They became what Kenneth Keniston called models of "exemplary re
form." (1968, 286-90). These organizations were the focus of cultural
politics: both a protest against and transformation of society. If a free
clinic, women's health collective, or alternative prayer community could
exist, the mass, alienated, impersonal society itself was undermined.
A Jewish counterculture developed in the early seventies that both

Havurah Judaism
criticized American Judaism and offered an alternative to it. Organiza
tions carried the program and formulation for alternatives to Judaism.
Though many young Jews assimilated, many of those who might ordi
narily have joined synagogues and taken their places in suburban Ju
daism chose instead to create havurot.
The havurah, then, combined both roles played by voluntary orga
nizations in America over the last century. It was a new form of syn
agogue able to communicate uniqueness and identity just as ethnic
churches did. But it was also an exemplary reform organization, anti-
institutional and committed to an alternative status. The change it de
clared by its existence provided a new view of American Judaism. Tra
ditional and countercultural aims were combined in the havurah that
intensified the organization's load as a purveyor of personal identity and
cultural alteration.
The Jewish Counterculture and the Havurah
Havurot were the most tenacious and successful of several organi
zations of ethnically and religiously self-conscious Jewish college-aged
youth in the early 1970s. Though no single or widely recognized name
exists for this phenomenon, it was often referred to as the Jewish coun
terculture. Jack Porter and Peter Dreier characterized this uncentralized
movement as a “quest for historical roots, personal identity, and inti
mate community amidst a mad, technocratic and antiseptic society"
(1973, xii).
Three books, The New Jews (Sleeper and Mintz 1971), Jewish Radi
calism (Porter and Dreier 1973), and Contemporary Judaic Fellowship in
Theory and Practice (Neusner 1972a), contain essays criticizing American
Judaism and the failure of Jewish organizations to provide "authentic
religious community." Other articles discuss Israel, Zionism, the Holo
caust, the New Left, feminism, and Soviet Jewry from the point of view
of American radical Jews. Some writers present alternatives to main
stream American Judaism. Many of the articles are reprinted from local
radical Jewish newspapers with titles such as Up Against the Brooklyn
Bridge and Genesis 2. Response Magazine, originally located in New York
and later in Boston, had a national circulation by 1968. It was the
movement's national forum. 4
The Jewish counterculture generated a diverse set of activities and
interests under its broad title. Its activities were political, religious, cul
tural, and communal. No participants shared interests in all of them.
Many activities were focused on campuses, but some in the general

communities of major cities. All their activities and programs strove to
integrate Jewish concerns with countercultural issues and forms of or
ganizing (Glanz 1977).
A self-conscious group, activists in the Jewish counterculture and
havurot wrote and spoke about themselves, produced publications, and
reflected on their enterprise as five, ten, and fifteen years passed from
the founding of the first havurah. Hence, for some years the links be
tween groups were informal, and official statements, newsletters, man
ifestos, and official descriptions of havurot by their members were non
existent. They remained antipathetic to extensive organizations and the
trappings of bureaucracy. Bill Novak, who was involved in beginning
two havurot, claimed that the ephemeral nature of the organization was
crucial to maintaining a successful community. Havurah members had
to guard vigilantly against the organization's "form dictating its con
tents" (1972a, 266). Members often spoke of the wish "to meet our
own needs." They believed they would be deterred from their purpose if
forced to recruit or act as models for others. In avoiding becoming too
bureaucratic, they hoped to maintain the vitality of their communities.
As individuals, Jewish countercultural activists were willing
spokespersons for a vision they shared. As noted, they wrote books and
journal articles, published newspapers and edited journals. In 1982 sev
eral activists graciously gave me interviews about their communities. 5
Most were accustomed to interviews about their ideas. They were a
Minyan and havurot participants identified with the youthful coun
terculture that emerged out of the New Left in the late sixties and early
seventies. 6 Havurah members shared the counterculture's ideology that
social transformation was essential and could be accomplished in part
through the creation of alternative institutions. 7 They claimed that
shared Jewish activities were important acts of protest. They embraced
the New Left's criticism of American politics and culture. They separated
themselves from the rest of the New Left, nevertheless, by their belief
that through their shared past as a Jewish people they would find a
future vision for themselves. As Porter and Dreier wrote in their "Intro
Thus the desperation of the late 1960's led some to the senseless
violence of the Weathermen. But others found new directions in
their effort to build a viable radical community... within their own
kind—women. Catholics . . . homosexuals, teachers and Jews. This
development is an affirmation as well as a protest. (1973, xxviii)

A 1977 New York rally for the rights of Soviet Jews. The
Jewish counterculture claims to have been responsible
for making the plight of Soviet Jews a concern of the
larger Jewish community. This multigenerational protest
brought together mainstream Jewish groups like Hadas-
sah, a women's Zionist organization, with countercultural

The authenticity of the changes proposed and described rested in large
measure on the cultural uniqueness they promoted. In the case of the
havurah in particular, what was rejected was an assimilationist's model
of religion and its link with middle-class life. James Sleeper wrote in his
"Introduction" to New Jews:
Their [young people's] rejection of the Jewish community is less a
denial of Judaism as such than it is part of a more general rejection
of the deficiencies of a more general and misguided priorities inher
ent in the American dream their parents have pursued. (1971, 15)
Americanization, these activists argued, destroyed Judaism as a sys
tem of values and as a religious and political vision. They charged that
Americanization and acculturation were accomplished through nar
rowing Jewish life to a successful imitation of American Protestant,
middle-class values. They stood the success of American Jews on its
head. What previous generations of Jews called success, they defined
as "accommodation." To havurah members, rapid upward mobility
marked the end of Jewish community.
Porter and Dreier articulated the Jewish Left's rejection of the suc
cess of American Jews.
The obsequiousness of the Jewish establishment is a sign of the
Jew's marginality and ultimate vulnerability. Despite popular
stereotypes, studies show that few Jews are to be found among the
corporate elites. Rather, where Jews are involved at all, it is as
technocrats; they may oil and run the machine, but they don't own
it. Jewish success was bought at a price. It destroyed Jewish culture
and ethnic solidarity, forced Jews to rely on others' good will and
alienated masses of young Jews. It is a price the Jewish left is un
willing to pay. (1973, xxxvi)
The language and substance of this analysis is indebted to the
American New Left. Its leaders articulated a fundamental discomfort
with power elites upon which technocracy, bureaucracy, and a massive
society were dependent. Activists rejected that system and refused to
cooperate with it. The 1965 Berkeley protests against university bu
reaucracy made popular the phrase "I am a student: do not fold, muti
late, or staple." They perceived every level of bureaucracy from the cor
poration to the university as inhuman because its size and scale made it
unapproachable, and made Americans mere cogs in the machine. They
refused to join the corporation, to participate in war, or to accept a place

Havurah Judaism
in a massive and alienated society; they planned to change society.
These postwar baby-boom children rejected the security their parents,
often returning soldiers and spouses, had sought in suburbs, cars, con
sumer items, and corporate employment (May 1988). Jews and gentiles
within the New Left opposed the success produced by the affluent
technocratic society. Havurah members who were identified with the
New Left rejected the society that had created their affluence.
The New Left was committed to two kinds of revolutions that di
rectly implicated Jews in reinterpreting their own place in society. The
national liberation struggle of revolutionary groups outside the United
States, principally the Vietnamese, was of central concern to the Left.
Much closer to home was the Black Power movement and its own rhet
oric of liberation (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967). The message of
these movements was that only in the uniqueness of one's own people
could one find power and freedom. When Robert Greenblatt wrote,
"The experiences of Vietnam and Cuba have demonstrated the possibil
ity of revolutionary nationalism, a consciousness of peoplehood which
contributes to the revolutionary process while maintaining the inter
national perspective (1971, 46)," he asserted that Jews would find in
their own peoplehood a cultural and political alternative to mainstream
American life. This view was echoed by the most prominent radical Jew
of the seventies, Arthur Waskow:
We have felt more and more confident about our ability to 'enter'
America. But in the 1960s this confidence was shattered. When the
blacks tried to enter the melting pot, the temperature inside got too
high and the pot shattered. Simultaneously, the Vietnam War
showed America, not as a defender against a holocaust, but as a
perpetrator of one. From both events, many young Jews whose par
ents had proudly assimilated to the American promise ... find they
do not want to be American after all.. .. The eighty-year upward-
mobility process was shattered. (1973,15)
America and American Judaism then became a "shattered world" for
the Jewish Left. Fischer's suggestion that ethnicity is defined in dialogue
with other ethnic groups, as well as through the cultural forms of one's
own traditions, was borne out by the Jewish counterculture. Commu
nity and cultural autonomy became their themes, articulated largely in
a borrowed language, particularly from blacks, though with acknowl
edged debts to European Zionism. The application and revision of those
issues occurred within an American Jewish context. Some voices in the
movement were actively Zionist, urging American Jews to "return" to

Israel; the majority were not. Zionism would have been the most con
sistent with a position of national liberation. But without being anti-
Zionist. these activists, like their parents, remained sympathetic to Israel
but committed to creating what they believed their grandparents had
abandoned, a flourishing Jewish culture within America.
Though mainstream society was identified by the Jewish Left as
the problem, most of their critical writings were directed against assimi
lated American Jews, both the middle class and political radicals, who
seemed to epitomize all that was wrong with America. They argued that
both types of American Jews were indifferent to the uniqueness of the
Jewish people. Both groups thought a distinctive Jewish identity was
"parochial" and denied it in favor of assimilation with suburbia or polit
ical movements indifferent to Jews. However, Jewish activists, inspired
by other contemporary movements, held their cultural uniqueness to be
essential to activism. They argued that the current Jewish community
was thoroughly unacceptable, but that it could be changed, just as the
counterculture was provoking change in the larger society. The Jewish
counterculture's efforts were directed toward constructing a critical
analysis of its own Jewish community and tradition. The alternative
that resulted would be their counterculture, one inspired by American
youth but different from it.
One activist described how his generation was transformed from
Jewish radicals to radical Jews, to the realization that the best alterna
tive to America lay in what they called "authentic" Jewish community.
The Jewish publicists spilled seas of ink bemoaning our alienation.
Rarely, though, was an honest appraisal made of the source of our
alienation. Perhaps it was a sign of our health that we were not
attracted to a Jewish life devoid of intellectual and spiritual en
ergy. . . . We woke up from the American dream and tried to dis
cover who we really were. For many of us this now means turning
our concerns inward into the Jewish community because we are
disenchanted with the crass materialism of the larger society. Yet
where can we find inspiration in the multimillion dollar Jewish
presence of suburbia? (Levine 1973, 185)
Levine referred to identity, to material success, and to spiritual values in
drawing his contrast between American culture and authentic Judaism.
America and American Judaism represented materialism, emptiness,
and mass society. Judaism should represent an alternative. Alan Mintz,
active in two havurot and the first editor of Response, articulated this

Havurah Judaism
A most startling discovery has been that Judaism does not have to
be identical to the scheme of middle class values.... A new con
sciousness of the past has brought us to believe that a more fun
damental and nourishing Judaism existed, was discussed and did
not need a middle-class life style and its constellation of values.
It was the task of the Jewish counterculture to assess how American
society had ensnared and undermined a true Jewish life, so its founders
might create a new one.
The voices of the Jewish counterculture emphasized the culpability
of three institutions in the assimilation of American Jews. The first, if
most remote, was the Federation of Jewish Agencies, the essence of the
secular Jewish establishment. This agency exists at national and local
levels (Elazar 1980). It disburses funds to all Jewish philanthropic agen
cies. The federation consists of professional staffs under the direction of
affluent lay boards. In consultation with their staffs, these boards decide
how money collected through the United Jewish Appeal, (a national
fund-raising campaign organized by federations) will be disbursed. The
boards, by the nature of their decisions, determine the priorities of the
Jewish community. They decide what funds will be sent to Israel, and
how much will stay in the local communities. They also decide what
funds will be spent on Jewish education and Jewish culture, and how
much will be spent on the aged, the facilities of the community center,
and youth work.
Young Jewish activists criticized values promoted by federations.
They argued that education and the arts were underfunded. They noted
that the Jewish education supported by the federation was inadequate,
ineffective, and incapable of teaching the radical values implied by Ju
daism. They were particularly critical of the lack of democracy and dis
sident voices in federation organizations. Although the affluent people
who became board members represented themselves rather than the
whole community, they made decisions for that community. For ex
ample, an article by a sociologist reprinted in the collection Jewish Radi
calism noted:
It is too obvious that the goals of the people and of the federation
leadership are by now far apart and being a voluntary association,
the leadership would not long support a program other than its
own, even if the program was that of the majority of the people. The
leadership, therefore, is really without a following, nor does the

Jewish population of any locality really have an organized commu
nity. (Shapiro 1973, 204)
Young activists organized a protest against the Council of Jewish Feder
ations and Welfare Funds. In 1969, 1500 delegates met in Boston to
plan communal affairs for the upcoming year at the annual General
Assembly. A Jewish Activist League planned a sit-in to protest these
priorities. They published their intentions and concerns in a mimeo
graphed sheet that they circulated to the press.
In affirmation of our Jewishness and our concern for Jewish sur
vival we feel we can no longer be silent. Distortions in the budget
priorities of Jewish federations have long been decried ... We de
mand that while maintaining the generous level of support for Is
rael, all local federations undertake drastic and immediate reorder
ing of domestic priorities in the local communities, in order to
improve the quality of Jewish cultural life on campus and in the
community, (cited in Navara 1972)
The council of Federations blunted the protest by offering the platform
to one movement representative. What followed was a reasonably typi
cal pattern of responses to New Left protest. After a stirring address by
the dissidents' representative, the federation formed a commission to
study youth. It allocated funds on a one-time basis to extend youth
activities, supporting an alternative Jewish press as well as other ven
tures. Then activists wrote articles decrying federation policies and in
difference in federation-supported publications (see Navara 1972; News
week 1969).
The federation was the ultimate establishment of American Jewish
life. Its problems paralleled all those of American society described and
analyzed throughout the sixties. It embodied the elitism and values of
mainstream American society. Jewish students used the analysis and the
models of protest of the period to respond to that system. They also
sought alternatives to the federation-constructed Jewish community.
They realized, even in their minimal involvement in the federation, that
they would engender no real change if they stayed within it.
The second institution attacked by the Jewish counterculture was
the synagogue. Havurot were organized by people whose plans for an
alternative community called for a new vision of the worship commu
nity. From physical space, to the organization of the service, to the types
of melodies sung, the synagogue had to be reinvented.
The synagogue, according to havurah activists, exemplified the split

Havurah Judaism
between religion and culture that the Jewish counterculture aimed to
heal. It was viewed as the institution in which "Jewish values" had
been cut off from Jewish activity. Activists asserted that the only syn
agogue values that mattered were suburban success, wealth, and rote
religious performance. They believed that the synagogue lacked spiri
tuality, meaningful study, and real Jewish activity. Its congregants were
rendered "passive." James Sleeper characterized suburban Judaism as
"a spiritual Hiroshima which had been the setting for the transforma
tion of the Hebrew spirit into an increasingly dispensable appendage of
middle class culture" (1971, 7). Sleeper claimed that the "appendage"
had tailored an "almost forgotten religion to the norms and aesthetics
of middle class culture" (1971, 14).
Given the centrality of worship to the havurah it is surprising, in
retrospect, that the critique of the synagogue was rather generally
drawn. The image of the large suburban affluent synagogue appears in
most of the writings of movement participants. But the synagogue
simply seems one reflection of the Americanization of the Jews. It was
not the source of protest, as were the federations. The havurah, an ex
emplary reform, was activists' most effective critique of the synagogue
because of the alternative it provided.
Stephen Lemer, a mainstream Conservative rabbi, wrote one of the
first assessments of the havurot for the American Jewish community.
His primarily sympathetic portrayal included his analysis of why these
men and women found little hope for changing synagogues:
Few of the haverim (havurah members) consider this to be a realistic
goal, for they seem to share a certain Puritan sense of the corruption
of the existing order and the concomitant requirement for a new
Zion.... Clearly, they think that they can't "do their thing" mean
ingfully with the corrupted or deadened elders. (1972, 135)
The view Lemer described was derived from the activists' analysis that
the synagogue contributed to narrowing Jewish culture into a denomi
national religion. While counterculture participants understood that
this separation originated in Europe, they believed the synagogue has
tened the process because it fostered assimilation to American culture,
the tragic error of immigrant Jews. Activists claimed that the synagogue
could stand for no more than a reflection of the America they rejected.
Finally, the Jewish counterculture turned its analysis to the subur
ban Jewish family, declaring Jewish daughters and sons to be "at odds"
with their parents and "the establishment," which they regarded as syn-

onymous (Porter and Dreier 1973, xvii). Their parents and grandparents
chose assimilation and suburban materialism. The Jewish family,
understood by one writer as the “greenhouse of human values," taught
children to assimilate rather than to hold Jewish values or to maintain
Jewish practices. Second generation American Jews made even worse
choices than to assimilate. They confused their children with contradic
tory and ambivalent messages. As their children followed the same path
of assimilation, particularly when they chose gentile partners for mar
riage or dating, the second generation balked and blamed their children
for inappropriate choices (Navara 1971,103; Rosenfeld 1973,224). The
writings of third and fourth generation Jews, then, emphasized not just
the Americanization of Jewish culture perpetrated by the second gener
ation, but the personal cost resulting from the confusion, absence of
world view, spiritual emptiness, and shattered legacy that they lived
with. Their desire to hold onto Judaism—while wresting it away from
their corrupting elders who polluted it—was clearly at stake in a gen
erational conflict played out in religious, secular, and familial commu
At the same time, many who wrote criticizing their parents also
described feelings of warmth, love, and security attached to the family
and Jewish events. They sympathetically acknowledged their parents'
difficulties in adjusting to American society because of their own search
for security. The family, then, raised a series of emotions named by par
ticipants as central to their own struggles with how to be a Jew. They
bypassed their parents to find Judaism, but most were rooted to Juda
ism through their parents and grandparents. They were ambivalent ac
tors rejecting and embracing tradition. Their protests and alternatives
drew them toward and away from the family.
For the counterculture, Jewish values involved community, spiri
tuality, learning for its own sake rather than achievement, and political
radicalism expressed through national and personal liberation. These
values also involved the rejection of achievement, success, and assimi
lation, all associated with America, although havurot were primarily
populated with students pursuing graduate degrees. Jewish communal
institutions were the havurah members' targets for protests and critical
articles. The family was always the implied target in countercultural
attacks on values and materialism, as it was by others in the rebellious
generation of the sixties. The call for "real community" and "real inti
macy" was an attack on both family and community. The family was
the intimate target of the public outrage directed at community.

Havurah Judaism
Jewish Youth and the New Left
One would not have predicted the rise of a university-based Jewish
counterculture in the 1970s. Jewish men and women typically spend
their years at a university preparing for a job or profession and usually
do not participate in Jewish activities. The Jewish community has few
services to offer them. The Hillel foundation, a world-wide campus or
ganization begun in the 1920s and subsequently supported by B'nai
B'rith, an ethnic and secular Jewish organization, specializes in meeting
the needs of this age group. For the most part, Hillel appeals to a small
percentage of Jewish students on campus. Because the majority of Jews
attend college after high school, an entire age cohort virtually is discon
nected from the Jewish community, except for a minority that joins peer
associations such as Hillel or secular sororities and fraternities with a
majority of Jewish members.® Yet it was this very age group that began
havurot. It was predictable that they should do so as a homogeneous
group of peers, but it was unusual that their concern should be for Jew
ish activity, which would separate them from mainstream campus life.
These Americanized and well-acculturated countercultural Jews,
despite all of their dissatisfaction with the Judaism they knew, found
something in their tradition that was not available in the popular and
widespread counterculture. Havurah members, though close to the New
Left critique of society, were made uneasy by it. The political activism of
havurah founders was certainly in keeping with the New Left. These
men and women identified with their generation's involvement in poli
tics. If their own commitments were less extensive, and there was of
course variation among early members, their outlook was shared. Hillel
Levine, in his address to the 1969 Federation General Assembly, char
acterized himself and others in this way, "But perhaps you would be
more interested in knowing who we are... . We went down to Missis
sippi for summers, marched against the war" (1973, 184-85). Probably
only a few of these people were involved in civil-rights work in the
South because many of them were young teenagers at the time. They
were still aware of the Jews who were active in the South in civil dis
obedience, and they identified with two of the Jewish civil-rights work
ers murdered in 1964. 9
Virtually all of them had participated in antiwar protests. A woman
who was a member of the first havurah founded in Boston spoke during
an interview with me about student protests in 1968 and how she re
sponded to the daily reports of students closing down college campuses.

We really learned a sense of our own power. I think nothing else,
nobody telling me that, could have made me understand that
power, the way living through the period helped me understand
that we didn't have to be powerless.
Despite their agreement with the New Left on many issues, the
founders of the havurot became alienated from radicals' criticisms of
Israel and Zionism. Like other American Jews they strongly supported
Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War. 10 American Jews on cam
pus translated their political activism to the support of Israel. Students
raised large sums of money to send to Israel; some volunteered to work
in Israel to relieve those who were called up to fight. Many of the ac
tivists reported previous indifference to Israel and to Judaism. Jews
throughout the United States, but especially students, intensified activ-
ites that allowed them to make statements concerning their Jewish
identity. Israel's apparent vulnerability and decisive victory evoked
strong feelings of responsibility, elation, and pride in Israel among Jews.
The non-Jewish New Left responded differently. Their analysis of
the Middle Eastern war attributed Israel's victory to the expansion of
Western imperialism. They did not see a conflict between a small vul
nerable nation and powerful Arab states; they saw the Six Day War as
another war similar to that in Vietnam. Westerners were occupying the
land of others and were using Western forces to subdue rightful inhabi
tants. New Left activists became increasingly anti-Zionist just as many
Jewish students began to identify themselves as Jews through the rhet
oric of the Left. Bill Novak wrote about this dilemma.
The New Left, at one point the only hope for morality in this coun
try, sold him [the Jewish activist on campus] out by its poindess
acceptance of the "good-guy-bad-guy" dualism in the Middle East.
(1972b, 143)
Jews who identified with Israel were then increasingly polarized from
the New Left. They found themselves choosing between assimilation,
which required renouncing their attachment to Israel, or identification
with American Judaism and all of the problems that came with this
In 1967 at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, the
Black Caucus demanded an anti-Zionist platform. The radical Black
Power movement was increasingly identified with the third world and
with the political analyses of Arab nationalist Franz Fanon. Many Jews

Havurah Judaism
walked out of the conference, breaking their tie to the New Left (Porter
and Dreier 1973, xxv) M. J. Rosenberg, a rabbi, responded to this dev
astating event in a short piece for the Village Voice in 1969. He expressed
sentiments that virtually all those who identified with the Jewish coun
terculture repeated:
And thus from this point on, I will support no movement that does
not accept my people's struggle. If I must choose between the Jew
ish cause and a "progressive" anti-Israel SDS [Students for a Dem
ocratic Society], I shall always choose the Jewish cause, not blindly,
not arbitrarily, but always with full knowledge of who I am and
where I must be. (1973, 10)
Young activist Jews embraced the New Left only to find themselves
unable to be both Jews and radicals. They were outsiders to America
and outsiders to an alternative vision of America. They wanted out of
the melting pot, uncertain of what their alternatives were. They clung
to one belief, which they did not share with the rest of the New Left.
They believed that the past held the key to who they would be. They
would not go back, but they would bring their European Jewish past,
their immigrant ancestors' heritage, and their view of what Judaism
could offer them into their new society. In 1968, with the formation of
the first havurah, they began to weave a Jewish world view into a New
Left vision. Robert Greenblat summarized the moment. "I am a Jew, an
American, a Revolutionary. I am all three at once because each flows
out of and merges into one life history" (1971, 47).
Alternative Organization as Politics
By 1968 the ubiquitous protests of the New Left were replaced by
proliferating alternative organizations that provided new ways of living
in society, and with that an alternative way to establish "personal iden
tity" (Flacks 1971, 100). These alternatives were at once the medium
and end of protest. If the family oppressed individuals and maintained
inequity in society, then destroying the family through organizing com
munal living arrangements was both a protest and a solution. New or
ganizations were the medium for radical protesters who set about cre
ating a parallel society (Eisen and Steinberg 1969, 83-84). 11
Indeed the parallel society grew directly out of self-transformation.
New Left activists were committed to changing the world by changing
themselves. They rejected the "Old" Left in large measure because its

strategies for change did not begin with the self and therefore seemed
inevitably doomed to failure. However, New Left activists' emphasis on
self-transformation created unmeetable expectations. They not only
held a utopian vision for the future, but for the present as well. They
envisioned no steps or process to take them from a flawed present to an
ideal future. Rather, every group they organized would immediately
embody a new era or be judged a failure. Alternative communities in
herited this identical strategy (Lemer 1988,46).
Revolutionary activity transpired without revolutions. "Alterna
tives" were ubiquitous whether they were organizations or "life styles."
Forms of residence, such as the commune, coexisted alongside free clin
ics for health care, free stores for distributing food, cooperative busi
nesses that shared profits rather than amassed them, and free universi
ties where knowledge was shared and not directed toward earning
degrees. These innumerable alternatives demonstrated that antibureau-
cratic, humanistic, and antiauthoritarian organizations were possible.
Kenneth Keniston summarized the form all such alternatives took.
Indeed, within the New Left there is a certain anarchistic strain that
opposed all large institutions in favor of small face-to-face groups.
If there is a hidden utopia, it is the utopia of small groups of equals,
meeting together in mutual trust and respect to work out their com
mon destiny. (1968,18)
Alternative organizations that flourished in the seventies were not de
veloped by weary New Leftists. By the early seventies, many had been
engaged in years of constant protest and were suffering from what was
called "burnout." At the same time, ethnics and black Americans, who
might not be associated with a protest movement, also created parallel
institutions and life styles. They rejected a white, middle-class society
committed to homogenization; cultural radicalism flourished. Minority
groups developed music, art, social service agencies, and styles of ap
pearance that reflected their uniqueness. Hence, politics, music, style,
and activism became inseparable and, in the minds of some, compa
rable. If white society valued straight hair, then blacks made naturally
kinky hair a symbol of pride, calling the hairstyle an "Afro." In cultural
politics, wearing an afro became a political statement. Jews followed
suit, naming their naturally kinky hair-style a "Hebrew Afro" or just a
Cultural radicals turned toward their own communities through al
ternative organizations, which drew them away from the American

Havurah Judaism
norms that excluded them. Their homogeneity paralleled the New Left's
commitment to alternatives created by the like-minded. Similarly, the
politics of cultural groups, particularly in the 1970s, relied more on al
ternative institutions than direct action. Community was often the goal
of such alternative organizations. If those outside the mainstream re
claimed their uniqueness and community, they had escaped the fantasy
as well as the illusion of the melting pot. 12
Activists in both the New Left and in cultural politics rarely based
their alternative organizations on a well-articulated ideology, nor did
they advocate massive change through a rigid ideological program. Git-
lin and Kazin described the New Left as "a ragged, messy hodgepodge
of movements, stronger on impulse than programatic clarity and in con
stant flux." (1988, 49). These alternatives amounted to a "transforma
tion by example" (Howard 1969). Kenneth Keniston called them "ex
emplary social reform" (1968, 286-90). Protesters created alternative
institutions to translate action into organization. The best antidote to
the system was to ignore it. The new society was at hand and it co
existed with the unsatisfactory one. One could take authority in a col
lective organization.
Authority in America seemed bankrupt and wrong to countercul
tural activists. Violence and confrontation were only a means to attack
that authority. Without revolutionary change they established a new
authority in the collective, and when alternative authority or non
authority was established, the aims of the Left were rerouted rather than
abandoned. Alternative institutions were, therefore, both a means and
an end for social change.
The authority of the New Left, however, was never ultimately vested
in the group. The best known slogan of the period, "Do your own
thing," only emphasized the problem. Community will was to come out
of individual will. Community responsibility could not be imposed. Dis
cussion and group interaction characterized the New Left as it did the
human potential movement. As experts in the twenties in America rec
ommended cultivating a personality that was unique yet likable and
never alienating, so the sixties emphasized cooperation growing out of
individual uniqueness. In the fifties Americans wanted to "get along."
In the sixties and seventies, one sought groups with whom one would
be in agreement. The collective, then, not only accomplished tasks but
created noncoercive community for its participants.
Authority was as central an issue for the Jewish counterculture as it
was for the New Left. Havurah members rejected the norms of the Jew
ish community, secular and sacred: rabbis, synagogues, and all the trap-

pings of formality and authority. Unlike the New Left, however, Jewish
counterculturalists found themselves paradoxically both attracted to au
thority and repulsed by it. They were willing to reject the authority of
the suburban synagogue, but they believed the deepest radicalism avail
able to them was to be found in the authority of Jewish tradition, the
Bible, and the rabbinic codification of law. They believed they had to
transform these sacreds to make them relevant to their members' con
temporary lives, though the core of traditional Judaism was thought to
contain a critical perspective on their society. The counterculture led
Jews to their own culture in order to achieve distinctiveness from Amer
ica. They searched for alternatives in the past rather than the past itself.
What was potentially rewarding in the discovery of a historical di
mension to cultural alternatives was that participants were tied to one
another and to their organization in a different way than anything the
New Left could offer. Paul Cowan, a journalist active in the New Left
and in havurot, examined the similarities and contrasts between the
New Left and the Jewish counterculture in his autobiography. An Or
phan in History (1982).
In the sixties the New Left and the havurah movement were both
ideal places to find one's political or religious identity. They devel
oped almost identical styles, which encouraged intimacy and vir
tually outlawed authority. For instance, members of SDS and the
havurah movement sat in circles, not in rows. Both organizations
insisted on a leadership that rotated frequently, arrived at all their
decisions by consensus, not by votes or by the decree of some cen
tral committee. (1982, 214)
He continues by emphasizing their contrasts.
But there was a crucial difference between the two movements,
which emerged clearly as idealism ebbed, as conflict arose. The
fights within the havurah were almost as bitter as those within the
New Left, but since everyone involved was a Jew with some com
mitment to religion, personal conflicts and power snuggles . . .
couldn't be confused with ethnic prejudices. Ironically, the havurah
movement's strength lay in the very parochialism that sometimes
made it seem frustratingly narrow. It couldn't be Balkanized. (1982,
Cowan notes a shared antithesis to authority and the creation of alter
native forms of organization that lead to identity and personal visibility.

Havurah Judaism
But he suggests that a shared history, a common sense of past, cut
against the possibility of splintering havurot irrevocably. Alternative or
ganizations for these Jews created not only social reform, but histori
cally based community as well.
Those quarrels could be painful, of course, but at their worst they
led to the creation of another new minyan, not to the totally sepa
rate organization for the women, the blacks, the gays, the white
men whose inability to cooperate destroyed the New Left. For, on a
fundamental spiritual level, the worst enemies of the havurah
movement had to cooperate. They all said the same prayers on
Shabbos.... So because of halaha and tradition, their generational
rebellion would endure, in one form or another, as the New Left's
had not. (1982, 215)
New Left politics evolved from protest to alternative organizations.
Activism became its own end. But, as Cowan notes, if the Left success
fully undermined authority, its members also divided and redivided
around alternative authorities, which splintered the movement into
fragments never successfully reunited. Cowan believed alternative or
ganizations united through a shared authority such as religious tradi
tion might be parochial, but they enabled persistent community.
The havurah movement that developed out of the Jewish counter
culture sought a new way for its members to be Jews in America. These
men and women began their movement with a shared indictment of
Jews, America, and the American New Left. They felt like outsiders to
them all. Porter and Dreier describe the type of person who emerged
from these experiences. “Only a special kind of a young Jew can survive
and persist in this situation, a Jew who is willing to endure intense
scrutiny from his peers and the Jewish establishment and to continually
justify his stance without apology. He has had to create a role where
none existed before" (1973, xlvi). The Jewish counterculture shared
with the New Left a search for alternatives to society. They both imag
ined a new relationship to tradition as an antithesis of middle-class au
Their attacks on the synagogue and community did not go un
noticed. Rabbi Edward Gershfield addressed them in his remarks to the
Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative Rabbis:
Our services of readings in fine English, correct musical renditions
by professional cantors and choirs, and decorous and dignified rab
bis in elegant gowns arouse disdain and contempt in our young

people. They want excitement and noise, improvisation and emo
tion, creativity and sensitivity, informality and spontaneity. And
they are 'turned off' by the very beauty and decorum which we
have worked so hard to achieve. Of course the youth do not wish to
go into the reasons why these aspects of our life had been cre
ated. ... We seem doomed to having to watch as our youth relive
the same self destructive impulses that we have seen long ago, and
thought could not happen again (cited in Sklare 1972,280—81).
The aesthetics defined by Gershfield, as well as his vision of authority,
indeed were rejected by the havurah generation. For many Jewish
youth, the modification of tradition that had worked so successfully for
the second generation of American Jews was an anathema. One gener
ation's vision of Judaism was uprooted by the next. The havurah would
formulate the alternatives to save Judaism.
Havurah Judaism
Havurat Shalom (Fellowship of Peace), the first countercultural
Jewish community, began in the fall of 1968 in Sommerville, Massa
chusetts, just outside of Cambridge. Its founder. Rabbi Arthur Green,
explained to me why he saw the need for the havurah. He described a
dramatic scene in 1966 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he
was studying to become a rabbi. He, along with a few other students,
attended a course in the office of their inspiring teacher. Rabbi Abraham
Joshua Heschel. Father Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic peace activist, sat
in on their class that evening. Rabbi Heschel announced, "Gentlemen,
your assignment this evening is to help me decide if I should go to jail
for political acts of civil disobedience, as Father Berrigan is urging." The
students were immediately protective of their teacher because of his ill
health and argued that he should not risk being jailed. They claimed
that there were other ways for him to be politically effective. Father
Berrigan responded by asking them, "We have the underground church,
but what is happening in the Jewish community?" Rabbi Green recalled
feeling "mortified" because he could think of nothing in the American
Jewish community that was not "bourgeois and self-satisfied." He de
termined at that moment that he would begin a new kind of yeshiva, a
school of Jewish higher education. It would challenge other forms of
learning by its equality, mutuality, and love and would provide draft
deferments so that his friends and colleagues would not be drafted. It
would show that the Jewish community was able to generate a political
and cultural response to America. 13

Havurah Judaism
Rabbi Green's plan for Havurat Shalom to become an alternative
seminary ended almost immediately, and he, along with its first mem
bers, instead made it the model havurah. They were less interested in
training rabbis than concentrating on building community. They made
Havurat Shalom a place to study and to pray, "seriously and intensely."
It brought together students and teachers as equals, allowing both to
teach and to learn. And it spawned other havurot throughout the coun
try whose members also spent Shabbat together, shared communal
meals, and fostered what they thought of as serious Jewish learning
in an environment of equality. Some havurot were politically active,
participating in protests and organizing for social change, but, despite
Rabbi Green's initial inspiration, Havurat Shalom was not one of them.
The ideological foundations for havurah communities cannot easily
be put into social-science categories like "tradition" and "innovation"
or "individual" and "community." Havurah members maintained ele
ments of normative Judaism as well as fostered ritual experimentation
and legal innovations in order to address what they thought of as the
failures of American Judaism and the demands of countercultural "new
age" views. 14 In these communities "tradition" often masked innova
tion, especially when traditional Judaism was invoked as support for a
countercultural critique of American society. "Innovation" often main
tained normative Judaism, particularly when a havurah insisted, as
most did, on maintaining traditional prayer. 15 Havurah members wove
together tradition and innovation as essential components of an au
thentic Judaism.
Tradition and innovation each implied an authoritative base for Ju
daism that on occasion did come directly into conflict. When individu
als or a group contested the authority of normative Judaism—halaha—
then they had to choose one authority over another. Overt conflicts of
these kinds were not typical in denominational American Judaism. Lay
domination of Judaism worked against the need to confront issues of
authority because conflicts were not played out at the level of ideas for
most Jews, and one simply could join or begin a new synagogue to
avoid such conflicts. Institutions like the synagogue provided the aura
of authority for any activity undertaken. The presence of a single au
thoritative rabbi, the apparent permanence of the congregation, and the
existence of ritual committees always assured members of an apparent
authority to which they could submit. It is not surprising, then, that
Jewish jokes of the era of rapid growth in synagogue building empha
sized the difference between private and public behavior. These jokes
focused on such behavior as parking two blocks from the synagogue

rather than in the parking lot, traveling on holidays that forbade travel,
or smoking or eating in bathrooms on holidays that prohibited these
activities. One did not openly challenge the tradition or the synagogue's
designated authority, but ignored and accommodated to it.
Havurah participants attacked these illusions as proof of the ab
sence of authenticity in American Judaism. They inevitably were drawn
into conflict with authority systems. At the same time, havurah activists
were not ideologues. Their ideologies, to the extent they existed, offered
critiques of American Judaism, not platforms for alternatives. In the
havurah, community negotiation rather than doctrine dominated. Their
negotiation also took place in egalitarian, nonhierarchic settings. Nego
tiation occurred in the acts of naming and organizing Jewish life and in
their definitions of what community life would be. While they eagerly
abandoned the American Jewish community in its present form, they
were unwilling to abandon other forms of community. Their claim to
uniqueness in America rested more on their place among the Jewish
people, an historical and mythical entity transcending space and time,
than on their own havurah. The values and history of that people were
the basis of their critique of their current world.
Havurah members found in "the People Israel"—that broader Jew
ish people—and particularly in its preimmigrant manifestation in Eu
rope, "holistic community" and personal engagement. Both seemed to
them absent from anything they had found in the American Jewish
community or in American society. Men and women who wrote about
the havurah often used the words holistic and seamless to describe what
they sought and how they intended to make the havurah different from
the synagogue. What havurah members meant by "community" was
succinctly stated by a founder of the New York Havurah.
The compartmentalization of our Jewish life was something that we
wanted to end, or at least reduce. That we davened [prayed] with
one group of people, did politics with another group of people,
would be changed by bringing together a group that would share
some of the cultural and social concerns that we had. To study with
them and do Shabbos with them would be a high, and in fact it
was. There was an integration of social and religious concerns and
This founder sought integration or holism in her havurah because differ
ent aspects of her life and interests were shared by her community. She
perceived integration because these activities all occurred in a Jewish

Havurah Judaism
setting where they were understood as part of Jewish experience. The
community created and authenticated a Jewish lens for her life. The
havurah most resembled the cultural politics of the 1970s in this mani
festation; the creation of community was an act of protest against the
larger society. Such noncompartmentalized communities were inevi
tably intense, as a member of the Boston havurah maintained.
When you are with a group of people dedicated to sharing things
emotionally and practically and sharing a serious spiritual search,
you get to places you can't go to in a different kind of context. Other
communities are nice. It's nice to come together for a wedding or if
someone suffers a loss; it's good to do that, and Jews do that. But
that's very different from committing yourself to ten hours a week
of study with the same people that you daven together with on
Shabbos, that you go to the movies with.
When havurah participants formed these holistic Jewish communities,
they overcame the split created by the Americanization that they be
lieved had corrupted their parents' and grandparents' lives. Alan Mintz,
a founder of the New York havurah, described the integration of Jewish
values into his life.
Being religious and political, for example, may no longer involve a
schizoid treading of two divergent paths but might instead become
a norm of the Jewish people.... Totality is the goal of Jewish exis
tence. (1973, 77-79)
This totality, of course, always was contrasted to the childhood and pa
rental worlds. One longtime participant in the New York havurah noted
that synagogues were created for an entirely different time and genera
tion and could not meet the needs of peers. He said, "synagogues were
seen as a statement to our parents and the non-Jewish community.
They existed to demonstrate that we Jews are here and we will remain."
Such "statements" were no longer required by the third generation, he
postulated. Havurah members, unlike their parents, did not seek Amer
icanization as their ultimate goal. They took it for granted, as no other
generation had, and now they wanted to express their difference and
uniqueness in holistic communities.
What was evident to havurah founders was that authentic commu
nity was not attainable in large, highly institutionalized, impersonal
structures epitomized by the synagogue. Rather, Jewish community was
built upon the integration of religious values and observances with

people whom one could also share intimacy, work, and leisure. The
form the havurah took, then, was necessarily a small face-to-face group
of peers. One shared an agreed upon approach to prayer and study with
these people, as well as a neighborhood and a variety of interests. A
man who belonged to havurot in Boston and New York recalled his
Boston experience.
Barely a day goes by when I don't on some level think, reminisce,
or miss it, the intensity and quality of life. It was astounding. Many
of us were single, and those of us who were married had no kids,
and there was an awful lot of time and energy. The economy wasn't
like it is now, and people had time to study together. This is what
the group did. We had prayers together, ate together, socialized to
gether, and yet it wasn't stifling. We didn't live together. Outside
interests were legitimate. And yet it was the center of our lives. It
was like being in this very exciting family.
The common denominator of every havurah founded since 1968 is
its small size and idealized familylike quality of intimacy and sharing.
Los Angeles Times writer Mark Pinsky labeled this denominator "a Juda
ism of scale" in his article on the havurah movement (1986). The ha
vurah founder rejected the suburban scale and evoked the memories
of immigrant or European storefront synagogues in their community
scale. What was implied by that scale was the importance and visibility
of every member. Everyone was an active participant or the group could
not exist. In short, it was not institutionalized or depersonalized. A
woman who was a longtime member of the New York Havurah de
scribed that sense of involvement. She said, "The havurah wanted to
create a participant community rather than to be in a large impersonal
institution in which culture or religion was dished out to us. We didn't
want to be an audience, we wanted to be the kahal (community)."
Participant community meant that an individual stamp was placed
on every activity from making meals, to leading services, to creating art
objects. Havurah members did not call a caterer, hire a rabbi or cantor,
or buy any object they could make themselves, such as prayer shawls,
Torah covers, or the ark for the sacred scrolls. Imperfection in any form
was preferred initially over professional and impersonal expertise. The
presence of the person was necessitated by the scale of the community.
The Jewish model for this "scale" of life was the preimmigration world
of Eastern Europe, romantically pictured as the very unity of life expe
rience so much of the Jewish Left longed for. The shtetel, the small
Jewish town controlled by Jewish authority and tolerated by gentile

Havurah Judaism
authority, exemplified the ideal (Zborowski and Herzog 1971). Every
one kept the Sabbath, and everyone was responsible for one another. In
the shtetels there were Jewish celebrations, Jewish music, Jewish
prayer, a Jewish sacred and secular language, and Jewish commerce.
The sacred calendar determined the lives of many. In addition, the ur
ban and rural Jews of Eastern Europe were involved in politics. They
identified with and joined the revolutionary and national movements of
Europe. When these men and women immigrated, many formed the
nucleus of America's nineteenth-century labor movement. Havurah
founders refashioned and embraced their own construction of Eastern
European religion, community, and politics.
Havurah members' romantic notions of the shtetel required them at
times to overlook desperate poverty, internal conflicts, and class differ
entiation, as well as the excruciating oppression that led to the migra
tion of Jews to the United States. But for them the shtetel's appeal lay in
its indisputably Jewish character and the enforced interdependence of
its inhabitants. Havurot members, who sometimes call themselves
"neo-hasidim," also romanticized and admired the hasidim who lived
in so many of these shtetlach (plural). Their appeal for havurah partic
ipants lay in their nonrational approach to prayer, their emphasis
on experience and mysticism, and their early antirationalism (Jacobs
1972). Havurah romanticism also led members to sometimes overlook
the authoritarian organization and dogmatic fundamentalism in the
shtetel and hasidism. Their identification, then, was selective but real.
Hasidism had been presented to these young men and women as one of
the embarrassments associated with the ultraorthodox, which the first
and second generation wanted to leave behind. It was not surprising
that the third generation claimed kinship to them around issues of com
munity and participation.
The havurah's key foci of community, authenticity, and scale are
clearly variations on themes common to the counterculture and cultural
politics of the 1970s. The havurah is an "exemplary social reform" of
America and American Jewish life. Activists created lives that critiqued
American failures. They achieved authenticity through the havurah.
However, authenticity had at the same time another meaning that put
havurah participants in direct opposition to normative Judaism. The
tradition was to reflect the person. Judaism was to enable havurah
members to express their commitments to equality, peace, spirituality,
and social and cultural transformation. Havurah Judaism was to join
person and tradition so that each reflected the other and reproduced a
Judaism continuous with the People Israel. An authenticity, however.

that reflected, rather than shaped, the person threatened to separate her
or him from the People Israel. In fact, there were things halaha required
that did not simply promote sixties values; the result was the need for
constant compromise between the dictates of Judaism and the personal
needs of participants.
The counterculture communities of people who shared the same
need for authenticity did not normally require compromise. The self
was the most important authority and only sought other selves who
agreed to share community. The small-scale community rested on the
like-minded. Michael Fishbane of the Boston havurah summarized the
place of the person in the havurah.
The responsibility for acting on the basis of the totality of what we
had learned and felt made religious development deliberate and
idiosyncratic. The diversity of issues with which we wrestled was
integrated in the person of each one of us; each of us in our tensions
was a Jewish "possibility" [certainly not an authority] for the oth
ers. (1976, 60)
It then followed from this relationship of "possibilities" that participants
were eager to interpret, alter, and—to some extent—change Judaism
with others in ways that would best articulate their own definitions of
the world. In seeking out a "new" Judaism, havurah participants were
eager, at least initially, to explore possibilities that others might have
found. Communities could measure their degree of holism and active
engagement precisely in terms of the variation different prayer services
or discussion leaders would bring. Havurah members held variation at
the core of their uniqueness and success. Different havurot experi
mented with traditional Jewish liturgy to varying degrees. All were
likely to experiment earlier rather than later in their group's develop
ment. At the same time, all havurot were committed to active and
meaningful services that implied their willingness to reflect on and pos
sibly change, rather than simply accept, the entire liturgy. Study of texts
often involved broadening the range of texts studied far beyond nor
mative rabbinic texts, or selecting topics of contemporary concern at the
expense of traditional problems.
Another long time member of the New York Havurah, now a con
gregational rabbi, described his personal experience with the havurah's
commitment to tolerance for varying liturgy.
In the havurah, unlike synagogues, people put forward their agen
das. That was an important phrase. For example, you could say, "I'll

Havurah Judaism
run services this Shabbat," and it was expected that whatever you
put forth, people would respect and give it a fair listening. One year,
for Shacris [morning liturgy] on Yom Kippur, I played one of Paul
Simon's songs on my guitar that was particularly upbeat. I said,
"this is my agenda. I think Paul Simon is a modem poet and psalm
ist. Here's Paul Simon for Yom Kippur!"
Havurah members integrated the tradition with their immediate world.
In this example, Paul Simon, a contemporary musician whose music
reflected the ideas of the youth culture, was not simply a good musician,
he was a modem psalmist. In that formulation Paul Simon was under
stood as visionary, and psalms were regarded as contemporary. Activists
varied liturgy to integrate Judaism with the world havurah members
loved, a world of contemporary music, ideas, and values, not just to
keep prayer novel. If they integrated tradition with the contemporary
world, a plural vision of Judaism emerged. Such pluralism and varia
tion maintained an authentic Judaism by avoiding rote prayer and rou
tine structure. Havurah members sought to keep ritual alive and potent
and thus authentic.
Their refusal to compartmentalize Judaism from their lives, as they
believed America had demanded, led them to maintain and change Ju
daism, to align themselves with the tradition against America and with
America in order to alter Judaism. A long-time member of the New
York Havurah described why she and her peers sought this type of Ju
We had a self-conscious recognition that we were Jewish intellec
tuals, and we were not simply going to be Jewish without exploring
what it meant. We were not going to be schizophrenic Jews whose
Judaism was unexamined and related only to childhood loyalties.
We were going to study and live Judaism with the same kind of
vitality that we had picked up in graduate school and universities.
At times that examination could produce striking results. One man who
had belonged to two havurot described a service he led in Boston. He
remembered it particularly because it was unique and not the norm for
the group. But he also remembered it because it was an example of
what he believed a community open to variation and innovation could
We went on a retreat and I was supposed to lead the service. I
wanted to do something a little bit different than had been done.

And there was a great deal of encouragement to experiment. I was
basically going to do the standard service, but I wanted to start off
with some body movement exercises. What happened was some
thing totally unexpected with everybody claiming that I was re
sponsible for it. But I was absolutely out of control; it was beyond
me totally. The context of the group, and the fact that they had been
together for so long and had lowered defenses, particularly their
spiritual defenses, really made this an extraordinary experience. We
started off doing some theatrical techniques of sound and move
ment. We were lying on the floor and I told them to emit a sound, a
sound that was their sound in a particular moment. We produced a
weird harmony, not as we understand harmony, rather sounds that
form a harmonic range. From that I had people, still with their eyes
closed, get up and move apart and together to form a circle and just
make sound the whole time. And then I was going to say, "let the
sound stop" and they didn't stop. From one part of the room some
one started "shhhhhhhh-ma" [the first word of the liturgical creed
Shma Yisrael]. Then someone went "Nishhhhhh-mat" [the first
word of the morning prayers]. Each letter became vocalized and put
together from letters into words, very slowly drawn out and coupled
phrases. And a tiigguti [wordless chant] began after that that no one
remembered having heard before and no one remembered starting.
And we essentially did this for an hour. And then it was over and
there wasn't any more davening. The depth of that experience I
have never really touched with any group of people. The sound of
Hebrew came out in a way that was magical because of the permis
sion that was given in the group to let go and go with it.
The advantage, then, of an activist, pluralistic community was to
create a Judaism that was more vital than any member had experi
enced. The vitality arose from "the right to fail," as Bill Novak put it,
expanding and experimenting with the tradition in a tolerant commu
nity. Novak wrote,
I have found something new in a religious group, something which
affected me at least as much as the emphasis on community itself:
the havurah showed no hint of religious intimidation.... We
shared certain key themes: the Sabbath, and issues surrounding
permitted and forbidden foods, to name the most obvious. But even
within these broad frameworks there was room for a wide variety
of opinions and observance. (1974, 110-11)
Activism enabled authentic community and engendered pluralism. The
more of themselves people brought to a havurah to integrate the spheres

Havurah Judaism
of their lives, the more variation a service or discussion would reflect.
Tolerating differences by encouraging uniqueness rather than conform
ity marked the havurot.
Outsiders to the havurah did not see tolerance. They saw self-
enclosed communities abandoning the mainstream of American Jewish
life. These critics challenged havurah activists to justify their Judaism
and explain their changes and apparent inconsistencies. One havurah
founder recalled the surprise of people who discovered that men and
women lived together without being married, but kept a kosher home,
or said the blessing appropriate for a Sabbath meal after passing around
marijuana cigarettes. Even less dramatic juxtapositions raised questions
by those not in the community. But those in the havurah rarely ac
counted for their changes to each other, let alone to outsiders. They
simply did not feel the need. One member of the Boston havurah said
that certain principles of normative Judaism were accepted, like keeping
kosher in the group. However, nothing guarded against altering these
principles at any point. By the mid-seventies one founder of the ha
vurah movement remembered disparagingly, "In those days my Juda
ism was a delicate flower of the Diaspora, a kind of aesthetic religion
based on values and symbols which sacralized personal relations"
(Mintz 1976, 42). He claimed that there was no foundation to his ha-
vurah's Judaism, that the havurah had made community sacred without
regard to its content.
Members' attention to their individual needs within the community
threatened the connection of havurot to the Jewish people. If they vivi
fied Judaism only to undermine it, they had failed. Activism, holism,
and community were the essential ingredients of havurah Judaism. But
where community stood, what constituted the limits of community, and
how to ensure the essential peoplehood of Judaism, were defined and
redefined. In seeking a new traditionalism, these tensions were inevi
table because membership was based on a shared vision or on ideas
never fully spelled out, rather than on a relatively given halaha.
Havurah Decorum and Authority
In their search for authenticity, havurah members faced a classic
hermeneutic problem: how to interpret their texts. Their commitment
to both normative Judaism and self meant that they had to change or
retain and reinterpret prayers, the Bible, and praying. One foundation
for their interpretation was individualistic; people tested texts against
themselves. But they were also drawn away from individual interpreta-

tion and random alteration of ritual by the power tradition held in for
mulating the sacred calendar and the liturgical cycle. They inherited
prescribed action, and changing it was an act not only of innovation but
of denial as well.
Individual interpretation took place within particular communities.
No two havurot were alike. Communities interpreted together, though
surprisingly unsystematically. Their changes were rarely hammered out
as a committee would formulate agreed upon rules and principles for
an organization. If any single criterion existed among havurot for how
to select which prayers to include in worship or how many sections of a
weekly Torah portion must be included on the Sabbath, it was an aes
thetic criterion. Because participants wanted to maximize the positive
experience of prayer, they had to ask what effect excluding text had on
the ritual life of the community. Aesthetic considerations dictated the
styles, sounds, rhythms, and lengths of periods of concentrated praying,
as well as the physical setting for prayer and study. Aesthetics, in the
broadest sense, channeled and shaped the tradition, and both halaha
and aesthetics were shifted in response to individual reactions. Deco
rum, the preoccupation of the laity in 1870 as well as 1970, took the
form it did according to aesthetic evaluations. The Judaism that arose
immediately after immigration was fundamentally shaped by an aes
thetic of uniformity. The countercultural aesthetic that shaped the
havurah depended on an expressive individualism that featured the
activism of all participants. Expressive individualism, in turn, was
the product of the American culture that gave rise to American Judaism
and promoted Jewish secularism. Secularism and traditionalism acted
upon one another through the individuals within havurot.
A havurah member expressed this sense of aesthetics himself when
he reflected on his own experience. "I was moved to realize that we
were developing our own style of ritual—deeply traditional and yet
thoughtfully innovative" (Reimer 1976, 246). In this formulation Rei-
mer suggested that havurah members were mindful of the tradition as
they articulated the right and necessity of changing it. No havurah for
mally expressed precisely what was meant by either tradition or inno
vation. No principles defined either a minimum of observance that
would constitute normative Judaism, or a maximum of freedom that
would draw the limits on innovation. There was also variation from
havurah to havurah and within any single group. In the early years,
participants had only an implicit and changing consensus concerning
what was tolerable. A man who participated in two havurot said when

Havurah Judaism
There was never an organized theology. People were given a great
deal of freedom and leeway, not only in how they would choose to
lead a service, but in their own Jewish observance. So it was a
group that combined a live and let live theology with a real tradi
tional motivation and sensitivity. Hebrew was very important.
People were Jewishly knowledgeable. Many of us were classically
trained; some were rabbis. You had the two qualities side by side—
liberalism and tradition. It gave you the right to fail.
Only in the havurah aesthetic then, could one find an articulation of
authentic Judaism. Only by examining how members "would choose to
lead a service," or how a "real traditional motivation and sensitivity"
was articulated in the group could one discover the authenticity of Ju
daism. Members articulated tradition and service leadership through
aesthetic forms. People knew a service had wandered too far from the
halaha when it no longer "felt right." They also felt excluded from ser
vices when prayers were said in a way that simply fulfilled religious
obligation and didn't take account of the worshiper. "Beauty" reflected
tradition as well as a nonsynagogue atmosphere.
For example, during interviews with founders of havurot in New
York and Boston, certain aesthetic issues were raised repeatedly: the
appearance of the room where they prayed, the attention to melodies
and ritual objects, and the care lavished on communal meals. Their aes
thetic was always contrasted to members' experiences in synagogues or
at home. One Boston havurah member described a Friday night service.
Friday night was an incredibly sensuous, personal time in the
group. We davened by candle light. The first service we went to at
Havurat Shalom was a Friday night service. We walked into the
house [where Havurat Shalom met] and then the prayer room. And
in the prayer room there are no seats, just cushions on the floor. The
candles were lit; it was dusk. It was really quiet and serene, people
sitting around on cushions. After awhile someone began a slow nig-
gun [wordless melody]; it was incredible. At the havurah there was
an incredible consciousness of mood, of what constitutes mood, en
hances and detracts from it, and a terrific sense of aesthetics, of
Jewish aesthetics. What is appropriate and not appropriate to do;
what enhances beauty and what detracts from it. I never under
stood that Jews could pray like that.
Her detailed description communicated what was important in the ha
vurah, what contributed to prayer, and what differed from other Jewish

The values of decorum, aesthetics, and beauty were powerful issues
for every immigrant generation. The transformations of tradition devel
oped by each generation are not reducible to decorum, but visions of
behavior and beauty in Judaism reflect succinctly the visions of self and
the culture sought. The suburban parents wanted orderliness, harmony,
and synchrony in ritual and formality. Their havurah children were
equally focused on decorum, equally convinced that in their visions of
Judaism lay the possibilities for maintaining an adaptable tradition. For
them beauty implied spontaneity, disorderliness, informality, variety,
and variability.
Disorderliness was the American counterculture's ultimate aes
thetic. Loudness, multiple images, freeform movement and antiauthor
itarianism all attacked the ordered constraints of middle-class America.
Havurah aesthetics and styles were always inspired by disorder. An eti
quette may establish order even if its inspiration is disorder. The home-
baked hallah or personally made candle, while not disorderly, were in
dividualized and unique. American culture made the mass produced
product conterminous with order. In this context, disorder was unique
Each generation found that a new aesthetic was required. In both
cases that aesthetic attacked the traditional authority. The parent gen
eration's evident embrace of authority through the construction of de
nominations masked the extent of their innovation. The havurah mem
bers constructed an ideology that attacked authority but maintained the
centrality of the traditional "sensibility." For both generations, tradi
tional authority was questioned, whereas familiar aspects of tradition
The suburban middle-class Jew's penchant for organization was re
peated in the havurah generation's interest in new forms of organiza
tion. Both generations emphasized organization over theology. But
above all, havurot were participatory. People were not members in
name alone. They did not join so that their children, parents, or grand
parents would be able to participate. And havurot members formed in
tense religious communities at an age normally marked by minimal
Jewish attachment, precisely because most young adults have so few
dependents. One need not obscure the real differences in the genera
tions' visions of Jewish life in order to demonstrate havurah members'
profound connection to American Judaism. They rejected synagogues,
suburbs, and denominations because they sought a different, and what
they believed was a more authentic, Judaism. They accepted decorum,
organization and a traditional liturgy as the forms for their changes be-

Havurah Judaism
cause they continued to synthesize Judaism, and American culture in
that authentic Judaism.
Havurah activists differed from previous generations of American
Jews because they rejected middle-class assumptions about the good
life. They challenged those values in their romanticization of shtetel
Jews, a group every other American Jewish generation sought to forget
out of guilt, shame, or discomfort. Having grown comfortable in Amer
ica, American Jews produced their third generation, who rejected the
previous generation's choices. When Lucy Dawidowicz attributed the
existence of havurot to a revitalization of orthodoxy, she misunderstood
how deeply these communities were redefining their American heritage
(1982b, 97). Because the dynamic that motivated a search for a past lay
not in the immigrant experience but in the New Left's attack on "sham
American pluralism," that search led the New Left to the creation of
alternatives. They could build a new America alongside the old, one
that joined "New Jews" both to American forms of protest and the Jew
ish preoccupation with decorum.
At the core of the havurah protest was a counter aesthetic, a means
for differentiating youth from parents and young Jews from America.
This counter aesthetic emerged within a generational context whose
protests were made against a society organized to accommodate a bu
reaucracy rather than the individual. The Jewish counterculture sought
uniqueness in a reformulated tradition rather than in the destruction of
all rules, as did its secular counterpart. Both countercultures, however,
produced counteraesthetics and alternative organizations in order to
protest American domination of all minorities and difference. An aes
thetic that fostered uniqueness was the initial cultural rebellion. The
authority of the self rejected traditional forms of authority: family
and national government. Within the counterculture, that self realized
through aesthetics and organization constituted a cultural protest.
In their emphasis on aesthetics and their search for authenticity,
what members often called "a traditional sensibility," participants in the
havurah movement generated a flexible and innovative vision of au
thority. Their use of an English phrase indicated the extent to which
that sensibility was American. A "traditional sensibility" implied flexi
bility within limits, staying within boundaries rather than being obli
gated to prescribed action. It made the self the chief arbiter of the sensi
bility. This authority, neither traditional nor arbitrary, was in fact well
rooted in American culture. Indeed, by the 1970s Americans had de
voted fifty years to promoting a cult of personality, emphasizing self
expressiveness and attacking traditional forms of authority. Even the

"social ethic" William Whyte uncovered in the American suburbs of the
1950s was self-expressive and committed to promoting a well-rounded
person, in contrast to the individualistic producer ethic of the Protestant
ethic. The 1960s, then, did not so much constitute a radical change as
culminate one long in coming. The counterculture wanted to dissolve
normative structures and conventions in America to create an anticul
ture that urged people to make it all up (Fitzgerald 1986,408). The only
authority for this new culture was in the self. And that self was the
product of values of self-realization, self-fulfillment, and self-gratifi
cation that developed after 1910 (Susman 1984, 280). Consumers are,
after all, as anxious to express themselves as counterculturalists. The
difference lies in the forms of expression. The 1950s emphasized a self-
expression that conformed to a shared and chosen norm. The American
counterculture emphasized a self-expression that rejected social con
formity and sought uniqueness instead. Uniqueness was enacted within
small-scale, alternative organizations that, while committed to com
munity, did not define individual attitudes and rules. The power of the
group was one of the defining contrasts between the old and New Left.
In the New Left, authority was not even vested in a revolutionary alter
native. People got along and accomplished political ends only because
they wanted to.
Authenticity was assured by a sensibility or shared aesthetic. Au
thenticity was, in the view of some, a problematic basis for community
particularly because it was nonobligatory and offered no guarantee of
observance. Alan Mintz, a havurah member, reflected on this problem.
Rather than struggle with halakah, prayer and study on their own
terms, too often we gravitated toward what was most comfortable,
least offensive, and closest to our agenda. The theological reasons
for this emphasis are significant: the weakness of traditional belief
.. . made such selectivity vis-a-vis the tradition necessary as it did
the shift from God to community as the source of values. (1976,42)
If community became the ultimate source of value, the foundation of all
observance was what one member called, "interpersonal relations, a
sense of groupness." He argued that the weakness of such a foundation
was that "there was nothing in the group that some part didn't bring to
the group." Because synagogues have the aura of authority due to their
institutionalization, they represent ideas no one in the group need em
brace. Law is superordinate. No principles, however, existed for havurot
in Jewish law. The havurah's critics noted their circular seating arrange-

Havurah Judaism
ment for worship, claiming that it indicated their hostility to authority.
They charged, "they pray to each other." One woman commented:
I don't think it's an accident that havurot pray in circles. People say
we pray to each other, and in some sense we do. But that's good,
not bad. I think part of the problem of havurot is that we don't
know how to pray to God. We're good at praying with and to each
other. We're so into community and into interpersonal stuff it car
ries over into prayer, which is one sphere in which you think you
can have access to a different vision. But instead we've made prayer
harmonious when it's supposed to be schizophrenic. The commu
nity gives real power to prayer. But there is no question that what
goes on in t'fillah is private dialogue, between the Ribbeno Shel
Olam [a name for God meaning Master of the Universe] and the
person. In havurot we somehow wrote out a part of the dimension.
We're really good at the communal thing, better than anyone. But
we don't give enough space for private dialogue. We don't know
how to do it or talk about it, and lest the void be too awesome, we
cover it over and pretend it's not really there.
The havurah sought a Judaism that would maintain community as well
as a relationship to God. Sometimes the community's commitment to
innovation got in the way of the spiritual quest. This woman poignantly
noted that community was a more accessible goal than a relationship
with God. Less critical than Mintz, she nevertheless worried that com
munity alone was insufficient.
Their transformation of tradition was not to be an end in itself, not
a self-serving process, but an authentic and enlivening one. Mintz's ac
cusation implied the reverse, that change had only served personal
ends—their desire to integrate relevant issues with the tradition or to
find ways to redefine their lack of belief. Mintz at least worried that if
havurah members tried to maintain a relationship between innovation
and authority, they might end up abandoning all authority.
Ironically, their commitment to innovation was also threatened by
tradition. Authority was still bound up with traditional liturgy and hal-
aha. Hence, the renewal of the tradition was threatened by the tradition
itself, which remained the script for religious experience and commu
nity. The much touted experimentation of havurot often was exagger
ated. One member of the New York Havurah described that group's re
sponse to liturgical innovation.
I remember one service in which a man who was leading it passed
around flowers. For most of us I suppose that was nice in spirit, but

it violated what was a much more rigid notion of what we meant
by t'fillah [prayer]. In truth there was enormous resistance to crea
tive services of any kind. People had much deeper needs and desires
about what they wanted for t'fillah than they ever admitted.
Even in Havurat Shalom, where more experimentation took place,
members believed that experimentation could be contained. As one
man said, "There was a certain form to t'fillah that had to be maintained
in some guise at least." The tradition had to remain recognizable to au
thenticate renewing it. The havurah, then, operated within the tension
of "tradition" and "innovation." Their ideologies, by never clearly defin
ing either, maintained both.
Redefining authority engendered a "sensibility" rather than a hal-
aha (literally a way of life). The sensibility had to reflect the past and
the present at once. Havurot emphasized aesthetic dimensions of prayer
and ritual, placing experience over obligation, although members were
anxious about their relations with God and other Jews and the meaning
of authority. However, havurah members tended to judge the authentic
ity of their religious experiences against their childhood experiences. If
one's Judaism was practiced differently from one's family, one was as
sured of being part of a changing movement. The dynamic between the
generations was translated into Jewish worship. As immigrants had ear
lier distanced themselves from European synagogues, so Jewish youth
disassociated themselves from the Judaism of their parents. One activist
notes the centrality of this generational conflict.
The Jewish Student Movement was prepared for cultural protest,
but not cultural revolution. Pressing to the limit would have led to
the symbolic commission of parentcide. It came as a jolt when I
found out that I was being driven by Oedipal memories of corrupt
institutions and leadership violating the Jewish life I longed to em
brace. (Benjamin 1976, 51)
The "parentcide" that Jerry Benjamin feared lay for the havurah in
transforming the synagogue, creating community, altering aesthetics,
and keeping both tradition and innovation flexible. They welcomed that
break with their parents. Not only did havurah members criticize the
corruption of the past, they also altered their parental construction seat
for seat, melody for melody, garment for garment. Middle-class values
were excised and middle-class structures and authorities were toppled.
Institutions were replaced with "communities." Professionals were re
placed with peers.

Havurah Judaism
Writers analyzing the American New Left have noted the continuity
of this generation with its parents' norms and values (Keniston 1968;
Flacks 1971; Friedenberg 1969). Rather than a rebellion, New Left pro
tests, demands, and programs were a fuller realization of their parents'
dreams for social equality and a fair society. The havurot members were
no exception. "Parentcide" was not accomplished because they em
braced values fundamental to their childhoods.
Though community was the havurah goal, members did not define
a new communal authority. Individualism remained essential to the ha-
vurah's vision. A member of the New York Havurah summarized the
centrality of the individual.
When we made Shabbos it was in a traditional style. When you
walked into the havurah it would look like an Orthodox shtibel
[synagogue]. But the total framework, at least for the New York
Havurah, was non-Orthodox. That ability to go in and out, to de
cide to observe in a very traditional way, but also to decide not to,
was characteristic.
Individualism was a translation rather than a contradiction of suburban
success. The "self-made man" became the self-expressive person. The
Judaism that was to be kept neatly tucked in the affluent suburban syn
agogue as a badge of American success became, as one man put it, "an
enormously rich resource that has the potential of enriching our indi
vidual, family, and communal lives." What Judaism could offer individ
uals changed; individualism was never undermined as the primary au
thority. The break with traditional authority had been made, and it was
firmly maintained in havurot.
The havurot reveal the continuing vitality of American Judaism.
Like their parents and grandparents, havurah members continued to
create an American Judaism in their protest against America. The pro
cess of reinventing and maintaining Judaism is a continuous process
only because Judaism or Jewishness remains a core issue of identity. For
those who seek a place for a remembered, if unlived, past in the midst
of the present, a ritual rehearsal of identity through a transformed tra
dition is inevitable.
1. L. Epstein's (1978) approach to ethnicity focuses on the affective dimension as
well as the social circumstances that cast ethnicity in a particular form. Following Fischer,
I suggest that Jewish ethnicity took on new meaning in the 1970s, though it was anchored

by the sentiments generated within the family. Epstein's emphasis on sentiment is consist
ent with this perspective.
2.1 never found consensus among members on the meaning of the Minyan's name.
The word free was interpreted by some to mean the absence of expensive dues and by
others to suggest their relationship to religious obligation. The juxtaposition of "minyan"
and “free" in their name suggests this very tension.
3. Over the last fifteen years a similar age group has been targeted for recruitment
to extreme orthodoxy in the United States and Israel. Apparently tired of the relativism of
American and modem life, increasing numbers of suburban assimilated Jews have become
ba'alei tshuva, "returnees" to Orthodox Judaism (Aviad 1982; Jakobson 1986). But ha
vurah members have even less in common with the ultra-orthodox than with their par
ents' generation. Havurot are predicated on members' willingness to alter a great deal of
the Jewish tradition. They do not want to abandon secular society. They are neither ex
tremists nor assimilationists. Like so many American Jews, they are planted firmly in-
between. At the same time, unlike most Jews who succeed at Americanization, they are
interested in creating new Jewish organizations rather than joining them.
4. David DeNola's (1974) article on the Jewish student press describes a number of
these publications, their funding, and the press service that evolved from them.
5. Interviews for this chapter were conducted with Barry Holtz, Paula Hyman, Rich
ard Meirowitz, William Novak, John Ruskay, Richard Siegel, and Sharon Strassfeld.
6. See the following works for a discussion of the American counterculture: Roszak
1969; Myerhoff 1969; Boskin and Rosenstone 1969; Keniston 1968; Flacks 1971; Clecak
1973; and Howard 1969.
7. Ultimately, steps were taken to build links between various groups. Yearly retreats
were held at a farm in New York where members of havurot from all over the Northeast
could meet. Then, in the late 1970s, a National Havurah Committee was formed. One of
its chief tasks was to organize summer institutes for havurah members. At this point,
havurot were also integrated into synagogues and no formal distinction was drawn be
tween those inside and outside institutions. As of 1987, one institute was held in the East.
In years prior, institutes were also held in the Midwest and West. Topics for the 1987
Institute included: Contemporary Human Rights: Issues of Jewish Concern; How We
Imagine Ourselves: Treatments of the Human Body in Classical Judaism; Abstract and
Concrete in Talmudic Law; Dialoguing Across Jewish Differences; Sensuality and Spiri
tuality in the Poetry of Jewish Women; The Siddur: Structure, Content and the Spirit of
8. A study of Jews living in Boston in 1975 found that 92.9 percent of Jewish males
between the ages of thirty and forty-four had either attended college, graduated, or ob
tained a postgraduate degree. Seventy-seven percent of males between the ages of eigh
teen and twenty-nine fell into the same category. Eight-six percent of the women between
the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine had either attended college, graduated from college,
or done postgraduate work. Seventy-eight percent of the women between the ages of
thirty and forty-four fell in the same pattern (Goldescheider 1986, 124, 131).
9. Paul Cowan's autobiography recounts his journey to what he would call a "ha
vurah Judaism" (1982). As an active participant in the civil rights movement, he com
ments specifically about how that movement, its promises and disappointments, led him
to a modified traditional Judaism.
10. A number of sociologists have written on the powerful connection between
American Judaism and Israel. Leibman (1973) suggests that Israel provides the content of

Havurah Judaism
American Judaism. Hence, Israel is a powerful ingredient in the Jewish identity of these
men and women. But subsequent to the early years of the havurot, these same men and
women founded organizations that criticized Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.
Breira (Hebrew word for alternative) and New Jewish Agenda are national organizations
of younger American Jews who maintained their positions as Zionists, but critically. The
established Jewish community was particularly vociferous in its attack on Breira, a group
that no longer exists. A Commentary article makes the attack (Shatten 1977), and in the
subsequent issue many havurah members respond with letters to the editor (June 1977,
11. Bellah, et al., describe the contemporary American form of community as a "life
style enclave." They are critical of the isolationism implied in the lifestyle of people who
are joined by nothing other than common affinity, and note the lack of anything substan
tial out of which might develop commitment or longevity. They note that such enclaves
are characteristic not only of the affluent and conservative but of the politically radical as
well. The counterculture's approach to politics clearly moved the Left toward such lifestyle
enclaves (1985, 71-75, 335).
12. See Michael Novak (1971) for a discussion of white ethnics in the 1970s. Novak's
book not only describes the emergence of ethnicity but also illustrates it. He describes his
own ethnicity, what it means to him, and how it makes him different from those around
him. He emphasizes the cultural aspects of ethnicity and underlines the extent to which
white ethnicity in the 1970s is a reaction to assertions of black rights.
13. There is no historical account of the havurah movement in print. Mintz and
Sleeper (1971), Porter and Dreier (1973), and Neusner (1972) contain the most helpful
documents and articles about the early years of the havurah movement and the two first
havurot, Havurat Shalom (Boston) and the New York Havurah.
14. See Shils (1981) for a discussion of tradition in the social sciences.
15. See Sally Falk Moore (1975) for a discussion of how change and tradition can
mask one another.

A Sabbath Mlnyan
Organization, Decorum, and Experience
In the Minyan there is something for
The historical development of the synagogue and havurah demonstrates
that religious forms are affected continually by social conditions. As
Max Weber made clear in his study of why capitalism developed in a
Western Protestant nation and not elsewhere, the conjunction of reli
gion and social and economic relationships creates significant develop
ments in each. Social relations are expressed in religion, in who partici
pates and how they formulate a body of doctrine ([1904] 1958).
The emerging American middle class of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century, increasingly committed to leisure, discovered in
Christianity and Judaism foundations for personal identity and social
community. Immigrant Jews and their offspring wove together the
manners and style of the middle class with traditional forms of Jewish
ritual. The synagogue was the institution through which Jews rehearsed
their identities. With changing social conditions, therefore, the relations
between ritual and style were continually altered, often bringing gener
ational formulations of Judaism in conflict. A great many American
Jews, then, consistently have negotiated religious forms, social condi
tions, and Jewish identity within a Jewish ritual context. Indeed, they
have relied on ritual within the family and the synagogue to formulate
and authenticate their Judaism.
The Kelton Free Minyan was a setting for just such negotiation. As
an alternative to both family and synagogue, it was an emerging gener
ational formulation that responded to American post war suburbaniza-

A Sabbath Minyan
tion. Minyan members made a series of decisions in their first two years
that reveal precisely how they constructed Judaism within a genera
tional decorum. Members of the Minyan community incorporated into
their Sabbath prayers ritual changes, reorganized social statuses, conflict
with tradition, and their yearning for integration with Judaism as a cul
ture and history. Most of these changes did not occur within the content
of their liturgy, but rather in the ways they prayed together. The act of
praying itself became a vehicle for identity construction within the Min
yan, not just for what was said but for how it was said.
In the following chapters, I show how the Minyan channels the
process of identity formation for young Jews. When they acted as femi
nists, liberals, or activists they did so within their Sabbath worship com
munity, as well as in the other arenas of their lives. They were people
searching to become who they were, not by creating identities but by
integrating them. The Minyan was one important arena for this process.
The best introduction to the group may be the single material object
they produced to mark the eastern wall (mizrach) of the room in which
they prayed on the Sabbath. Jerusalem, the mythological center of the
Jewish people, is in the east. Jews everywhere pray in the direction of
the city where the temple, the center of Jewish worship, was con
structed for daily prayer and sacrifices to God. Though the temple was
finally destroyed in 70 c.e., its memory and the hope for its restoration
remain central to observant Jews. Jerusalem is the subject of innumer
able prayers and psalms and is physically recalled whenever a person
prays and turns east. In American synagogues, the ark housing the To
rah is customarily on the eastern wall.
During the Minyan's second year, women members created a
unique mizrach. It was a blue cloth banner decorated with a young man
and woman surrounded by sacred Jewish symbols. Gold cloth letters
attached over the heads of the two figures read, "Worship the Lord joy
fully," a phrase from the psalms. The group's banner reflected its desire
to create a joyful and animated prayer experience. Their placement of
the man and woman on the banner was unconventional in light of the
Jewish prohibition on graven images, which forbids the use of a human
form in religious art. This man and woman were direct reflections of the
American counterculture. She wore a long flowered dress and held with
assurance a Torah to her side, although in normative Judaism a woman
has virtually no access to the Torah scroll because she is separated from
the Torah and men during prayer. The young man stood, legs apart,
wearing a casual shirt and pants with a prayer shawl around his shoul
ders and a kippah (head covering) on his head. On the banner surround-

Details from the Minyan mizrach.

A Sabbath Minyan
ing the figures were three symbols. One was the braided loaf of egg
bread (hallah) used on the Sabbath by Jews to make the blessing for
bread. The lion, often associated with the Torah because its image fre
quently stands guard around the ark, was the second symbol. Sabbath
candles were placed near the woman as a symbol of the festivity of the
day. Women have the ritual responsibility for lighting them.
The mizrach juxtaposed traditional imagery with radically innova
tive forms. It pictured the selves idealized by the community: fully con
temporary and at ease with Jewish tradition. They were dressed casually
like their contemporaries, and they were surrounded and in contact
with sacred symbols that embodied home celebration and the Torah,
which required a minyan to be read. The person, the home, and the
prayer community were embodied in the mizrach. Prayer and Judaism,
then, were incorporated into the lives of Minyan members, and they in
turn created their identities in relationship to the forms and idioms of
Jewish life. The banner embodied and modeled the attitudes and coun
terdecorum that the community sought.
After introducing the Minyan and its members—describing in
Chapter 3 their activities, their worship service, and their history—my
focus will shift to two major conflicts in the group during 1973 and
1974. Conflicts about prayer and gender-based rules provide two case
studies that reveal how Minyan members formulated their Judaism to
gether as a community. 1 In these conflicts they alternately changed Jew
ish law concerning men and women and retained traditional prayer.
Each choice represented a strategy for the creation of identity, commu
nity, and the practice of Judaism. The two opposite strategies (mainte
nance and transformation of tradition) also produced conflicts, which
had to be resolved so that members could maintain the stability of their
community and their ability to worship. To understand their resolution
of these conflicts is to see how their religious lives were generated.
A Minyan Sabbath
Minyan members began their Sabbath morning activities some time
before they prayed. They gathered together first to create the environ
ment for the Sabbath and parted only after the space had been returned
to its daily form. I begin by describing what members would consider a
typical Sabbath in order to introduce these men and women who cre
ated the Minyan in its first years.
It was winter 1973 in Los Angeles. This Saturday morning was a
pleasant, mild one. A breeze was blowing. In the university neighbor-

hood of Kelton, the weekday buzz had disappeared and, except for the
sounds of sparse traffic, it was quiet. At ten o'clock in the morning, at a
large neighborhood intersection, voices were audible. At this hour, on
this day, most observant American Jews have been at their synagogue
prayers for thirty minutes to an hour. At this comer, the voices of gath
ering men and women offered Sabbath greetings. As they approached
the University Religious Center, they greeted one another with the Yid
dish or Hebrew phrases, "Gut Shabbos," "Shabbat Shalom" (Sabbath
greetings). Clad in jeans, shirts, pants, embroidered blouses, and san
dals, they looked like people attending an informal party, not a religious
service. Alone, in couples, or in small groups they walked up two flights
of stairs and entered the hallway outside the large rectangular room the
Minyan used for Sabbath services. When eight or ten people gathered,
the process of transforming this space into a place of worship began. No
single leader directed the activity. A few people took a large red rug from
a closet to cover the cold, institutional, linoleum floor. Enough couches
and chairs to seat forty people were arranged in a rectangle around the
rug. They took prayer books (Siddurim), books containing the Pentatuch
and selections from prophets and other books of the Bible (humashim),
head coverings (kippot), and prayer shawls (tallitot) from a cupboard in
the library down the hall and placed them with care on a table in the
hallway directly in front of the worship room; the table itself was to be
brought into the worship room for the Torah service. People used one
or all of these objects during the service. Finally, someone took the
mizrach from the cupboard and pinned it to the eastern wall of the
The room was soon ready. By now, nearly thirty people sat together,
near friends, or spouses. A few welcomed newcomers if they were pres
ent. They talked quietly, exchanging information or continuing conver
sations interrupted by the preparation of the room. This particular Sab
bath, one small group of regular members exchanged information on
vacations; Mark showed a postcard he had received from Jacob and
Rachel who were vacationing. (Members of the Minyan will be listed
for reference in Figure 2.) Mark and Jacob were colleagues at the Uni
versity Hillel. Their offices were just a few feet from the room where the
Minyan held its Sabbath service. Mark was nearly thirty and Jacob in
his mid-thirties. Mark was unmarried and Jacob only recendy married.
Mark and Jacob began the Minyan together in 1971 and comprised the
contrasts and commonalities of the membership.
Mark was ordained as a Conservative rabbi and Jacob as a Reform
rabbi. Both of them observed the dietary laws, but Mark was the more

A Sabbath Minyan
Some Members of the Kelton Minyan
Founding and Second-Year Members
late 20s
New York
Hillel rabbi
New York
Hillel rabbi
early 20s
Los Angeles
rabbinical student
early 20s
graduate student
late 20s
New York
Hillel rabbi
mid 20s
graduate student
late 20s
New York
mid 20s
New York
Second-Year Members
late 20s
mid 20s
New York
graduate student
mid 20s
Los Angeles
graduate student
early 20s
student-Jewish edu
late 20s
mid 20s
Los Angeles
late 20s
Conservative /
mid 20s
Los Angeles
nursery school
mid 20s
graduate student
unaffiliated with
early 20s
Los Angeles
rabbinical student
early 20s
rabbinical student
early 20s
mid 20s
law student
rigorous in his observance of Jewish law. For example, unlike Jacob,
Mark did not drive on the Sabbath. Both found all other Kelton neigh
borhood synagogues "depressing" for Sabbath worship, and both hoped
that the Minyan would be the kind of community they sought for reli
gious worship. Mark grew up in Brooklyn in an observant Jewish
home. He had ten synagogues within walking distance of his house. He
spent most of his adolescent summers at Camp Ramah, the camp of the
Conservative Jewish movement. Jacob grew up in a New York City sub-

urb in a nonobservant Reform home. Mark often said, "I made Jacob
more traditional." Jacob said, "I made Mark think about the need to
change the Jewish tradition." They were searching for a Sabbath expe
rience where they did not have to be leaders, acting as the rabbi. They
both sought a community of serious Jews, of intellectuals willing to
pray and reflect on their Judaism. Rachel joined the Minyan when she
and Jacob became engaged. Raised in Los Angeles as a Reform Jew, she
attended Kelton University. She was an actress and singer.
Susan, another of the group's founders, described the camping trip
she planned. She was in her early twenties and completing an under
graduate degree in English literature. She also took a minor in Hebrew
literature, enrolling in advanced language and literature courses. Susan
was raised in a small town in central California where there were not
enough Jews to form a minyan. Her father was an ardent Zionist and
encouraged the use of Hebrew in the house. Susan came to Kelton Uni
versity to be in a large Jewish community. She was Shomer Shabbat
(completely observant of all Sabbath laws). Like Mark, on the Sabbath
she did not ride, cook, use electricity, or write. Unlike Mark, she did not
grow up with such observances, but chose them for herself. She planned
this trip with another Minyan member, Linda, Susan's roommate and a
convert to Judaism. Linda was a nurse, educated at Kelton University.
She was initially drawn to Judaism out of curiosity, took classes, and
studied for conversion with Mark and Jacob.
In another group Doug was describing his progress on his master's
thesis in urban planning. His focus on a Los Angeles Jewish neighbor
hood had given him a number of anecdotes he shared in informal con
versation. He said, "There are several theories about the prominence of
Chinese restaurants in this neighborhood." He explained, then wryly
The fact is that American Jews have developed a taste for Chinese
food and all Jewish neighborhoods have lots of them. Theories
about density, multiethnicity, and other factors simply cannot ex
plain it more effectively than that.
Doug was from a Chicago suburb. He was completing his education in
Los Angeles and married a woman from the area. He did not live in the
Kelton neighborhood as Mark, Susan, Jacob, and Rachel did. He drove
to attend the services. He was raised in a family that was centrally in
volved in a Reconstructionist synagogue and was the only Minyan
member from that denomination. He considered himself observant of

A Sabbath Minyan
the holidays, the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and other measures of Jew
ish piety. But he and his wife Beth drove to pray in a place they found
most congenial. Beth was the child of immigrants and survivors of the
Holocaust. She was raised in a family where more Jewish traditions
were observed than in Doug's, but not one where women were given a
formal Jewish education. Beth was pursuing a graduate degree in Jew
ish history at a local Reform seminary.
Beth and Doug were not Minyan founders, having joined the group
when it was about a year old. They were nevertheless regular partici
pants. They spoke with Joseph as they readied the room on this partic
ular Sabbath. He had attended the Minyan regularly for six months. An
immigrant whose family fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Jo
seph's parents are survivors of the Holocaust that destroyed almost
all of his extended family. He came to the United States with no idea
what Jewish religious observance was about. As a six-year-old child he
moved with his parents into the home of an Orthodox Jewish aunt. He
attended a Jewish parochial school and, as he grew older, a public
school as well as afternoon Hebrew school. He observed the strictest
Jewish traditions. After high school he said he had "only disdain for
Judaism. I was interested in embracing as many world views as pos
sible." The radicalism of his college years led to an interest in Israel as
he grew critical of the United States. He lived in Israel after college grad
uation and then returned to the United States. His time in the Minyan
represented an interim period in which he was trying to decide whether
to move permanently to Israel as a member of a kibbutz, (a collective
farm) or to become a lawyer in the United States. He explained to me:
The Minyan is a community I have always longed for. It has made
prayer, a traditional form which was unpalatable, very palatable.
Here is a group struggling and questioning forms of Jewish life and
not simply accepting them.
Joseph thought of himself as "a faucet attached to an enormous water
system which is all Jews in history. Sometimes I am onto the system and
sometimes off. The Minyan allows me to be open to the system."
Paula is in another comer talking to a woman who is new to the
group, generally welcoming her and asking her how she found the Min
yan. Paula also joined the Minyan recently. On leave from law school,
she worked in Los Angeles at a feminist art center. Raised as an Ortho
dox Jew in suburban New York, she was seeking a group to pray in. She

I want a traditional service, but one where I will belong. Women's
participation is very important to me. But it also feels authentic
here. I would be willing to relocate here permanently to be in this
Joseph and Paula were both twenty-four years old and unmarried. They
each kept a kosher home, but also drove on the Sabbath. Although their
practice was intermittent, their sense of Judaism was deep.
By 10:30 a.m. the Minyan began its formal activity of praying the
Sabbath morning liturgy together. First, however, they held a discus
sion, instituted at the Minyan's founding in 1971 when the group had
barely the required quorum of ten. Its purpose was to allow some time
prior to praying for members to articulate doubts, questions, and in
sights about the prayers they would shortly chant from the traditional
prayerbook. The discussion was called a "prayer confrontation." Before
beginning the discussion, one woman in the room suggested that every
one in the rectangle give his or her name. Not everyone in the room
knew each other.
Aaron led the discussion that week; he volunteered for the respon
sibility on the previous Sabbath. All tasks for a Sabbath were completed
by weekly volunteers who took what members called "offices." Aaron
chose to discuss a prayer called "Aleinu." which is one of the closing
prayers of all Jewish worship. I 2 In the discussion led by Aaron, many but
not all of the thirty people in the room participated. Men dominated,
and the most dominant among them were the rabbi members and those
with extensive Jewish knowledge. They disagreed among themselves
and brought others into the discussion on different sides. No opinion
appeared authoritative. Aaron opened the discussion with the following
I am critical of this prayer. When we read, "We therefore hope in
Thee, Lord our God, Soon to behold the glory of Thy might. When
Thou will remove abominations from the earth and the idols shall
be wholly destroyed. When the world shall be established under the
rule of the Almighty, and all the wicked on earth will turn to Thee,"
we are setting ourselves apart, even above all the other peoples and
cultures of the world. We proclaim the superiority of a Jewish way
of life, of Jewish worship, and Jewish beliefs. Even our God is set
apart from all other people. This prayer is evangelical and I have
respected Judaism because it was not an evangelical religion. I
would like to know more about the circumstances in which it was
written. What was going on that made it necessary for people to

A Sabbath Minyan
make a statement like this, a statement that frankly leaves me un
comfortable? How desirable is it to have a prayer that praises us to
the exclusion of others and attempts to have all believe the way
Jews do?
Their discussion was lively. Harvey said that Aaron misunderstood the
The author of the prayer uses a framework that spoke only of the
God of creation, not about Israel or the Jews' relation to God. The
prayer does not claim that the Jews are superior. It claims that God
is powerful.
Jay added: "What is dangerous in the prayer? Is it the exaltation of God
the creator or the hope that all will recognize God as the only God and
hope that 'his name would be one'?"
Ed offered a sociological insight:
The answer is obvious. All social systems face similar problems. It
is in the nature of such systems to assert their superiority over oth
ers. Jews are not unique in this and the aleinu simply mirrors that
Mark adamantly disagreed:
Pagan systems are entirely different from monotheistic systems. Pa
gan cultures never asserted that all humans must believe one thing
over another. The Jews never suffered antisemitism under Pagan
cultures because Judaism could be one religion among many.
Frankly, I have always found this prayer difficult. I agree with
Aaron. I can't see the point of asserting a wish to make all others
like ourselves.
Doug agreed. "I am a Jew because I believed that implied respect for
others. Aleinu undermines that respect."
The discussion continued as members took various sides in the de
bate. Mark, though a rabbi, questioned the prayer. Harvey, not one,
upheld it. He was also a founder of the Minyan and an articulate
spokesperson for tradition. At twenty-five, he was an advanced gradu
ate student in modem Hebrew literature at Kelton University. His He
brew was excellent. He grew up in Boston in an observant. Conserva
tive Jewish family and was unmarried. He participated actively in Camp

Ramah in his adolescence, moving into leadership roles, and there met
Mark and Jay years before he arrived in Los Angeles. Previously, Harvey
participated in a minyan at the University of Chicago that resembled the
Kelton Minyan. The Minyan began the year he moved to Los Angeles.
His closest friends were drawn from the Minyan and the Kelton neigh
borhood where he lived. He was an excellent hazatt (cantor) and widely
admired for his skill and knowledge.
The sociological insight was provided by another rabbi and Minyan
founder. Ed was thirty and a Hillel director at another university campus
in Los Angeles. He was a consistent spokesperson for innovation, for
altering prayers and challenging their contents. He was frustrated fre
quently with the preeminent role given to "tradition," which he be
lieved Harvey and Jacob in particular "treat with kid gloves." He was
raised in suburban New York in a minimally observant Jewish home.
Though he was ordained in the Reform seminary like Jacob, he was less
observant than other founders and inclined to bring ritual innovation to
the Minyan.
Aaron, who began the discussion, was not a rabbi, but he was an
important Minyan member. He was thirty-two, a professional sociolo
gist in a local institution, who came to Los Angeles straight from the
University of Chicago where he earned a doctorate. His studies were
preceded by several years in the Peace Corps in Tlirkey. He was active in
the Minyan because he believed he could express some of the very
doubts and questions he aired in the discussion. Aaron felt uncomfort
able in a synagogue. He said, "Before my first Shabbat in the Minyan, I
hadn't been in a Conservative synagogue in twenty years." He did not
believe that he fit into any of the denominations with which synagogues
were affiliated. He found himself uncomfortable with the segregation of
men and women during prayer, the norm of traditional synagogues, and
the expectation of total observance of Jewish laws. Raised in a tradi
tional Conservative synagogue in his early years, then in a Reform syn
agogue, both in the eastern United States, he always felt deeply attached
to Judaism. Aaron told me: "There have been various times I tried to go
back to Judaism, but I always felt uncomfortable. I always felt out of
place because I didn't know the behaviors, how to recite prayers, how
to step back and forth during prayer." He wanted, nevertheless, to find
a traditional synagogue because of his warm memories of the Judaism
of his childhood and his desire for a community of friends. Another
reason for Aaron's discomfort in synagogues was his lifestyle. His hair
was long and fastened by a rubber band into a neat pony tail; he usually
wore jeans and casual shirts. He chose this appearance to differentiate

A Sabbath Minyan
himself from mainstream society. He recently married Martha, also a
Minyan member, but they had lived together for some time prior to
their marriage and would have been uncomfortable in a congregation
that disapproved of their living arrangement. Many aspects of his life
seemed incompatible with the conservative views and attitudes about
lifestyles he assumed he would encounter in synagogues. Of the Minyan
he said:
In the Minyan there is room for everybody. I like the service that we
pray in English and Hebrew. It is small. It blew my mind we were
saying prayers that people had been saying for hundreds and hun
dreds of years. It still does.
Aaron was a valued member in the Minyan despite his rusty He
brew, lack of expert knowledge of religious texts, and limited Jewish
observance. He was thoughtful about what he read and did in a service.
His personal observance was growing. He kept a kosher home and
many precepts of the Sabbath since he began living with Martha. He
combined the values to which the Minyan was committed: tradition,
experimentation, learning through participation and active support for
and involvement in the group.
The discussion ended with no summary or conclusions. The leader
simply said the allotted time was up, and it was time to move on to
prayer. Later in the morning this prayer was chanted in unison by the
community. At this point some men and women, although not all of
either sex, stood and put on their own or Minyan-provided prayer
shawls. This was the only gesture of transition from discussion to prayer.
Many members, in fact, recited the proper blessing and covered them
selves with a tallit before the discussion, forging a symbolic continuity
between discussion and prayer. 3
With the beginning of the prayer service, the leadership shifted from
Aaron to the two cantors or hazanim (plural; hazatt, masculine singular;
hazanit, feminine singular) for the day. The two cantors were Jay, who
chanted the service in Hebrew, which is customary, and Jane, who si
multaneously chanted in English. Her role was unusual in American
Judaism; it indicated that English was a perfectly acceptable language
for prayer and was almost equal in significance to Hebrew. The Minyan
used the De Sola Pool Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook approved by the
Orthodox rabbinate of America; it was printed in both languages, and
the membership chanted in both languages. In most standard prayer-
books in America, English is printed in the Siddur, but is never chanted

aloud. In a Conservative synagogue one or two prayers may be read
aloud in English in unison or responsively, and in a Reform synagogue
the majority of a service is conducted in this fashion. But to chant the
language of America in the rhythm of ancient prayer is innovative and
unique to the havurah movement.
In American synagogues the service is led by a rabbi who directs
and guides the congregants through the prayers. The hazen leads specif
ically designated musical portions of the service. In Orthodox services,
and in all traditional services in prewar Europe, the rabbi played no
formal role in the service because all men were capable of leadership. A
hazan was distinguished in that setting because of the beauty and
drama of his voice; he might be hired for the holy days by several small
or one wealthy synagogue. In America, the rabbi became the expert in
the absence of a community of experts; as such, he acts as a leader, and
his voice is often the only one heard, unlike the practice in traditional
The Minyan self-consciously chose the European model, although
all members were not equally capable leaders. They were proud of the
communal yet individual nature of their praying, which was unlike
prayer in synagogues, but resembled, they believed, "how Jews really
pray." Minyan members musically chant rather than say words, and
they sing some prayers and hymns of the service together. Their ha-
zanim were "nondirective." They kept the group together by raising
their voices audibly at the beginning and end of the prayers, thereby
setting a general pace but allowing people to move autonomously
within it. On the Sabbath in the Minyan, periods of song alternated
with periods of chanting by individuals and the community.
On this Sabbath the hazanim represented the blend of skills and
skill-learning that Minyan members believed distinguished them as a
prayer community. Jay was a rabbi who directed a Hebrew education
school; he had a fine voice and led a service expertly because of his
command of Hebrew and music. He moved to Los Angeles directly after
his ordination from the Conservative Jewish Seminary. He was bom in
Wisconsin and raised in a minimally observant family that attended
their city's only Conservative synagogue. He related: "My family was
positive about Judaism in general, not in particular. We ate pork some
times on Friday night." 4 His attendance at the Conservative movement's
Camp Ramah placed him on a course of Jewish observance. Jay ex
plained: "In Camp Ramah we lived all week in the sweetness of Shab-
bat. I have a passion for Hebrew. My attachment to Judaism came from

A Sabbath service of the New York Havurah at a retreat.
Retreats were occasions to pray outdoors. Not all members
wear prayer shawls, and those who do wear them in
slightly different ways.

these two sources." He lived in Kelton because he too was Shomer
Shabbat and did not travel on the Sabbath.
Jane was a local secondary-school math teacher. She was raised in
Los Angeles. Though she knew the prayers well, she learned as an adult
how to lead them. She became accustomed to strengthening her voice
to assert the melody and rhythm of the prayers at their beginning and
closing sentences. The mix of Jane and Jay's skills symbolized for the
Minyan a participatory Judaism that contrasted with the professional
and expert-dominated American synagogue they wished to avoid.
However, Jay, the expert, announced the order of the service, mentioned
what would be included and where variation would occur. His voice
was louder and surer. He was looked to more readily for the leadership
of the service.
Jay and Jane met during the week to plan the service. From their
first meeting Minyan founders established the liturgical order for the
Sabbath. It essentially followed normative Jewish worship, with the ex
ception of an additional service used on the Sabbath and festivals. 5
Though a matter of contention, the majority wanted to drop the service
and did. The Minyan used a traditional Siddur that maintained that
normative form, but rotating hazanim made innovation within the or
der of the service possible.
In their planning of the service, Jay and Jane's choices of which
psalms to recite and which melodies to sing were based on personal
preference. "We haven't said this for awhile," or "I like this melody"
prefaced their decisions for which prayers would be included in the ser
vice. Those who were experienced exercised more choices and variation
in the melodies and optional psalms. Newcomers were conservative,
planning a service that resembled what they heard weekly and made
them most comfortable. To begin the service. Jay briefly mentioned the
pages and order of the service to be followed. Although the Minyan
used a traditional prayerbook, it varied certain prayers, dropped some,
shortened liturgical sections, and added silences, secular readings, and
discussions. Its service was far more traditional than a Reform service
and was basically a compressed version of an Orthodox or Conservative
service. It was recognizable in every sense as traditional, if abbreviated,
The Sabbath morning service included psalms and prayers of praise,
core prayers of Jewish theology, a period of reading the Torah (Penta
teuch), and concluding prayers. One distinguishing feature of Sabbath
liturgy, as opposed to daily liturgy, is the absence of prayers of petition.
Nonunison praying in the Minyan—that is, praying the same prayer at

A Sabbath Minyan
a different pace—is alternatively a jumble of hummed Hebrew, occa
sional complete silences, and sometimes unified song. The gestures that
accompanied prayer included standing, swaying, and for those who
wore die tallit, pulling it over the head, holding the fringes at specific
points, or simply wrapping it more closely around the shoulders.
The various pages on which the prayers were printed in the prayer-
book were announced by the hazan to allow members who were less
familiar with the service to follow along. Though the hazanim led, other
members still began a tune, or a particularly pleasant song continued
because the group spontaneously sang more choruses. Overall, the im
pression of a Minyan service was of a smoothly run but litde directed
event. It was different than any synagogue service in America. There
were fewer prayers, more interruptions to note page numbers of pray
ers, to read an English passage, or to offer other stage directions than
one would find among Orthodox Jews. The informality and ease of
praying was a real contrast to most Conservative synagogues. The tra
ditional nature of the service made it radically different from a Reform
The services, of course, varied from week to week in intensity, en
thusiasm, and music, but the prayers were virtually identical. Like most
Jews, Minyan members called what they did by the anglicized Yiddish
word “davening" (praying), a less formal and more physical sense of
praying than is expressed by the Hebrew word t'fillah, which means
The Torah service began after approximately one hour of davening
the prayers of the morning Sabbath service. The room was changed
again. Unlike a synagogue, the Minyan had no ark, the permanent and
richly decorated closet, typically on the synagogue's eastern wall, that
houses its Torah or Torahs. The Torah used by the Minyan was kept in
the cupboard of the Hillel library down the hall from the room where
they davened. The table that held Sabbath paraphernalia was brought
into the room to serve as a stand for the Torah. Because the sacredness
of the scroll precludes its direct contact with profane objects, the Min
yan maintained the Torah's sanctity through improvisations. The Torah
was wrapped in extra prayer shawls when it was brought into the room,
and the table where it rested was covered with more prayer shawls. Jay
escorted the scroll into the room that day, while the group sang a litur
gical song about the movement of the ark in battle, drawing an associa
tion between Sabbath Torah reading and the biblical Israelites' use of
the ark. At the close of the song, the Torah scroll was laid on the table.
In a synagogue it would be placed on a raised reading table after a

procession through the sanctuary. In the Minyan, as well as the syn
agogue, the Torah scroll was ritually "undressed"; congregants were
honored by being invited by the person in charge of the Torah service
for that Sabbath to remove the velvet cover and waistband that held
it shut. Any intimate contact with this sacred object is an honor. Then
the Torah reader opened it to the appropriate sections for the Sabbath
The ritual surrounding the Torah service and the actual reading of
the scroll involved the Minyan in conflicts with both its own customs
and Jewish law. The members' commitments to pluralism and equality
broke down around the Torah. The Torah must be read in Hebrew, a
difficult unvocalized (written without vowels) Hebrew at that, to a
chant whose notations do not appear in the text. Few members had the
skill and expertise to read directly from the Torah scroll. This service
always differentiated those members who were well educated in He
brew. Those who read Hebrew well were obliged to spend time in prep
aration each week. When members attempted to acquire this reading
skill, their mistakes could not be gracefully overlooked. Custom dictated
that mistakes be orally corrected because the Torah, God's word, must
be accurately read. A newly trained reader could anticipate the public
correction of every misreading. In most large Conservative, Reform, or
Orthodox synagogues only experts read the Torah, and in some the To
rah reader may be a paid synagogue position.
The Minyan upheld its egalitarian ideals in two ways, however.
Members ignored the inherited designations every Jewish male receives
through the male line, indicating whether he is descended from the
priestly, assistant, or common classes. These designations determine the
order in which one may come to the Torah scroll to offer a blessing
(aliyah, meaning to go up) before and after the actual reading of the text
and thus honor it. Orthodox Jews use these designators; more liberal
synagogues may not. And men shared with women the handling, read
ing, and blessing of the Torah. Indeed, the Minyan contradicted Jewish
law by counting women as members of the required minyan of ten and
allowing them to lead prayers, something done infrequently at that time
even by liberal synagogues. As visible participants in the quorum, the
women were entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as the
men. They pronounced blessings over the Torah that accompanied each
section read.
This Sabbath, Jay prepared the Torah reading. 6 His ability was evi
dent. He chanted the sections flawlessly, using a beautiful melody. Al
though he was at "center stage" when he read the scroll, he was sup-

A Torah reader chants from the scroll. She uses the pointer
to accurately follow the text. To her side is the person who
has recited the blessing before the Torah reading (aliyah).

ported by various other actors. The entire event was directed by the
gabbai (literally, tax collector), the impresario of the Torah service; today
the role was performed by Frank. He prompted the reader from a
printed, vocalized (written with vowels) version of the text in case of
mistakes, and he called up other members to participate in the reading.
He asked for volunteers for the various honors associated with the ser
vice. Miriam, Stan, and Bob requested aliyot (plural). Members followed
Jay's reading in Hebrew or English, printed side by side in the hu-
mashim (the Pentateuch and selections from prophets and other por
tions of the Bible designated to be read on the Sabbath or festivals)
owned by the Minyan. Sometimes members referred to the texts during
the Torah discussion. When Jay completed the reading, David, asked by
Frank, agreed to act as hamagbiah (lifter). He raised the open Torah
above his shoulders, turned his back to the group to show the scroll,
and then took the Torah to a special chair where he seated himself. He
held it upright on his lap while Frank assisted him in rolling it shut.
Toni, acting as hagolelet (roller, feminine singular) redressed the Torah
with its waistband and cover. David continued to hold the Torah while
Susan chanted the haftarah, the portion of scripture selected from the
Prophets by the rabbis to be read following the Torah. These portions of
the Bible were selected for each haftarah because they contained themes
found in the Torah reading. Then the Torah was set down on the table
and covered with prayer shawls.
With the completion of the Torah reading, the members regrouped
for the second discussion of the day based on the text just read. The
discussion generally lasted thirty minutes. Minyan members said this
discussion was the reason they read only a portion of the prescribed
sections of the Torah; there was not time to do both. The Minyan, in
fact, recently had instituted two separate discussions during this period;
to accommodate them, some members moved into the library across the
hall. The larger number stayed in the room where the davening took
place. The library group looked at commentaries on the Bible, and the
larger group usually examined the Sabbath Torah portion.
The Torah discussion used to consist of a single, longer version of
the preprayer discussion focused on the sedra (weekly portion). On this
Sabbath one of the discussion groups read and reflected on the com
mentaries of the great eleventh-century French scholar, Rashi. His writ
ings constitute one of the major commentaries on the Bible and Tal
mud. 7 The reading of Rashi's comments in English translation were not
confined to the particular Sabbath Torah portion; rather, a single set of
commentaries on one book of the Bible was read over the weeks. Partic-

A Sabbath Minyan
ipants made frequent use of Hebrew, as well as the Hebrew of the text.
The Rashi group attracted the more observant Jews in the Minyan and
the ones who considered themselves serious scholars of sacred text. This
did not mean that the discussions were not punctuated with humor and
delight in what they call Rashi's imaginative interpretations, "plain
sense," and use of Hebrew. But it was an esoteric humor. Because not
every member appreciated it, the humor tended to be divisive, setting
one group off from the other members. Those who participated in the
Rashi group recognized this separation, but said they had a right to
"serious study." Unlike the Torah service, in which differentiation was
inevitable, reading Rashi was an optional development at the end of the
group's second year. On this occasion, six of the nearly forty people
present attended the Rashi group.
The other discussion group had been meeting continually since the
Minyan began. The idea was conceived by founders when the Minyan
was a smaller and more intimate group. These discussions most often
responded directly to the Sabbath Torah portion. On this Sabbath Linda
led the discussion. She began by echoing sentiments often expressed by
the group's founders:
I do not simply want to repeat the same issues raised by others
about the Exodus story and the ten plagues that we have discussed
in other years. So I will try to raise some new concerns.
She summarized Parasha Bo (Torah portion, Exodus, Chapters 10-13,
verse 13). This dramatic Torah portion continues the story of the nego
tiations of Moses with the Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves from
Egypt, allowing them to leave in order to enter the land God had prom
ised them. God brings the three final plagues against the Egyptians be
cause He "hardens Pharaoh's heart," and the ruler continues to refuse to
grant freedom to the slaves.
Linda's issue for discussion focused on "the meaning of the tenth
plague," which would destroy the first-bom of all Egyptians, including
animals and the child of Pharaoh himself. Linda said:
In every other plague God directed against the Egyptians, the Isra
elites were passive. God acted and the people watched. They were
simply witnesses. But they had to act when God explained the tenth
plague. They were required to sacrifice sheep, take the blood, and
spread it on their doorposts. In this way, their own first-bom would
be spared because they had given a sign to the Angel of Death. I
find the act very dramatic, but also unsettling. It seems pagan rather

than Jewish. Why is this the one act God requires from the Israel
ites? What does the blood mean?
Ruth, a second-year Reform rabbinical student, was the first person to
respond. She offered an overtly political interpretation of the text.
By this action, the slaves drew a boundary between themselves and
others. With this act, they declared themselves not slaves and no
longer part of Egypt. The boundary declared a commitment to God.
It was an act they could not turn back from. It must have appeared
to the Israelites that their God was fighting the gods of Egypt. There
was no assurance the Israelite God would win, and they had taken
a total risk if He lost.
Before the Minyan was organized, Ruth belonged as an undergraduate
to a group that was dedicated to Jewish activism. They organized
around, among other issues, the plight of Soviet Jews and their shared
sense of Jewish identity and counterculture politics. Her interpretation
was reminiscent of how they used biblical text in their politics. They
interpreted the tradition as consistently committed to radical political
action for the Jewish people. Ruth often, though not consistently, of
fered such political interpretations.
Minyan members came back to the subject of risk repeatedly in the
discussion, noting that this action was dangerous. Beth emphasized the
issue through an analogy. She said:
Israelites' sacrifice of lambs would be like aliens slaughtering cows
in India. They were slaughtering the gods of the host country. They
risked everything to accept God.
Bill commented on why blood was smeared on the doorposts:
Blood is an ambiguous substance and powerful symbol. It is a sub
stance of both life and death. It represented the fact that some
would die so that others would live. It focused on Israelite life and
Egyptian death.
Neal then added his thoughts on Linda's question about blood:
When I was younger I dismissed a lot of Jewish ritual because it
was pagan, superstitious, or naive. As I have studied more, I under
stand that it is not a single ritual or symbol that is important; it is

A Sabbath Minyan
how they are interpreted. Passover, for example, was originally an
ancient spring celebration, but it came to be interpreted as a cele
bration of Jewish peoplehood. These meanings set apart the ancient
or pagan roots. Our participation in these events is about the Jewish
people and our relationship to God, whatever the origins of the
rituals may be.
Neal was a student at the University of Judaism, applying for admission
to the Conservative seminary for the following year. After a period of
self-defined indifference to Judaism, he "returned" both to religious ob
servance and activism. Prior to joining the Minyan, he traveled to cam
puses throughout the United States raising funds for the United Jewish
Appeal and for the support of Israel (see Chapter 2 for a description of
the United Jewish Appeal).
At this point Harvey applied the discussion themes to contemporary
In some way Passover continues to operate for us as the tenth
plague did for them. It is a cut-off point. If you do not celebrate
Passover, you do not count yourself as a Jew. Even if one's celebra
tion is a family dinner, it is an act of identification.
Harvey's comparison evoked from several members their unhappy
childhood memories of Passover. A woman complained bitterly about
how brief the Seder ritual was made because of her family's impatience
with observance. But Harvey persisted.
Still, people do join together and attempt to express their identity as
Jews within their homes and family. Even in a minimal form, it is a
meaningful act of Jewish commitment. That is why the Haggadah
(the liturgical order of the Passover home ritual) has been reworked
so many times.
The discussion ended with Harvey's comments and without summary
or conclusions. As with the morning discussion, the time allotted
passed, and so it came to an end.
This typical Torah discussion is marked by three themes. First, there
is biblical exegesis. The discussion leader and others look to the text for
content and narrative form that requires interpretation. Linda noted
that the tenth plague was different from the others, and presented it as
a problem that required interpretation, often, though not in this case,
by reference to other commentaries. Second, there is usually personal

reflection, or even judgments. Linda labeled a biblical act distastefully
as "pagan." Clearly this was no fundamentalist reading of the text. In
dividuals reflected likes, dislikes and opinions. Similarly, others then
interpreted the text in the light of such judgments. Bill and Neal asserted
the Jewish character of the acts. Interpretation then engaged not only
their intellectual skills of exegesis but their personal reflections of inter
pretation. Because Linda personally reflected on the text, she showed
that her originality was relevant to conducting a discussion. In these
discussions, text was to be understood not solely through the eyes of
experts but also through a personal assessment, which should be stim
ulating. Finally, members drew direct parallels between the text and
Minyan members' lives as Jews. Harvey asserted that the tenth plague
was like the Seder; both were identity markers. He made an explicit link
between ancient and modem action. 8
Minyan discussions, an embodiment of the unique characteristics of
havurot, operated on several levels at once. They expressed continuity
and discontinuity with the tradition, asserting individualism in interpre
tation and simultaneously requiring members to acknowledge the legit
imacy of ancient texts. Minyan members understood their discussion to
be Jewish "study," occasions for education about sacred texts that
united them with the tradition of study as a sacred act.
Both the pre-prayer discussion of the Alienu and the Torah discus
sion of the Exodus verse use these modes of language and thought to
establish members' link to Jewish texts. Their abstract interest in the
text was insufficient for this purpose. Rather, interaction with the text,
even disagreement, suggested an intimate and personal relationship to
it. In the discussion of Aleinu, members' "discomfort," as some de
scribed it, linked them to a liberal and pluralist American tradition in
which difference is unpalatable if it implies judgment. That very stance
evolved for the ancestors of Minyan members in Europe whose advo
cacy of liberalism assured civil rights and religious freedom for Jews.
The assertion of liberalism against the prayer is ironically an American
Jewish position. In discussions Minyan members articulate these posi
tions not in opposition to text or tradition, but as expressions of their
Judaism they understand as compatible with that tradition.
In the Exodus discussion then, personal experience is repeatedly
projected into the text. Ruth and Beth both imagine the anxiety of slaves
by imagining a comparable act in a contemporary society or by expand
ing the biblical narrative to set the stage for the final plague. Neal's as
sertion of the primacy of interpretation over narrative asserts that the
true meaning of the text rests on how it is understood for one's life.

A Sabbath Minyan
The stance members assume toward sacred text demands their en
gagement with it. It is that very engagement that largely demonstrates
that it is sacred. From that position criticism and disagreement are pos
sible because the personal link is removed from question.
After this morning's discussion, the groups reconvened in the larger
room for praying. The Torah service was completed when the Torah was
re-dressed, marched around the room again and ritually returned to the
table on which it rested, wrapped in several prayer shawls, and then
finally removed to the library where it remained until the next week.
The concluding prayers of the service were chanted together. Because
the Minyan excluded the Additional Service, this portion of the service
was short and dominated by songs. Their songs were sung in unison,
often in harmony with the help of the group's more accomplished mu
sicians. When they ended their final hymn, the service was concluded,
and Minyan members removed their prayer shawls, folded and placed
them either in a personal tallit bag, or piled them up to be returned to
the Minyan cupboard. Everyone turned to a neighbor and shook hands
or, more often, embraced and kissed, repeating the Sabbath greeting of
''Shabbat Shalom."
The room was transformed again. The couches were moved back
against the wall. The table was cleared of ritual paraphernalia and re
turned to the center of the room. The group prepared for the next por
tion of the Minyan Sabbath: eating lunch and discussing current issues
to which the group attended. Lunch in the Minyan combined rituals
surrounding food, informal socializing, eating, and discussing group
problems or affairs. Each week two people assumed the office of bring
ing lunch, and the responsibility rotated among almost all members.
The first ritual activity preceding a Sabbath lunch was sanctifying and
drinking wine. But before the blessing began, members stood poised
with wine in hand and volunteered for the offices necessary for the next
Sabbath, which were solicited by someone who has participated that
day. People were needed to volunteer to lead discussions, act as haz
anim, assist in the Torah service, and bring lunch. Some offices were
taken quickly, some with hesitation. Members were occasionally en
couraged, shamed, or cajoled into volunteering. Today, volunteering
posed no problem. If there was a delay, members told one another,
"Someone volunteer or we won't eat lunch!" Minyan members recently
decided to recruit for their offices at this juncture in the day's activities
in order to pressure members into responsibility, a need that had not
existed when the group began with a few dedicated members.
After people volunteered for the offices, they recited kiddush (sanc-

tification) and drank the wine. At this point some members left the
room to ritually wash their hands, as tradition dictated, before the ritual
blessing over bread. This act distinguished the more and less religiously
observant members. There seemed to be little tension between the two
groups; differences in observance were taken as a matter of fact and
personal preference, not moral worth. When all the members were as
sembled, they began a curious ritual unique to the Minyan. Instead of
one person blessing the Sabbath loaf, which was customary, the Minyan
divided into groups that held the loaf of hallah together in midair while
all the groups recited the blessing over the bread in unison. People then
twisted off pieces of bread to eat. Their informality fitted well into their
Lunch was served on the table that previously held prayer books,
ritual articles, and the Torah. Individuals moved through chaotic lines
to fill their plates with foods that were acceptable even to the members
who were the most observant of the dietary rules. Minyan members
were respectful of the ritual needs of those among them who were most
observant. If even one person would be offended by food brought to the
Minyan, or by an act violating a Sabbath law, for example, no one did
it. This accommodation around food, however, did not hold for prayer.
They were far more willing to assert their different views around their
central activity and, often, less willing to compromise.
During lunch the Minyan broke into smaller groups. Friends sat
together, and the subgroups of the Minyan were visible. Informal
groups were often homogeneous, separating, for example, unmarried
from married people. Aaron, Martha, Doug, and Beth casually chatted
about the week's events; they made plans to attend a play together the
following week. A newcomer seemed unsure about where to sit until
Mark talked to her. A few people left as soon as they finished eating.
After about forty-five minutes, members recited the "Grace" (Birk-
hat ha mazon) that follows a meal at which bread has been blessed and
eaten. Most of the Grace was sung in unison, usually led by the "host"
of that day's lunch. At the conclusion members made announcements.
Today the upcoming retreat was discussed. Various people volunteered
for food preparations for the weekend. When they discovered that five
members were vegetarians, they concluded, as they do with ritual is
sues, that all members would share vegetarian food.
They quickly transformed the room for the last time. The wall and
floor coverings were put away and the room was readied for its weekday
uses. The group drifted out as casually as it arrived. The members who
lived in Kelton or were visiting friends climbed the steep hills of the

A Sabbath Minyan
neighborhood. Some got in their cars and drove home, which may have
been fifteen, twenty, or even forty-five minutes away. Some continued
to observe the Sabbath until sundown; they did not drive, turn on lights,
handle money, or prepare food. Others returned immediately to the sec
ular world, indistinguishable from any other American, passing a Sat
urday shopping, visiting, or finishing school work.
Jewish Alternatives for the Alternative Community
Minyan members did not attend the group solely or exclusively to
fulfill the commandments to pray set down in the Torah. Rather, the
Minyan provided a setting and structure that enabled members to wor
ship in their own ways. For all but a few, without the Minyan they
would have had no satisfactory place to pray in a communal setting and
no motivation to pray as regularly, or possibly at all. For some members
of the Minyan who thought they could not pray because of discomfort
and disagreements with the language and meaning of prayer, or con
tempt for the bureaucracy and lack of community in synagogues, the
Minyan become an acceptable and exciting place to pray. Some mem
bers were from secular homes or were in the process of converting and
found the Minyan a congenial place to learn how to pray.
All observant Jews and their communities are concerned with
prayer, with making it aesthetically pleasing, lively, vibrant, effective, or
perhaps “relevant." What distinguished the Minyan from all syn
agogues was its members' conviction that their primary purpose was to
make possible a worship experience that could not be found elsewhere.
It was ironic that Minyan members felt the lack of a workable alterna
tive for worship. Kelton University is located in one of the major Jewish
population centers in the world. Kelton, on the western rim of Los An
geles, is a complex neighborhood with three boundaries: Kelton Uni
versity to the north, a freeway to the west, and a major boulevard to the
south that runs from downtown to the ocean. The area is divided be
tween a large, hilly residential neighborhood and a flat commercial "vil
lage." Both areas have become popular, dramatically inflating rents.
Although there are student residences—cooperative, university-owned
apartments, sororities, and fraternities, and of course apartments—offi
cial university housing is sparse. Rental prices, the proliferation of con
dominiums rather than rental units, and the rising property values of
the area's lovely old houses, make living in Kelton proper unlikely for
students. Although almost all the founders of the Minyan lived in Kel
ton, new members were increasingly recruited from outside areas

where less affluent students and beginning professionals were likely to
Kelton has a large Jewish population, but it lacks the signs of a
traditional Jewish community; there is no kosher butcher, kosher bak
ery, Jewish bookstore, or ritual bath (mikva). Virtually all Minyan mem
bers have cars and drive to areas with these services. But the most press
ing need of an observant Jew is a place of worship that can be reached
on foot because halaha prohibits travel on festivals and the Sabbath. For
the people who began the Minyan, this was a major problem.
Kelton has two synagogues within walking distance: a large Con
servative synagogue and a hasidic center. Minyan members found these
options for worship "dismal" at best, and "unacceptable" at worst.
Mark said he felt "depressed" on the Sabbath because he lacked a com
munity in which to pray. For Minyan founders and subsequent mem
bers who were willing to travel to worship, either option would have
been adequate if what they sought was authentic, traditional worship.
Each option, however, was unsatisfactory in contrasting ways.
The Conservative synagogue is a few miles southeast of the campus.
Its considerable success and wealth reflect a membership drawn from
several upper- and upper-middle-class residential areas within and ad
jacent to Kelton. The lavish synagogue was built in 1961 in a modem
architectural style; it takes up a whole city block. It contrasts stark an
gular lines with stained glass windows and spires. The three floors hold
an immense sanctuary and a chapel, a kitchen, social hall, gymnasium,
library, and an adjoining educational facility. The sanctuary seats one
thousand worshipers and expands to a social hall that holds double that
number. Like the churches in the city, the synagogue has a display case
at its front entrance to announce the name of the officiating clergy, the
topic of the weekly sermon, and special events (for example, the names
of the children who will become b'nai mitzva). The Sabbath service is a
well-orchestrated event. A choir and cantor perform the arranged litur
gical music. The rabbi's sermon is the highlight of the service, but he
shares the spotlight with the bar/bat mitzva who publicly reads from the
Torah and sections of biblical prophets for the first time.
By any standard it is a successful, even major, Conservative syn
agogue. On any particular Sabbath, hundreds of people enter the syn
agogue: guests for the bar mitzva ceremony, active congregants, and a
few elderly men who make up the dwindling minyan that meets there
daily. Everyone is well dressed. Acceptable attire for Sabbath worship is
comparable to formal afternoon wear. Women wear tailored suits, after
noon dresses, and expensive and subtle jewelry. Furs are worn on occa-

The conservative synagogue in Kelton's neighborhood.

sion, even in the warm climate. Men wear well-pressed suits or, occa
sionally, fashionable sports coats and well-cut slacks. Most congregants
arrive at the synagogue in large, expensive cars; few walk.
The richly decorated sanctuary is all wood, its bimah (platform
where Torah readers and service leader stand) is carpeted and decorated
with fresh flowers. The reading tables where the scroll is read are cov
ered in velvets. Several beautifully adorned Torahs are housed in the
modem ark. The atmosphere during the service is sedate and orderly.
Congregants, male and female, sit and stand on cue, pray in unison,
and read the liturgy responsively. The rabbi and congregation use He
brew and occasionally English in the service. They use the Sabbath
prayer book of the Conservative movement, which is modified and
shortened; in only a few places does it actually alter the Siddur used by
Orthodox Jews.
For all its beauty and success, this Conservative synagogue was un
acceptable to Minyan members. To them it symbolized the American
synagogue with its inauthentic treatment of Jewish worship. What dis
turbed them was not the prayer book that was used, the words that
formed the prayers, the melodies the cantor chanted, or the relaxation
of legal dictates that allowed men and women to sit together and
women to be called up to the Torah; these practices were all shared by
the Minyan. Rather, they were disturbed because to them the worship
there was not Jewish and not theirs. "It is like a church," many said.
The cacophony, movement, and spirit of what they believed was real
Jewish worship had been channeled and limited; it had been replaced,
Minyan members suggested, by a well-run spectacle. Within this and all
other synagogues, Minyan members believed, worshipers had become
consumers, and rabbis and cantors had become performers. The passive
observer, active performer relation was responsible for transforming
Sabbath worship and celebration into a less authentic, Americanized
style of service. Individuals had given up responsibility for how a service
should be run and turned it over to professionals. As Jews handed these
personal responsibilities over to rabbis, they seemed to concentrate in
stead on buildings, status, and appearances. The Sabbath and Jewish
community dwindled behind large buildings and superficial measures
of success. In the view of Minyan members, a corporate structure re
placed community at this and other such synagogues.
The Minyan members' desire for a less "Americanized" and "sub
urbanized" Judaism that moved the individual away from active partic
ipation in prayer was fervendy echoed in the other setting for Sabbath
prayer in Kelton. Habad House is in Kelton proper, across the street

A Sabbath Minyan
from one of the university's massive parking lots, only two blocks from
Kelton Village's tangle of fifteen cinemas. The building is a converted
fraternity house that was bought by the large and highly successful Lu-
davitch Hasidic movement. 9 In the sixties the movement became espe
cially concerned with the assimilation of, and intermarriage and conver
sion rate among, college-aged Jewish youth, the vast majority of whom
attend some institution of higher education. The Lubavitchers devoted
a portion of their funds to support their rabbis in their work on cam
puses; the rabbis set up tables next to political organizations and evan
gelical Christian missions in order to find and recruit Jews to a Jewish
way of life. They printed countless stories of rescuing Jewish students
who were addicted to drugs or Jesus and of teaching them to keep the
dietary laws, perform the daily prayer ritual of binding on phylacteries
if they were males, or lighting candles for the Sabbath if they were fe
male. The “house," which the Lubavitchers prefer to "synagogue," is
explicitly intended to attract young, usually disaffected Jews, many of
whom have been raised in Conservative or Reform congregations that
may resemble Habad's Conservative neighbor in Kelton. Lubavitch Ha
bad has long been critical of synagogue worship in America because it
has changed or ignored some of the mitzvot of Judaism, 10 to which they
are fundamentally and unequivocally committed. They believe these
changes have ushered in a less rigorous Judaism than that practiced
during the European epoch in which Lubavitch developed. Jews have
moved away from Judaism because of their attraction to what Lubavitch
calls "American values and assimilation."
The Habad house has none of the splendor of the nearby syn
agogue. It is a center for study and provides a kosher kitchen. A setting
for prayer, its rooms are used for several different purposes throughout
the week. One may pray and hold meetings in the same setting. Worship
services are animated, cacophonous, and lengthy. There is no choir or
cantor. The service leader is not necessarily a rabbi and gives no sermon.
Bar mitzva ceremonies are neither lavish nor frequent events at the
campus house. Men sway as they pray, their ritual fringes (tzitzit) in
motion, hanging over their trousers and mixing with the fringes of their
prayer shawls. All men are bearded, and all males wear long forelocks
like the children and men in European shtetels. To honor the Sabbath,
they dress in fine, long black coats and fur hats that resemble the gar
ments worn by Polish nobles two centuries ago. Lubavitch welcomes
visitors and seeks out any person who has expressed interest in being a
Jew. They have more than an authentic Sabbath service to offer. They
have endured with a success no other hasidic sect can match, and they

believe that they have the ability to attract Jewish students that no other
Jewish organization can. They have avoided the taint of Americaniza
tion and suburbanization. Their religion is timeless and attractive, they
argue, because of its authenticity and truth.
Habad, where some Minyan members worshiped and continued to
worship occasionally after the Minyan was created, was also unsatisfac
tory for all but a few members. Habad and the Minyan shared criticisms
of the American synagogue and a concern with maintaining an alter
native Judaism. Nevertheless, the Minyan's differences with Habad were
In hasidic and all Orthodox worship, men and women are sepa
rated by a divider or screen that gives men primary access to the prayer
services. Women have few ritual privileges or responsibilities, and they
are less prominent and significant in public life. In Jewish law women
are different from men, although according to the apologists that does
not make women less equal. One does not change Jewish law to include
women in the service, however, because one does not change or tamper
with Jewish law; it is God's divine and perfect word. One tries to live
one's life in complete accord with the letter and spirit of that law. Rab
binic courts can change the law, but it is a privilege they rarely exercise.
No one in the Minyan embraced such a perspective on Judaism, not
even those few who closely observed the corpus of Jewish law. Change,
interpretation, and even critical judgments informed by the secular
world were important to Minyan worship. Of course, opinions among
members diverged. For example a subgroup in the community favored
adherence to the requirements of the most traditional members, partic
ularly about the rules concerning prayer. Nevertheless, pluralism was
still uppermost.
Although members of the Minyan were drawn to the informality of
Habad worship services, they also were aware that Lubavitch Habad is
an international, hierarchic movement, led by a rebbe who is a lineal,
cognatic descendant of the founder of the movement. Such hierarchy
was not congenial to Minyan members. Identification with the move
ment through regular worship at Habad house was thus an unlikely
possibility for Minyan members, even if its services were rich with the
sounds and physical movement of traditional Jewish prayer because
Minyan members believed the fundamentalism of Habad narrowed Ju
daism and discouraged the analytical, critical, and thoughtful processes
that they wanted to bring to worship and tradition.
Minyan members were committed to worship that was traditional
and derived from halaha, but flexible and pluralistic. They wanted

A Sabbath Minyan
prayer to be responsive to questions, problems, and difficulties with tra
dition, though respectful of the tradition itself. They believed themselves
unique in these goals, and they believed that in embracing them they
forged a Judaism that was fully authentic and meaningful.
The Minyan Developed
Initially, the Minyan founders defined themselves in opposition to
the synagogues and American Jews around them. Once they agreed to
meet regularly, then they had to define their own plans and program.
From the start they had to confront various conflicts and needs. In two
years Minyan membership more than tripled. Though the group devel
oped without a well-established vision, members shared certain as
sumptions. Like other havurot, the Minyan founders agreed to focus
their greatest attention on achieving successful prayer by restructuring
the worship community and decorum. Initially, generating new struc
tures seemed the best solution to all problems. They created a contin
ually negotiable organization. This organization became the necessary
condition for praying, differentiating them from synagogues. Their abil
ity to separate themselves from other Jews was central to their religious
experience, as noted in Chapter 2. In Chapters 4 and 5,1 will examine
how this organization related to prayer constituents. I turn to decorum/
organization in order to describe the significance of their context for
In the group's first year its members agreed on how to accomplish
Sabbath tasks in the Minyan without formal leaders. Members estab
lished that the service would combine traditional Sabbath liturgy and
two discussions." They agreed upon regularly meeting each semester to
evaluate their satisfaction with "how things are going," and to solve any
problems about the service. They formulated, in practice, their alterna
tive. When shared assumptions were breached, conflict ensued. These
conflicts continually reappeared during the time of my research. The
following brief group history makes clear how these issues were initially
formulated and what kinds of solutions resulted.
When I began my research with the two year old Minyan in 1973,
its founders were beginning to look back on the first year as paradise
lost. Often I was wistfully told that I "should have seen the Minyan in
the old days," two years previously, when barely a minyan gathered in
someone's home in Kelton. After the service they would open a few
cans of tuna and share lunch around a folding table. At these lunches
they discussed "how the service had gone," what needed improvement,

and encouraged a shy member, or one whose Hebrew was either rusty
or newly acquired, to lead a service. If someone new volunteered, oth
ers tried to take offices for the upcoming week so the service would
maintain some balance between learners and experts. If a newcomer
attended either as a guest or, more rarely, if someone came who had
read the Minyan's advertisement for Sabbath services placed in the Kel
ton University newspaper, he or she would be welcomed and encour
aged to return, on occasion even called during the week.
This description by its founders of the Minyan in 1971 was not the
Minyan I found in 1973. Their growing numbers necessitated their
move to the University Religious Center. As more people came regularly,
the founding members still took primary responsibilities for the service.
The founders did not think they were attracting enough people like
themselves. Some newer members, the founders argued, had become
spectators. They did not take offices, and they were not involved in
shaping a vision for the group. Susan described it this way.
We [the founders] had an idea of what we wanted, and it wasn't a
clear idea. We were willing to feel our way toward it. It was a con
certed, united effort. And I think we resented or were upset that our
vision was being sabotaged, not maliciously, by other people. I
don't think you could call them ideological issues really. Most
people didn't seem to have ideologies, except for a few like Martha
and Aaron and Beth and Doug. It seemed like a dilution of the
whole thing. That essential tension just couldn't be captured. They
affected it and they were very upsetting.
From 1971-1973 the membership explosion necessarily and dra
matically transformed the group. To that point it operated solely on con
sensus. Every decision, every change, and every action taken repre
sented shared agreement among those people (first ten then twelve then
fifteen) who considered themselves active Minyan members and came
every Sabbath. They not only never took a vote on an issue that year,
they considered it inappropriate to do so. As consensus was the model
for governance, accommodation was the model for religious life. Their
ideology of pluralism translated into their personal relations in the com
munity. When they discovered that one woman in the group knew no
Hebrew and found the service difficult to follow, another member began
to daven the prayers aloud in English. They began their bilingual pray
ing in this spontaneous fashion. When another member expressed anx
iety and doubts about the truth and values of prayer, they began prayer

A Sabbath Minyan
discussions. When some felt a service dragged on too long, they all
agreed to modify some of the prayers.
Over the first year, the founding members shared many occasions
when individuals had questions, doubts, or discomforts in their com
munity. They believed that they had translated each such occasion into
a triumph. In short, they demonstrated their ability to accommodate to
one another's needs while maintaining the authority of traditional Ju
Jacob summarized the pervasive feeling shared by Minyan members
throughout the first year:
The Minyan was something we had all been looking for, and all
needed, and suddenly it happened. I remember after the first ses
sion, there was a wonderment. "Wasn't it lovely? "Yes, it really
was." As it went on in the first year it was tremendously stimulat
ing. It never had birth pains; that was an incredibly easy delivery—
a fast pregnancy and an easy delivery. I think that really helped it.
The struggles really came afterward, but it helped us work them out
because we didn't feel it was something we created, but something
we found.
The Minyan seemed simply to grow. It began in ways so informal they
were only barely remembered. Mark and Jacob invited a few others to
pray together in order to establish a regular Sabbath minyan. Harvey's
father donated some money. The Hillel Foundation, headed by Mark
and Jacob, also provided funds with which they were able to purchase
a few prayer books and humashim. They borrowed a Torah from a syn
agogue and moved their services and all their necessary books and ritual
objects from one member's house to another for each Sabbath. At the
conclusion of their first Sabbath together, they spontaneously danced
and sang. They were a community! As the weeks wore on they found
themselves able to accommodate one another's needs without difficulty
or stress.
Mark held as a minimum requirement for the community that it
attract like-minded participants.
My thing was to start off with a few people, decide what we're
going to do, and then invite people to join. I didn't want us to come
together to vote on what we wanted to do. I wanted people of sim
ilar minds to build on consensus. I didn't want to lead it.
Mark's experience in Jewish groups led him to conclude that commu
nity depended on shared assumptions. He wanted to start the Minyan

with people who agreed with him. The Minyan had attracted, at least
initially, people who could make religious compromises and maintain a
commitment to tradition.
By the fall of 1972, the beginning of their second year, the Kelton
Minyan had changed. After the first few services of the year, one mem
ber, Susan, wrote to Ruth who was in Israel studying.
Our community? It has grown—or should I say mushroomed.
Those of us from last year—Mark, Harvey, Jacob, and I sometimes
catch each other's eyes in wonder. After all, we wanted to share our
experience with others, and it is only right and natural that as oth
ers come it is their community too. But quite selfishly speaking, it is
no longer ours and no longer fulfills our needs.
Another member, Ed, described the founders' sentiments in the fol
lowing way:
There was an ego involvement in both the survival of the group and
its form, and these now came in conflict. It was the feeling of one
whose baby grows up and separates from you. “Oh good it's getting
on; oh bad, it's different from what I wanted." The growth led to
depersonalization, institutionalism, bureaucratization, and all of
these were symbolized in the move to the University Religious Cen
ter. It represented moving down the road of being establishment.
Others came who the founders found insensitive to the Minyan's style
of worship; they led services poorly, dominated discussion, did not par
ticipate, and even criticized the group for its unfriendliness or its failure
to be what they thought it should be. The group could not accommo
date so many people with such diverse Jewish knowledge and ideas
about Jewish community. They were losing the consensus that Mark
indicated was crucial for a successful community.
The founders were also aware that the Minyan was not the intimate
community of neighbors it had been. People drove to services from all
over the city. Arrangements for each service were becoming more for
mal and complex. In size and other respects it increasingly resembled a
large organization. Dues collection necessitated a treasurer and tax de
ductible status, arranged by a lawyer in the group. They mimeographed
a small directory of members' names and phone numbers. Worship
ing in homes became difficult. Mark lamented, "We've become a syn
The newcomers became aware that some people in the Minyan

A Sabbath Minyan
seemed to have more authority than others. Even being a rabbi did not
guarantee such authority. Rather, it was the group's founders who com
prised this special elite. Newcomers also realized that some established
members were friends who spent time together outside the group. One
newcomer said that people were always aware of an "inner circle" and
not being part of it.
Within the inner circle of founders, matters were also changing.
One member had married and another was living with a woman. Both
women were outsiders to the Minyan and joined because of their rela
tionships. A man and woman in the inner circle began a relationship
and then broke it off, leaving all concerned uncomfortable for some
months. The one married couple made other friends in the city, and the
woman was expecting a child.
The founders were all pulling away from a Minyan-dominated per
sonal life. The Minyan no longer provided them the intimacy and inten
sity of the previous year. As the inner circle in fact expanded, on occa
sion inviting a newcomer "like them" for a festival dinner or a Sabbath
meal, the people invited commented that they learned that "in the inner
circle there was nothing there." The intimacy and warmth of the first
year community had been transformed, as had the community itself.
None of the founders ever desired a group that institutionalized a
set of leaders or undermined an egalitarian organization. They persisted
as the strongest proponents of shared communal responsibility and flex
ibility in defining membership in the group. They were its indisputable
leaders; it was made immediately clear to me and to newcomers that
these were the people to meet, to seek advice from, and to listen to in
meetings. They spoke with authority. They wanted to pray with people
like themselves because that would enable them to live an integrated
Jewish life.
The Minyan in its second year was characterized by Aaron and
Martha as "in search of an identity." Members were no longer neigh
bors. The age range broadened. They could not operate on consensus.
The Minyan was a success, but not quite sure where it was going.
Founders had recruited some members like themselves who were ex
panding the leadership group. But as Harvey said to me with dismay,
"The Minyan runs itself." The question had become, where is the Min
yan "running"? Diversity was established; points of connection were
harder to find.
The conflicts of the second year were summarized by a simple
phrase used by a newcomer at the first Minyan Sabbath retreat. "You,"
she said, directing her comments to founders, "have a founding father

complex." Later the phrase was altered as it was more widely used.
People began to refer to the "Founding Mother and Father complex." It
implied that the founders' sense of ownership posed difficulty for the
group. Nonfounders were constantly made aware that there were some
people who were more entitled to membership than others. Each per
son's suggestions did not carry equal weight. While all people were ex
pected to participate, the group was far from egalitarian.
By the end of the second year, just prior to my arrival, they reached
a series of agreements about how to solve problems. The evaluative dis
cussions of the first year were expanded in a variety of ways. Members
held their first weekend retreat in spring 1973 to examine their pur
poses and goals. They instituted occasional discussions after Sabbath
liturgical services to allow people to express satisfaction and dissatisfac
tion with the group. Newer members became more assertive about
things they wanted: more social activities, more variation in prayers,
more creative services, where additions of new liturgy would be wel
come. These issues will be discussed in the following chapters, for they
emerged continually throughout the Minyan's third year. Both the is
sues and occasions for raising them came out of the meetings held as a
result of the membership explosion. They no longer discussed the min
utiae of successful davening. Now they discussed who they were. The
Minyan's membership generations became a matter of self-conscious
discussion. There were continual references to founders and newcomers
and constant fights over tradition and changes. Founders even held in
formal study groups, which led newcomers to charge them with elitism.
Beginning in the second year the Minyan developed a core and pe
ripheral membership. The core consisted of founders and regular mem
bers. Both core and periphery were flexible and changing. Core mem
bers came most frequently, but not every Sabbath. Peripheral members
came irregularly. Some came for several months, then not at all, then
back again. People who made friends in the group were most likely to
stay. The Minyan functioned for them as both a social and a religious
Three Minyan founders left the group in 1974, the Minyan's third
year and my period of fieldwork. Ed, as well as Michael and Ellen, a
married couple, stopped coming. The couple remained in Kelton and
maintained close personal ties with other founders. They left the Min
yan because they believed it had changed too much from what it had
once been. Its growing size, expanding membership, and, to Michael,
its turning away from tradition, made it less desirable. Michael prayed
with or without the Minyan. He continued to observe the Sabbath, but

A Sabbath Minyan
not in the community context. He and his wife left the city for a new
academic post during the summer of that year. He simply attended no
service for about four months.
Ed left the neighborhood, and though he remained cordial with
founders, he did not remain friends. His disaffection from the group
coincided with his relationship with Miriam. She joined the group
through Ed, and stayed in it somewhat longer than he did. But when
they moved to the other side of the city, neither of them attended,
though they did continue to see various members socially. Ed left the
group for reasons that were opposite from Michael's. He found the com
munity too sensitive to tradition. In addition, the group had not only
grown larger, but he believed that little meaningful interaction occurred
even between founders. Their dogged attachment to all of the tradition,
according to Ed, revealed a lack of sensitivity to the needs of members.
As a rabbi, Ed continued to participate in the services led at his Hillel,
but he had no ongoing community for prayer. He found himself increas
ingly uncertain of what prayer meant for him.
Many members took "vacations" from the group when experienc
ing some conflict over Minyan decisions. When the community agreed
to my study, one founder withdrew for many weeks. Other ritual or
community decisions sent members away for brief periods.
However, what struck me was the persistence of attachment: so few
people permanently cut ties with the group. The flexibility of the group
worked to include most people. That two founders should have left over
opposite interpretations of the community seemed consistent with the
plural and apparently nondogmatic nature of the group. Those most
intimately tied to the group found it the most difficult to sustain more
casual relations.
Minyan Organization—An Experiential Decorum and Aesthetic
In all their conflicts, Minyan men and women inevitably returned
to the issue of how the group was organized. They consistently sought
to reorganize their setting for prayer as a response to any individual's
difficulties with the experience or the group. That is why as the Minyan
developed it did not revise or rewrite Jewish liturgy, though it did ini
tially exclude some prayers. Rather, decision after decision led them to
revise their organization of the prayer experience. In both form and
content lay the foundation for group prayer, not only the meaning of
prayer but the authority for it. In understanding what is unique about
the Minyan's organization, one can understand how the member's re-

sponses to different generations constituted their Judaism. The Minyan's
various decisions about their communal organization revealed what
prayer meant for them.
Organization and Decorum
Organization in this context refers to manifestations of decorum. As
decorum regulates relations between people as well as between people
and the physical space in which they pray, the organization of any litur
gical event also involves decorum in the realization of the worship ex
perience. Decorum was manifest in different ways in the American syn
agogue, in the preimmigrant European synagogue and in the Minyan.
Specifically, the organization of the liturgy, as well as the community
relations in which prayer occurs, reflect rather different prayer experi
ences. In the European small-town synagogue, the community's orga
nization was replicated in the house of worship. Community relations
were enacted in worship, and prayer united the individual with the
community and both with God. The people with whom one prayed not
only symbolized the people Israel but the people with whom one lived
one's life. Those most respected in the synagogue, the rabbi, the schol
ars, and the wealthy, also held sway over community life. The values of
the Siddur were supported, at least in part, by the community. This
unity and redundancy of relations is not so much an ideal as an inevi
tability in a culturally homogeneous enclave. Community organization
and decorum mutually reflected one another.
The American synagogue after 1840 had, by contrast, an elaborate
and specialized organization whose effect was often to separate persons
from worship and whose large size made it unlikely to draw people
together in community. The synagogue reflected the diversity and dis
connection of its community. In a bureaucratized synagogue, prayer
often emphasized the division of labor that made the laity passive and
experts active. The synagogue replicated the institutional relations of
modem society and emphasized organization at the expense of com
munity and prayer. Indeed, America's great rabbis of the fifties and early
sixties often wrote about the failure of the synagogue to get people ac
tively engaged in prayer rather than passively listening to the clergy
(Heschel 1953; Borowitz 1969). The institutional apparatus reflected
American Jewish status, but did not engage its members in a prayer life.
Decorum expressed the organization of the larger society and distanced
participants from prayer.

A Sabbath Minyan
The Minyan faced quite another set of problems. Though its orga
nization preoccupied its members, it was so unelaborated and consist
ently negotiable that it could not satisfy all the functions members as
signed to it. The essential Minyan prayer experience consisted of Jewish
prayer conducted in a way that emphasized equality, informality, and
beauty within an egalitarian division of labor. The Minyan's decorum,
unlike the previous generation's, was not expressed in architecture, its
board of directors, or the solemnity of the service. Members sought an
egalitarian organization capable of solving any problem a person had
about prayer. Decorum resisted the organization of the larger society,
and members hoped that decorum would substantially contribute to
altering their prayer experience. The conflicts prayer generated in the
group, which are laid out in the next chapters, testify to the burden that
this ephemeral organization was made to bear.
Initially they seemed to succeed, as their brief history proves. If, for
example, one found difficulty with the Hebrew language for prayer,
then the Minyan created an "office" called English hazan, and prayers
were led simultaneously in two languages. One could pray in a familiar
language. If the contents of the prayer raised questions, then discussions
were instituted to voice those problems, and secular readings were in
corporated into the service to express subjects of immediate concern.
Over two years the Minyan succeeded, members believed, in solving
every problem through reorganizing the structure or offices of a Minyan
service. These "solutions" were given names (Hebrew hazan, prayer
confrontation) and sometimes assigned committees. As a last resort,
Minyan members used discussions to express feelings of personal failure
about praying or to articulate frustration at what they felt were inade
quacies of the text to respond to problems of the modem world. Such
discussions proved that members were what Harvey called "religiously
honest." They understood these revisions of organization to be compat
ible with the Jewish tradition; at the same time, the conflicts generating
them were thought appropriate and were taken seriously.
I postulate that there is a link between organizational specialization
and the extent to which the prayers engage the participants. A decorum
that emphasizes distance between participants and ritual specialists and
restraint in the worshiper, appears to distance the laity from the texts of
prayer. There seems to be a "fit" between the dense ties of Jewish com
munal life in Europe, or among the ultra Orthodox in the United States,
and the capacity for prayer to speak for participants' experiences. Any
follower of Emile Durkheim's view that the social order and the sym-

bolic order are normally linked in traditional societies or enclaves would
find certain proof here for that assertion. Social ties and religious beliefs
are reinforced in the act of prayer.
However, the other two examples, of Americanizing synagogues
and the Minyan, provide alternatives that are typical of religion in mod
em society. In these cases there is the consistent threat of a "misfit"
between worshiper and worship. Minyan members believed that bu
reaucracy failed to create the possibility for communal prayer to articu
late important values for participants. Their observation led them to
conclude that an organized bureaucracy was the primary obstacle to
creating the proper fit between community and prayer life, between
wanting to pray and being able to pray.
What second generation Jews sought in large synagogues was the
effective integration of Judaism, American success, and the Jewish fam
ily. They pursued a different set of goals for their religious lives. The
integration they appeared to achieve was bureaucratic. The size of the
building, the size of the membership, and the synagogue staff commu
nicated a massive, permanent presence of Jews in America. For a gen
eration that conflated Judaism with America, a synagogue succeeded
best when it emulated American institutions and structures. Its bureau
cratic aesthetic, however, distanced the worshiper from worship, from
sacred texts, and from the content of prayers whose purpose is to under
line Jewish distinctiveness. Second generation Jewish identity was
forged on bureaucratized institutions.
Minyan members sought an experiential decorum and aesthetic.
Every relationship they altered was meant to achieve the opportunity
for "equal access" to sacred texts, praying, and participation. The degree
to which this decorum mirrored the status relations of American society
for these young, largely middle-class (soon to be professional) men and
women may not be the most relevant question. The meaning of the
prayers for them is best understood not on the Durkheimian model but
as the reflection of social relations, a point I will discuss at length in
Chapter 4. Their approach to religion certainly expressed their fuller
integration as Jews in American society, but rather than increasing ac
culturation, it led to their demand that Judaism reflect their identities
more completely. Prayer, then, was not a formulation of the world as it
was, but of the world that they wanted. It communicated generalized
meanings focused on the integration of members' identities into a single
symbolic framework.
These meanings are most visible in the structure, organization, and
decorum of the Minyan. They defined the basis on which Judaism could

A Sabbath Minyan
be integrative of the self and made integration the central issue for the
third generation. Their need to create an activist Judaism, rather than
reflecting successful professionalization of status, involved restructuring
decorum and appealing to decorum and organization, rather than lit
urgy, as the basis for enhancing that activism. Engagement implied cre
ating the proper context for prayer. Hence, structure was constandy ne
gotiated as much to achieve engagement as to constitute it. The more
members maintained a flexible organization, the more certain they
could be of avoiding bureaucracy and compartmentalization.
Community, then, not only symbolized social unity and differentia
tion but also, more importantly, personal integration with Judaism. Be
cause the group was voluntary and placed within a bureaucratic society,
their capacity to symbolize engagement in every medium of religious
activity, including organization, made them hope prayer could be effec
tive. If they could solve their uncertainty about traditional prayer by
discussing it, for example, then the Minyan was a community more
than an institution because it could solve each person's problems. Both
the problems they solved and the means by which they addressed them
demonstrated their ability to integrate rather than compartmentalize
Judaism within their lives. At the same time, the very negotiable fea
tures of organization made it difficult to sustain that effectiveness. Un
like preimmigrant Europe there was virtually no redundancy in the
Minyan community. One prayed with some of one's friends, but the
organization was so unelaborated that its complete flexibility failed to
encompass much of the person's experience. Placed within a plural so
ciety, little of the Minyan was reflected elsewhere in the work world.
The decorum mirrored the style of the generation, but had no capacity
to draw in members and demand commitments that would ensure a fit
between their vision of Judaism and the rest of their lives.
Until the emancipation of Jews in nineteenth-century Europe, the
daily minyan was embedded in densely integrated communities. Links
of neighborhood, kinship, guild, and belief tied people together who
prayed. As that social world was ghettoized or set apart, prayer and the
ritual cycle provided a profound explanation for that ghettoization, en
dowing social links with sacred meaning. Community events, the out
come of a harvest and the prosperity and well being of that community
were the concern of, and explained in, liturgy. This symbolic and social
density was absent from the Minyan's experience of prayer. They aimed
to achieve integration, but it was apart from, and in conflict with, their
In Chapters 1 and 2,1 introduced voluntary organizations as critical

settings for developing the values and norms for an emerging American
white and ethnic middle class. Similarly, to understand the Minyan I
suggest a close look at the nature of their organization. In the constitu
tion of group organization, we can see how a unique ethnic identity is
actually maintained within the dominant culture. In the Minyan, as
against the synagogue, integration was achieved by all elements of
prayer, and members articulated Judaism in a decorum that demanded
continual adjustment. The fact that Minyan founders experienced their
group as "given" rather than worked for intensified their sense of partic
ipating in a group that was authentically their own. They discovered a
Judaism within a community that responded to their needs. Not only
prayer, but how they solved problems, maximized their ability to inte
grate and assert their identity as Jews. On the other hand, unlike a syn
agogue their organization was so negotiable that it was difficult to sus
tain prayer as integrative when new members of the group could
unbalance that sense of success.
Why should issues of decorum in general, and organization in par
ticular, preoccupy Minyan members? From the perspective of the group,
what is the significance of differentiating between changing the content
of prayer and changing the setting for prayer or the division of labor?
What is being constituted? Members' focus on organization allowed
them to criticize the failure of the synagogue without suggesting that
the content of Judaism was fundamentally problematic for them. Min
yan members' dichotomy between organization and prayer is explained
in part in an argument made in The Homeless Mind, where Berger, Ber
ger, and Kellner examine the connection of meaning and organization.
They suggest that "homelessness" and "underinstitutionalization" char
acterize modem life (1974, 186-87). Homelessness is the product of
modernization processes in which work and meaning are separated
from one another (1974, 186-87). As production was separated from
kinship units and became increasingly specialized and rationalized, in
dividual life was disengaged from the collective and lived within varied,
nonoverlapping institutions. One worked, interacted with intimates,
played, and reflected on the cosmos and one's place in it, in often sepa
rate and always separable institutions. Berger, Berger, and Kellner argue
that meaning has become the province of nonwork, hence, the private
sphere and the concern of myriad voluntary organizations. Underinsti
tutionalized is the term they applied to these voluntary organizations
that inevitably fail to provide meaning, because "meaning" implies a
coalescence of all aspects of oneself through unified symbols, beliefs,
or groups. There is no holism in modernity because meaning is private

A Sabbath Minyan
and located in underinstitutionalized, voluntary organizations. 12 Hence,
Jewish prayer could not express for its members what it meant for Eu
ropean Jews living in a homogeneous community, because meaning is
not integrated within all realms of one's life experience. Meaning is
embedded in the interstices of structure, like the voluntary association.
Minyan members' rejection of bureaucratized worship was a rejection
of a bureaucratized society. Their search for identity and meaning was
articulated, in part, through issues of organization, which itself was a
protest against society and a source of identity. For Minyan members
and their generation, meaning and scale of society were connected be
cause the society they lived in had separated them.
They were determined that the Minyan would be what the syn
agogue could not be; organization would save them because organiza
tion had failed them. They would not compartmentalize prayer from the
rest of their lives, afraid to reflect on it or to associate new experiences
with it. They would not recreate a synagogue that simply provided
people with prayer services and offered secular activities without creat
ing community. They would bring their intellect and personal commit
ments to prayer and find organizational solutions to handle whatever
contradictions that emerged. They were part of a decade of American
history preoccupied with fragmentation, structure, and meaning. Inevi
tably they would associate the "emptiness" of synagogue prayer with
the lavishly elaborate voluntary organization that they believed the syn
agogue had become. It followed that if the synagogue was a bureauc
racy, they would emphasize "antistructural" features like equality and
deny the necessity of separating life, experience, and text (Ulmer,
1969). Prayer within a new organization could challenge modem val
ues and provide an integrated Judaism of their own design.
How can such a vision for organization sustain prayer and integrate
identities? If organization is the form through which a decorum and
aesthetic of experience are established, then the relationship between
them and prayer will allow us to understand not only what Minyan
prayer is, but what established its authenticity.
1. In my doctoral dissertation I rendered these conflicts as social dramas. Victor
Turner labeled long-term conflicts in tribal and national settings "social dramas" (1957,
1974). He emphasized their phased and regular stages, leading from a breach of norms
through a period of crisis to a period of redress and final resolution. For Turner the period
of redress was the most potentially creative in society. In this period, cultures and groups
often turned to their rituals and symbols, not only to use them in the resolution of conflict

but to innovate, create, and invent from these resources. In my dissertation I noted that
the definition of the crisis often determines what occurs in the phase of redress. In the
Minyan's open-ended structure, major conflicts often turned around simply defining the
crisis. The form of redress—ritual, discussion, or denial—inevitably followed however a
crisis was defined (Prell-Foldes 1978b). I have not used the social drama model because I
no longer seek to make a social-structuralist point or analysis. Turner’s model, neverthe
less, remains a significant one for the analysis of conflict at virtually any level of social
2. Aleinu (Upon us) is recited standing.
It is for us to praise the Lord of all,
to acclaim the greatness of the God of creation
who has not made us as the nations of the world,
nor set us up as other peoples of the earth.
Not making our portion as theirs.
Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes
•For we kneel and bow low before the supreme
king of kings
Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth.
His glorious abode is in the heavens above.
The domain of his might in exalted heights.
He is our God, there is no other,
in truth our king, there is none else.
Even thus it is written in His Torah:
"That the Lord is in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is none else."
We therefore hope in thee. Lord our God,
Soon to behold the glory of Thy might
When Thou wilt remove abominations from the earth
and all mankind shall invoke Thy name,
and all the wicked on the earth wilt turn to thee.
May all earth dwellers perceive and understand
that to thee every knee must bend, every tongue vow fealty
and give honor to thy glorious name.
May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion
and speedily do Thou rule over them forevermore.
For the kingdom is Thine, and to all eternity
Thou shalt reign in glory,
as it is written in Thy Torah,
"The Lord shall reign forever and ever."
Yea it is said,
"the Lord shall reign over all the earth;
On that day the Lord shall be one and His name one."
(De Sola Pool 1960, 336)
*It is customary on these words to bend the knee.

A Sabbath Minyan
3. The tallit, or prayer shawl is worn by adult men during morning prayer. The
injunction to wear the garment is found in the book of Numbers (15:37-41), where God
commands men to wear a fringed garment. Reform Jews typically do not wear these
garments, as they were thought of as unnecessarily foreign. Men and women both cover
their heads in traditional communities, but men wear special caps called kippot (kippah
singular; in Yiddish, Yarmulke). Women have no special head covering. Jewish women
interested in equality have appropriated both the tallit and the kippah. Not all women in
the Minyan wear these prayer garments. All men cover their heads, and most wear prayer
shawls. In some communities it is customary for a man to wear the tallit only after mar
riage, in others, after he becomes a bar mitzva and is called to the Torah for the first time.
4. Pork is prohibited in Jewish dietary laws.
5. The additional service is called Musaf in Hebrew. It involves the repetition of the
Amidah, the central prayer of the liturgy. During Musaf a paragraph is added that prays
for the return of animal sacrifices as they were practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem under
the supervision of the priestly cult. Some people object to the Musaf because they do not
want the return of such sacrifices. Others simply do not want to repeat the Amidah, a long
prayer, which has been recited once previously during the morning. Musaf was a prayer
service that most havurot discussed and many altered or rejected entirely.
6. In a traditional service the entire Torah portion, consisting of seven sections from
the Bible, is read. One reader may chant all seven parts, or several people may act as
readers. Conservative synagogues, following an old custom, often read the Torah on the
triennial cycle, reading one third of each Torah portion every year. In the Minyan about
one-third of the Torah portion was read each Sabbath, but they do not read on a formal
triennial cycle. The Torah is read in the morning three times during the week. The new
portion is begun at the Sabbath afternoon service. Only during Sabbath morning prayer is
the entire portion for the week read.
7. The Talmud ("study" or "learning") is defined as "teaching derived from the
exegesis of biblical text" (Encyclopedia Judaica, 750). The word most often implies com
mentary. The Talmud is codified oral law with rabbinic analysis and commentary. Torah is
written law.
8. Minyan discussions are not themselves acts of biblical criticism, though their
exegetical character has been influenced by that tradition. Joel Rosenberg suggests that
biblical criticism is both analytic and synthetic. The analytic side emphasizes rhetorical
and stylistic features of the narrative, focusing on meanings unique to the character of that
narrative (1984, 34). The synthetic side of the criticism places any single narrative unit
within the larger context of the entire narrative (1984, 35).
This Torah discussion is more analytic than synthetic, but both approaches may be
found in Torah discussions. Such approaches are the result of two factors: First is the
familiarity of many members with biblical criticism, who, when using this approach, pro
vide models for others for how to lead discussions. Second, critical approaches assume the
truth of the text without requiring a faith statement. The biblical text is approached as a
literary text, rich and complex and amenable to interpretation. Issues of truth or falsity, in
contrast to personal assessments of the text, evoked different types of interpretations by
9. Lubavitch Habad was founded in the mid-eighteenth century in northern Russia.
It is an international organization and includes Jews all over the world; its headquarters
are in New York. At the head of the organization is a rebbe, the descendant of the first
rebbe, who is believed to have divine and miraculous powers. Habad is the name of the
system of thought that Lubavitch developed. It is an acronym of the Hebrew letters that

stand for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. It is a unique hasidic group and cer
tainly the most successful, because it created a "systematized mystical philosophy" (Wie
ner 1969, 155-96). An indication of the popularity of the movement is the fact that in
1985, The New Yorker ran a three-part series on Lubavitch excerpted from Holy Days: The
World of A Hasidic Family by Lis Harris (1985).
10. Mitzvot (commandments) are the obligations incumbent on Jews. The system of
613 mitzvot are encompassed by the halaha (tradition).
11. When I asked members how they formulated their liturgy in their first few meet
ings I received the same answer. They modeled what they did on the services they had at
their Conservative summer camp. Camp Ramah. Though not all Minyan founders partic
ipated in that camp, they followed the lead of those who had. As noted in Chapter 2, this
denominational camp played a major role in establishing a view of Judaism for people
throughout the United States who would create havurot like the Minyan.
12. The Homeless Mind by no means exhausts the literature on the relationship be
tween meaning and scale of society. Virtually all sociological theory on modem society
address just such problems. I find Berger, Berger, and Kellner of particular use because
they focus on the voluntary institution and why it should be a province of establishing

The Constituents of Minyan Prayer
Community, Interpretation, and Halaha
When the Minyan began I expected it to
be a traditional service, a place where we
could daven with a traditional mode, and I
could daven with people I could also talk
to. When I lived in Israel I was not com
fortable davening with people who didn't
share my assumptions, who saw the Torah
as given on Sinai.
Decorum and organization provided the context for Minyan prayer, but
they did not constitute it. Looking back on suburban synagogues, we
have a visible record of how that generation envisioned Judaism. Min
yan prayer, in the absence of buildings or rewritten prayer books, pro
vided that vision for its members. How members prayed, with what
attitudes and aspirations, revealed what made prayer effective for them.
Their ability to integrate themselves with prayer was their primary task,
and it was one that turned out to be constantly vulnerable to the com
munity and tradition that created it.
Prayer united people even as it continually evoked conflict within
and between them. As a group committed to pluralism and tradition,
they compromised without much discussion in matters having to do
with dietary laws, Sabbath restrictions, and accepting members' differ
ent attitudes toward tradition. But when it came to prayer, every altera
tion or reflection upon its effectiveness provoked not one but many dis
cussions and rediscussions. Indeed, traditional Jewish prayer—what it
is, what it should be, and how it should be conducted—framed the
questions that most preoccupied community discussion and was the is
sue on which they found compromise the most difficult.
When asked, most Minyan members seemed willing and able to
describe what occurred when they prayed. Beth described her prayer
experience in a typical fashion.

Prayer is first and foremost the most important way I connect myself
with the Jewish people. I don't examine if a God is listening or not
at the other end, because I really don't care in some sense. Some
how I feel that there is a God only because of the view of God I
have. When I pray a lot of the words, I let them be experiences for
me. When I read about angels, I don't see them dancing on the head
of a pin. I just know there is an angelic experience in the world.
When I read about victory or famine, I think that there are ups and
downs in life. If I am a good person, if I observe the mitzvot, not all
613, but in general, then the world can be better. And sometimes I
just have fun seeing if I can understand every word of the prayer. I
want to see how good my Hebrew is getting. And I think I under
stand this prayer and that's something I have in common with Be-
ruria and Rabbi Akiba. 1
Beth said several things in her description of her prayer. She empha
sized that prayer connected her to the Jewish people, and by that she
meant the historical people, the mythological community of Israel that
finds its origins in the Bible and in all living Jews in the world. Her link
to those overlapping groups took a liturgical form, which she described
as nondiscursive. The words were neither facts nor information; she
was constantly engaged in interpreting them. By calling them "experi
ences," she did not imply that she stopped at each word, thinking about
whether or not she disagreed with it or searching for a more appropriate
definition. Rather, the prayer language allowed her to locate herself
within the text as she reflected on it. Angels, famine, even the legal
requirements of Judaism were to be grasped "symbolically," standing
for something other than their literal meaning. The content, neverthe
less, linked Beth to the Jewish people, so that though she understood
the words in a variety of ways, they still evoked an experience she rec
ognized as Jewish. She reflected on her ability to achieve that link by
her mastery of Hebrew prayer and her ability to identify with the people
that said the prayers many centuries ago. Finally, she clearly eschewed
the need to have God "listen" to her, finding that less essential than the
link she felt with Rabbi Akiba and Beruria.
Beth's comments in turn, raise questions about prayer. Why did she
pray in a language she struggled to master? Why was prayer the most
effective means to connect her to Jewish history and its great leaders?
Why should she bother to pray words that require interpretation? The
only self-evident answer to these questions is that prayer was a funda
mentally different experience from making statements with which one
agreed or disagreed. Prayer engaged a different type of experience.

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
Why Beth did not simply assent to the prayers can be explained by
what social scientists of religion call the process of secularization, the
diminishment of religious authority in the collective and personal life. 2
These theorists seek to understand how a changing social system under
mines religious belief and participation. These theories offer a great deal
to our understanding of why religion has changed, and the differences
between twentieth-century American and nineteenth-century Euro
pean Judaism. Though they may explain why Beth and others believe
what they do, they have been unsuccessful in explaining why they con
tinue to participate and what religion means in modem, plural social
systems. Indeed, Beth's statement showed little evidence of a religious
or, specifically, Jewish world view. Neither religious institutions nor re
ligious ideas controlled her action or her consciousness. She chose reli
gious activities, rather than being bound by religious authority that put
God at the center of her experience, and she emphasized her individual
choices to do and to say what she believed, a stance associated with
secularism, despite her use of traditional prayer.
American Religion and Secularization Theory
Secularization theorists argue that the basis of religious and social
life has changed unalterably. A series of economic revolutions produced
social differentiation in the societies of the Western world, resulting in
the loss of shared rituals and shared beliefs. Every social sector became
specialized and distinct so that the family, the work place, religious in
stitutions, and political relations now serve different and disparate func
tions. Underinstitutionalization, described in the previous chapter, is
one direct result. This differentiation created specialized knowledge so
that people no longer shared common ideas about life and experience.
Religion is typically thought of as the source of that very store of knowl
edge about the world. Indeed, the term world view, often thought of as
synonymous with religion, cannot be so global or encompassing in a
society whose institutions are highly differentiated. Without that shared
knowledge, there is no shared world view. Without a commonly held
world view, society no longer produces what Peter Berger has described
as "plausibility structures," social supports such as institutions and offi
cial doctrine that legitimate the reality that religion claims (1969, 45).
Religion is certainly a matter of individual consciousness, but that con
sciousness cannot be maintained, according to secularization theorists,
without the support of a social system that institutionalizes religion and
gives it the aura of the factual. Indeed, in secular society people may

well have no need for a religious explanation of the world. Technical
and scientific explanation may suffice. Max Weber used the term "dis
enchantment" to characterize this neutral and technological view of the
Secularization not only transforms society, but religions will also
change and often be fundamentally transformed. The relationship be
tween Christianity and the larger society has been central to the forms
these transformations have taken. In the West, various forms of Chris
tianity have either come to terms with secular culture and society
or abandoned it. Troeltsch's ([1912] 1966) early distinction between
Church and sect articulated these paths. His typology differentiated ac
commodation and rejection by associating the former with a charis
matic, lay, egalitarian, voluntaristic religion, and the latter with a hier
archic, institutionalized one.
Max Weber ([1904] 1958) further demonstrated that sects them
selves hastened secularization processes. Protestant sects, unlike the
church, focused on beliefs and communities of believers. Baptists and
other aescetic sects required that believers take their other-worldly im
pulses into the marketplace. An ascetic life focused on the rational plan
ning of all activities in response to one's ideas about God created a style
of entrepreneurship consistent with capitalism. Sacrifice in the market
place was good for business. Therefore, sects led to altering the organi
zation of the economic sphere that led to the reorganization of society.
Richard Niebuhr (1957) pointed out in the early twentieth century
that sects tend to be the province of the lower classes with the least stake
in society. If sect membership leads to a more rational and controlled
life affluence may well follow. Sects tend to become part of establish
ment churches as their members' affluence increases. Sects, then, are
developing into churches and churches are continually splintered by
charismatic sects. The process is continuous, but within the framework
of a pluralistic society neither church nor sect defines the experience of
most citizens.
The process of secularization has taken different forms in different
nations. The United States is of particular interest to these theorists be
cause of its structure—separation of church and state—and the result
ing pluralism. Ironically, in this manifestation of secularization, reli
gious adherence turns out to be remarkably high. Sociologist David
Martin suggests, therefore, that the American pattern of secularization
has focused less on institutions or beliefs than on "ethos." (1978, 5) 3 He
seems to follow Peter Berger's conclusion that in a pluralist society reli
gion becomes a matter of choice and must vie with all other meaning

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
systems within a kind of competitive market of symbols. The more
choices available, the less able any single competitor is to claim a mo
nopoly on meaning and the less likely any individual is to sustain an
exclusive commitment to one system of meaning. Secularization and
pluralism, then, work hand in hand; choices make more choices pos
sible. Each individual, rather than the social system, decides what is
plausible, providing uniform structures of authentication. Every Sab
bath each American decides not just where to go to worship, but
whether to worship and what form worship will take. One is equally
free to go to one's childhood church or synagogue, to go to a newly
created or borrowed Eastern cult, or to jog for several hours. Each activ
ity may make claims to provide a world view and offer a program for
living one's life.
Indeed, Thomas Luckmann (1967), a sociologist and frequent co
author with Berger, concluded that the world view or available shared
cultural assumptions, are "invisible," with no connection to institu
tional religion. Churches cannot convey that world view because they
are committed to doctrinal differences. He effectively describes the vol
untary nature of institutional religion, demonstrating why it cannot be
an encompassing world view. He is less successful, though, at account
ing for what religion is today and the ways it synthesizes the tenets of
modem society. The world view, or invisible religion, he describes fo
cuses on mobility and achievement as the most widely shared values
and that family, love, and loyalty all serve these ends. Luckmann never
explains why these Western ideas do not look like religion, lacking rit
ual form, community symbolism, or effective mechanisms for transmis
These secularization theorists argue, in effect, that a revolution has
taken place in the social basis of human interaction. Where there was
uniformity in experience, now there is difference. This revolution in
cluded a transformation of knowledge, making it difficult for modem
men and women to accept claims of biblical truth because of scientific
developments. 4 Secularization theorists explain that religion becomes
entirely "privatized," a matter of choice, and American religions in
creasingly must "market" themselves to continue to capture devotees
who had been theirs alone at an earlier point in human history.
What theorists have overlooked is what religion means to those
who do participate. If cultures no longer generate cohesive world views,
how is meaning constituted? What authorizes religious participation
when the structural support from society has been withdrawn. These
questions suggest that secularization theory can provide an understand-

ing of how homogeneous small-scale societies generated world views
and identities for their members. However, faced with religion in com
plex society, these theorists postulate that religion is not a world view,
but they do not explain the nature of meaning that people like Beth
found in Judaism.
Indeed, until recently scholars generally accepted secularization
theory. But many of its assumptions have been called into question,
(Hadden, 1987) as these theories have failed to account for the rise of
Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and the spread of the Amer
ican religious Right. Religion seems more powerful and persistent than
any of the theorists of the first half of this century would have predicted.
Their evolutionary sequence, which postulated a linear development
from "tradition" to "modernity," left all things traditional, such as reli
gion, behind. Hence, secularization theory is in no position to explain,
for example, the dramatic shift in denominational affiliation patterns
among Christians from liberal to fundamentalist churches that only fifty
years ago appeared to have little promise for the future.
The new voices of dissenting scholars often seem simply to empha
size different issues about religion than those who focus on seculariza
tion. Other contemporary sociologists of religion tend to ignore theory
and argue empirically that people continue to behave as though they
were religious. They attend church; they give to charity, and they iden
tify with religion. Therefore, secularization cannot be said to have oc
curred (Stark and Bainbridge 1985 for example). Without specifying the
content of these acts, such scholars nevertheless point to their persist
ence. When confronted with Gallup polls indicating that Americans de-
creasingly believe in the Bible or other religious doctrine, they must
claim unconvincingly that such attitudes may also not affect religious
belief (Hadden 1987, 602). Secularization theorists, on the other hand,
discount religious activity, dismissing it as meaningless from the point
of view of the society, and finding in it little more than psychological
support for the individual.
David Martin is one of the few secularization theorists to specify the
limits of his model. He suggests that his analysis of how secularization
works in various Western countries only examines institutions, and he
acknowledges that such an analysis must be partial because religion
focuses on "symbol, feeling and meaning" (1978, 13). Martin implies
that something may well be missing from the discussion if we do not
understand the worshiper's experience and how it is created within the
religious context. Knowing what happens in activities that are thought
of as religious is as yet a largely ignored resource for understanding

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
what provides the "plausibility structures" for modem men and wom
en's beliefs. 5 Secularization theorists do not find religion in macroinsti
tutions. The quantifiers fail to extend their inquiry about religion be
yond the question of whether people "show up."
There are other questions to ask that will allow us to examine what
generates the authority for individual participation and allow us to
overcome the dichotomy between "meaning" on the one hand and ac
tivity on the other. Without denying that historical social changes have
affected religion, we still can accept the validity of religion as a social
and cultural system, leaving open questions about the sources of its
power and the significance of its system of meaning. In the first three
chapters, I argue that changing social relations did alter religious forms,
and I describe some of the decorum and aesthetics of different genera
tions' Judaism. Now I ask, what can we leam from those forms about
the meaning of, and authority for, the prayer of Minyan members.
Rather than ask how often they attend prayer services and whether such
services represent their world view, my focus shifts to what allows them
to pray and what does it mean to them.
The Constituent Elements of Prayer:
Performatives, Form, and Context
In the last decade a number of scholars concerned with religion
have addressed the issue of prayer, bringing to it a new interdisciplinary
approach. Though secularization theory was aimed at describing in
stitutions, it had significant implications for understanding individual
prayer experience. Similarly, while those interested in work on prayer
address the seemingly more narrow concern of ritual, their ideas may
help us to reconceptualize religion in a pluralistic, complex society. How
prayer is constituted as an experience in modem society is a question
only recently addressed.
Sam Gill (1981, 184) suggests that the near silence of scholarly dis
ciplines on prayer is a direct result of dilemmas faced by nineteenth-
century theorists of religion, E. B. Tylor and Frederick Heiler. They pos
ited an evolutionary sequence in the development of religion in which
humans moved from prayer expressed through given forms to spon
taneity. Spontaneity, they argued, represents a higher expression of hu
man relationship to God. Prayer was confounding for them because
"higher" religions had liturgies that did not wither away to be replaced
by "sheer spontaneity." The result of this apparent discrepancy was an
early and lengthy silence on the subject by scholars.

More recent literature, however, discusses prayer in a way that is
helpful in overcoming the dichotomies created by the secularization de
bate. The starting point for this interdisciplinary work is the presump
tion that prayer is both a text and a ritual; one must study both prayer
and praying. If prayer can be understood as a ritual and a text, then its
emotional force, its ideas, and above all, its status as a cultural and
social activity stand to reveal important insights concerning its signifi
cance and persistence. Judaic scholar Lawrence Hoffman attempts to
define a "liturgical field" in order to understand Jewish prayer (1987).
The field encompasses historical themes and events and "master sym
bols" inherited and created by the social communities that pray the lit
urgy. When people worship they find and create what Hoffman calls
their self-definition. The entire liturgical field, not simply the text, must
be understood in order to leam the meaning of the prayers.
This view is articulated also in an earlier work by Sam Gill on Nav
ajo prayer (1981). Perhaps because he was working with a less fluid
body of prayer than Hoffman, his approach to prayer focuses somewhat
less on its content. Indeed, he claims that the message of the prayer is
so well known that its purpose cannot be to inform or educate worship
ers. Rather, he focuses in large part on the physical and emotional
aspects of prayer that signal to the participant that a special frame of
interpretation is to be engaged. The worshiper does not look at prayer
content as empirical or as "encyclopedic" knowledge. Instead, in the
prayer situation, redundant and well-known messages are combined
with a performance style so that the emotional mood of the worshiper
is transformed to accept what Gill calls "meaning-giving messages." Per
formance, in other words, persuades the participant of the truth of the
prayer message by evoking emotions and moods that make the values
and ideas embodied by Navajo cultural symbols convincing. For Gill,
like Hoffman, prayer mobilizes a cultural field of meanings and emo
tions that shape and reflect the experience of the worshiper. Both of
them move far beyond the text for an analysis of prayer and explain
worship by understanding the significance of both prayer ideas and per
formance-evoked emotions. Their approaches might be called a contex
tual analysis of prayer.
Explicitly ethnographic studies of ritual that rely on contextual
analysis exist. For example, Ronald Grimes' (1976) study of ritual sym
bols in Santa Fe, New Mexico, provides a comparative analysis of Prot
estant, Catholic, and Pueblo Indian forms of worship and ritual, and
their connection to public and civic ritual. Grimes isolates what he ar
gues is the "fundamental pattern" of Santa Fe's public ritual system

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
(1976, 46). At the same time he devotes his book to the study of the
overlapping symbols and communities that define the public ritual sys
tem. Indeed, he understands the rituals as a "selection of symbols
whose meanings evolve" (1976, 50). Grimes searches out system and
process. His discussion of Protestant and Catholic liturgies, as well as
experimental Catholic masses, takes up the problem of ritual beyond
text and how these performances knit together sacred and secular
Grimes' comparison is reminiscent of Lloyd Warner's analysis of rit
ual in Yankee City, the site of his intensive analysis of an American
community (1959). Both Warner and Grimes pay close attention to the
form worship takes in order to understand its messages. Each empha
sizes the value in ritual form for the analysis of religious meaning.
Though Warner was less sensitive to context than subsequent writers,
he did embed his discussion of form and meaning within actual prac
Contextual analysis then, understands religion in general, and
prayer in particular, as dynamic processes capable of change. Because
the experience they create locates the worshiper in a cultural and his
torical system of meanings, as social context changes, meaning will too.
Neither Hoffman nor Gill understand the content of prayer to be primar
ily informational. Hence, its power rests more on the context in which
it is prayed. Contexts are altered, but their emotional power cannot be
removed solely because structural relations are transformed. The mean
ing messages depend upon the liturgical field: the form of the ritual, the
symbols containing shared meanings and shared history. Secularization
affects the structural underpinning of the liturgical field. It does not re
move the symbols or ritual forms that must be understood in light of
change. Beth’s emphasis on the emotional power of the prayers because
they locate her in Jewish history, even in the absence of understanding
them literally, illustrates this point.
The contextualists make clear that religion is experienced through
rituals that formulate meaning and action together. Without under
standing how these rituals work, we cannot understand how they affect
worshipers, or how they are affected by the changes that concern secu
larization theorists. In the last decade several anthropologists have writ
ten about the significance of ritual form. They have all been influenced
by the idea of ritual as a "performative," a concept of J. L. Austin,
([1963] 1962) a philosopher of ordinary language. They look to ritual
form to explain how ritual works, that is, how it affects people's atti
tudes and actions. Most of these scholars are interested in traditional

society, yet none attribute the effectiveness of ritual exclusively to the
integration of world view, society, and ritual. As such they offer a useful
alternative to secularization theorists for interpreting how ritual inte
grates person and society.
They derive their ideas from J. L. Austin because he offered a model
of language that emphasized that the efficacy of ritual depends on the
conditions under which it is performed. Form creates efficacy. Austin
was interested in a peculiar form of language whose utterance was not
amenable to verifying its truth, as one would a statement of fact. Per
formatives are utterances that constitute doing. With such a statement
as "I pronounce you man and wife," "I bet," or "I christen this ship"
(Austin's now classic examples), one has done the very thing one pur
ported. Performatives cannot be true or false, but they can be "felici
tous" or "infelicitous." If the circumstances are improper, then the per
formative will be infelicitous, that is, void. A person without ordination
cannot marry people no matter what words are stated. Or if the inten
tion of the person is insincere, as in an already married person going
through a marriage ceremony with another person, then the performa
tive is hollow. In the first case the performative has "misfired," and in
the second it has been "abused," but in neither case is it true or false.
Roy Rappaport (1979), Stanley Tambiah (1985), and Wade Whee-
lock (1981) have found Austin useful for the interpretations of ritual,
liturgy, and prayer, because he emphasizes the "constitutive" quality of
the act. That is, rather than focusing on the text as a source of informa
tion, they examine what constitutes the act of prayer (Wheelock 1981,
56; Gill 1981, 185-87). In all cases they pay attention to how prayer
can create or "simulate" intention and how its formal properties aid in
communicating its messages and attitudes (Tambiah 1985, 132-33;
Wheelock 1981, 58, 60). Though Tambiah and Rappaport disagree
about the extent to which one can understand ritual and liturgy by
separating form and content (Tambiah 1985, 143; Kapferer 1983, 239),
both see in form (the performative) one of the central foundations of
prayer, indeed, a constitutive element. All of the scholars cited agree, to
some extent, that what appears sacred, convincing, or truthful is in part
derived from the form that liturgy takes.
Prayer is not, of course, like all ritual acts. In the marriage ritual, for
example, the act evokes a different kind of certitude than prayer. Partic
ularly when prayers are petitionary, it is difficult to define them as un
qualified performatives. 6 Prayer still cannot be falsified, but the potential
failure that results from an unanswered prayer does in fact affect the
performative quality of the utterance. Tambiah has such an exception in

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
mind when he labels certain ritual acts as "regulative" (1985, 136). He
argues that healing or rain-making rites, for example, are intertwined
with, and often replaced by, practical alternatives. Regulative rites have
a "constitutive" element, but that alone does not exhaust the activity
because of the implications of their producing a result. Tambiah con
cludes that uncertainty does not "undermine their performative valid
ity" (1985, 137). In the case of prayer in a plural society, by contrast the
performative quality remains an open question. The market place of
meaning does consistently offer alternatives whose competing claims in
part rest on their efficacy. Some claim they are likely to produce better
results than others. Hence, systems that compete with petitionary
prayers for health, rain, or a desirable change in life directly attack the
effectiveness of others. Results cannot be ignored. Therefore, as appeal
ing as the performative model is, prayer cannot be understood exclu
sively in those terms because some prayer can be experienced as ineffec
tive; its message and content are not exhausted by its form.
The very reason that prayer cannot be defined solely as a performa
tive speaks to a general and unfortunate dichotomy drawn between the
content and form of ritual. Austin overcomes that dichotomy through
the performative model because he claims it does not exist. The form of
the utterance, "I christen thee," and the content are the same. He fo
cuses instead on how alteration of constitutives—false intention, inap
propriate speaker, or problematic context—can affect a felicitous per
formance. Formalists within anthropology are particularly drawn to this
approach because they claim that ritual content is irrelevant, and ritual's
work is accomplished through its external forms. In Rappaport's ex
ample, a message of invariance is created by repetition and an unchang
ing form. Indeed, formalists attempt to compensate for decades of an
thropologists who examined ritual semantics alone and ignored the
contribution of form to ritual. Because they collapse medium and mes
sage, however, they ignore the complexity of ideas and messages com
municated within ritual, comparing them to Austinian utterances. For
malists also ignore how ritual messages are affected by the variety of
media encompassed by form. Media and message are interdependent
but not the same, a problem I will address in Chapter 5.
These questions are particularly significant for understanding reli
gion in a plural society. Secularization theorists posit that meaning
evaporates, or is radically personalized, in a plural society. They do not
examine the relationship between form and meaning, nor how to
understand any change from, or any continuity with, traditionally as
cribed meanings and forms in a plural context. Nor can theories of

prayer ignore form, or the way form is crucial to its message. Though
much of prayer is well described as a performative, not all of it can be.
It can only be understood through a model sensitive to the relationship
between form, content, and context, understanding that on some occa
sions these processes are unified in the worshiper's experience, and on
other occasions they are not.
What performative theorists have in common with contextualists
like Hoffman and Gill is their interest in how ritual elements integrate
the prayer experience and the impact of the context upon that experi
ence. What a performative approach asks is what makes prayer felici
tous, its context and its structure. Contextualists are more concerned
with the cultural and historical meanings expressed by the prayers and
how the ritual form effectively communicates those messages. The con
textualists do not understand the content of prayer to be any more in
formational or falsifiable than the Austinians, but they do argue that
content requires explication. The performativists emphasize ritual form
alone. The contextualists look to social and cultural circumstances for
culturally relative interpretations. Finally, both those concerned with
context and those committed to a performative view look at prayer to
understand how it situates its performers in a world of meaning. Both
approaches seek to understand what conditions make prayer possible,
or even successful. All of these scholars go beyond Austin by looking at
how effectiveness is linked to an expanded sense of context. 7
Questions about the constituents of the prayer experience—con
text, form, and performance—give us that middle ground previously
ignored by secularization theorists. Those theorists sought to under
stand, as noted, how religion gains objective status in society, capable of
providing “truth" and defining meaning for men and women. They
therefore concluded that when religion competes to define the world
view with other systems of meaning, it no longer monopolizes truth or
plausibility. Those scholars who look at prayer and ritual on a perform
ative model, or wish to contextualize ritual performance within a social
and cultural field, are asking significantly different questions and ex
plaining different phenomena. They try to understand how an experi
ence, whether it is aimed at establishing the sacred or communicating
cultural values, is created and maintained and what its constituent ele
ments are. They all place the ritual within a social context, but unlike
secularization theorists, for them the social and historical context does
not exhaust what there is to know about the ritual in general, or prayer
in particular. What these performative theorists have in common is
understanding how ritual and prayer shape and create certain attitudes

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
and emotions and the authority or plausibility that generates them.
Their analysis of the ideas, symbols, values, or meanings articulated de
pends on understanding the constituents of the ritual act, as well as the
various contexts in which the act is performed. In short, they are inter
ested in how ritual expresses and shapes action, not just in how it re
flects institutions. Similarly, they find plausibility for religion, in large
part, in its ritual components, whose forms, for some of these theorists,
are the products of social relations.
The advantage of this broad and encompassing theoretical position
rests not in abandoning the study of the relationship between society
and religion, which it does not do. Acknowledging that form and con
tent affect one another, as the Austinians argue, suggests that as social
relations change so form is affected, which has consequences for the
meaning of religious participation. Instead of abandoning either the
study of social relations or institutionalized religion, scholars can under
stand contexts, form, and the relationship of form to meaning to inter
pret the religious life of modem men and women. Hence, when David
Martin suggests that he can only study institutions—yet "ethos" has
been secularized in America—we are left wondering what seculariza
tion theory can contribute to our understanding of the persistence of
religious life. What creates the ethos that modem society secularizes?
What makes it plausible for people to continue to pray? The most im
portant question to ask is how do we understand what occurs within
ritual performance? What generates its effectiveness and connects it to
ordinary life? Then we can understand how prayer created a world of
relationships for Beth, joining her and Jewish history to one another.
The works of Hoffman and Gill, whose theoretical interests are par
allel but whose subject matter is rather different, provide a useful con
trast. Gill examines Navajo prayer to understand how an unchanging
form can be applied to many different circumstances, so that prayer,
rather than being a mechanical variation on a structure, synthesizes and
symbolizes Navajo culture for its worshipers. Hoffman demonstrates
that changing liturgical fields lead to changing liturgies that combine
Jewish symbols, historical events, and current social circumstances. One
emphasizes stability and the other change. Yet both explain how prayer
depends on a larger cultural system, that it continues to exemplify key
cultural notions and is capable of expressing essential messages, if not,
in Hoffman's case, a world view. Both Hoffman and Gill focus on the
relationship between form and content and their integration with other
"themes" or "symbols."
The performative element of this approach, which emphasizes par-

ticularly the constitutive nature of certain utterances, is a valuable alter
native to secularization theory for another reason. Austin himself was
concerned with the infelicity of performatives. He wanted to understand
what made these utterances ineffective. Tambiah and Rappaport, the
anthropologists who have applied Austin to ritual, both look at the
structure of ritual to understand its suitability for "lying," or "rigidity."
The formal properties of liturgy and ritual enable them to communicate
messages that are beyond question, but the conventional, redundant,
and symbolic language that conveys messages as cultural truths is also
capable of communicating banalities or lies. Because language is so im
portant for praying, prayer is vulnerable to emptiness or "ossification."
As a fixed form, liturgical language is constantly repeated without nec
essarily communicating much beyond words. That is what differentiates
liturgical and every day language. The more conventional a set of utter
ances is, the less likely it is to communicate intention. In addition, lit
urgy is ultimately both reliable and unreliable. Its unchanging language,
a reliable formulation, posits relationships with unseen, transcendent
beings, whose responses are unreliable. Hence, those who pray are con
stantly at risk in their experience. Roy Rappaport argues this point well.
While participating in liturgical performance may be highly visible,
it is not very profound, for it neither indicates nor does it necessarily
produce an inward state conforming to it directly. But for this very
reason it is in some sense very profound, for it makes it possible for
the performer to transcend his own doubt by accepting in defiance
of it. (1979, 194-95)
Again, to explain ineffectiveness or failure, Rappaport and Tambiah
look to the ritual form, rather than social context alone, to explain in
felicities and how they may be overcome. While one would never want
to exclude social institutions or social relations from understanding oc
casions of ritual uncertainty, this analysis also allows us to see how ig
noring form makes our understanding of ritual or religion partial at
In order, then, to understand what makes prayer felicitous or infel
icitous, effective or ineffective, I will examine the constitutive elements
of Minyan prayer. I begin with its three most salient forms: that it is
public and communal, that it is interpreted, and that its words are pre
scribed by halaha, Jewish law. How members' perceptions were inte
grated with the demands of the form will be explored in an analysis of
an important Minyan event, an evaluation meeting. The conflict be-

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
tween members at this meeting about their prayer experience explains
the significance of their concern for the form prayer should take. To this
point I have concentrated on members' concerns with structure, orga
nization, and decorum. These were especially important to the com
munity members in their first two years together. In the Minyan's third
year, members shifted their attention to the form of ritual, indeed, to
prayer itself. This shift not only reveals the changing issues for the group
that came with expanding membership, but also demonstrates the affect
of the ritual form on the members' ability to pray.
Minyan Prayer Forms: Community
Through prayer Minyan members interacted, and, in turn, their
prayer was affected by those interactions. Because public Jewish prayer
requires a minyan, it was an inherently appropriate vehicle for com
munity. The Minyan's desire to create an alternative to the synagogue
arose out of their intense interest in truly communal prayer. They all
valued forms of prayer that intensified community. They sang prayers
together, prayed aloud to be heard by one another, arranged their prayer
space, and moved their bodies while praying in a way that made them
visible to one another. The Minyan sought to achieve an experience of
prayer that was nonunison, yet still synchronized. That type of prayer
has been compared to jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation within
unity (Heilman, 1983). The strongly communal aspect of Jewish prayer
is illustrated by the fact that if an individual prays alone, he or she
should attempt to pray at the same time the synagogue does, using the
same liturgy, except for those prayers that require the quorum. Prayer is
not only prayed within a community, it takes a communal form in the
use of some plural language, and its subject often concerns the com
munity. Hence, the first constituent of Minyan prayer is that it is public
and communal.
No one in the Minyan was clearer in defining the communal basis
of prayer life than Saul, a college student in his early twenties. He was a
member of the group for less than a year in 1973, but had prayed regu
larly his entire life. As a Jewish educator and a child of a Conservative
rabbi, he had grown up with considerable consciousness of what prayer
should be like and how to achieve that end. I asked Saul if he prayed to
someone, and his answer emphasized the connection between prayer
and community.
You mean God? No. Do you mean is someone in the Minyan listen
ing to me? That's pretty important. I like the feeling that other

people are being affected by my mood in their prayers. The people
who sit around me when we pray can tell my mood and concentra
tion. People look to see if other people are concentrating. If a lot of
people are, it helps me to concentrate. And when I am hazan I want
to mobilize something that's going on in the group and get that in
synch with the prayers that I particularly like and find powerful.
He articulated how closely people were linked in the community
through prayer, even though they prayed individually for the majority
of the service. Prayer could be, and often was, tied to the moods and
emotions of participants. To listen to others praying was part of prayer.
In this sense prayer was quite appropriate to the articulation of com
munal sentiments. The halahic requirement of a quorum for prayer in
dicates that the tradition itself recognizes that community is an integral
part of the prayer experience. Mark explained to me how he understood
the relationship to others in prayer.
I need prayer to connect me to others. It's easy to pray in isolation,
to find a beautiful spot in nature. But confronting nature isn't con
fronting others. The Amidah says, "Keep my lips from speaking
evil." That prayer recognizes that prayer itself connects us with
other people.
Though Mark was anxious to be united with others, he believed that
prayer made a contribution to maintaining such relationships by ac
knowledging the difficulties involved.
In the Minyan, one might argue that the communal focus was pri
mary. Mark, one of the Minyan founders, even questioned the balance
between the communal and other constituents of prayer.
It's seeking for community that brings people to the Minyan for
prayer. We all know we want to be together. But we all know we
want to have some Sabbath experience. Now, we don't have in our
system of projects anything that is better than prayer. Part of the
passport to community is reading these prayers. The price you pay
for being a Jew, certainly within this community, is prayer.
Mark's tone was cynical. He expressed this view at a time when the
group was in the throes of reevaluating its purpose and goals, events to
be discussed in Chapters 5 and 6. Nevertheless, he articulated another
sense of communal prayer in contrast to Saul. For Saul, the communal
form of prayer implied that the presence of other Jews at prayer affected

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
his prayer and he in turn affected theirs. Prayer was an individual act
made different by the presence of a community. The significance of the
connection between those who prayed was a "variable" in the prayer
experience. Mark, by contrast, understood community as separate from
prayer. In the Minyan one prayed in order to be with others; he did not
address the issue of whether being with others had an impact on prayer.
Mark's rather harsh appraisal expressed a tension set up by prayer's
communal nature. The worshiper is in danger in two ways. He or she
may merge entirely with the community, losing the private experience
of prayer necessary for creating a relationship with God. Or the individ
ual may stand in isolation from the community, leading to alienation
from praying, at least within a particular minyan. Susan articulated this
tension more positively than Mark when she described her prayer ex
I have a very personal relationship with the Siddur. I feel very strong
about it. It is both dear and familiar. And it's an experience worth
struggling for. It has dual elements, the comfort, familiarity, and
community, and that level of experience that is very difficult to
reach and we're struggling for. Without the comfort it wouldn't be
worth the struggle.
Susan, in describing the conflicts she sometimes experienced in praying
traditional Jewish prayer, counts community, those with whom she
prays, as an asset, a familiar and predictable assistance to her praying.
Because prayer is activity as well as text, its communal form influ
enced both aspects. Its content addressed the community, and it was
enacted communally. But at the same time there were concerns about
worship that arose out of differences in how members understood the
role of community and its place in the prayer experience. The com
munal form of prayer was one of its constitutive elements. The gathered
community was essential for public worship. The Minyan existed to
pray and its communal form articulated messages about the value of
Minyan Prayer Forms: Interpretation
Prayer was not exclusively a text, but neither could it be understood
apart from its written form. The text of prayer engendered the most
problems for group members. In response they developed the single
most unique feature of a Minyan prayer service. Their statements of

potential dissent were an integral part of the liturgical service. At points
in the prayer service where one might want to "study," to examine clas
sical rabbinic texts about Torah or prayer, Minyan members most often
raised or responded to questions about whether or not Jewish liturgy
adequately reflected or illuminated their life experiences. On those oc
casions the text might also be used as a starting point for a discussion
about contemporary events to see what insight it might provide. In
either case, the liturgical service intertwined the recitation of traditional
liturgy with comments upon or criticisms of its relevance. As in Beth's
description of her prayer life, the worshiper's relationship with liturgy
in the Minyan was to make the prayers speak for and to him or her.
Members created periods of reflection that, by their position in the litur
gical order, made prayer a performance of a given text and a weekly
comment upon it. This sequencing and juxtaposition were consistent
with the practices of other havurot and unusual in normative Judaism.
As sociologist Samuel Heilman asserts about Orthodox Jews, particu
larly the non-intellectual laity, "Even the most modem among the Or
thodox would prefer to leave their doubts unspoken and disattended"
(1983, 65).
Minyan interpretations differed markedly from normative Jewish
interpretations of texts. The source of traditional commentaries purports
to be the Bible itself. Classical interpreters subordinated themselves to
the continuity of tradition, rather than bringing new ideas to that tradi
tion (Holtz 1984, 13-14). Innovation certainly occurred, but it was
often presented as in keeping with tradition. Minyan members' analyses
of prayer were based neither exclusively on traditional commentaries
nor on a simple rejection of them. Unlike most analytic processes, they
expressed feelings of anger and pleasure as well as ideas in their assess
ments. Nor was their interpretation without consciousness of the impact
of their group or culture on their comments. Their remarks reflected
values and ideas derived from their peers, their educational training,
and American ideas of justice. This analytic approach is what Minyan
members associated with the discussion formula "I have a problem
with as well as their more purely textual discussions.
Interpretation necessarily distanced the self from prayer. Members
believed, however, that by expressing their personal feelings they would
be less alienated, and those feelings would genuinely become part of
prayer. By interpreting prayer it would yield a place to them. A shared
communal interpretation or a heated discussion of a text were sufficient
proof of the group's success at achieving engagement with ancient tra
dition, according to members.

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
The normative Jewish liturgy created a dilemma for Minyan mem
bers. Their commitment was to tradition. Yet this tradition alone did not
formulate their ideas and feelings about life, community, and the cos
mos. They wished to reinterpret the tradition without altering its liturgy,
precisely because that tradition powerfully evoked authority and emo
tion. Praying was simultaneously highly persuasive and alienating. As
an activity, it drew members into the enactment of the tradition and
created conviction about the truth of the act. As content and informa
tion, expressing not only acceptable truths but embraceable ones, it was
alienating. Their solution to this conflict lay in constantly interpreting
what they did. This perspective was embodied in the epigraph for this
chapter. When this Minyan member described his frustration about his
prayer life in Israel, it was evident that he lacked the opportunity to
interpret what he was saying and a community to do it in. His need to
interpret seemed as great as his need to pray a traditional liturgy.
Minyan members' willingness to critically reflect on prayer and hal-
aha suggested that they chose a traditional Jewish arena for individual
and collective disclosures of their conflicts about Jewish tradition. Their
choice was embedded in their assumption that the minyan, the com
munity of prayer, was the appropriate setting to experience oneself as a
Jew in America. They prayed and they examined their prayers. Their
examinations were both intellectual assessments of the content of the
tradition and personal reactions. Praying, then, expressed one's Judaism
as well as evoking conflicts about it, conflicts that were not resolved
simply by no longer praying. Doug offered his view of how this was
In the Minyan we are attempting to integrate the past and near past,
which get remote from us, with what we are and feel. We are
searching for something we can't find in other communities. Prayer
is a way of coming to terms with remaining a Jew. One of the things
I like about the Minyan very much is that not only are members
generally successful at it, they are engaging in academic careers and
other professions. They're very modem and "with it." Yet they can
do it through the medium of these age-old prayers and then in
terms of the twentieth century. Many synagogues are dealing with
the early twentieth century. They haven't really progressed. The
Minyan is more appropriately placed at this point in time.
Doug noted a contrast between the Minyan and other synagogues, who,
at the beginning of the century, were simply trying to prove by their
architecture and decorum that they were American. For Doug that was

a settled question. A later "twentieth-century" congregation had to be
concerned about interpreting prayer texts, discussing, questioning, and
even disputing them in light of contemporary life. The twentieth cen
tury is represented by interpretation, a constituent of the Minyan's
prayer experience.
Discussion is neither prayer nor performative. To the contrary, it is
the exact opposite. Yet within the Minyan's liturgical service, discussion
became part of every single performance of the liturgy. Then, contrary
to a normative sense of prayer in which a statement of blessing God's
name constitutes the act of blessing, something more is at stake. In the
Minyan, prayer involved both performative utterances and falsifiable
statements. Both seemed essential to create prayer as an act for a group
"placed at this time." Hence, in this context, discussion (a nonliturgical
form) became a part of prayer because these men and women made
discussion a key form of interaction within the prayer experience.
Therefore, I call it a necessary condition of prayer like community.
Minyan Prayer Forms: Traditional Jewish Liturgy
Community and interpretation constituted components of the litur
gical experience. Liturgical content, however, was traditional prayer.
When members talked about prayer being difficult or an "experience
worth struggling for," more often than not they were saying something
about conflict with prayer language, what it said and what it asked wor
shipers to say. Virtually all people who came to the Minyan, with few
exceptions, came precisely because this was the liturgy they wanted to
say. The Siddur was "authentic," a word members used often. Its au
thenticity allowed Beth, among others, to remark on her connection to
untold generations of Jews, who she believed used basically the same
words. Were they to write a new liturgy, a more relevant one, even in
Hebrew, it would destroy that authenticating link between themselves
and others. The fact that Minyan members, as well as havurah partici
pants throughout the country, did not set about writing or modifying
the liturgy sets them apart from other Jewish movements. Hoffman
(1987) contends that every American movement modified the liturgy or
created a new one. The havurah did not, and it does not seem likely its
members will do so. 8 Although some havurot members may well have
written prayers or created innovative services, these were never dissem
inated. The National Havurah Co-Ordinating Committee has never cir
culated these prayers, and it is not likely to appoint a liturgy committee
given its continuing negative attitude toward a bureaucracy. Those as-

In private Jewish prayer.

sociated with the havurah were committed to spontaneity and innova
tion and were reluctant to determine the experience of others. Bureauc
racy alone, however, did not deter them from such changes. They could
articulate their rejection of American culture through their liturgy only
if they maintained its traditional form. Similarly, their claim to cultural
uniqueness depended on their maintaining a continuous liturgical tra
dition. Ronald Grimes notes a similar resistance to abandoning "histor
icity" in Liturgy in Santa Fe, a nongeographic parish (1976, 31-32).
For Minyan members, prayer, mandated by halaha, implied the
obligatory, authoritative, and historical force of the tradition. Mark's
view that Minyan members pray "because that is what is done on Shab-
bat" implied that prayer was the natural requirement of the day:
Prayer is the thing you do Saturday morning. It is tied to time. You
could have a study group any other time, but you can't have Satur
day morning services any other time. Now the Sabbath comes as a
day of rest, a day of a natural sort of communal event. You could
substitute a morning of study for it, but there's no definite reason
why one should study that morning. But there is a definite tradition
of praying that morning.
Like many adherents of halaha, members are unwilling to change
prayer or alter its language. Unlike other adherents, however, their
sense of obligation is voluntary. Most pray for only one of the Sabbath
liturgical services. Few pray daily. Their sense of requirement and obli
gation is voluntary. 9
The History of Jewish Liturgy
The history of Jewish prayer makes evident that modernity is not
the sole cause of difficulty with prayer. The prayer's formal components
work to make it alienating as well. Hence, the development of Jewish
liturgy itself attests to the impact of form on the prayer experience. This
discussion of that prayer history focuses on how the Jewish tradition
confronted the worshiper's experience of prayer. This history of the de
velopment of Jewish prayer is filled with examples of worshipers' fears
that they lack sincerity or engagement, rendering their prayers unsatis
fying and reflecting the realization that prayer is a difficult and often
inadequate expression of Jewish life (see Millgram 1971; Garfinkel
1958; Petuchowski 1972; Idelsohn [1932] 1967).
That history, of which many Minyan members are aware, corrobo-

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
rates the assertion that prayer must be understood in light of its form as
well as social context. Secularization alone will not explain the difficulty
of praying. For prayer always engages both angst and promise, possibil
ities that transcend the modem situation. The complexity of prayer as a
performative is particularly evident here. Though prayer is constructed
as an invariant liturgy that emphasizes its certainty, its content postu
lates innumerable possibilities for failing to achieve its end, contact with
God. Saying is doing in prayer, but saying efficaciously is at once prom
ised by the form and undermined by the content. The words of the
prayer may be the opposite of the worshiper's intentions, or they may
articulate emotions that the worshiper does not experience. My discus
sion of Jewish prayer focuses on this very dilemma because it is in many
ways its most salient feature for Minyan members, since they were com
mitted to prayer but also to self conscious interpretations of it.
Jewish prayer evolved and changed under the sectarian move
ments, diverse cultural settings, and historical periods, resulting in con
siderable variation in Judaism and Jewish liturgy. What the Minyan
finds in its Siddur dates largely, though not exclusively, to the rabbinic
period and is prescribed in the Mishnah and Talmud. Indeed, the rabbis
understood prayer to be a commandment, a mitzva. Like the command
ments to study, to honor parents and teachers, and to do charity, prayer
was a requirement embedded in the daily cycle of an observant Jew. In
other historical periods, such as the Hellenistic or Late Antiquity, rab
binic prayer was not considered normative. Indeed, most non-Orthodox
denominations of Judaism in America have taken some degree of liberty
with that tradition. Reform being the most extreme. Hasidic Judaism, as
well as other Jewish movements from the nineteenth century on, will
ingly changed the liturgy. Nevertheless, observant Jews who are de
scended from Europeans think of their liturgy as an orthodoxy that can
not be changed without violating Jewish law. 10 Yet a core of the liturgy
persists. 11
Prayer flourished as an important ritual of Jewish life only after the
destruction of the sacrificial center of the Temple. The final destruction
in 70 c.e. at the hands of the Romans dispersed Jews from their own
land and from worship in Jerusalem. There were two precursors to, and
influences upon, Jewish prayer: spontaneous prayer and sacrifice. The
Bible records the spontaneous prayers of several figures: David and
Hannah among them. Sacrifice is the organized activity that precedes
prescribed and formal prayer in Jewish history. Sacrifice shares with
prayer the intention of building a bridge between, or ladder to, a divine
source. Hubert and Mauss, the French social scientists who wrote about

sacrifice, argue that the sacrificial victim was a mediator between hu
man beings and the divinity to whom the sacrifice was addressed. Hu
mans and gods were never in direct contact ([1899] 1964, 11)
The sacrificed animal was replaced by the words of liturgy when the
destruction of the sacrificial center in Jerusalem brought sacrifice to an
end. Words now had to mediate the relationship between humans and
God. Jewish prayer retains many connections to the sacrifices. Like sac
rifice, prayer is required in the morning, afternoon, and evening, with
special additions on the Sabbaths and festivals. The prayer services have
maintained the names of sacrificial services, and sacrifices are men
tioned and described in portions of the liturgy. In Hebrew, sacrifice is
called "service of the altar," and prayer is called "service of the heart."
One continues to "serve" in creating a relationship to God, but the lo
cus, setting, and methods for service have changed. The second-century
rabbis who developed prayer and made it obligatory, as the sacrifices
had been, claimed that the contact created by one could be maintained
by the other. They legitimized prayer by asserting a relationship be
tween it and sacrifice. In contrast to sacrifice, the language of prayer
carries more complex messages. The complexity of the messages, now
combined with a discursive form, makes prayer more sensitive to uncer
tainty and to questions about the performer and performance. The rules
that accompanied the proper execution of a sacrifice could never be as
concrete for prayer.
This transformation of forms for contacting God was revolutionary.
Prayer became appropriate for each individual in a way that the priest-
dominated sacrificial cult was not. Prayer occurred at special times, and
lacking a single sacred geographic center, Judaism became attuned in
creasingly to time rather than space (Heschel 1977, 8). The sacrificial
victim was replaced figuratively by a standardized liturgy. The drama of
the temple was replaced by the considerably less dramatic community,
the minyan with which one prayed, studied, and heard the Torah read.
Above all, prayer, even in its prescribed communal setting requiring the
individual to participate in the community, to recite certain prayers, to
say "amen" to the prayers of others, and to hear the Torah read, was an
individual act. Hence, Jewish prayer was built on a tension between the
private and the public, the individual and the communal, the sponta
neous and the standardized. That tension is maintained rather than re
solved in the worship service.
Over time the developing liturgies of Judaism incorporated the
growing experiences of the Diaspora Jewish people. Since the language
of prayer could communicate more varied and complex messages,

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
prayers changed and liturgies included new prayers. The corpus of
prayers reflected the different sentiments, interpretations, events, and
theologies of many historical periods and prominent rabbis. Liturgical
allusions to the sacrifices appeared near personal statements of praise
and love for God, and those appeared after statements of creed mixed
with petitions for individual health, freedom from personal and political
enemies, and the ability to follow God's commandments. The move
from sacrifice to prayer, then, engaged individual actors more intensely
through a liturgy that is historically inclusive. It created a private-
collective relationship, not necessarily in opposition, but in tension. In
the prayers, one speaks to God, ideally desiring a personal relationship,
but using a standard language and being surrounded by one's fellows
who both invade and support one's attempt at contact.
This standardization and publication of a common book of prayer
were long in coming because the rabbis dreaded canonization (Petu-
chowski 1972, 3). In the ninth century, Spanish-Jewish scholars ap
pealed to the head of the Babylonian academy of rabbis that developed
in the Diaspora to compile a standard prayer book and unify the grow
ing variation in Jewish prayer services. Though the core prayers of the
service remained constant, anxiety had grown about the order of the
prayers. The resulting codification of oral traditions and knowledge of
actual practice constituted the first prayer book.
This standardization did not stem the accretion of new prayers and
material through the middle ages. The prayerbook grew unwieldy. The
addition of prayers was commonplace, though deletion was not. Only
in the nineteenth century, with the development of classical Reform Ju
daism, were excisions made. In 1818 Reformers published their own
Siddur. The Reform Siddur went through a number of changes after
1850. The Conservative and Reconstructionist movements printed their
own prayer books in the twentieth century.
That the Jewish prayer book is called Siddur, or "order," indicates
that prayer is amenable to ordering and hence creates orderliness. That
very orderliness is embodied in the structure of the prayers. They follow
a set order, are made up of sections that follow a similar structure, and
even blessings follow a certain formula and structure. One prays the
same words in the same order. The variation that does exist is the result
of the time of day, day of the week, and festival of the year.
Precisely because of the certainty and orderliness of prayer, the tra
dition prescribes a proper attitude for certain prayers, requiring wor
shipers not to fall into rote repetition of a familiar liturgy. It is not suffi
cient to simply say the words of central prayers. That proper attitude is

kawanah (from the Hebrew root “direct"), a form of concentration.
With kawanah the "worshipper is conscious that he stands in the pres
ence of God and thus his mind is aware of the meaning of the word he
utters" (Jacobs 1972, 79). I. Epstein described it as combining "the
meanings of attention and intention—attention to what is being said,
intention to perform the commandment" (1947, 77). Kawanah op
poses the rote repetition of prayer. But kawanah also contrasts with the
normative form of prayer, keva, which means fixed form, routine, or
tradition (Petuchowski 1972, 7). The development of the liturgy sug
gests an emphasis on both keva and kawanah. All prayers are said ac
cording to keva; only a few prayers require kawanah. The rabbis ac
knowledged that they could not require kawanah for all prayer, as few
would be capable of such concentration.
The tension between keva and kawanah, recognized by rabbinic
scholarship, reiterates a point made in a context-oriented approach to
ritual. Rituals are fixed forms and performed events. Jewish prayer is
not only a liturgy but a performance as well, requiring an attitude and
often necessitating the support of a community. The meanings of fixed
forms will change given the context of performance. As Jacob Petu
chowski argues, one generation's kawanah is another's keva, and one
generation's keva may be another's kawanah (1972, 9-13). What is
liturgically fixed and routine for one generation may provide the source
of intense spirituality for another. For example, the poetry of individual
Jews became fixed liturgy over time. What began as the product of in
tense personal feelings about God ultimately became keva.
Indeed, this complex relationship between form and spontaneity in
prayer is recognized in the Talmud, which demands that only certain
central prayers—those that remain the core of Jewish worship—be said
with kawanah. These prayers were crucial in second century Jewish
liturgy. By the medieval period, Jewish thinkers were stressing "greater
inwardness" as a requirement for more of the prayers. In the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, mystical interpretations of Judaism gave kav-
vanah a meaning beyond concentration on the plain sense of prayers
and envisioned worshipers focusing not on their needs, but rather on
the significance of even the letters and spaces of liturgy (Jacobs 1972,
28). The common concern throughout these historical periods demon
strates that religious leaders were aware that prayer is a communicative
act of uncertain efficacy. Simply repeating liturgy never has been the
sufficient end of prayer. At a minimum, praying must include the in
tention of fulfilling one's ritual obligation. Ideally, it always concerns
communication and formulating relations within a community that

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
represents the Jewish people, and formulating relations with God, who
creates that community.
The psalms relate ideal models for prayers, “all my bones shall say
'Lord, who is like thee,'" because of their awareness that such a form of
concentration is rarely achieved (De Sola Pool 1960, 76). The psalmists
idealized total engagement with prayer, even in one's body. In the Jew
ish tradition rabbis' prayers record the desire that they may pray. Jacobs
cites the rabbinic admonition not to pray unless it is with concentration,
and then translates the rabbi who argued in the nineteenth century:
Nowadays we find it so hard to concentrate adequately, the older
rule, that if prayers have been recited without kawanah, they have
to be recited again, no longer applies, since the likelihood is that the
second time, too, they will be recited without kawanah. (Jacobs
This passage voices the common view, articulated particularly by the
anti-hasidic orthodox of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe,
that those who pray well are few and that no one can pray as the great
rabbis and leaders of old could. Humans are far removed from the reve
lation at Sinai, the temple, the great rabbis and, as a result, are simply
less spiritually vital.
The sectarian conflicts in Europe between Mitnagdim (nonhasidic
traditionalists) and hasidim in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
laid bare the conflict over the relative significance of prayer in the Jew
ish tradition. Hasidism gave prayer priority over study and, in so doing,
challenged normative Judaism. As central as prayer is to the normative
tradition, the study of Talmud in particular is more highly regarded,
though both are required. The tradition even dictates that if in a crisis
such as a flood or a fire in which a community must choose which to
save, it is more important to save a school of learning than a synagogue.
Jacobs illustrates this view when he writes about prayer in the Encyclo
pedia Judaica.
Prayer stands high in the world of values. God Himself prays, His
prayer being that His mercy might overcome His judgment. Never
theless, the study of Torah occupies a higher rung than prayer....
A rabbi who spent too much time on his prayers was rebuked by
his colleagues for neglecting eternal life to engage in temporal exis
tence (Encyclopedia Judaica 1971, 981).

Acknowledging that the tradition itself regards prayer as a less solid
basis for religious life than study invites a comparison of the two activi
ties. Though there are questions of law with contradictory and equally
valid interpretations, and dissenting opinions have been retained, study
is simply a more predictable activity than prayer. Difficulties and ques
tions can be decided by rabbinic courts. The end point of law is transla
tion into practice. It does not lead to constant questioning about efficacy.
Its purpose is not unselfconscious, though standardized, communica
tion with God. If, as Mintz argued, prayer often translated the values of
the Talmud onto the spiritual plane, it did not communicate those val
ues as rigorously, hence as concretely, as law. In reality, however, every
observant male can pray three times daily, but few men can study full
time rather than work. Observant Jewish men are more likely, then, to
pray regularly than to study. Nevertheless, the ideal is important to
As hasidism elevated prayer to the preeminent Jewish act of piety,
hasidim altered prayer by making it a more "mystical" experience. The
plain sense of the language became virtually irrelevant. Petition was
appropriate only insofar as it was understood metaphorically to concern
the needs of God, not humans. Prayer had as its end point the juxtapo
sition and ordering of various names of God used in the liturgy, which
were interpreted as "vessels of great power." The meaning of communi
cation as the end point of prayer was entirely transformed and mystified
in a tradition that made prayer preeminent.
It is worth noting that not only Jewish liturgical traditions generate
conflicts in worshipers. The scholarship on liturgy notes these ubiqui
tous tensions. Prayer, ideally, promises a great deal. At a minimum, one
may have contact with the one to whom it is directed, articulate the key
ideas of a culture, perform prescribed cultural dramas that may idealize
reverence or penitence. Precisely because what may happen is signifi
cant, what may not happen is distressing. Individuals may not feel their
prayers are being heard or they may believe their prayers are not being
answered. They may feel disconnected from God, cut off from the com
munity. Even in a less differentiated society where religious rites are
universally shared, one may well experience the power of the gods in
the collective society, as Emile Durkheim argued ([1912] 1965). But as
he did not note, one may feel more isolated in the absence of contact
with those gods because one imagines that others succeed. All prayer
raises the problem of efficacy.
The unique possibilities and anxieties engendered by prayer are at
tributed by sociologist Robert Bellah to prayer's place in the develop-

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
ment of "non-primitive" religions (1964). In these societies, he argues,
human "communication systems" (prayers) are needed because the
gods are increasingly out of reach and distinguished from humans, yet
must still be accessible. He writes of prayer and sacrifice:
No matter how stereotyped, [it] permits the human communicants
a greater element of intentionality and entails more uncertainty rel
ative to the divine response. Through this more differentiated form
of religious action a new degree of freedom as well, perhaps as an
increased burden of anxiety, enters the relations of his existence
(1964, 365).
Bellah then, places this anxiety in an evolutionary sequence. Prayer is
inherendy a form of ritual that carries more messages, makes more
claims, and signifies more meanings and relationships than nonverbal,
simpler forms. Jewish liturgy illustrates this view.
This history of prayer underlines the importance of understanding
the complexity of the link between prayer and its social context. As I
explained in Chapter 3, prayer is created through decorum and organi
zation. Synagogue, Minyan, and European prayer were not the same
because they were embedded in different social structural relations that
affected their meaning. Nevertheless, the form of prayer itself affects
worshipers, forcing them to understand prayer in new ways, or lower
their expectations of what one can accomplish in prayer. Prayer cannot
be understood apart from social relations or reduced to them.
Focusing on what constitutes prayer within a particular community
requires setting out its essential conditions. Prayer requires a text, a con
text, and activity. Scholarly research on prayer, or even ritual in contem
porary society, tends to emphasize one constitutent at the expense of the
other. Because Minyan prayer, like all ritual, communicated a set of
ideas, each constituent embodied these ideas and enabled the worshiper
to internalize them.
Prayer and Covenant
At its most general level, Jewish prayer addresses the central event
of the Jewish people, the covenant made between God and humans at
Mount Sinai when God gave His laws for the people to Moses. That
covenant reasserts the first covenant made between God and the biblical
patriarch Abraham, rewarding Abraham's faithfulness with God's bless
ing on all his descendents. These covenantal acts established a relation-

ship between God and the Jewish people, allowing each partner in the
convenant to ask and expect things of the other. Remembering the
events of the covenants, promising a relationship of loyalty and love to
God, and asking in turn for God's blessings are expressed in innumer
able liturgical forms in the Siddur. Though theologians recognize the
tensions inherent in prayer, they argue that prayer is nothing without a
personal relationship with God (Heschel 1953). Prayer within the Min
yan, with its interpretations and adjustments, already puts Minyan
members at odds with this theological view. Yet even the many mem
bers who said that God was not necessarily the primary listener still
understood prayer to create a relationship. All of them sought a rela
tionship with a self-transcending entity called the People Israel. Hence,
the form of worship and even much of its content was directed to a
covenantal end continually interpreted in prayer discussions and within
the creation of the community itself. Though no havurah member ever
wrote or said that a suburban Jew misunderstood the covenant, their
continual concern with finding an authentic Judaism indicated their
need to recreate Judaism and that sense of convenant.
Prayer articulated this timeless covenantal relationship. It signified
the authenticity of the "eternal People Israel" by binding living Jews to
that people. For members who understood Hebrew, and for those who
did not, the most important use of the language was its antiquity. What
was relevant about its contemporary use was that it embodied the real
ity of the continuing covenantal relationship between God and humans,
as well as between all Jews in space and time.
For those who prayed regularly, and have prayed over a long period,
prayer joined the self quite personally to the covenant by the association
of prayers with one's own maturation. Saul suggested this connection
to me when he said:
I've prayed for a long time. I was brought up with it. There are so
many subtleties to my personality that it brings out. At different
stages of my life it's always meant different things. I'm really playing
on a whole backdrop of my existence when I pray. Some of the
prayers I really like, I've said hundreds of times. Every time I come
back to it, it brings up all the inflections and feelings that have gone
into saying it, in parallel with that prayer.
Here is an example of a virtuoso who was able to integrate personal
experience into prayer and prayer into his Judaism. The content of the
prayer was often a backdrop for his focus on his own development as a

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
Jew. The covenant placed the person who prayed in webs of relation
ships with God. with all periods of Jewish history, and with family and
community. Not every Minyan member experienced every such rela
tionship, but covenant stood for the entire range of possible ones.
Prayer meant many things theologically and historically, but its
most profound meaning was a very general one—relationships that
constitute Judaism. This meaning was formulated through the constit
uent forms of Minyan prayer. Each form expressed and transmitted cov
enantal meanings, joining members to these relationships. The link
made to others through prayer recreated commitment to the Jewish
people and the maintenance of Judaism. Community, maintenance of
tradition through prayer, and the integration of the self communicated
nothing so powerfully as the capacity for prayer and therefore covenant.
Community prayer created and preserved that covenant.
Ideal Minyan Prayer
Minyan members shared a consensus about who among them
prayed well. Thus, despite many differences between members, they did
share a vocabulary about effective prayer when they described others.
Virtually everyone mentioned Jay, Jacob, Mark, and Harvey as models
of how to pray. The language used to describe them varied. People spoke
of their "comfort with davening," "acceptance and understanding of tra
ditional Judaism," "integrity," "searching and spirituality," "lack of self-
consciousness" and "love of the Siddur." The way these men moved
their bodies while praying, used melody and song, led services, and
represented traditional Judaism strongly modeled praying for most of
the others, many of whom were less educated as Jews and were newer
to the tradition. Members emphasized knowledge of the text, attitudes,
and ease when they described virtuoso daveners. There were interesting
tensions in these descriptions. Words like "searching" and "integrity"
implied struggle. The ideal was not the rapid rote davener who could
pray the whole service by heart at a lightning pace. At the same time,
they valued a "comfort" or ease that indicated a person who was fully
competent at the skills involved. Attitude, spirituality, and love for the
prayer book were mentioned, but classical descriptions such as piety
and belief never were.
By contrast, some Minyan members reflected on their own difficul
ties with prayer as the opposite of ideal prayer. Doug described to me
his distress about his ability to pray.

I am very easily distracted. The color of the page of the Siddur, if the
ink is smeared or if someone moves, can distract me. Sometimes I
get really hung up on how I look. Do I look like I am bowing too
low? Am I bumping into somebody with my elbow? But some Sat
urday morning, for twenty minutes, I read the words, I move my
body, and I think, "Ah, this is really what it's like." And then my
mind wanders and I think, "Am I the only one who is not into it?" 12
For Doug prayer was poignantly self-conscious. He constantly reflected
on his own ability to pray "correctly," to be engaged by prayers, and to
do them properly. He occasionally achieved what he thought was the
proper prayer experience, only to have it evaporate. Doug did not have
a classical Jewish education. He grew up in a suburban Midwest syn
agogue where his parents were active members, and he received an
American Reconstructionist Jewish education, including the study of
Hebrew, prayers, Jewish history, and the festivals of the year. His family
and synagogue anticipated that he would be adequately educated to
mature successfully into a full member of the Jewish community. But
Doug apparently had doubts about that possibility as he recalled a high-
school Jewish camp experience where he encountered a European rabbi
who embodied an alternative vision of what prayer should be. "I had a
feeling it was a private world he created all by himself, wrapped in his
tallit. Yet it was in the midst of many people. He cut off distractions."
Doug saw and recognized the prayer he wanted. His inability to achieve
that seemed to him his own isolated problem, which he was less willing
to describe.
Both through positive example and self-criticism Minyan members
idealized that very tension that both social scientists and Jewish scholars
find in prayer: that it is uniform yet spontaneous. What Minyan mem
bers sought in their prayers was an experience that was fully Jewish
(unselfconscious, expert, comfortable) and at the same time critical and
interpretive. In the Minyan that religious experience, as well as the crit
ical interpretation of it, were constitutive of prayer.
Understanding these prayer constituents leads to the Austinian
question about whether such prayer is "felicitous." In the language of
liturgy, is it effective? Do Minyan members integrate the form and con
tent; do they interpret and pray with success? What is the source of their
willingness to pray, especially with the many doubts they express on
any occasion? Rather than presenting a somewhat abstracted picture of
Minyan prayer to answer these questions, I turn now to ethnographic
events in which people, in the course of a Sabbath meeting, addressed

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
the success of the group and the group's purpose. In the last chapter, I
looked at the structure, organization, and decorum of the Minyan, ar
guing that through these elements of community life members articu
lated their uniqueness and authenticated their Judaism without sub
stantially altering the Siddur. In this and subsequent chapters, I address
the constituents of the prayer experience. The former elements—struc
ture, organization, and decorum—articulated the generational formu
lation of these men and women. Community, interpretation, and the
Siddur were constitutive of their activities. Understanding the felicity of
their prayers depends on understanding how and, more importantly,
why these elements were linked. In that linkage we have the compo
nents of the Minyan's liturgical field.
Conflicts About Forms of Minyan Prayer
One of the constituent forms of Minyan prayer is interpretation, an
unceasing willingness to examine and question prayers and to refuse to
compartmentalize them from cognitive analysis. The community itself
was open to identical scrutiny. In their first year, founders recalled ask
ing questions weekly about the effectiveness of the davening. As the
group grew larger its members held meetings every two to three months
called "evaluation meetings." The purpose of these meetings was always
vague, and their contents were often explosive. Rarely held on the Sab
bath, so that they could discuss commonplace issues about their trea
sury, the tone of the meetings differed from the Sabbath. Members dis
agreed more, complained more, and expressed individual needs more
readily. The tone was critical and evaluative. "How can we as the Min
yan do better? What do we need to do better about?" In the American
discourse of the counterculture, they most readily spoke about "needs"
not being met. The wide variety of needs expressed could never possibly
be met, but neither did anyone censor them. Usually everyone spoke
and then an interpersonal politics prevailed. For in this entirely egalitar
ian group no leader determined whose needs were the most appro
priate. The personal power or respect individuals commanded, and the
subjects they addressed, determined whether their concerns were at
tended to. Though many people expressed a wish for more intimacy or
more socializing in the group, those needs were never addressed. Those
who complained about prayer, often for the opposite reason that it was
not made the group's primary concern, were usually taken seriously. A
vast array of members' needs were to be answered by prayer. These

discussions made clear what prayer was to facilitate, to symbolize, and
to achieve.
The subjects covered at the meetings were far-reaching, emotional,
and intensely critical, but in the end inevitably involved virtually every
one stating their satisfaction with the group. Their intense self-scrutiny
was matched by public statements of satisfaction with the group, con
sistently modified by its imperfections. These evaluation sessions, then,
were democratic, used the language of personal needs, and paralleled
their interpretive sequences about prayer. In both instances their scru
tiny was directed to efficacy. Did they pray well? Did their prayers ex
press the values, sentiments, and ideas they thought authentic and ap
propriate? One form of scrutiny was linked to Jewish text, the other to
the Minyan itself. The very act of such scrutiny convinced them that
they were visible in the tradition, able to express their concerns and
remain fully Jewish. That is what Minyan organization and structure
made possible. As they criticized tradition, they were drawn to it. As
they performed the tradition, they criticized it. Particularly in evaluation
discussions, members expressed all they wished the Minyan might be,
all their disappointments and hopes about what might happen in the
future. Because what the Minyan did together was pray, inevitably these
sentiments were expressed around prayer, and comments about prayer
were directed at the Minyan.
Although some members were less anxious for such examination to
take place, others always insisted on it. For example, Harvey in partic
ular urged that such discussions occur. He believed that the group
would succeed only through "rigorous religious honesty" enabled by
constant evaluation of what and how they prayed. He initiated an eval
uation meeting in the late summer of 1973, coinciding with most mem
bers' return from summer vacations. Harvey suggested during one
Shabbat lunch that it was time for a meeting and volunteered to chair
it. Though there was some discussion about the appropriateness of
holding such an event on Shabbat, Harvey prevailed, arguing that more
people were likely to come following services than on a Sunday night.
The Sabbath Evaluation
Though Harvey may have initiated the need for an evaluation, oth
ers must have agreed because forty members attended. All but eight
stayed for the evaluation following the obviously hurried lunch. There
was a sense that a discussion of consequence would occur. All the mem
bers pulled their folding chairs into a circle and looked to Harvey to

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
begin. “Our discussion today has to deal with whether or not the Min
yan is meeting our expectations," Harvey said. "What is it that we
want? I think it would be best to bring both positive and critical remarks
about the Minyan to our discussion. I want someone else to begin."
Martha suggested that "each person should have a chance to make a
brief statement in answer to your question, Harvey. Otherwise, only a
few people will say anything." 13
Members' comments that followed addressed a wide range of is
sues. Two themes were unifying: an affirmation of the value of the
group, and a series of individual needs that members wanted the Min
yan to accommodate. Saul introduced a subject that concerned several
I enjoy the Minyan very much. I'm excited about davening in this
group. But we need to create a mechanism to bring new people into
the group to teach them the melodies we use and familiarize them
with how we daven. We are davening much too fast. I like a slower
pace and this is disrupting me.
There was mumbled approval throughout the room. Saul had raised
two issues that were repeated in the discussion, the quality of prayer
and the formation of community among Jews with a variety of religious
backgrounds. As Saul experienced a direct link between his prayer and
community, his interest was rather personal. The approval for his com
ments indicated that forming community, and its impact on prayer, was
an issue. Then Aaron spoke, reflecting similarly on his membership:
I also feel very good about the Minyan, very positive about being
here. This is a context in which I can express my Judaism, which is
not God centered. That makes me feel like I belong, that there is a
place for me here that I have never felt in a synagogue. I would like
to see us have more regular retreats, to get away from the city sev
eral times a year for a whole Shabbat. I think that would be a good
thing for us to share.
Aaron, by contrast, looked to community in a way that was less system
atically linked to prayer. He was unusual for disclaiming God so openly
in his remarks. He emphasized his desire to strengthen community,
which in turn solidified his sense of Judaism, but he did not emphasize
prayer as integral to that process. Mark spoke next and shifted the topic
to the specific quality of their prayer.

I think it is fantastic that the Minyan is in its second year. Frankly, I
find it unbelievable that there are forty people here. When we
started the Minyan none of us would have imagined davening with
forty people. But perhaps it is time to start talking about some struc
tural changes. I find the lateness of the service very difficult. We are
lax about when we start. My body, the time of the day, and the
prayers I am davening have to be synchronized. If we don't say
pseukey de zeimrah (Psalms of praise) until eleven o'clock, I am al
ready a little tired and hungry. The liveliness and the force of the
prayers feels inappropriate. Then, standing through the Amidah
comes even later and feels wrong. We need either to shorten the
service, read fewer Psalms or take some measures to make the ser
vice more appropriate to these needs.
After a mixture of positive reflections on participating in the group
and random criticisms, several people turned their attention to the issue
of what they called “discussions" and I have described as “interpreta
tion." There was a general sense that the discussions were not suffi
ciently stimulating. They had become predictable. This was one of the
problems Mark had in mind when he said "structural changes" should
be considered. Jean suggested that everyone break down in three- and
four-person groups and all discuss the same thing at the same time.
Larry suggested simply that they should institute several discussions on
a number of topics each Shabbat. Martha commented that the group
should no longer divide into two groups but meet as a whole again. She
urged using more general topics for discussion. "We might discuss issues
about Judaism, moral and ethical behavior even." Finally, Don sug
gested that the Rashi study group be more open to more people. "Can't
someone announce anyone is welcome to join. It doesn't feel very ac
Jay took his turn next. Having come to Los Angeles several months
before for his first job since becoming a rabbi, he said:
I have ended up in the right city. I cannot imagine any place more
desirable than the Minyan to spend Shabbat. I would like to see a
retreat as well from time to time. I wish we could spend more parts
of Shabbat together. There are other portions of Shabbat than the
morning service. I also would like to see us study together during
the week.
Then Harvey finally took his turn.

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
I agree with Jay. I feel great satisfaction with the Minyan and this is
the best possible place to worship. But I do not like what is happen
ing to our davening. We sing too much while we worship; the mel
odies belong at meals or parties. We need a tone for the service that
recognizes there are right ways to say certain words and phrases.
We need more subtlety and more concentration and less singing.
Rob, who had passed his turn, now spoke up.
Harvey, you are wrong. Singing may be the means by which we
establish religious or Shabbat feelings. You cannot dictate a right
way to pray. This way is appropriate.
Other comments were briefer, agreeing or disagreeing with earlier re
marks. Harvey then summarized what had occurred.
Two basic issues have been raised. One concerns the retreat and the
other is structural changes, how we are doing things. I want some
concrete suggestions to come out of this feedback session.
Members agreed to a retreat, setting a date, establishing a planning
committee and subsequently choosing the topic of the "ritual structure
of the service."
Then the group again discussed structure and experimentation in
the Minyan service. Many members reiterated their desire for change or
experimentation in the service. Jay said, "Our davening is becoming so
predictable that I know the speed any particular hazan will daven at. It's
the pattern of the davening we need to alter." Martha added:
When I davened at a minyan at the University of Chicago, services
always had themes. Once I organized a service around Franz Rosen-
zweig's notion of the Sabbath as the day of revelation. 14 Why don't
we select themes and try that. We should devote one Sabbath a
month to an experimental form.
Harvey, who also had davened at the Chicago Minyan retorted: "I do
not want this minyan to be like that. One day I arrived to discover that
for the service we were to listen to taped music. The Siddur is central
and essential and nothing should change that." Martha's voice rose in
anger as she said to Harvey: "There is a lot of variation possible within
the Siddur. It is the laziness of people in the Minyan that keeps people
committed to the same form Shabbat after Shabbat. It takes effort to be
creative." Jay mediated the conflict by saying:

I trust and know the Minyan well enough to know that no one will
do a service that is too outlandish. Even if one service is a disaster I
can sacrifice a Shabbat and tell the people who organized it why I
think it failed.
When Joseph reiterated that he wanted to do things differently, Martha
said: "I hear Joseph say that he wants to do an experimental service and
I volunteer to help. Who else will join me?" Several people raised their
hands. That seemed to draw the discussion to a close.
The Minyan had once again taken a hard look at itself. Members
had set goals, agreed on concrete changes, and intensified their commit
ments to one another by agreeing to a retreat to look even more closely
at these issues while they shared an entire Sabbath together of prayer,
singing, eating, and relaxation. Harvey suggested that the retreat theme
should be prayer.
The wide-ranging comments at the evaluation discussion covered
the central issues that concerned Minyan members. Harvey's question
"How is the Minyan meeting my needs?" was responded to in three
ways. First, many people discussed the Minyan as a community. How
successfully had the Minyan incorporated newcomers as well as includ
ing those present? Was it a good setting for Jews who came to join?
Were people friendly enough and sensitive to one another's needs? In
addition, many expressed the wish that more activities would be shared,
that a greater sense of community could be forged. The second issue
raised by many members concerned what I call "identity." Several
people commented that this Minyan is a place that made them feel
really Jewish, or comfortably Jewish, or properly Jewish. Comments
about the openness of the group, the flexibility of members concerning
degrees of observance, and shared notions of prayer till focused on
members' sense that the group represented them in a way consistent
with the identities they sought to forge.
Finally, a number of comments, mostly from the group's founders,
focused on prayer itself. Several people commented on prayer aesthet
ics: how prayer felt, how it met the needs of those who wanted to create
a good environment for prayer. These comments were the widest rang
ing. Several people spoke about the rhythm, timing, tone, and mood of
prayer in the Minyan. Discussions of speed and type of music were par
ticularly frequent. But another set of concerns described "staleness,"
"predictability" and "lack of innovation." In brief, a number of people
commented that prayer was boring, unsatisfying, not working. Even
those who said that the Minyan was the best place to be for Shabbat

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
said the Minyan had to change or their prayer was endangered at worst
or boring at best.
Harvey also complained about the group's prayer life, but he pro
posed that the Minyan move in another direction. He argued that prayer
must conform more strictly to its traditional form and intent. Others
argued that the intent of prayer might be better met by experimenting
with the Minyan form of prayer. Members had as many suggestions
concerning discussions as they did the organization of the service.
Though their positions seemed polarized, in fact they both spoke to a
real and powerful fear about how well prayer functioned in the com
munity. Both sides insisted that praying required attention and care.
Those who favored experimentation felt that Minyan prayer was stifling
under the order of service that the group had established, that they were
moving toward a routinization of prayer that troubled them. Their con
cern was, to use the terms of Jewish tradition, that keva dominated.
While Harvey and those in sympathy with his position also feared rou
tinization they were equally concerned about how serious the Minyan
members were about prayer. Harvey and others feared experimentation
in such an atmosphere. Would members abandon the liturgy if given
the opportunity in favor, for instance, of popular music?
At stake in this discussion, which occurred as the Minyan began its
third year, was, in social scientific language, the relationship between
form and content. Could they achieve an authenticating traditional ex
perience if they altered any of the Minyan constructed forms that they
associated with normative Jewish tradition? How could they, as individ
uals and as a group, address the problem of the rigidity and invariance
of worship and of Minyan forms of prayer? Most of them acknowledged
that their carefully crafted form for worship was not doing what it
should be doing. They expressed high regard for the community, but
questioned its efficacy. Indeed, community was brought into the prob
lem of efficacy when Jay claimed that changing the forms depended on
trusting others in the Minyan. Harvey was obviously finding that diffi
cult to do. He apparently felt that his ability to pray was endangered by
Both perspectives revealed members' anxiety that the purpose that
created the Minyan as a unique setting for traditional Jewish prayer
might no longer sustain the community. In that case prayer threatened
to become an empty activity, resembling too closely the synagogue
and the Judaism of other generations of American Jews. The Minyan
needed to take prayer seriously to remain the Minyan, but no consensus
existed about how that might be accomplished.

Minyan members' fears that prayer could become an empty activity
was matched by their desire to fill prayer with an abundance of mean
ings. The evaluative statements made by members about what the Min
yan should be included the demands that prayer enable identity that it
provide community that it be interesting, and that it be fundamentally
traditional in character. It was not so much that prayer needed to be the
excuse for community; then people could simply have prayed the re
quired words and gotten on with the sociability they desired. Rather,
prayer was to provide a liturgical field in which community, identity,
and the conviction of oneself as truly Jewish could be formulated and
rehearsed. It was to provide private contact with God, with the histori
cal Jewish people, and with the members of the Minyan. If prayer failed
in that, and members understood that prayer was difficult under any
circumstances, then what they aspired to be as Jews was brought into
As a community of Jews, Minyan members found in their liturgy a
link to their collective pasts; an authentic language for personal expres
sion; comfort, discomfort, awkwardness and ease; an alienating lan
guage; and exhilarating truths. They resolved the contradictions by
creating a decorum that was not only familiar but unique to their gen
eration. They wrapped an ancient language within a contemporary one
of sound, sight, and personal relations. The continuity between the two
depended on a small and homogeneous group. As membership grew
and changed, not only were both languages challenged but so was their
compatibility. In matters of both prayer and law, various members won
dered what the tradition held for them. The questions challenged the
community as well. Could this group of people continue to offer one
another an authentic and personally significant Judaism?
From Minyan members' statements it was apparent that the efficacy
they sought from prayer was "covenantal." They wished to achieve con
nection and relationship to several communities simultaneously. Their
questions about efficacy, then, suggested that those relations were not
always created in prayer. In Chapter 3, members' frequent recourse to
organizational change is explained; the evaluation discussion led to the
same forms of resolution. For example, suggestions regarding the num
ber of discussion groups and the timing of prayer were potential "struc
tural changes," as Mark called them, that might bring about the ends
they sought. If form is in fact essential to accomplishing a desired end
for prayer, then it was unlikely that structural changes could make a
significant difference. Indeed, precisely because there was so little social
or institutional support for ritual, the form took on increasing signifi-

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
cance for supporting its own claims and providing its own plausibility.
Interpretation and discussion, so critical to the Minyan, undermined
form by continually examining it.
The Minyan was itself a creation of its liturgical field. Its approach
to Judaism was created by developments within America that wel
comed Jews into a bureaucratic middle-class that was eroding religious
observance and rewarding minimal religious participation. Prayer, even
if it was only to represent and transmit a general sense of Jewish iden
tity, relied increasingly on its performative form over and against a
world of social relations that did not reflect its values. Minyan members
were committed to prayer within their community, but were in conflict
over how to make it efficacious. At the same time that they attempted
to reorganize and restructure their community, which was their typical
response to perceived problems, they also addressed prayer forms.
Knowing that prayer forms were increasingly important to delivering
their messages and creating their efficacy, it seemed inevitable that Min
yan members would begin to address the issue of form.
Chapter 5 describes the Sabbath retreat that was precipitated by this
evaluation, where Minyan members talked about prayer. On this occa
sion, each member spoke personally about his or her own feelings about
a prayer life.
The questioning of forms in the above discussion was followed at
the retreat by questions about the very possibility of praying. These dis
cussions, taken together, make it possible to lay out all the constituents
of prayer in order to understand why they were apparently unravelling.
As in any diagnostic model, we are better able to understand how a
system works as it begins to work less effectively. To this point we know
that the Minyan depended on the interrelationship of its community, its
capacity to interpret, and traditional Jewish worship for any liturgical
event. Further, we know that its form promoted certainty at the same
time that it promoted the very ossification to which Minyan members
referred. The context producing these constituent forms was modem
American life, in which all of these young Jews were situated. They
lived in a secular, bureaucratized society, which they were about to par
ticipate in because of their careers. The same society made them yearn
for distinctiveness. Though that yearning led them to seek out integrat
ing rituals and communities, such possibilities were inevitably under
institutionalized. They were compelled to find in prayer forms possibili
ties that would continue to elude and frustrate them. Their attempts
were consistently judged by their efficacy, often defined as the ability to
meet personal needs. Chapters 5 and 6 address the unraveling and re-

weaving of prayer in order to explain how it is made plausible for the
1. Beruria is a figure conflated from two texts. She is named as a learned woman in
second-century b.c.e. texts. Her name is also associated with an unnamed learned daugh
ter of Hananya ben Teradyon. The texts are contemporaneous. The strands are drawn
together in the Babylonian Talmud, which dates from the third to the fifth centuries a.d.,
and she is mentioned as a scholar in her own right, as well as the wife and daughter of
learned scholars (Adler, ms.). Rabbi Akiba was a first-century rabbi and leader of a major
school of thought. He was instrumental in organizing a rebellion against the Roman con
trol of ancient Israel.
2. Secularization theory is both widely discussed and increasingly controversial in
the social sciences of religion. Its ideas date back to the foundations of sociology and the
social sciences in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. Martin (1978)
attempts to refine the theory and provides a good bibliography. Karel Dobbelaere (1981)
provides an excellent overview of the key positions in the development of secularization.
Hadden (1987) criticizes the theory, arguing that it is not in fact a theory, but a set of value
judgments. He lays out recent literature that contradicts it. My own position will be dis
cussed in this chapter.
3. Martin never defines ethos, but appears to mean a style of relating or a cultural
form of interaction. Hence, I assume that he suggests that institutions maintain religion
while the wider American culture undermines it.
4. Paradoxically, religion in America enjoys widespread support but limited credi
bility, rendering it incapable of obligating adherents to action or belief.
5. Mary Douglas is the only anthropologist I know who has directly addressed the
problem of a "plausibility structure." Beginning with her book Natural Symbols (1970), she
claimed that the ability to compare religion in different societies at different scales of com
plexity is an important task, hampered by evolutionary assumptions that society moved
from the tradition-bound to individualist-dominated. She takes up this theme again in a
critique of Berger's work, suggesting that his attention to plausibility structures is useful
because it looks at the social basis of belief (1983). However, she takes Berger to task for
his assumption that religion is always integrative and that individual choice did not
emerge with modernization. Douglas criticizes Berger for retreating behind the notion that
modem religion is ultimately subjective, not tied to social experience.
6. Austin goes into some detail differentiating types of speech acts and distinguish
ing between varying degrees of performatives. Evans (1963) has argued that liturgical
forms are most likely to be found within one of those differentiated forms. For my pur
poses that detail is not essential. Rather, I wish to focus on the contrast between perform
atives and statements of information and the importance of the form for conveying the
7. There are other theorists of ritual who address the form-content dichotomies, but
none of them have written specifically about prayer. Their work is nevertheless relevant.
They emphasize performance, how the ritual text is brought to life within social activity.
Bmck Kapferer has made a particularly significant contribution to this approach in his
study of Sri Lankan exorcism (1983; 1984). Kapferer argues that the ritual text (what I

Constituents of Minyan Prayer
will call content or semantics) not only takes its shape from performance, but is insepa
rable from it. Actors within ritual are brought into a relationship to the text only through
performance that creates their subjective experience and meaning. Schieffelin's work on
ritual seances in New Guinea (1985), Mac Aloon's edited volume on performance (1984),
Turner (1985) and Tambiah's work all reflect an interest in how form and content work
together, rather than one effacing the other, to create a cultural experience through per
formance. I will return to performance in Chapter 6, where I discuss authority.
8. The modem Jewish movement that is beginning to create liturgy is Jewish femi
nism. Its activists feel the need for new liturgy because of the masculine language used to
refer to God, and the masculine imagery of the Siddur and the absence of rituals relevant
to a woman's life cycle. Most havurah members have made use of some new life-cycle
rituals, particularly around the birth of daughters. The P'nai Or community, which draws
people throughout the Northeast, prints examples of some of these liturgies.
9. In his discussion of contemporary religion, Louis Dupre understands the differ
ence between secularized religion and traditional religion to be one of adherents "perceiv
ing" as opposed to "holding" their convictions (1983). By holding he means that individ
uals adhere to doctrine only after they have chosen to do so, a decision made from
"within." The person does not experience the power of the system from "without," not
amenable to choice. As a result, he contends that contemporary American religion puts
considerable emphasis on spirituality and mysticism.
10. Tzvee Zahavy explained this periodization of the liturgy (personal communica
tion). For a recent article on the subject see Reif (1983).
11. These core prayers are recited at the three daily services. They are the Shemah,
the Jewish creed that asserts the oneness of God, and the Amidah. The Amidah is a rab
binic prayer that on weekdays consists of eighteen blessings. It so epitomizes Jewish prayer
that it is sometimes referred to in Hebrew as "prayer." The form of the Amidah is altered
on the Sabbath and festivals to exclude prayers of petition, though it retains the same
structure and theology as the weekday version. In concluding his discussion of the form
and meaning of the Amidah, Alan Mintz writes: "The liturgy was a vehicle for expressing
the central value concepts of Talmudic civilization: teshuva as the daily act of self-revision,
the commitment to the establishment of justice and to the active pursuit of peace, a pro
found sensitivity to the power of rumor and slander in human community.... That is, in
prayer the task of the mind and the soul is not to work out the why and the how, but to
form a personal link of acknowledgment and responsibility in these fundamental cate
gories" (1984,417).
12. Doug's self-description is interesting to compare to that of Milton Himmelfarb's.
Himmelfarb, the well-known editor of the Jewish Yearbook wrote about the daily minyan
he attends: "Not many of us have or attain kawwanah—inwardness, concentration, the
merging of the pray-er with his prayer. They say it used to be common. Whether or not
that is so, I cannot recite a verse of six or seven words without my mind wandering. (I can
hardly listen to three bars of music at a concert without my mind wandering.) Besides,
kawwanah, decorum, singing and pace and every other occidental propriety are trash....
If we have to do without kawwanah, we may as well have niceness" (1972, 158). It is
Himmelfarb's lack of anxiety over his mind-wandering, coupled with commitment to at
tendance at a daily minyan, that provide such a striking contrast to Minyan members. His
plea for "niceness" is a request for a positive community to pray with where the pace of
prayer is slow enough to make the experience meaningful. He shares that desire with the
Minyan, whose members believe that fast-paced davening, typical of many traditional

synagogues, is pointless. But what is assumed by Himmelfarb to be normative—a large
institutional setting, fast-paced praying, and less than competent laity—forms the basis for
an alternative community that rejects and wishes to transform such norms. In addition,
Himmelfarb feels utterly at home with Jewish prayer and that seems sufficient for his
participation, even if he feels distracted.
13. Martha's suggestion was not simply democratic but particularly reminiscent of
feminist consciousness-raising techniques derived from a group therapy model. In the
therapeutic model everyone should be encouraged to articulate feelings, and no one
should censor or disagree. In the Minyan these techniques did enable wider participation,
and they were consistent with the "decorum" of the counterculture.
14. Franz Rosenzweig, a contemporary of Martin Buber, was an eminent German
Jewish theologian and scholar who lived in the early twentieth century.

The Prayer Crisis
We in the Minyan are like a tribe trying to
get back its traditional way of existence.
We've lost the magic formulas and we're
trying to come up with them ourselves.
The only thing we remember about the
tribe is that we really did have the formulas
and magic symbols. We can read all we
want, but we can't find the formula to do
the old magic work.
The ideal prayer experience for Minyan members, whatever differences
there were among them, involved taking the prayer text into the self.
Then the text was voiced as a product of the self that was also a product
of Jewish tradition. In prayer the self and the tradition are joined in
reproducing each in the image of the other. 1 Jewish tradition was repro
duced through prayer when Minyan members achieved that relation
ship between self and text. Whether this experience happened for only
twenty minutes for Doug, or more consistently for others, it was what
constituted effective prayer. When prayer was ineffective for some of its
members, the Minyan turned to organizational solutions to achieve this
reproduction of tradition. The self was linked to prayer through discus
sion so that praying would not have to be the only way to forge the
self's connection to tradition. Or they understood Jewish tradition as
changeable, so that including women, in violation of halaha, was nev
ertheless defined as the reproduction of Judaism. These changes sug
gested that the relationship between self and prayer was the significant
issue for a community that existed to pray together. Understanding how
the relationship was created is a problem suggested by an approach to
prayer that emphasizes the relationship between form, content, and
context. Only by understanding that each area formulates the relation
ship of self and tradition can we learn how prayer can articulate protest
and covenant. Neither incomplete belief nor frustration with prayer can
explain why people look to Jewish prayer to find a self.

We have seen, however, that members often found the interioriza-
tion of prayer difficult. What affect did the prayer constituents have on
that difficulty? Because those constituents of prayer articulated a rather
wide range of possibilities for what self, prayer, and tradition were, con
tradictions between them were inevitable. The American countercul
tural self of Minyan members was expressed in all the prayer forms. The
traditional texts of Judaism were not equally apparent in interpretation
or in the community, prayer constituents that often contradicted halaha.
Those texts, for example, were placed in tension with the interpreta
tions that were so often external to them. Hence, every effort to create a
link between prayer and the self was usually mediated through a form
that was set in opposition to the tradition. Members' willingness to
share the rejection of a literal reading of prayer text, for example, also
undermined their ability to reproduce a Judaism dependent on it. Often
their recourse to organization was in lieu of their reproduction of tradi
tional Judaism. Such struggles, mediations, and innovations would be
necessary in an Orthodox community where the self works to subordi
nate its will to the tradition. Minyan members' ability to achieve effec
tive prayer depended on, and was undermined by, the need to repro
duce the tradition as a product of the self. When halahic prayer was
prayed within the Minyan and interpreted by its members, then what
should have followed was the reproduction of Judaism. The covenant
with all its meanings was expressed in the act of praying.
Meaning in Complex Society
When I suggest that the text is external to the self, I am addressing
the problem of meaning in complex society. Traditional societies have
been pictured by social theorists as having a shared world view, a per
spective central to secularization theory. Some recent studies have at
tempted to understand or conceptualize what happens to religious
meaning, in particular, in the absence of such a shared world view.
Louis Dupre, whose work I referred to briefly in Chapter 4, distin
guishes between "holding" a conviction and "perceiving" through it
(1982, 6). By "holding," he not only implies a more voluntaristic notion
but also emphasizes that the authority for such convictions grows out of
the self. The primary difference between what he calls "genuine reli
gion" of the present and the past rests upon how it "integrates" religious
authority with individual conviction. Dupre argues that religious au
thority operates only insofar as it has been previously experienced and

The Prayer Crisis
"interiorized" (1982, 7). Conviction may be strong, but it is chosen on
an individual basis.
Anthropologist Peter Stromberg advocates a similar view of con
temporary religion in his ethnography of a Swedish Pietistic church,
Symbols of Community (1986). Like Dupre, he makes fine discriminations
within classical faith words to communicate ways in which meaning
is different in traditional and plural societies. Stromberg describes the
deeply committed church members as people who share a "commit
ment system" rather than a "consensual culture" (1986, 4-9). Persons
in complex society, he argues, become "committed" to an outlook be
cause they find it "uniquely meaningful." They do not "accept" the out
look, that is, "perceive through" it, in Dupre's terms. Because not every
one in the same society shares the same commitments, Stromberg
concludes that there is no "inherent meaningfulness" in these systems
(1986, 9). He advocates understanding contemporary religion in terms
of how believers appropriate and apply the outlook to constructing a
view of themselves. These "cultural resources" have truths to offer about
the relationship of the self to the world. His study demonstrates how
various members of the Swedish church constructed their identity
through Christian symbols that drew them into community with one
another. For Stromberg these meanings are not shared. They are neither
entirely private nor public. The "common discourse" of the church that
draws together Christian political activists and conservatives is forged
out of many meanings rather than from those shared by cultural con
sensus. Because they lack the consensus of commonly held meanings,
these modem men and women, according to Stromberg, do not so
much "believe" as "believe in" (1986, 17), a phrase he uses to empha
size the emotional component of their faith. Religious symbols are
meaningful insofar as they reveal important things about the self, who
then chooses to adhere to church community and doctrine.
Both Stromberg and Dupre address the relationship between the
self and what they call belief or perception and what I call interiorizing
tradition. The challenge Minyan members faced, in part, is faced by all
adherents of modem religion. Because of the way social life is orga
nized, each person chooses belief systems that are created as externally
authoritative. Since the choice is private, the interior experience in
creasingly dominates the way religion is formulated. Inevitably, modem
religion must work to keep adherents' choices alive so that they will not
look elsewhere. Minyan members are made constantly aware of their
choice by their struggle to interiorize the prayer text in order to repro
duce the tradition. Their consciousness of the struggle reflects their

awareness that the system is grounded in choice. The notions "holding,"
"believing in," and "commitment" are all examples of the process by
which an external text is interiorized and reproduced as authentic reli
gion. Dupre and Stromberg both note the effect that these approaches
to religion have on the religion itself. They do not note the weight it
places on the worshiper to continue to make the choice and to experi
ence the potential lack of connection between self and commitment.
How does the demand for the worshiper to increasingly personalize the
meaning of religion, to interiorize it, affect the process of praying? How
do these issues present themselves to American Jews in particular?
Minyan members are different from Stromberg's subjects in a crucial
way, more because they are Jews than Americans. The Swedish Pietists
inherited an intensely individualist and self-scrutinizing Christianity
from their forebearers. American Jews have a different sort of inheri
tance. Upon immigration, their task was to refashion a cultural and
communal world view into a denominational religion. In the first two
chapters I argue that American Judaism developed around decorum
and prayer aesthetics, noting that for the laity in particular such issues
were preeminent. Aesthetics carried and communicated messages that
content initially did not. Changes in liturgical content came only slowly
through denominational channels. A new decorum, realized at the local
level in the synagogue, took hold more rapidly and frequently. I argue
that the sorts of messages decorum and aesthetics carry are not classi
cally cosmological. As such they do not detail issues of good and evil,
punishment and reward, or justice and injustice. They are not readily
amenable to "holding" or "commitment." They are overwhelmingly
concerned with identity. What kind of person prayed in this setting?
How was the nature of worship—formal or intimate—tied to ideas
about God and community? While rich in detail, ultimately the aes
thetic messages were very general. In Jewish terms, they were not hal-
ahic; they did not offer a concrete and specific way of life. Instead, they
provided general guidelines for how to live as an American Jew. Aes
thetic messages seemed appropriate for men and women entering a new
society and for their children and heirs, who were to continue to nego
tiate their uniqueness within a society in which they sought accultura
tion. In short, meaning was general rather than particular, as I discuss
in Chapter 4. The array of Jewish symbols adapted to American life
articulated only general meanings. Adherents who found themselves
choosing among fewer and fewer obligations tailored their religion to
make minimal demands upon their time and resources.
It was in this environment that covenant and the sense of a Jewish

The Prayer Crisis
people, rather than detailed observance, flourished as the most signifi
cant referent of any Jewish symbol for the majority of American Jews,
particularly because Judaism was more a statement of identity than a
religious world view. Covenant was the most generalized Jewish mean
ing to emerge from American Judaism, because it was the religious ar
ticulation of community and responsibility for other Jews. If one contin
ued to pray a relatively traditional liturgy, then prayer and song
articulated general messages in a traditionalist language and in tradi
tional categories. The dramatically altered liturgies of Reform made
even more explicit the general significance of the tradition.
Covenant was addressed to a community where decorum was the
dominant concern. Though decorum articulated a set of middle-class
prescriptions concerning the form of interaction, neighborhood loca
tion, and kinship relations, as well as a minimum degree of religious
observance, and an emphasis on marrying within the faith, it did not
articulate cosmological themes as such. Rather, both decorum and
its aesthetic forms—uniformity and expressive individualism—have
largely been responsible for carrying the messages and meanings of
Jewish ritual and prayer—the centrality of sacred relationships—in
Decorum, because it concerns the regulation of social relations, is
thought of as nonreligious. If religion addresses the sacred, decorum
speaks to personal relations. In Chapter 2 I suggest that when religion
is the expressive medium for community and social relations, then de
corum and religion intersect. I argue in light of this twentieth-century
conjunction of the sacred and the social that aesthetic formulations are
the most powerful for articulating Judaism. Then American Judaism is
"held" or "believed in" insofar as it maintains identity or covenant
within American life.
Personal meaning and emotion, key concerns for Stromberg, are
brought about for Jews through the maintenance of tradition and the
link to the People Israel. Placing the self within that history, via prayer
in the case of the Minyan, is at the center of their "commitment system."
This commitment is partially achieved by interiorizing experience. It is
fundamentally achieved by participation, by literally being counted
within a Jewish community. Minyan members were certainly conscious
that whether or not they "believed in" Judaism, their reproduction of
the Jewish tradition kept the People Israel alive. When Joseph, the child
of Holocaust survivors, described himself as a faucet who was "turned
on to the whole Jewish people" in the Minyan, he articulated just such
a statement.

Minyan members, then, were vulnerable to three problems in their
effort to interiorize prayer. First, American Judaism was built on general
meanings transmitted through aesthetics that make it difficult to sup
port the precise world view of the Siddur. Second, as outlined in Chap
ter 3, there is virtually no cultural or social structural grounding for
Jewish texts in American life. As in the Swedish example, emotion must
play a major role in generating commitment. However, as Stromberg
notes, Swedish Pietists are Swedes. He is able to find a shared view of
the world between the films of Ingmar Bergman and the church he
studied. This is not the case for the Minyan members for whom Judaism
in large part played a crucial role in differentiating their identity from
the culture around them. The ability to interiorize text was made diffi
cult by their participation in American society.
Of course Minyan members, like most educated American Jews,
were active consumers of American Jewish culture. They virtually all
read the novels and short stories of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard
Malamud, and were beginning to read Cynthia Ozick. They knew the
films of Woody Allen, whose more popular film, Annie Hall had not yet
been made. They, and many of those in the Jewish counterculture, were
decidedly ambivalent about these popular figures. They did not want to
be identified with the assimilationist culture—the Jewish family, or the
aspirations and activities of its characters—most of these writers de
scribed and represented. Articles in havurah journals and newspapers
debated the authenticity of these writers' Jewish outlooks. In contrast
to most American Jews, they were more interested in modem Israeli
writers who have subsequently grown in popularity in the United
States. They were also drawn to the Yiddish language, music, and liter
ature. They praised Isaac Bashevis Singer over Bellow or Roth. How
ever, when the mainstream Jewish community attacked Roth or Bellow
as “self-hating Jews," writers for Response were quick to point out their
contributions to getting the work of Yiddish writers translated into En
glish. Ironically, the more American a Jewish writer or artist might be,
the more these Jewish counterculturalists and intellectuals were anx
ious to deny his or her authenticity. As American Jews they sought lit
erary and artistic expressions about their lives in the past or at a distance
in Israel.
Finally, insofar as identity is successfully forged with the texts, there
are, as noted above, inevitable contradictions in the fashioning of the
self. The expressive individualism of the counterculture worked contin
ually against the text. Even though Minyan members "chose" prayer

The Prayer Crisis
and modified observance, they constantly modified what they chose be
cause they were trying to live Judaism within America. Hence, they
were still engaged in their grandparents' practices of transforming cul
ture into religion. This process is nowhere more difficult than in main
taining a regular prayer life because of the need to articulate the world
view of the prayers.
Ritual Poles and the Problem of Prayer
Religion in contemporary Western society is fundamentally affected
by the relationship between the person and religious authority. Only
when the self authorizes belief for her or himself can it hold any power.
From Stromberg's work we can assume that prayer is efficacious as long
as it continues to reveal relevant insights about the self.
I argue in the previous chapter that much of what is assumed as the
result of secularization can only be explained by also examining ritual
as performative, or studying ritual as a performance. It is equally impor
tant to ask how the problem I have described as interiorization results
from the structure of ritual and prayer, as well as from its social context.
I concur that a significant change in Jewish practice and belief has re
sulted from a lack of consensus in modem Western culture. However, it
is equally important to recognize the impact of ritual on the problem of
creating a link between text and self in contemporary society. Indeed,
were we to ignore the inevitability of ritual form distancing participants,
we could not adequately understand the impart of contemporary soci
ety on religion.
Anthropologists who have written recently about ritual have noted
its peculiar tendency to evoke both intention (engaged participation)
and "ossification," a dulling routinization. Ritual, in all settings then,
may evoke distance, routinization, and alienation in participants. Ritu
als embody ideas and truths, but are performed in social settings where
the interests of various groups may well be served by them. Hence, they
will communicate both cosmology and status concerns, often at the ex
pense of one another. This point is made with exceptional clarity by
Stanley Tambiah.
All the substantive features which nourish the formalism of ritual
also conspire to empty it of meaning over time. Cosmological ideas,
because they reflect the epistomological and ontological under-

standings of the particular age in which they originated, and be
cause they are subject to the constraint of remaining accurate and
invariant, are condemned to become dated over time and increas
ingly unable to speak the minds and hearts of succeeding genera
tions facing change and upheaval. During these periods of ossifica
tion, rituals may increasingly lose whatever semantic meanings
they previously had and may carry primarily indexical meanings
which derive from rules of use and from pragmatics or functional
considerations. (1985, 165)
Tambiah understands the poles of intention and rigidity to result from
the inevitable link of ritual form to ritual content, which results in cul
tural messages being communicated through redundancy and formality.
He imagines these meanings to be a "bouquet" held together by ritual
forms. Hence, ritual meanings are capable of taking on radically differ
ent significance over time.
He suggests, nevertheless, that one must be cautious in assuming
that ritual is inevitably more functional than meaningful. He points out,
as does Bauman (1975, 298), that in periods of religious revival seman
tics (meaning or cosmological truths), attached to ritual, emerge again
and dominate political and social interaction. Every word of religious
discourse can be made relevant to a particular moment of political up
heaval by leaders and followers. In my terms, ritual may be interiorized
and thought to speak personally to and for the self. Tambiah notes,
nevertheless, that in time the demands of everyday life will reassert
themselves, tethering rituals to the social positions, interests, and com
mitments of practitioners, which results in ossification. Ritual, in short,
oscillates between poles of revival, in which semantics dominate and
new possibilities are articulated and rigidity, in which rituals will largely
serve the interests of those in power, and rote repetition will dominate.
Tambiah argues that ritual is most likely to rest somewhere in between
these extremes, articulating both types of meanings in light of one an
It is important to exercise care in comparing the causes of the ossi
fication of ritual. I suggest two different sources for the alienation of a
person from ritual. First, his or her disbelief in text or activity may lead
to experiencing the ritual as "stale" or unconvincing. Secondly, follow
ing Tambiah, ritual may become routine or empty because it is asso
ciated with power and status relations. Though the causes of ossification
may differ, the effect may be substantially the same. When worshipers
are distanced from ritual in traditional society, we may argue that ritual

The Prayer Crisis
meaning has changed. When worshipers are distanced from ritual in
contemporary society meaning and behavior may have changed.
The ability to interiorize the prayer texts for Minyan members de
termined whether they understood their prayer to be routinized, lacking
meaning and sincerity or vital and effective. Routinization had a dif
ferent significance for Minyan members as contemporary worshipers.
They did not live in the societies that concerned Tambiah, in which
ritual is part of normal social discourse, including relations of power
and status. Minyan members found in prayer a literally alternative lan
guage to secular and non-Jewish society. Its purpose, however, was to
sanctify an identity for members that differentiated them from the larger
society. Minyan members could not link their prayers to society and a
culturally shared daily life because they lived in a pluralist world. As
non-Orthodox Jews they did not live in a Jewish enclave where ritual
was the primary medium for social interaction. As a result, the meaning
of prayer was radically limited. It lacked indexical or functional signifi
cance. Its primary referents, then, had to be cosmological, but narrowed
to the covenantal ones I described in Chapter 4.
Effective or vibrant prayer was full of meanings that placed the wor
shiper within the text of prayer, making believable the link between text
and self. Ossification implied something more devastating than rote
participation. In this context, ossified prayer was ultimately alienating
because the worshiper felt him or herself to be disconnected from the
text. Their inability to interiorize the text resulted in experiencing
prayer, community, and interpretation in conflict.
At the retreat, suggested at the evaluation meeting, members came
to define themselves as overwhelmingly at odds with prayer. Most of
them thought of themselves as unable to pray effectively. They for
mulated their failure in a series of dichotomies—between content and
form, aesthetics and content, and authentic and empty prayer—that of
fered insight into the very processes that alienated them from prayer.
Further, their self-perceptions revealed the circumstances that evoked
alienation. Minyan members' formulation of prayer reflected the con
flict in the very prayer constituents that formed the linkage between self
and text. And their attempt to resolve their prayer problems also sug
gested that each constituent itself embodied an approach to interiorizing
text that was not equally effective. Interpreting texts, relying more on
community relations, or changing halaha, each had different implica
tions for die resolution of the problem. Felicitous prayer, then, de
pended on interiorizing prayer by being able to synthesize its constitu

The Minyan Retreat
A series of cars drove along the Pacific Coast Highway leaving Los
Angeles on a Friday afternoon in September. They made their way from
the coast up the foothills, carrying twenty Minyan members to a camp
one woman located for their Sabbath retreat. The Hilltop Camp, forty-
five minutes from Los Angeles, was the improbable setting for a Sabbath
devoted to prayer, celebration, and discussion. Its main lodge room was
covered with snake skins, bear heads, and various animal furs. It looked
more suitable for hunting than for the praise of God. But Minyan mem
bers, as they do at the university and in one another's homes, altered
the space to make it their own.
A planning committee—Harvey, Martha, Jacob, David, and Jean—
drew up plans for the retreat. They understood the focus on prayer,
agreed upon at the evaluation meeting, to mean several things and
planned accordingly. First, they scheduled a discussion for members to
freely express their feelings and attitudes about prayer. They wrote and
distributed questions about the differences between verbal and nonver
bal forms of prayer and the direction and focus of their prayer (see Fig
ure 3). They also appointed leaders for Friday night, Saturday morning,
and Saturday afternoon and evening prayers. In the place of Torah dis
cussions, to precede prayer they designed two hour-long classes on the
history and structure of the Siddur. Jacob, Harvey, and Mark would lead
the classes. They also decided that a Saturday afternoon meeting would
allow Minyan members to decide what to change or retain in the tradi
tional liturgy in forming their own official liturgy. They planned again
to discuss the future of creative services in the group. It was to be a
Sabbath of many textures: prayer, analysis, study, discussion, song, and
The planners also organized the meals for the weekend. They ap
pointed a committee of volunteers to clean the oven and stove of the
camp kitchen to make it kosher. Preparation of vegetarian meals, out of
deference to the group's few vegetarians, was distributed among mem
bers so that no cooking would actually take place on the Sabbath. The
camp's kitchen would be used only to reheat food prepared earlier. All
food was brought to the camp before sundown. They planned a com
pletely observant Sabbath; lights would not be turned on and off, cook
ing would precede the twenty-four hour period, and travel would be
The Minyan retreat occurred in what V. W. Turner describes as a
"liminal period," a transitional time "betwixt and between" periods of

The Prayer Crisis
Kelton Free Minyan Retreat
As we did at the first Minyan retreat, we shall go around the room on Friday
evening, this time asking each person to express briefly her and his feelings on
prayer—questioning, doubting feelings as well as positive, affirmative feelings.
Here are some questions you might wish to think about in preparing for this
discussion (please don't feel you have to address all—or any—of them!), as well
as any others you might wish to add or substitute:
• Do we pray primarily for the benefit of ourselves, of others, or of God?
• What do we want to say when we pray? Do the words in the traditional
Siddur say what we want to say? Does the Siddur reflect our own world view?
Should it?
• What is the best language for prayer? Why do we need language at all? Can
song or dance be prayer?
• How personally should we address/speak about God in prayer? How shall we
talk about God—in the second or third person? In the masculine or the fem
inine? In other ways?
• Are images like "king," "Father," "throne," etc., a help or a hindrance in en
tering prayer? Are there other images that might be more helpful (e.g.,
"lover," "companion," "energy," etc.)?
• What is the discipline needed to get into praying? Is there a difference between
praying and davening? Between davening and meditating? Between prayer
and group singing?
• What are the advantages/disadvantages of spontaneous prayer over against
prayers prepared by others? Of prayers in the Siddur over against prayers writ
ten by our contemporaries?
• How do we feel about praising God? For what can we praise Him? How do
we feel about petitioning God? What are valid requests? What is the role of
love and fear/awe in praise and petition?
• How much of our prayer is an intellectual experience? An emotional experi
ence? A bodily experience?
• If we have theological problems with certain prayers, is it hypocritical to say
them anyway? What values can we find in prayer beyond the words? How
far is it "legitimate" to go in reinterpreting theologically difficult prayers?
regular work, status relations, time, and place (1967). Though the Min
yan normally met for a ritual period suspended from daily interaction
and requirements, a retreat was a further separation from even the char
acteristic Minyan Sabbath. Similarly, at the Minyan retreat normal in
teractions were intensified by physical closeness and extended time to
gether. Members prayed three times a day, not just once, and sang for
hours, not for thirty minutes. They took long, ambling Sabbath after-

noon walks, not short ones home. They observed the religious require
ments of the most observant, not for two hours, but for twenty-four
hours. During the retreat their time together was structured by a tradi
tional observance of the Sabbath, punctuated by prayer services and
meals. All participants experienced their community and their Jewish
observance in a more focused fashion than normal. Turner maintains
that such intensification of relations and activity in a setting removed
from ordinary routine allows and encourages the opportunity for group
introspection, for assessment and scrutiny of its basic norms. The Min
yan retreat facilitated this process. The Sabbath, the suspended day be
tween the end and the beginning of the week, took on heightened sig
nificance during the retreat.
Upon arrival they gathered in the large multipurpose room of the
camp, which was to be the site of meals, discussions, and some praying.
Their communal sleeping quarters were directly off this room. Only two
women shared another dormitory at the other side of the multipurpose
room because they were uncomfortable about the arrangement. The
bathrooms were sex segregated. The kitchen lay behind the central
room and both men and women moved in and out of it, sharing in food
As the sun began to dip behind the mountains, most of the women
initiated the Sabbath by lighting candles placed in candlesticks and sang
the blessing over them. It was an unusual moment in the Minyan,
whose members never gathered on Friday night, to hear only female
voices, to watch only women act in a ritual capacity. When the candles
were lit everyone turned to each other saying "Shabbat Shalom" and
"Gut Sabbos." The atmosphere was warm and familial. Many minutes
were spent in Sabbath greeting among people who had previously been
standing together for more than an hour. There was something new
about their interaction when they welcomed the Sabbath, and the em
braces that followed the ritual marked that change.
They prayed the evening service. Harvey acted as Hebrew hazan. He
was judged a fine hazan partially because of his ability to lead songs and
create a spirited tone for the service. Saul acted as English hazan, con
sciously praying loudly to encourage those who wanted to pray in En
glish, which he usually did not. The service planners included, in addi
tion to the liturgy, a number of additional readings of poetry and
comments by rabbis on the Sabbath. These additions were intended to
enhance the prayers by adding insightful and beautiful descriptions of
the Sabbath. These readings carried two messages: that liturgy was
open-ended and to be added to and that people could bring poetry and

The Prayer Crisis
prose to enhance the experience of the whole community. These addi
tions, though the source of conflict in discussions of "creative services,"
were consistent with the community's emphasis on "experience" and
on their own activist participation. With the conclusion of the service,
members again turned to each other with Sabbath greetings, warm em
braces, and familial kisses.
Then all the members sat down to a large and festive meal preceded
by communal blessings over wine and bread. For an hour after the
meal, they sang zmierot (table songs associated with the Sabbath),
which, while they varied in tone, pace, and melody, were all spirited
and created an atmosphere of unity. Various members even argued over
melodies, reflecting the variety of settings in which such songs were
learned: camp, home, synagogue. People advocated their own familiar
tunes and some enjoyed learning new ones. The arguments were play
ful and proceeded with relish. These people liked to sing. The meal
ended with the Grace blessings, birkhat ha mazort, which were also sung
almost in their entirety.
After the dinner dishes were cleared, members drew their chairs
into a circle. They again made jokes about the snake skin and animals
decorating the walls. But a rosy glow pervaded the room—shared by
people who ate good food, drank good wine, and shared hours of fel
lowship in prayer, music, and conversation. Jacob introduced the dis
cussion, saying that the Planning Committee designated this time as the
occasion to talk about the "meaning of prayer to the individual."
We chose this topic because of the evaluation session we held sev
eral weeks ago. We want this Shabbat to really focus on prayer,
what it is and what it means to us. The previous Shabbat you all
received the questions we raised to allow you to think about these
issues for this conversation. Harvey, why don't you begin?
Harvey did begin and his lengthy comments surprised virtually every
one and clearly affected much of what followed. In fact, he ignored the
majority of the questions the committee had carefully written and an
swered only those questions that focused on the direction of prayer—to
whom is prayer directed and what do we say when we pray? Harvey's
comment set a therapeutic tone for the discussion. He emphasized his
feelings, his conflicts, and his pain regarding prayer. The impact of this
presentation was great precisely because in the Minyan he increasingly
presented himself as a traditionalist, as the spokesperson for prayer
rather than singing and for the Siddur rather than innovation. His intro-

spection and doubts, expressed in a circle of equals, seemed to set a
pattern for the remainder of the evening that overshadowed the ques
tions the committee, of which Harvey was a member, wanted discussed.
Jacob, you're getting even with me for making you introduce the
discussion. But in fact I would like to begin. When I was young I
was influenced by a number of teachers who were Orthodox Jews.
They changed my behavior. I became an observant Jew. I prayed
three times a day and I observed the mitzvot as fully as I could. I
became so good at rote and rapid morning prayers that I was able
to sleep late, daven Shacharit (the morning service), and still make
the bus. Praying, for me, was perfecdy normal and completely com
fortable. The prayers were my language; the Hebrew came with
complete ease. I have never lost the sheer comfort of prayer. But
when I went to college I had a crisis in meaning, at least that is the
way I think about it now. I no longer could see God out there as a
transcendent force over me. I continued to daven, though less reg
ularly, because I came to see prayer as metaphoric, as I would see
literature. I never again could look at prayer literally, as the truth it
had been for me as I rotely repeated it each morning of high school.
I am comfortable with prayer, with the Hebrew and the tradition,
but I am uncomfortable with the content and the meaning of the
words. I am searching to find how I can keep the tradition embod
ied in a form whose content I can never understand as true. I do not
know how to bridge the gap between my childhood and my adult
life. Metaphor lacks the power, effectiveness, and importance that
prayer once had for me.
In his lengthy and reflective comments, Harvey voiced a paradigmatic
dilemma for some Minyan members: “Prayer is important to me, but it
is not true." He suggested that everything about the prayer experience
was personally appropriate. Words such as comfort, and normal particu
larly underscored Harvey's ability to live as a Jew within American so
ciety, comfortable in two languages and two cultures. However, normal
ity and comfort were ineffective responses to the young adult "crisis" of
which he spoke. As he redefined prayer as "metaphoric," his behavior
changed. He could not pray as often. His experience of prayer was also
altered, for he contended that he was searching for something to help
him continue to pray.
In abstract terms, one would say that Harvey no longer derived "se
mantic" meaning from prayer. The meaning of the prayer became re
mote to him when he could no longer envision God as a transcendent
force in his life. Harvey, however, continued to find prayer meaningful.

The Prayer Crisis
but he shifted his definition of meaning to "metaphorical" meaning
rather than "truth." His contrast between literature and prayer indicated
that prayer should be believed, not merely studied as literature. In short,
Harvey polarized "comfort" on the one hand and "meaning" on the
other. He claimed to be a competent Jew, but an alienated one.
Other members who grew up as observant Jews expressed parallel
sentiments. They echoed Harvey's dichotomy between comfort and
meaning. Mark, for instance, made a related statement.
I confronted the meaning of prayer very late in my life. I prayed
without thinking because it was expected and it was right. Now I
am just beginning to think about what the prayers mean, if I believe
them, or how I feel about what they say. I have stopped compart
mentalizing. Even though prayer is familiar and beautiful, I am
worried about what those conflicts do to my ability to pray. Prayer
is pleasant for me; the familiar tunes and the words move me.
Mark talked not only about comfort but about obligation. His family
was more observant than Harvey's. It was not the teachers' but his fam
ily's expectations that induced him to pray. When Mark stated that
thinking about meaning came late to him, he suggested that he lived
within a system he never questioned through his entire education and
rabbinical degree. Now, as a Hillel director, those questions emerged. He
noted the evocative, affective dimensions of prayer for him that are trig
gered by music and language. However, by language he did not mean
semantics as much as sound, rhythm, and the Hebrew language. He also
indicated, though less forthrightly than Harvey, that questions about
meaning and belief were threatening to prayer. He could not welcome
those questions without acknowledging his anxiety that he might not
be able to continue to pray.
Martha was also raised in a home that was religiously observant.
Her Jewish education, facility in Hebrew, and regular participation in
synagogue prayer assured her competence in Jewish ritual. But she also
dichotomized her competence and her prayer life.
In the world I grew up in, if you are Jewish you do certain things. If
you don't do those things you are not Jewish. There are no ques
tions or choices. As a result of attending Yeshiva day school, I too
am comfortable with prayer. I know how to walk back three steps
and bow during the Amidah. I know what happens if a holiday falls
on a Sabbath, and for the second day whether you say Havdalah (a
ritual) first before you light candles to begin it. But a lot of my

religious feelings are guilt motivated. I have a love-hate relationship
with Judaism, some of it out of love, but mostly guilt. I want to
know what the prayers mean and I want them to mean something
for me. I don't want just to do it correctly, but with feeling.
Martha did not state that she found prayer difficult. She asserted though
that prayer could not simply be rote repetition as she, apparently like
Mark, had been raised to believe. She wanted prayer to have meaning,
to speak to her situation personally, and without that quality she felt her
tie to it was motivated by what she alternately called "hate" and "guilt."
She declared that her expert knowledge of its rules could not be a suffi
cient basis for prayer.
Harvey, Martha, and Mark envisioned their prayers as a disjunction
between form and content, lacking cosmological truths. Though all
willingly acknowledged their difficulty with prayer content, all eagerly
wanted to maintain the traditional Siddur and paid close and detailed
attention to its aesthetic forms. Rather than form and content working
together, they experienced the opposite. They described the form of tra
ditional prayer with great satisfaction, using words such as pleasure and
comfort. It was meaning that was problematic. Neither competence nor
pleasurable familiarity appeared to sustain prayer semantics.
Their questions about meaning are best understood as a version of
an Austinian infelicity. Saying prayers according to a proper form was
not sufficient for creating a prayer experience. The "hollowness" or
problematic intention involved in their prayer, however, seemed less at
fault than some members' inability to integrate form and content, a
problem of prayer context. They could not take prayer in to speak it as
their own because what had enabled them to do that previously had
changed somehow. Although meaning, as we have seen, is inevitably at
risk in ritual because of the formality and invariance of the medium, it
had not emerged previously in the Minyan as a widespread problem.
No one regarded the content of prayer as literal truth; hence, statements
of the truth and falsity of the prayers, or disagreements with them, did
not normally stand in the way of praying. The prayers, conflict aside,
retained their ability to ignite an experience of sincere praying; that is,
people continued to participate, retaining traditional prayers with all
the conflicts they raised, because something happened to them that elic
ited their sense of a proper prayer experience. In this discussion, their
conflict with meaning, narrowly defined, was brought to the center of
their prayer experience rather than remaining to the side.
Another group of Minyan members, who were raised in minimally

The Prayer Crisis
observant homes and in Reform synagogues where they had virtually
no contact with traditional Judaism, addressed a dramatically different
set of problems. They expressed little conflict over the semantic signifi
cance of prayer, but focused primarily on their emotions. However, by
the evening's end the two sets of comments came to be identified with
one another. Rae, an occasional member, then a graduate student in her
early twenties in a suburban college, made a comment that was echoed
in a variety of ways throughout the discussion circle.
I grew up as a Reform Jew. Yet I take real comfort in tradition, and
the sound of Hebrew, which I do not understand. Last summer I
went to Hawaii. While I was there I visited a synagogue. I felt a real
tie with those people, with Jewish peoplehood. It is the tradition
which matters to me.
Rae's attitude toward prayer made semantics irrelevant. Prayer itself was
a mnemonic. Its sounds reminded her of Judaism, invested her with the
sense of her own Judaism. Her view was echoed by Miriam who said
that though she did not understand Hebrew, it was only that language
that gave her the "emotional" meaning she sought in prayer. Other
members spoke of envying Martha because of her ease and facility with
prayer. Alan, for example, a young psychiatrist raised as a Reform Jew,
claimed that the struggle for him to pray in Hebrew was alienating,
though he wanted to pray in a traditional form.
What made these comments representative of so many others was
their emphasis on those aspects of prayer that elicited emotional re
sponses. These three people focused on Hebrew. In addition, others
talked about the music and the rhythm of prayer as essential. Rae, Mir
iam, and Alan did not present themselves in crisis. They suggested that
prayer content was irrelevant and that the form of traditional prayer
elicited, or had the potential to elicit, the effect they desired. Other
members held this view, but some chastised themselves for it. One
woman called the primacy of her "pleasure" in prayer a failure. In a
manner that was reminiscent of the evaluation, she despaired of any
effort to pray that was a mere pretense for a social gathering. Terri, one
of the Minyan's most active members, said:
Prayer makes me feel guilt more than anything. All my life I have
been told to pray to reach God or to pray to God. God should be in
front of me where I can see Him. Instead, I always think of Him at
the back of me. Is He there? I'm looking. The fact is I have never
been in a prayer situation for any reason other than my enjoyment

or because it seems interesting. I like the music and singing best of
all. I feel very guilty about that. I often feel like a failure. I'm afraid
I am lazy and that's what keeps me from praying more.
Terri was by no means the only member who associated prayer with
failure. She was critical of her own individualist motivation for prayer
and her attachment to music. She worried that she "was not reaching
God." Terri's use of the label failure implicated others who prayed just
because it pleased them. No one disagreed with her, contending that
their prayers were adequate or successful as a result of such a motiva
tion. The label stuck so effectively that at mid-point in the discussion,
Aaron found a way to summarize everyone's comments that, albeit hu
morous, put the whole reason for prayer in question.
After hearing these comments I find myself wondering why we
don't get together on Saturday mornings to daven the New York
Times. [And Mark added, "As long as we do it in Hebrew and add
music and rhythm."] I share these problems too, of course. I love
the Hebrew and the group praying together, but these words don't
mean much to me. I disagree with them.
The problem of the meaning of prayer presented itself differently to this
group of members, for whom prayer was less familiar. They raised ques
tions about their motivation and discipline. They knew precisely why
they prayed, seemingly with less conflict than the group's members who
grew up within normative Judaism. They prayed because it made them
feel more Jewish. The whole group, particularly in Aaron's terms, saw
such a reason for prayer as unacceptable because it made any content
consciously irrelevant.
When members contrasted these two sets of personal assessments
of worship, the aesthetics of prayer emerged in the discussion as the
most significant constituent element of their experience. One group
claimed that aesthetics and competence were not sufficient for prayer.
The other group claimed that, lacking competence, aesthetics was all
that sufficed, even if in one case it induced guilt. The effectiveness and
rigidity of prayer were both articulated in aesthetic terms. What aesthet
ics achieved seemed to be a dangerous question for Minyan members. If
it allowed them, as they saw it, to dichotomize intellect and ritual per
formance, or community and Judaism, then they had failed. Aaron
made them aware that they may have really believed that the great tra
dition of Jewish prayer was interchangeable with the daily news of the
Times, as long as it provided a basis for community.

The Prayer Crisis
Though the second group of Minyan members came at the problem
from the opposite direction, they too were made to understand that
their prayer "misfired." However, as they had less competence and ex
perience at it, they seemed to rely primarily on an emotional sense of
belonging as their test of prayer effectiveness. Their praying was less
authentic and less Jewish.
Two comments that came near the end of the discussion repre
sented two different responses to what several members perceived as a
developing crisis. The members who offered them, Ed and Jacob, were
both Minyan founders, both Reform rabbis, and both Hillel directors.
Yet despite these similarities, the vision of prayer they each offered, for
themselves and the group, differed radically. Their statements focused
less on their familiarity with prayer than on the form of belief required
for praying. Because of their high "expert" status as rabbis, neither man
was in a position to envision prayer as the second group of Minyan
members did. Ed and Jacob could not simply articulate their problems
and doubts, hopeful that if others succeeded in praying well, perhaps
one day they would too. They could not imagine that with a little more
Jewish education, or a new angle on the matter, they might pray well.
Ed spoke with sincerity about his difficulty with prayer.
The Siddur is a source of great pain for me. The fact that I am fluent
in Hebrew makes the problem considerably harder to deal with. I
do not know how to say prayer in any form whatever if I cannot
find meaning in those words, let alone the prayers that I completely
disagree with for their values or world view. The tradition and the
beauty of the music just are not enough.
Jacob's comments were entirely different, and only he and Jay, another
rabbi, described prayer as inducing no conflicts for them.
I have been on vacation for the whole month of August. I had some
excellent and beautiful experiences with prayer in the Southwest by
myself, outside or in my motel room. But being back I realized that
I missed the Kelton Free Minyan. It was not just the people who I
have seen, but the davening experience. I am surprised because I
am a rather private person who does not usually become attached
to groups. But in addition to loving the Minyan, I also love the
Siddur. It is a document that contains everything. I have never felt
it needed to be made relevant. I approach it as if it were a play or
novel, but I am a character in this piece of literature, not simply the
audience. As a piece of literature there are certain questions I do not

ask of the Siddur. I don't scrutinize the language in search of literal
truths. I seek interpretation, subtlety of language and levels of
meaning. Tonight I am very sad because I do not know how to bring
together my two good Mends, the Siddur and the Kelton Free
The contrast between Ed and Jacob could not be more obvious. One
essentially advocated abandoning the Siddur for prayer. The other de
scribed an attitude he felt was essential to prayer. Jacob claimed that his
prayer experience did not rest on belief, but on placing himself within
the prayer and suspending other questions.
Why Meaning Took Center Stage
That most Minyan members felt prayers lacked meaning for them is
undeniable. It was a powerful assertion, but also a complex one.
People's willingness to express their "crisis," to define others as "in cri
sis," and to continue to pray suggests that they were not making a
simple statement of fact. They were expressing needs and concerns;
they were not saying that prayer was meaningless if that meant that the
appropriate action to follow was to stop praying. Ed, the person who
came closest to that position, dropped out of the Minyan a short time
after the retreat and never returned. Though he had many conflicts with
the Minyan, none was as intense as his view that the group had an
unyielding attachment to traditional prayer. His attitude, one of total
alienation, led him to an action no one else took.
People's conflicts with prayer were expressions of, above all, a dis
junction between themselves and the texts. I noted above that interiori-
zation was difficult for Minyan members for three reasons. First, Amer
ican Judaism developed its meanings primarily through aesthetics,
which were not well suited to the detailed cosmology of prayer. Second,
that American society, as both pluralist and secular, provided no "index
ical" meanings related to status and political relations. No secular au
thority beyond the self-sanctioned prayer. Finally, Minyan members'
desire to link themselves to the tradition involved articulating a basic
resistance to tradition, because they constituted themselves very much
as individuals who "chose" obligation rather than individuals who felt
subordinated to it.
These three stresses on prayer are linked rather straightforwardly to
the three prayer forms that Minyan members evolved to constitute
prayer. They were successfully linked in the Minyan's first two years. In

The Prayer Crisis
this discussion those links seem not to have been effective. What made
their modified commitment system so vulnerable? First, the communal
nature of prayer was a halahic form as well as one unique to the Min
yan. Perhaps the most significant context of this discussion was a dra
matically changing Minyan membership. There were more "newcom
ers" than founders at the retreat. The evaluation meeting suggested that
there were many differences among members about how prayer should
be conducted and what was valued. The founders had lost control of
the group, though they remained important leaders. The community in
which prayer was supposed to work, indeed, that stood together against
the larger society, seemed to be in danger of no longer providing a
proper environment for prayer.
Community and prayer have always been linked. Prayer meant dif
ferent things in America than it did in Europe, and different things in
the Minyan than it did in the synagogue. But because the Minyan was
a quintessentially ephemeral group, the members had to be particularly
sensitive to one another's views of prayers to be able to pray together.
Taking together both the retreat and evaluation discussions one cannot
miss how closely "meaning" was tied to "community," and as commu
nity was undergoing dramatic changes, meaning suddenly became a
distressing public problem. Hence, the communal form of prayer was
vulnerable to the changing and unstable nature of Minyan membership
that could alter the group formulation of prayer. Some judged the pray
ers of others insufficient. Others judged their own prayer inadequate.
These judgments were mirrored in the members' disagreements over the
best way for the community to conduct its praying. Prayer might appear
meaningless if the community itself did not share a vision of prayer.
The second prayer constituent, unique to the Minyan, was mem
bers' use of interpretation within prayer. Externalizing the prayers by
reflecting upon them promised to allow members the opportunity to
internalize them as well. The process of interpretation juxtaposed the
self with the text. The contemporary countercultural self was entirely
visible in interpretive discussions, and community was created by mem
bers sharing these like-minded selves. That they never had to cut off the
self from prayer seemed more important than ignoring conflicts around
prayer while continuing to perform it. However, this strategy for inter
iorizing the prayers was risky because it made connection dependent
upon opposition to the text. Though interpretation created visibility for
the self, it put prayer and other texts at risk.
Indeed, the retreat discussion was similar to prayer and Torah dis
cussions. The Retreat questions asked about the relationship between

the self and prayer. What was implied in the questions was whether or
not the self could be adequately represented or articulated through
prayer. The first question asked, "Do we pray primarily for the benefit
of ourselves, of others, or of God?" All the other questions followed it,
concerning form, discipline, and theology. Discussions of text often took
precisely that form, especially about prayer.
The language of need, satisfaction, and feeling is a psychological
discourse ultimately concerned with the development of the self (Rieff
1963). It is not the classical religious discourse that inevitably subsumes
the self to the obligations that follow upon belief. Even the style of the
Minyan's discussion, the discussion circle, is a psychological or thera
peutic model of interaction. Psychologists pioneered an approach to
group process through group therapy and the human potential move
ment. Therapeutic techniques have been built into all types of group
processes, ranging from management seminars to consciousness-raising
groups. The hallmark of the process is the right of each person to speak
and of no person to censor or criticize. Indeed, during this discussion
the members were respectful and empathic about each comment, even
when there was complete disagreement. Community, in this instance,
implied the right of the individual to believe what he or she wished.
Even if the comments became patterned, they were voiced individually
with no fear of censorship or disapproval. The individual was entitled
to all feelings and expressions, even, as in Aaron's case, the rejection of
God. People spoke of themselves as failures, never of others.
The retreat discussion was neither purely evaluative, hence func
tional, nor text-based, hence necessarily embedded within Judaism.
Therefore, it revealed, as no other discussion had, the tenuous link be
tween self and text. When these men and women understood taking
prayer within to mean that traditional Judaism had to speak to them
personally and discursively, they found themselves formulating their re
ligious lives psychologically. All members had legitimate feelings, an
equal right to believe as they wanted, and needs that had to be met by
the tradition. It was a language that authorized only self-understanding
through ascertaining truth free of attachment and illusion (Rieff 1966).
The essential need to link the self to prayer, often reinforced
through interpretive discussions, had the opposite effect at the retreat.
Not only was a changing membership reflected in members' difficulties
with meaning, but the constitutive prayer form of interpretation no
longer served as an integrating function in the discussion. The prayer
form most sensitive to this interiorizing process turned out to be the
most vulnerable. The focus on need seemed to render prayer meaning-

The Prayer Crisis
less. Hence, interpretation was vulnerable to its psychologizing formu
lation, which cut directly against the ability to interiorize prayer.
By far the most significant issue of the discussion concerned aes
thetics, all the elements of prayer that made it effective, satisfying, fa
miliar, and powerful. I describe aesthetics above as the primary medium
for transmitting meaning messages in American Judaism. As such, aes
thetics, which varies in Jewish communities throughout the world, al
ways attaches to halaha or tradition. Therefore, although halaha is a
crucial constituent of prayer, the aesthetic form halaha assumes in spe
cific groups synthesizes all others. There is no halaha without its aes
thetic expression: music and prayer decorum, which make it possible to
perform what halaha requires. That, I would argue, was why the aes
thetics of prayer were so powerful for Minyan members. I will return
again in this chapter to a fuller discussion of aesthetics. For the present
I note that aesthetics not only integrated other constituents—commu
nity and interpretation—but mirrored them as well. Hence, a prayer
aesthetic expressed how the group constructed their prayer experience.
The very dichotomy members articulated during the discussion, be
tween aesthetics and prayer, demonstrates this mirroring or dependent
status of aesthetics. Their stated frustration, that they could experience
beauty but not truth in prayer, indicated their inability to internalize the
text; they prayed nevertheless.
The statements of crisis that focused on meaning were unprece
dented in the Minyan but, at least in retrospect, not unpredictable. The
elements that constituted prayer were all liable to separating self and
text. Community usually joined the worshiper to prayer, but served here
to undermine this relationship. Interpretation mediated the worship ex
perience attempting to join the worshiper to prayer through a strategy
of opposition, but here interpretation psychologized prayer and empha
sized personal needs. Finally, aesthetics, reflective of the other constitu
ents, were a sensitive instrument of the very forms of separation prayer
attempted to overcome and, hence, reflected the separation of self and
text. The Minyan's resolution of this apparent conflict about the mean
ing of prayer revealed the available strategies for synthesizing these con
stituents in order to avoid a "misfire" and meaningless prayer.
The Minyan Responded to a Crisis
When the formal discussion ended, the group quickly dispersed into
private conversations, then went to bed. Jacob brought together one
group of members that talked for some time. He rounded up Jay, Mark,

and Harvey, people he believed capable of "making something happen
in the Minyan," he later recounted. Jacob told them that he was
alarmed about what he had heard that evening and sensed great danger
for the Minyan from these comments. Though two of those present,
Mark and Harvey, voiced identical concerns to the rest of the group, in
this private context they shifted roles and became "protectors" of the
Minyan's well-being. They felt the need to respond to a crisis that the
group precipitated by their public acknowledgment of personal doubts,
confusions, and anxieties about prayer. As protectors, they laid aside
their own conflicts to conclude that the solution to what they heard lay
in Minyan members' need to educate themselves about the history and
meaning of traditional prayer. The crisis, they argued, would be handled
in the same way they themselves handled it as individuals. As each of
them understood prayer "metaphorically" to circumvent a crisis in be
lief, others must do the same. They concluded that "metaphoric under
standing" would result only from education, from learning the inten
tions of those who constructed prayers. Such knowledge would provide
a framework to either supplant personal belief or enable it. Harvey de
scribed their private discussion and the decisions they reached that
I had the sense that we got much deeper into the problem at the
retreat than we had expected. Initially it seemed people ought to
understand the prayers that they were saying. After the problem
was brought to the surface, I talked to some people. We felt that the
goal really had to be now to try to understand die traditional form
of davening from the inside and to try and bridge that gap between
us [and the Siddur]. We had never, at least the group had never
realized such a tremendous gap, and we were so conscious of it.
And there was the feeling that we were going to have to start having
certain kinds of discussions.
The Friday night upheaval had no immediate impact on the retreat.
Everything proceeded as planned. The Minyan seemed to have enacted
another successful compromise. They could express their gravest and
most far-reaching doubts within their community, which was commit
ted to tradition. In the morning, following a hurried breakfast, they met
in small discussion groups for unusually directive lectures by Jacob,
Harvey, and Mark on the history of the Siddur. These discussions were
didactic, emphasizing the structure and history of the prayer book.
Those who had described struggles with a prayer life during the previ
ous evening now demonstrated their knowledge and competence.

The Prayer Crisis
Because of the length of the Siddur discussions, morning prayers
did not begin until eleven o'clock. They had no other discussions dur
ing prayer. The service was conducted outside on the camp's grounds.
Members sat beneath a large tree on chairs brought out for praying.
Again, the planning committee chose a particularly good hazan to max
imize the pleasures of the service: Jack Gold, one of the first people who
initially left the Minyan over the issue of the equality of women (see
Chapter 7). He had returned to the group. He did not have many friends
in the Minyan, but commanded great respect for his exceptionally fine
voice and his willingness to teach others the skill of reading Torah. He
and his service were warmly appreciated.
A long lunch followed in the main room and once again more than
an hour was devoted to singing zmierot with all the usual arguments
and some attempts at harmonizing. They recited the "Grace After
Meals." For an hour people rested or walked around the camp.
The group reassembled, and Martha was asked to chair a meeting,
which Jay had characterized ironically as "How much do we leave
out?" Members would decide the content and form of future liturgical
services in the Minyan. They were to make one of the most significant
decisions in the group's two-year history. Martha began.
We will go through the whole Siddur section by section. People are
to bring up what they like or do not like about a particular section
and we will discuss it. If we do not want to say certain portions then
some people must come up with appropriate substitutions.
But Mark stopped the event before a single word was uttered about
the siddur. Mark, who conferred the previous night with Jacob, Harvey,
and Jay, offered an alternative proposal.
Your agenda is unnecessary in light of what we said last night. Let's
stop praying altogether and simply meet for lunch and singing. That
is what we genuinely like and what we ought to do.
There was a single moment of stunned silence. Then Martha re
torted, "Because we have problems with prayer doesn't mean we want
to give up praying. Who said anything about not praying?" Jay seized
the moment to offer the alternative discussed in the small meeting the
night before.
Then let's really talk about prayer and confront the problem. We can
study the Siddur seriously if we give up our regular Torah discus-

sions and prayer discussions. We can move through the Siddur sec
tion by section and try to understand it as well as discuss our feel
ings about it.
The group needed only minimal discussion. Every member who spoke
basically supported the idea. Their only hesitation was that the book of
Genesis, which was soon to begin in the Torah cycle, often provoked
the best conversations during regular Sabbath Torah discussions. But
they agreed it was a price worth paying. They even decided that an
optional study group could meet after lunch to discuss the weekly Torah
portion, which would still be read but no longer discussed. 2 The possi
bility of such classes was greeted with real enthusiasm, and a number
of people volunteered to meet the next night in the city to plan the
curriculum of the "prayer classes."
Minyan members went on to make several other decisions, none of
which concerned the traditional liturgy. They endorsed continuing the
creative services, as often as, but no more than, once a month. Martha
volunteered to organize one, and the women who volunteered eventu
ally planned the women's service, the subject of Chapter 7. And Minyan
members, as they do at every other business/evaluation meeting, ex
horted one another to begin each Saturday promptly at ten o'clock in
the morning, and to have the Hebrew and English hazanim work to
gether more effectively by meeting during the week before the Sabbath
service. They promised one another they would volunteer more readily
for Minyan responsibilities.
The solution to the crisis was prefigured in the Saturday morning
classes. Members were to be educated about prayer, to leam the basics,
and the integration between self and prayer would result. At the same
time, in the later Saturday afternoon discussion, they assented to the
controversial creative services. What Harvey initially rejected, he now
said he looked forward to with "real enthusiasm." Ironically, members
agreed to adhere more closely to tradition, through classes, while in
their creative services they agreed to keep their distance from it. They
seemed once again to have accommodated all needs while maintaining
the primacy of what they thought of as the traditional sensibility.
Then they davened the final services of the Sabbath, ate their last
meal together, sang yet again. The prayer services were without strife.
As the sky darkened they joined for Havdalah, the ritual of separation at
the close of the Sabbath and festivals. Members stood in a wide circle.
A braided candle of many wicks was lit and held. A cup of wine was
blessed and passed from member to member to sip. They passed and


blessed aromatic spices, each inhaling them to linger for one last mo
ment in the beauty of the Sabbath. As they extinguished the braided
candle in the wine cup, they sang in one voice for the coming of the
Messiah. They all embraced for the last time during the weekend with
good wishes for the week, "Shavuah Tov." But no one lingered at the
dark hilltop camp, and within minutes cars were packed and winding
down the mountain road for the return to Kelton and Los Angeles.
How to Pray
The Minyan, poised on the brink of changing its liturgy, retreated to
what appeared to be an organizational solution, typical of all such re
sponses to potentially transforming challenges. They would have more
and different types of discussions that would recast the way they under
stood prayer as well as themselves. However, beneath that solution lay
an approach to prayer that emphasized one prayer constituent at the
expense of another. It represented the conceptions of one particular
group, and articulated one view of what prayer is. The cognition under
lying their entire solution to their problems with prayer was to work
directly against what normally made prayer authoritative and effective.
From their retreat comments it seemed that what Minyan members
most wanted from their prayers was a desire to pray. When they prayed,
their Judaism took on a different and more intense significance. Want
ing to pray indicated that the self had engaged and was engaged by the
prayer; meaning was made internal, and self and tradition reflected one
another. The result of the desire to pray and praying was to create a link
to the Jewish people, thereby reproducing Judaism as well as creating a
community with each other. As Rob, who was studying to become a
rabbi, said at the retreat discussion as he reflected on what prayer meant
to him: "The whole act of praying traditional prayers in Hebrew is his
torical. It says 'I'm here, but I'm back 3,000 years. Not only do I have a
past; I also have a future. I'm not cut off, and when I die not all of me
Interestingly, Rob did not mention "meaning" as much as the abil
ity of the prayer to locate him in an historical relationship with the
Jewish people. Meaning, in a nondiscursive sense, is closer to "commit
ment system," as described by Stromberg. It is a resource, a set of sym
bols to be applied to the self, and in the case of Judaism, to connect
Jews to the People Israel. The meanings are openended, but less ame
nable to a form of belief than casting one's self with a people to whom

The Prayer Crisis
one is obligated in some sense. Prayer is one of the bonds between all
generations, and it articulates the covenant.
Effective prayer was what members sought and felt they could not
achieve. Effectiveness had not appeared previously to be dependent on
belief or assent to the truth of the Siddur. Normally the attitude of mem
bers was best summarized by an infrequent member who described his
prayer experience to me:
Praying is like driving on the freeway. I am sometimes at my desti
nation without being fully conscious of how I got there. Sometimes,
when I pray, I pause at a particular phrase, or wonder why the
rabbis included that phrase in that place but, more often, I simply
say the familiar words without conscious reflection. Prayer has an
artistic quality for me. The more I understand the more beautiful
and more complex I know the prayers are, and that deepens my
This man judged his prayers effective because they were "authentic."
Saying traditional words in a prescribed way allowed him to achieve
effectiveness rather than a dispassionate analysis of content. He was typ
ical of most Minyan members, exceptional only by his degree of com
petence. Effectiveness was the product of being able to "mumble"
prayer utterances with an ease comparable to a frequent freeway trav
eler, though his knowledge of Judaism was also helpful. While praying
may result in numbing routinization, this was not necessarily the case.
This Minyan member's attention was sometimes caught by an idea that
intensified his sense of being rooted in the beauty of the prayer. The
general significance of the content and meaning, in the Minyan's case,
was to make a worshiper able to worship, to underscore and emphasize
a message carried as much by Hebrew as by the prayers' ideas.
What Minyan members rejected at their retreat in their interpretive
discussions about prayer was an aesthetic formulation for prayer. Aes
thetics were isolated from meaning and content and implicitly judged
as inadequate bases for community or worship. My analysis of aesthet
ics in worship suggests that aesthetics are always the most integra
tive force in ritual, able to unite the self with the ritual and with other
participants. Members' rejection of aesthetics constituted a negation of
group prayer because it appeared to reflect a view of the community
some rejected.

Aesthetics and Interpretation-Strategies for
Linking the Self and Ifext
Minyan members defined prayer aesthetics as virtually all actions
performed in the process of articulating the contents of the prayer. It
was what they did rather than what they said, how they voiced prayer,
brought it to life, and made it beautiful. Minyan members thought of
their group prayers as unique from prayer in synagogues because of
their active involvement in praying, which was made visible in their use
of their bodies to rhythmically sway and in the use of their singing and
their nonunison chanting. For their music and body movement made
them different by aligning them with both the counterculture genera
tion and hasidim.
Theories of aesthetics posit that the aesthetic is satisfying and
unique because it is valuable in itself. It is noninstrumental, not for the
achievement of an end (Saw 1971, 55, 204). Aesthetic considerations
filter experience by emphasizing nonutilitarian ends. One contemplates
or performs what is beautiful for the sake of that beauty alone (Saw
1971, 61; Dickie 1971,49). Aaron's remark at the retreat about the New
York Times points to the classically aesthetic state of Minyan prayer. If
the primary purpose of praying is to create beauty, it need not be di
rected to God nor performed, because it is obligatory. The pleasure in
prayer arises from its intrinsic satisfactions. "It feels good" is the Minyan
refrain. This aesthetic perspective is the opposite of obligation, which is
ultimately interested in and trained on an end, fulfilling the law. But it
also stands in opposition to the therapeutic nature of the retreat discus
sion, which is ultimately self-critical, incapable of transcending the self
because it is radically introspective.
Though the aesthetic element of prayer works through the individ
ual, it is simultaneously unifying—unifying the self to the aesthetic
form (interiorizing) and the selves participating with one another. The
aesthetic enables self-transcendence by intensifying experience. Bruce
Kapferer's seminal work on ritual aesthetics emphasizes how music and
dance within demonic healing ceremonies in Sri Lanka both frame and
form a context for the immediate subjective experience of the individual
(1983, 191). Participants frame their experiences and are united to one
another through their relationship to the aesthetic, even if there is vari
ation in their interpretation of the experience. Conscious reflection does
occur during the healing ritual when certain ideas are presented that
reconstitute a healthy self from a sick one, but not during aesthetic

The Prayer Crisis
forms such as music and dance, where attitudes are experienced non-
Aesthetics in general, particularly music, Hebrew (whether or not it
is understood), and to some extent body movement, worked together
to integrate the forms of prayer within the social and historical context
of the Minyan. Hence, members experienced the maximum integra
tion—the sense of themselves as interiorizing and reproducing Judaism
through aesthetic media. As they sang, chanted, moved and swayed
they brought the text within, experiencing it as self-transcending.
Aesthetics, then, were integrative of the constituent elements of
prayer. They articulated prayer for the community as collective, active
and self-transcending. Chanting and singing continuously moved Min
yan members between collectivity and private experience, between in
wardness and focus on the community. And aesthetics conveyed to
Minyan members integration primarily through maintenance of ancient
language, hence history, within what they experienced as a unique
form. They understood aesthetic form to be both more contemporary
and more authentically spiritual than that used by acculturated Ameri
can Jews. The countercultural aesthetic was active, hence integrative,
because its effect was to internalize experience by emphasizing wor
shiper involvement. The worshiper sang, rather than listened, shuck-
eled rather than stood motionless, and used a language of continuity.
By that activism he or she prayed a tradition that was mutually reflec
tive of self and Judaism.
Those anthropologists concerned with formalist properties of ritual
often rely on aesthetics to explain the ritual's meaning and purpose.
Unlike Kapferer, however, they oppose meaning and form, arguing that
ritual messages have virtually no relationship to their content. For ex
ample, an invariant ritual form communicates a message of unchanging
truth. Invariance is often aesthetically expressed through word repeti
tions. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1974) argues this point in service
of his idea that ritual is incapable of communicating meaning. Rather,
ritual exists solely to support the claims of traditional authorities who
control it. Bloch follows Austin in suggesting that there are two types of
meanings, propositional and performative. He uses linguistic theory to
demonstrate why ritual, like political oratory, cannot be propositional,
that is, amenable, to falsification or capable of transmitting information.
Ritual uses what he calls "impoverished language" (1974, 60). As a
formalized language, it always follows the same logic, evokes no novel
questions or connections from its speakers, and offers no new connec-

tions between units. He boldly concludes that it is therefore incapable
of offering "semantics." (1974, 66). The meaning that ritual or political
oratory offers is the support of traditional authority, since it is a language
that as a result of its extreme formalization, is inappropriate to challenge
or create alternatives. He concludes that ritual is always fused with its
context, providing no language apart from it, and is a useful agent in
shielding the truth from those who do not control it.
Bloch is particularly interested in chanting (sing-song) and song
and places it on a continuum with political oratory, sermonizing, and
ritual language, all examples of impoverished, that is, formalized and
repetitive language. The "one act of will" in singing involves the choice
to take part. After that, the actor experiences song and all other ritual
"from outside himself" (1974, 70-71). This genre of language is not to
be "explained," because it is incapable of transmitting information or
complex messages. One must simply understand what it is trying to
convince participants to do. Hence, Bloch places the origin of religion
in the exercise of political power. Traditional authority works by making
its own hierarchy appear natural, and often priests speak for that au
thority by employing an atemporal language that only allows its spokes
persons to assent.
Bloch's argument is intriguing. He understands how critical aesthet
ics are to ritual. Yet for him ritual aesthetics create oppression by their
close tie to a single political context. The argument is difficult to support
empirically. One only has to think of the place of the spiritual in the
American civil rights movement to understand that religious song is
capable of producing radical resistance to political authority. The use of
spirituals in demonstrations, in political meetings that incorporated
prayer, and in prisons among those arrested for civil disobedience gave
eloquent testimony to the fact that such music involved more than the
assent to sing; it placed contemporary racial discrimination into a myth
ological system of oppression and deliverance described in the Bible. As
such, the music coalesced participants and delivered a message of the
righteousness of the cause and the certainty of victory over powerful
oppressors. Political oratory of opposition was supported by traditional
black church music.
Bloch argues that though ritual units are constantly "drifting out of
meaning," they remain in a dialectical relationship with "new units,"
reintroduced from outside by revivalist movements (1974, 76). Bloch
does not acknowledge how often ritual takes on new meaning and new
interpretation within changing historical contexts, as in the civil rights
movement. Were he to acknowledge that possibility, he then would

The Prayer Crisis
have to affirm that ritual had meaning that was not entirely formal,
hence impoverished, and that the dialectic that produced religious
change grew from within the ritual, which, as Tambiah noted, involved
both semantic (cosmological) and indexical (functional) elements. The
pole that dominates can only be understood within a culturally and
historically relative setting. So it is that the havurah movement could
primarily maintain traditional liturgy particularly because their cultural
protest was against cultural homogenization.
Rather than prayer drifting out of meaning, it took on altered, gen
eral meaning—embodied in the covenant—that was relevant to the
community in which it was prayed. The fact that the meaning of prayer
was in question only underlined that Minyan members had more
choices than to assent or reject it. Bloch did not describe a complex
society, of course, but it is unlikely given his view of ritual that he would
imagine any circumstance in which it could be meaningful or capable
of articulating identity in opposition to society. I suggest that aesthetics
cannot be separated from ritual messages. When Minyan members
themselves perceived that to be the case, they expressed alarm.
Aesthetics, then, enabled the interiorizing of ritual messages more
effectively than any aspect of the ritual, not to oppose ritual meaning
but to communicate it. At the retreat, however, the Minyan quite clearly
chose a version of their interpretive constituent—neither prayer discus
sions nor retreat discussions exactly—to describe and then resolve their
relationship to prayer. In so doing they underplayed an active formula
tion and selected one that suggested that their "needs" were best met by
cognitive understanding of prayer. Interpretation, that prayer constitu
ent most free from rigidity and formalism, was least amenable to syn
thesis and was, of course, the least aesthetic. Ideally interpretation cre
ated a connection between the self and the text. In the therapeutic
discussion, as well as regular textual ones, discontinuity tended to be
emphasized. Aesthetics were sensitive to group relations because prayer
messages were interiorized within community.
The result of these choices will be discussed in Chapter 6. My point
here is to contrast the two approaches and note that the interpretive/
cognitive one appeared to carry the power of constituting the contem
porary expressive self. Aesthetics, linked to halaha, created inclusive
ness. One was potentially authenticating and unifying, and the other
was cognitive and potentially individualizing.

Prayer Misfires
In the last chapter, I emphasize the Minyan's prayer forms or consti
tutive elements because I claim that prayer has performative qualities. I
modify a classically Austinian stance by emphasizing a broader sense of
context than is normally associated with Austin. I take the context for a
felicitous performative to be social and interpersonal. Prayer is effective
when particular words are said in a particular context in a particular
way. The measure of their effectiveness is not based on truth claims, but
on being performed under the proper conditions. Minyan and havurah
members considered prayer effective when it differentiated them from
their parental generation and created a sense of their authenticity as
Jews, in short, emphasized their Jewish identity.
However, at their retreat Minyan members judged their prayers in
effective, offering their lack of meaning as the cause. The concept of
meaning represented the conditions that were making it impossible for
prayer to be effective. These conditions, of course, were tied directly to
their prayer constituents. As the group grew larger, members did not
agree on the meaning of prayer. What was the nature of interpretation
or its limits? Could everything in prayer be discussed, changed, or elim
inated? Neither could they agree on the nature of their aesthetics: the
relative balance of singing and chanting and rearranging the prayers
and maintaining them in invariant order.
Prayer appeared not to work from the point of view of worshipers
because the community wasn't working. Hence, the founders and tra
ditionalists of the community determined that an aesthetic motivation
alone was insufficient, regardless of the remarks of members. Others
argued that they felt pulled into a formulation that did not represent
their attitude toward prayer, but reflected the evening's dominant
voices. Indeed, more than one Minyan member was suspicious that the
comments in the circle became ritualized, following a form presented by
the first few participants. Saul stated:
The discussion became a ritual. "I have a problem with prayer"
started every statement. I went into the formula also and I didn't
even feel it. I was annoyed with myself. It was the God conflict and
the problem of belief and none of that is a problem for me.
And finally, even those who had most powerfully expressed their own
"crisis in meaning" immediately moved to define the nature of the res
olution of the crisis by offering a solution most compatible with their
own approach to Judaism—leam the traditional formulation and it will

The Prayer Crisis
suffice. They turned away from their regular interpretation, aesthetics,
and community toward a reliance on traditional prayer utterances and
study. A group committed to egalitarianism was increasingly split by the
learned and unlearned, newcomers and founders, those in favor of ex
perimentation with prayer and those who opposed it.
The misfire, then, rested in large part on the connection, or lack of
it, between the social context and the integration of the prayer constit
uents. The rigidity or vibrance of ritual not only is an abstraction but is
experienced in particular terms by those who pray. In the Minyan ritual
rigidity produced alienated feelings about prayer; vibrancy was the op
posite. Both poles rested specifically on how effectively members were
drawn into praying by the group's prayer aesthetics. However, these aes
thetics, so central to their uniqueness as a community, no longer artic
ulated prayer personally and vividly. If music was too slow or too fast, if
prayer timing was wrong, if failure to reorganize services indicated pre
dictability, as these people maintained in the evaluation discussion, then
their meaning crisis was surely related to these complaints. Each of
these aesthetic judgments was tied to the change in the Minyan's mem
bership. The failure to generate intention in prayer grew out of a new
conjunction between aesthetics, decorum, and community. The Austi-
nian "misfire" at work here reflected their changing perceptions about
the ability of the community to share an aesthetic and a decorum. They
could not contextualize prayer. Covenantal meanings apparently were
not expressed through communal and traditional forms of prayer. They
found prayer meaningless. Their move to resolve the crisis reflected how
prayer was linked to its constituents. Prayer misfired because the group
could not unite its constituents; hence, it necessitated a renegotiation.
In my discussion of contemporary scholarship on prayer and ritual,
I noted three perspectives, each of which emphasizes different aspects of
the experience: the context of prayer, prayer's formal properties related
to its status as a performative, and finally, the performance of prayer.
Each illumines what makes prayer effective and how worshipers are
engaged by the different aspects of the experience. They are not neces
sarily exclusive, though some theorists oppose one another. Emphasis
on the social and cultural context of prayer, the first area, makes evident
why in the Minyan meaning is formulated "in general." Aesthetic mes
sages emphasize identity and covenant. Prayer in the Minyan is rooted
in neither a cosmology nor a dense social system in which status is
articulated. America as a plural Christian society that allowed the accul
turation of Jews had a direct effect upon the messages transmitted by
prayer. Semantics were constrained, certainly. But the same society that

generalized prayer meanings also enlivened them as the articulation of
differentiation and uniqueness.
I noted, however, that context could not exhaust the meaning of the
prayers. Understanding the pluralist nature of society could not explain
the impact of the formal properties of ritual on the prayer experience.
That prayer experience seems universally to move between poles of ri
gidity and significance indicates that Minyan prayer would always be
susceptible to these problems. Yet understanding the poles within the
Minyan setting indicates that rigidity and emptiness were articulated as
prayer, as "mere aesthetics" or the "price for community." This was the
condition that created a misfire for worshipers. Ritual inevitably has a
cultural and organizational definition. In the Minyan, aesthetics, the
most effective expression of prayer, was falsified because of changing
social relations within the group. Prayer could not represent covenant
because the community could not function as a homogeneous collec
tive. In the Minyan, not only were form and content at odds, they may
well have been in conflict precisely because community and aesthetics
were at odds. As surely as the German Jews of New York's Temple
Emanu-El required agreement about an aesthetic formulation for their
sacred and social relations, so did the Minyan. That consensus was
breaking down.
Form and content pulled apart because of their interdependence
within a functioning community. That members' statements should af
fect one another demonstrates how closely community and private ex
periences interpenetrated. Prayer was as much or more a group experi
ence as an individual one. Prayer reflected community relations, hence
covenantal relations, so that the purely rote pole of the prayer experi
ence articulated the lack of consensus that defined the prayer experi
Performance is the final element of prayer to be addressed. The
Minyan's resolution of its conflict was made possible by performance.
Aesthetics were recast through performance, where the integrative po
tential of prayer was reasserted.
1. Don Handelman suggested to me this formulation of the self-text relationship.
2. In fact, only a few such discussions took place and were soon dropped because of
poor attendance.

Praying in the Minyan
Performance and Covenant
People are frightened about patterns. They
hunger for order and they hunger for
change. We are not asking the question
why pray at all. We are asking questions
that explore what there is in prayer.
Minyan members agreed upon a plan to resolve some of their shared
and individual difficulties with prayer. Their proposal to study about
prayer together appeared to be particularly sensitive to integrating
prayer with their own life experiences. They defined their problem as
the disintegration of self and prayer; any solution would, therefore,
have to reflect themselves within prayer. It appeared that praying to
gether was insufficient to create such a bridge. This chapter examines
what makes that bridging possible and impossible within prayer ritual
and the Minyan classes. How are the strands of meaning present in all
rituals gathered together so that they can be experienced personally by
the worshiper? Does the "general" nature of meaning for Minyan mem
bers affect how the self is made part of prayer? The Minyan's experiment
with classes underlined the important link between aesthetics and pray
ing and put the question of belief and meaning in a new perspective.
Planning the Organizational Solution
On Sunday night, upon returning from their retreat, several people
gathered in Mark's living room to discuss how to implement the prayer
classes. Once again, Jacob, Mark, Harvey, and Jay joined together, but
now they no longer met privately, as they had on Friday night. They,
along with Saul and Miriam, represented the formal interests of the
Minyan as the Planning Committee. Saul was a Jewish educator and an

undergraduate psychology student. Miriam's interest in these problems
in part derived from her graduate work in religious studies. Mark's
book-lined room was a good setting for establishing what they called a
"curriculum/' a course of study members believed was necessitated by
the retreat's Friday night discussion. Jacob commented that this group
must find the best way "to educate Minyan members."
They made what appeared to them an obvious decision. The Min
yan should study the Siddur, examining it section by section and major
prayer by major prayer. They would meet each Sabbath morning in
small groups prior to praying to "maximize the chance for discussion to
be meaningful," as Jay put it. The classes were to maintain stable mem
bership for the duration of the curriculum. Their stability would in
crease people's willingness to share their thoughts, they reasoned. These
planners decided the purpose of each group: "to go prayer by prayer,
read each and make the content clear. We will look at the prayer's struc
ture, its values and the connotations and implications of the Hebrew
words that make up the prayers."
The group planned their course of study to do more than educate.
They were filled with enthusiasm and a sense that their project was
"entirely unique," because "What we must do," said Jay, is "move the
prayer experience to the life experience to see prayer as a door between
the experience of praying and life." He offered an example.
I like to donate blood each year. It makes me feel very good, helping
people in such a small way. When I give blood I say the prayer from
Birchot Ha Shachar [morning blessings] about bodily functions. So I
turn it into a Jewish experience. I would like other people to see
that these connections can be made in the Siddur. The Minyan is a
nice experience from ten to twelve-thirty. But the prayer experience
doesn't spill out. As we grow more comfortable with the Siddur, we
will get closer to what Mark calls "the prayer praying itself."
Jacob responded by suggesting the following:
Why don't we start each group by asking people if they have had
an experience during the week that directly relates to prayer, a time
when prayer would be appropriate or they would like to say a
Mark responded, "that feels fundamentalist, asking people to witness
some experience. I feel uncomfortable with that suggestion." Harvey

Praying in the Minyan
Jay and Saul, however, sided with Jacob. Because they were both
Jewish youth educators, they were more likely accustomed to eliciting
such experiences from their students. They argued that this approach
was what Saul called "genuinely Jewish." Jay said, "What other way is
there to get inside the values of the prayers, to integrate them with our
lives?" Jay suggested that each Minyan member could keep a notebook
to record experiences during the week in which prayer would be appro
priate. Members might bring the notebooks to the class for weekly dis
cussions. The prayer classes, then, had as their goal to "bridge the gap
between the culture we live in in 1973 and the era of the Siddur in our
own terms," as Harvey finally put it on Sunday.
The planners had no difficulty achieving consensus about the con
tent of the classes, the need for four small and stable groups, and a
commitment to try this curriculum for eleven weeks. They all expressed
their hopes that such discussions would even continue past the desig
nated time. The planners also agreed that "teachers are needed to direct
each group." They "will transmit knowledge required for an intelligent
discussion." Nevertheless, the committee maintained that the teachers
had to share responsibility, and they concluded that he or she would
invite another class member to help plan and lead the group each week.
They envisioned "nonexpert" class members raising questions different
than the teachers'. For example, "the impact of the mythic and ritual
meanings of the prayer on its content" was raised by Miriam as an ex
ample of such an issue. They anticipated issues "separable from Jewish
content." By the evening's end. Jay asked Miriam to help plan one of
the classes.
The planners' enthusiasm was briefly diminished as they began to
draw up a pool of qualified teachers from the group. They found them
selves quickly cutting down a long list of names to a short one. Some,
they argued, were capable but not too interested, such as Ed. Some, on
second thought, seemed only marginally qualified. Some did not come
often enough. They were finally left only with Mark, Harvey, Jay, and
Jacob. But Jay was unavailable on a weekly basis because his job as an
assistant principal of a Hebrew school took him out of town for several
Sabbaths during the year. The planners compromised by organizing
three rather than four groups. Mark and Jay agreed to share responsibil
ity for one. Harvey called Martha during the meeting and persuaded her
finally to share responsibility for a class with him.
The prayer curriculum planners reflected with pleasure on their ac
complishments of the evening. They had designed something they be
lieved was innovative and exciting. They were giving themselves and all

Minyan members the chance to confront, rather than hide from, the
problems they described at the retreat. They were disturbed that so few
people could lead the classes, but believed that they had devised a way
to remain democratic. They concluded when Harvey said, "We have
matured and grown as a group because we have ceased to be afraid to
acknowledge that some of us know more and can be teachers." Jay
added, "I hope Minyan members are as mature as the group."
The Prayer Classes
During lunch on the following Sabbath, Harvey described the
prayer curriculum and communicated the planners' enthusiasm. He cir
culated "tentative procedures for prayer study," a mimeographed sheet
setting out "general procedures," "content," and "curriculum" (see Fig
ure 4). Three weeks later, the classes began. The first day of the Min
yan classes was reminiscent of the atmosphere of the first day of school.
Most members seemed optimistic, anticipating with a little anxiety the
changes in the Minyan: formal classes and no Torah or prayer discus
sions. Minyan members all arrived on time, remarkably, because late
ness had recently become a point of concern.
Aaron began the morning by describing how he selected the mem
bership of each class. The task was assigned to Aaron because he was a
sociologist. The great seriousness with which he described his method
ology for grouping class members, combined with his substantial quali
fications for doing so, was sincere. This event was important to all the
As you asked, I have randomly selected the class participants who
will stay together for the next eleven weeks in groups. I took an
alphabetical listing of all of us. I reshuffled the names to balance
gender. I separated couples and known friendships to divide them
between groups. I did this to bring people out and get the talkers
evenly distributed.
Aaron solemnly read the names, assigning each class to a different room
of the University Religious Center. Aaron also assigned anyone who was
new or whose name did not appear on the list to a class.
The pomp and circumstance of simply moving into rooms and into
classes signaled the seriousness with which the Minyan undertook this
new task and structure for the group. Nevertheless, Aaron's concern
about whether or not members would participate equally and share the

Praying in the Minyan
Tentative Procedure for Prayer Study
10-11 A.M.
The purpose of the prayer study groups is to understand the Siddur on its own
terms and to explore the possibilities of integrating our own perspective with
that of the Siddur in order to be better able to use the Siddur for our own
religious expression. (Or, as Jacob would put it, to make the Siddur our friend.)
General Procedure
• There will be four groups.
• Each group will be led by a person with Hebrew and traditional Jewish
• The leader will prepare for each session with another member of the group,
who will provide another perspective.
• Each group member will keep a notebook in which she/he will record expe
riences of each week which relate to the prayers discussed.
• Short readings will be prepared from time to time on the nature of prayer,
religious symbolism, etc., which will be read at home to enrich the discus
• A bibliography of additional optional reading will be compiled.
Content of Discussions
A. Experiences of the past week related to previously discussed prayers.
B. Consideration of prayer for that week from the following points of view:
1. Historical background and context of the prayer.
2. Place of the prayer in the overall structure of the Siddur.
3. Meaning of the prayer: inner structure, symbolism, rhythm, sound, value
concepts, experience it responds to, connotations of Hebrew terms, etc.
4. Experiences members of the group have had which have some relation
ship to the prayer.
Tentative Curriculum
A listing week by week for twelve weeks of the prayers to be discussed.
feelings and ideas that were essential for the success of the groups was
indicated by the need to appoint a "professional" simply to divide the
groups up. Obviously, members were already suspicious that though
everyone assented to the prayer curriculum, not everyone would bring
to it and get from it what the planners anticipated.
The three prayer classes were remarkably different, given that they
shared a single curriculum. They remained different throughout the
months they met. Jacob's group was so classroomlike that Minyan visi
tors for the day took notes, clearly not realizing that this behavior was
not allowed in the Minyan, though no one asked them to stop. Mark

also used a lecture format for his class, though he raised specific ques
tions for discussion and waited for responses. Harvey and Martha took
a different approach. They jointly prepared their class focusing on the
themes and issues connected to the prayers and anticipated responses
from class members. They were disappointed when few people re
sponded during the first class. These formats held throughout the prayer
classes. Detailed examples of each class at three different points in the
semester demonstrate how the prayer curriculum was enacted.
Martha and Harvey's Class
Martha described the process she and Harvey used to plan each of
their classes. “We attempted to raise every possible issue for discussion
and then take these issues and formulate a theory of what the prayer
communicates." At midpoint in the class sessions, they discussed two
prayers that constitute the introductory section of the Sabbath morning
liturgical service. They are called Barehu (Blessed is He) and Yozer (God
who forms light and darkness). They began with Yozer, a naturalistic
prayer that examines God's attributes as creator of the world, of light
and dark in particular. Martha began the class by proposing an interpre
tation of the prayer: "Darkness and light are images in this prayer of
good and evil. They establish a duality in life which, through its order
liness, makes it possible to understand the world as orderly." Next,
Harvey and Martha examined the grammatical form used in the prayers
and the structures of the prayers. Harvey discussed the "world view"
and "historical context" of the "framers of the prayers." He asked class
members: "How did the authors understand light and dark? Did it have
symbolic meaning for them that differs from our own?" Harvey re
mained committed to seeking members' participation, their comments,
responses, and accounts of relevant experiences. Nan helped them pre
pare that day's discussion and particularly focused on male and female
qualities in the prayer.
Harvey and Martha also wanted to move the class through a set
curriculum that required that they cover certain material each week.
They interrupted discussions that they considered "overly long," and
tried to discourage too many comments. People willingly participated in
the classes. In retrospect, one of the members of Martha and Harvey's
group remembered a great deal of discussion and disagreement and a
lively atmosphere in classes. But no one expressed either private doubts
or agreement with prayer values or issues. The subject matter of the
class was the prayers, apparendy not themselves. They all approached

Praying in the Minyan
prayer as if they were in a class in college that was taught by people
who were close to completing their doctorates in literature and the phi
losophy of education, as were Harvey and Martha.
Jacob's Class
Jacob's first class was very much like the one he led at the retreat.
He described his intentions.
My interest was in having them see both the different kinds of rela
tionships possible with God and to understand the various levels
of meaning in the words, including humanistic understandings. I
wanted to encourage them to play at opening themselves to the
meaning of words and of prayer.
He offered a general introduction to the Siddur, its structure and history.
He focused primarily on the principle Hebrew blessing form, "Baruch
Atah Adanoi" (Blessed are You Lord), which begins most blessings. Ja
cob first analyzed the bracha (blessing) within the siddur structure, dis
cussing where such blessings were most likely to occur in the liturgical
service. He spent the majority of his time translating the nuances of the
three words: "Baruch is normally translated as 'blessed/ but in fact it is
a far more powerful concept that is associated with a gesture of humility
expressed in the presence of power, bending the knee." He then con
trasted "blessed" with the word to praise and finally to God's name,
Adonai. 1 He compared the person uttering the "blessed are you" phrase
with theologian Martin Buber's concept of the I-Thou relationship. Ja
cob suggested that the connection Buber envisioned between people
and between people and God was available in prayer. The rabbis con
ceived of prayer enabling an unmediated intimacy and connection. He
underscored the tensions between intimacy and awe implied in the
blessing formula, but contended that connection was ultimately the
goal of this relationship of an I and a thou. Someone asked a question.
Jacob often asked participants if they had any questions. During the
class he said: "It would be very helpful for people to share their personal
experiences at any time. Please add any questions or comments." But
they did not. Jacob lectured. People listened appreciatively and the class
ended. In retrospect he commented, sighing, "I talked way too much."
Jacob believed that his own understanding of prayer grew in the Min
yan after his rabbinical ordination. He wanted to use that process as a

model for how to teach others. He described to me how he believed his
praying matured.
My feeling about words, the importance of the limited number of
words came out of realizing how frequently a small number of
words recur in the siddur. My way of discussing a particular prayer
was to analyze it very closely, to tie up the whole thing, to try to
make some sense out of it, and out of doing that I would find a
theme in a few recurring words.
Minyan members' comments about Jacob's class often reflected their
awareness that he was acting as a model. When I asked Aaron about
Jacob's first class, he answered, "I don't know if it helped me exactly,
but just seeing that prayer works for Jacob gives me hope." Jacob was
able to communicate his great attention to the language of prayer and
his seriousness about it. Members of his class, as all members of the
Minyan, respected that attitude, but like Aaron found it difficult to
translate into their own experience.
Jay and Mark's Class
Jay, part-time leader of the third group, began to teach his class near
the middle of the curriculum. Mark had led the first classes. Jay's group
spent several weeks on the prayer Sh 'mah, the major creedal statement
of God's oneness. His discussion concerned the second paragraph of the
prayer, which commands men to wear a fringed garment. When Jay
asked for a review of the previous week's class because he had not been
in the city, he discovered that only one person present had attended it.
Jay had obviously planned to combine his discussion with the content
of the last class; it was unnecessary. During the class he presented a
series of ideas about the paragraph. First, he offered information about
the ritual object the paragraph describes, tzitzit: how they are knotted
and dyed. 2 He also described the blessings one says while actually hold
ing the fringes, an act performed while reciting the Sh'mah paragraph
in the morning. Jay discussed the theological problems raised in the
paragraph, which he referred to in Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's
terminology as matters of "ultimate concern." He asked, "Can one
truely believe and remain critical?" The question engendered comments
about tolerance and pluralism. He closed with two stories from rabbinic
literature. One concerned where to find the required color of the dye for
the fringes. The second described how the ritual fringe, brushing against

Praying in the Minyan
the leg of a young rabbinical student, saved him from adultery and led
to the conversion of the prostitute he initially sought. His many ideas
were taken up by participants in his class.
Jay's class appeared more like the regular Minyan prayer discus
sions than a well-integrated part of the study program. Participants of
fered a wide range of comments that did not build on previous discus
sions and were not well connected. One might, for example, have given
a persona] opinion, a secular scholarly comment, or a traditional Jewish
interpretation of the passage. There was no continuity in this group
between successive classes or members. The discussion focused entirely
on the leader's provocative comments for the day.
Some months after the prayer discussions, Mark described to me
what went on in his group. He and Jay had "different teaching styles,"
he said, and didn't work together on planning any of their sessions.
In my group I was very much a teacher, with people giving reac
tions to what I was saying. My goals were to give information and
interpretation and to show the depth that these prayers run into. I
tried to show how many levels exist in the prayers. When people
have spent some time with prayer they come to certain things.
There are things to come to. One of the things I did was to give
possible interpretations that came to me as associations when I
pray. Once, when we discussed the Ahava Rabba (the prayer preced
ing Sh'mah describing God's love for His people), things just kept
on coming—word associations and all kinds of ideas, and people
really appreciated that.
Mark reflected on what he did and did not do in his group.
I did not provide an example of how to pray, that's for certain. I did
show that prayer is a repository of meanings. Those are two very
different things. Perhaps we were seeking both, but I couldn't do
them both.
The style of each class reflected the leaders' ideas and theories about
prayer and learning, which in some cases differed from one another. In
addition, it was immediately apparent that neither participants nor
leaders focused on the experience of praying. Their sense of despair or
indifference at the retreat was never directly addressed. Some discus
sions had more erudite references, while others reflected a detailed
analysis of sections of the siddur. But none addressed or responded to

the problems raised about members' alienation from the content of
prayer or their feelings of incompetence in its performance.
The Classes Effect on the Minyan
Members began to complain immediately after the first class. Some
people did not like the individuals who were randomly selected to be in
their group. Others did not like the format. As Frank put it: "There were
lists and groups and people saying 'you don't belong in this group.' And
I didn't like this." The atmosphere of anticipation rapidly changed to
distrust. In turn, the leaders immediately began to alter their expecta
tions. They all decided to drop the idea of writing personal reflections in
journals. None of the members wrote journals. The leaders took this
step without publicly discussing that this was not working.
People's reactions to the discussions were mixed. Doug was one
member of Mark's group who found the experience genuinely satisfy
ing. He said:
Once prayer was explained, what the ideas were for those who
wrote them, like understanding the agricultural cycle in the Middle
East or why the sun was symbolized as coming up through a win
dow, then we could talk about our images, and those were just as
valid. I feel better about the Minyan now because I have more
understanding in my own eyes as a participant. What is in my
prayers feels valid now.
But others expressed displeasure. Susan was in Jay and Mark's group as
well. She characterized the experience quite differently.
Mostly it was an intellectual experience and not even one of integ
rity. It was a cleverness game, a game of one-upmanship. We were
doing literary analysis. Who could find the best interconnections
and symbols? "Look at the alliteration here and the assonance
there." There were a few people that would have really wanted to
talk seriously and honestly, but the circumstances were wrong.
Of Martha and Harvey's group, Frank said:
I cannot recall saying anything, not more than six words. I wasn't
sure about it, having leaders. It was a learning experience. I did
leam about prayers. I think more about prayers, about their mean
ing, rather than about their sound now.

Praying in the Minyan
Saul, who had helped plan the curriculum, also participated in Martha
and Harvey's class. He found the classes "interesting," but felt the whole
approach was doomed from the start.
What happened was an intricate delving into the prayers to the
point that people were spending a whole discussion period discuss
ing the shin mem ayin [Hebrew letters] of the Sh'mah prayer, just
the word! Then, the idea was that through that discussion we
would get to the ideas. Integration was going to occur by moving
from the bet [Hebrew letter] of baruch [blessed] to expression of
feelings around prayer. We are not really aware of the connection of
our lives and prayer, so I don't see how this extreme form of dissec
tion could do that.
Terri was also in Harvey and Martha's group. Her reaction was positive.
"We took each word and analyzed its meanings and connotations, all
the possibilities that could be involved in the word. We expressed our
feelings." However, when asked what impact this had on her davening,
she said: "None. It was just interesting, a good group. Nothing has ever
changed my davening. I've always felt the same about davening." Her
experience had little to do with the intention of the classes. These com
ments, elicited during formal interviews, were the members' only public
discussion of their reactions to the classes. Their reactions, however,
were expressed powerfully in what actually occurred on each Sabbath
during the period of the prayer classes.
In the few weeks following the initiation of the curriculum, the
Minyan began to change. Some people began to stand in the hall of the
University Religious Center during the prayer classes. They did not join
in until the davening started. Others clearly and purposely did not arrive
until after the classes were finished in order to pray and eat lunch with
out participating in the groups. Their arrival disrupted the classes as
they walked through rooms where the discussions were in progress in
order to wait.
At no other time in the Minyan did people come for one event
rather than another. Certainly people consistently arrived late, entering
a discussion while it was underway, but this occurred during the Min
yan's first thirty minutes. Now a sizable and growing number of people
ceased seeing all parts of a Minyan Sabbath as integrated. Saul com
mented: "In my mind I completely dichotomized discussion and prayer.
I never wore my tallit during the prayer classes as other people did. I put
it on only when we actually began to pray."
Members held a brief meeting at lunch on the fourth week of the

classes. Martha stated that there was a real problem with people arriv
ing so late and disrupting classes. They agreed to switch the prayer
classes to the end of the service in order to eliminate disruptions. This
infuriated members who arrived on the fifth week only to discover that
they had missed half the praying, thinking they would only be late for
discussions. In addition, others felt the tempo for the Sabbath was de
stroyed by discussing after praying. In the sixth week the classes again
began the Sabbath morning.
That same fifth week the size of the Minyan dropped dramatically.
Twenty people attended instead of forty. Because far fewer people at
tended/the pool for recruits for Minyan offices was drastically reduced.
In addition, because those offices associated with prayer (the two ha-
zanim) required high skill, there were even fewer members able to lead
prayer, in the midst of a Minyan seemingly preoccupied with it. It be
came harder to find people to do what had to be done. Over the next
few weeks it became even more difficult. Only four people were willing
to act consistently as hazan. Three of them were not considered good at
it. As a result the services had changed. There was no spirit or intensity
and little music. The Torah readers were decreasingly prepared and their
readings were constantly corrected. The dwindling numbers made it dif
ficult to recruit people to take responsibilities. Lunch was often the
scene of angry interchanges and accusations about who had taken a role
recently and who ought to be helping more.
On the seventh week of the classes, Harvey sent a message with
Martha that he was no longer interested in teaching his class. He asked
her to tell others that he did not want to carry the burden of planning
and preparation because it was too demanding. At the same point. Jay
took over his half of Mark's classes. The result was two groups with new
leaders and there was little continuity in the classes.
It was December and the academic semester was drawing to a close.
Only half of the regular number of members attended consistently. The
three classes dissolved into two, then one. On December 8, a gray, dis
mal, rainy Saturday, one member said, "There are so few of us because
it is rainy and everyone is studying for final exams." But Rachel retorted,
"Last week we said it was sunshine and finals that kept people away."
Martha asked if the discussions should be switched again. Another man
sighed, saying, "It won't matter." Finally, Jacob somberly concluded: "It
is time to end the classes. Martha will be leaving Kelton soon to move
to New York and there aren't enough of us to continue." That day no
one had even remembered to bring lunch. The Minyan's future looked
bleak. There was a palpable sadness in the room. Then Terri said:

Praying in the Minyan
Since we don't need so much space for the classes, why don't we
meet at my house next week. We don't have to stay at the Univer
sity Religious Center at least.
The following Sabbath attracted very few people because the Uni
versity Hillel was holding its annual snow trip, taking two rabbis and
many student members to the mountains for Shabbat. Terri explained
why she volunteered her house.
I think it's lousy and cold at the University Religious Center. It's a
building, a place for administrators. It lacks warmth, which is what
a home has.
Jay attended the Sabbath service and acted as hazan, something he
rarely did. Terri was English hazanit, and she and Jay had practiced
during the week in order to synchronize their praying and to make care
ful choices about what melodies they would use. They wanted it to be a
good Sabbath service. Jay described the Sabbath in retrospect.
There was a low that hit the Minyan. The Minyan seemed to be
pallid. Then Terri said, "For a change let's have it at my house." We
had to wait a while for a minyan, which of course created a feeling
of our being halutzim [pioneers]. It was fabulous! We had only one
discussion, and it was nice. The whole Shabbat was uncluttered.
Then we had lunch together around only one table. Then I said,
"Let's have it at my house next week." By the time people reached
my house the next week they had all heard what a great time we
had. Jacob led the service and that made everyone participate. Ter
ri's house solved the whole thing.
Indeed, the Sabbath at Jay's was a remarkable contrast to dismal
December. His large living room was filled to capacity with many mem
bers who had not been there for a month. At the end of the service, the
offices for the following week were rapidly filled. People seemed to grab
the opportunity to participate. It was a Minyan with a great deal of
singing and voiced, melodic praying. Beth led a regular Torah discussion
and people participated avidly. The room was filled with obviously
happy, involved people. At the end of lunch, Harvey once again said, "It
is time for a regular Minyan evaluation." Susan volunteered to have the
group to her apartment on the next Sunday night.
When they convened nine days later, the meeting was unusually
well attended and enthusiastic. Everyone seemed to have an opinion

about everything. During their discussion about their Sabbath lunch,
Michael, a Minyan founder who now only rarely attended, suggested
that the group stop having lunch after the service. "Look," he said, "we
are getting too big to have lunch together. Bringing the food is a burden.
We break down into lots of little groups. What's the point?" No one
agreed. In fact, the group held an animated discussion, not about
whether to have lunch but about what to eat. Again, everyone had an
opinion. They debated at length the relative merits of various foods for
lunch, discussing the suitability of starchy Jewish cuisine such as noodle
pudding [kugel], which was easier and cheaper to make, but "not
healthy," "too fattening." Only one topic failed to capture the attention
of at least ten people. When Jacob said, "We agreed to talk about prayer
classes tonight," one member laughed uncomfortably, and the rest were
silent. No one demanded any further comment and there was none.
Once again the Minyan made a series of decisions that restructured
their Sabbath. A whole new type of discussion would precede prayer,
neither the classes nor the previous "prayer confrontations." They spon
taneously called them "free play," to be on any topic of each leader's
choice. 3 The Rashi group was disbanded because members concluded it
was too divisive, separating people from one another. Instead, they
would have two concurrent Torah discussions on the weekly portion.
Size alone compelled division of the group. Members also agreed to
share responsibility more equally and to meet at least once a month in
the few Minyan members' homes large enough to accommodate them
all. Their meeting in January 1974 turned the tide of despair. The new
year held great promise for the Minyan. They attributed the bleak last
month of 1973 to the normal drop in attendance associated with the
end of the academic semester.
I pondered how to understand these events that stretched from
September to January. How did the touching enthusiasm of men and
women about to enter a new phase in their community development
turn so quickly to feelings of anger and disappointment and to a barely
functioning Minyan? In turn, how did a single Sabbath attended by
only eleven people turn the whole process around, moving members
out of the lethargy that shrouded every previous Sabbath?
The classes obviously had a powerful, if unarticulated effect, on
every aspect of the Minyan. Individual expressions of dissatisfaction
soon became the general attitude. The group's antagonism toward the
classes was evident in prayer. As fewer people agreed to serve as hazan,
those who assumed the burden came to resent the job. Jacob was one
of many who characterized the praying as "awful." The malaise led to

A New York Havurah discussion to “process" group activ
ities and ideas.

uneasiness about the group as such. Would they continue; would they
be able to recruit a weekly minyan, the clear measure of minimal suc
cess for any Jewish religious community? When members switched the
classes from before prayer to after prayer to before again, some lost con
fidence in their ability to even predict what would occur on any partic
ular Sabbath. They could not anticipate events.
The classes created a division between leaders and followers. The
decision taken to alter their formal equality seemed a benchmark of
maturity for the curriculum planners, yet even one of the leaders
stopped participating. The longer there were leaders, the more unwill
ing the followers were to join in. When Jacob stated that the prayer
classes should end, in combination with Harvey's withdrawal, it seemed
that the leaders no longer wanted to lead.
Relief from this situation came in a peculiar form. It derived simply
from the reassertion of the Minyan's normal structure, a small number
of people meeting in a home. Gathered at Terri's house, in addition to
her and Jay and a few of his out-of-town visitors, were Susan and
Harvey. They experienced the Minyan as pleasant, and they had a large
network to whom they could communicate the day's success. By the
next Sabbath a great many people were willing to participate, demon
strating that a successful revival of the Minyan was indeed underway.
What occurred at that transitional Minyan was, in addition to
a normative Sabbath, an emphasis on the community's central and
unique features. First, for them the personal, familial home setting pro
vided a marked contrast to the perceived sterility of the University Reli
gious Center. Second, the smallness of that Minyan Sabbath necessarily
put great value on each participant who attended because of the impor
tance of "making the minyan," that is, being assured of assembling ten
members. When Jay said they felt like "pioneers," he meant that each
person was critical to making a unique Sabbath happen. Their small
numbers powerfully reasserted egalitarianism. Third, Jay called the Sab
bath "uncluttered." A real fluidity in the Minyan Sabbath reemerged.
The jagged break between classes and prayers did not occur. Discussion
took place only during the Torah portion, which was associated regu
larly with study. Prayer was the primary activity of the day and little
disrupted that. Finally, they sang a great deal, reinforcing a strong sense
of unity, participation, and community. In short, every activity of that
Sabbath provided a contrast to the Minyan dominated by prayer classes.
The prayer classes, which began as a way to bring the self in a closer
relationship with the text, accomplished the opposite. The Minyan's
regular interpretive discussions, which were potentially alienating for

Praying in the Minyan
the worshiper, did have one important quality; they were pluralistic and
democratic. They included many opinions, all of which were tolerated
by community members. The variation in the discussions grew directly
from the many perspectives represented in the group: political, liberal,
feminist, literary, Judaic, and others. These discussions led to prayer be
cause they were occasions to reflect on the connection between the tra
dition and one's life—values, ideas, and principles. The ideal Minyan
self brought his or her personal and intellectual uniqueness to tradi
tional texts and hoped to see each reflected in the other. One also re
flected on text at his or her own level, without fear that those perspec
tives would be rejected for not being sufficiently erudite.
These classes were monolithic rather than pluralistic or democratic.
Each group had a leader, and the leader had a point of view sanctioned
by expert knowledge about the Siddur. There was a correct interpreta
tion that required experts. Expert analysis necessitated structural, theo
logical, and literary methods. Members who joined with the formal
leaders, and those were few, usually added another expert point of view.
The unique and self-expressive selves of the community were in some
sense irrelevant to the class, other than to leam the proper approach.
Some members appreciated the knowledge they gained, but their role
had been altered. Certainly no one intended this result, but it was inevi
table because the need for a proper approach to prayer initiated the
classes. Consequently, prayer and class discussions became polarized
each Sabbath. The Minyan could not obligate its members to attend and
fewer came each week.
The prayer classes were "deconstructing" in nature. They pulled
apart the service as well as the letters, words, phrases, and sentences of
prayer. Prayer was fragmented and cognitively assessed. Classes were
neither democratic nor did they heighten the participation of any Min
yan member by showing a connection (even by virtue of producing
lively argument) between the issues of the Siddur and one's own life.
Interpretations were offered, but only specific canons of interpretation
were authorized.
It was Saul, an undergraduate, who brought my attention to the
implications of Minyan members attempting to solve prayer problems
by analysis. He considered me among the overeducated and believed I
would have difficulty understanding his alternative view of how to solve
problems about prayer.
How did the Minyan react to all the problems of prayer? We never
said, "Let's do more intensive praying—a longer time of silence, a

longer Amidah. Or let's do Amidah twice, once silendy and once
together and see the individual responses and the group response.
The group reaction was "Let's divide it up. First we have the Barehu.
What does Baruch atah mean? Then we'll do one of the three pray
ers that precede the Sh'mah each week. Then maybe we can get to
the Amidah." You know, that's an unusual thing. There were never
discussions of an ALTERNATIVE way to do things. What I'm sug
gesting is harder to plan. If you want to DO something, it is easier
to study. You know what you're going to do. I don't think anyone
would say after a discussion, "Now that I know that Baruch means
the power of God, that has cleared up my spiritual problems." The
only reason people thought it would is because there is a lot of
education there. You make things like a classroom.
The analytical approach to prayer, as the classes came to define it, was
a cognitive, hierarchical one. It enshrined a set of interpretations that
standardized the prayer experience. It made motivations, such as the
desire for community or emotional satisfaction, appear banal.
In the previous chapter, I note that the retreat was dominated by a
psychological vocabulary of needs that cast prayer as an activity requir
ing self-scrutiny in order to determine whether or not one agreed with
its content and if it met the needs of each person. The classes, however,
were dominated by a vocabulary of "oughts," a classically religious dis
course. They were predicated on a problem of personal belief that re
quired new information in order to be resolved.
In the classes, a distinction emerged between one's ideas and opin
ions on the one hand, and one's feelings on the other. Normative discus
sions in the Minyan involved statements of opinion and points of view,
disagreements with or interpretations of traditional texts. Such discus
sions embraced the secular work world and the values and beliefs of
American culture (Prell-Foldes 1980). For example, criticizing the book
of Genesis for its problematic visions of women, as troublesome as that
may be for some, is not as personally revealing an experience as ex
pressing a loss of faith in the omnipotence of God. The retreat discussion
spontaneously gave public voice, for the first time, to such concerns. The
prayer classes were intended to continue to demand private reflection,
not in the context of a liminal period, but in the context of a classroom,
which was for them the essence of daily life. As the result of a virtually
impossible demand on members for self-exposure, they retreated into
formal classes, which as a result of being hierarchic made any revelation
unthinkable. The result was alienation from prayer.
The prayer classes prescribed responses for what was normally un-

Praying in the Minyan
spoken and were a constant reminder of statements of alienation made
at the retreat. This approach narrowed members' discussions from an
expansive and ideally integrative process to a hierarchic and excluding
one. Both the retreat, which rejected prayer as lacking meaning, and the
classes, which rejected the pluralism of expressive individualism, failed
to create the interiorization of prayer for Minyan members. They re
turned to what they normally did in order to create that elusive bridge
between themselves and prayer.
As comfortable as virtually all members were with discussion, re
flection, and interpretation, the Minyan's founders and educated elite
were most proficient at it. They defined the retreat discussion; they de
termined what issues in that discussion required resolution. And then
they planned the curriculum and course to facilitate that resolution. The
prayer classes may be seen as their strategy to regain control of a group
that was moving in a new direction unsupported by its founders. In
other discussions and decisions, Harvey often held a position opposed
to those of newcomers; he spoke against their proposals for creative
services and their desires for more singing in the davening. The founders
asserted an approach, the classes, that allowed them to literally main
tain control over the group, though they soon tired of it when it proved
not to be what they had envisioned.
The transforming Sabbath at Terri's home had very little analytical
activity associated with it, though several founders were there. The ab
sence of classes led Jay to think of that Sabbath as "uncluttered." The
special qualities of the day were associated more with what I character
ized as prayer aesthetics, such as music. Terri described her efforts with
Jay to produce a beautiful service, one that was well synchronized, and
included a great deal of music. The service moved smoothly and with
out apparently extraneous events. The aesthetics of the day contributed
to the pervasive sense of unity and community. People communicated
with one another on a face-to-face basis. Members had one lunch table,
one lunch conversation, one Torah discussion, and felt their participa
tion mattered. The service was far more communal, and communal ac
tivity resulted—song, conversation, and discussion—which led to a sat
isfying experience of prayer.
Members were alienated from the prayer performance as a result of
the classes. Attendance fell and people were less engaged or willing to
be involved in services dominated by analysis. Their emphasis on aes
thetics had the opposite effect. Members eagerly flocked to Jay's house
for a Sabbath that promised to be satisfying, that would not probe and
question. The pleasure derived from praying, even if it was, as Jay said.

"with partial satisfaction and partial fulfillment/' moved people to con
tinue to pray and remain in the Minyan.
Following these events Ruth explained to me what she expected
from the Minyan. Her description echoed what members came to con
clude themselves.
Prayer itself is the mainstay of the group. I know pretty much why I
come to the Minyan or why on a particular day I do not. But if I
really stop to hassle every time with every word in the Siddur or my
relationship toward God and prayer I would go nuts. Maybe it's a
given in a sense that the basis of the Minyan is prayer, and that
maybe other social relationships will grow out of it or certain dis
cussions and knowledge might come from it. That's the meat of it.
Performance and Covenant
The transitional Minyan Sabbath succeeded, according to members,
because everyone was an active participant, and prayer was judged ex
cellent because of its beauty. That day Minyan members appeared to
link themselves successfully to prayer. In the terms I develop in Chapters
4 and 5, Minyan members' connection to the prayer texts was an ex
pression of their participation in the covenant. Praying the text as one's
own words—successful prayer—was an expression of their participa
tion in the Jewish people. All the synthesizing elements of ritual aes
thetics, such as music and swaying, joined the worshiper to covenantal
relationships. Minyan members could be placed in those relationships
only through the performance of prayer, and a felicitous one at that. As
we have seen, simply reading the words was not sufficient for prayer to
succeed for its members. Covenantal relationships were expressed when
community, text, and performance were all united in a common pur
pose. Chapter 5 describes how important aesthetics were to ritual in the
Minyan. Aesthetics communicated ritual messages that were made
effective through performance. When one enacted prayer and ritual,
one activated and embodied its messages. Performance was not simply
translating a text into motion, but creating its message as well. Cove
nant was realized in prayer. Bruce Kapferer understands ritual to be "an
emergent phenomenon" because it translates cultural forms into action.
(1983, 154). Without performance ritual could never have personal and
immediate significance for its participants, and could not join self, text,
and community.
Within prayer, then, Minyan members created three covenantal re-

Praying in the Minyan
lationships: a relationship to the Jewish people who preceded them, a
relationship to the community in which they prayed, and a relationship
reflexively to the self. Praying surrounded Minyan members with their
own history. To have said the words of the Siddur as one's own was to
experience what Beth and others noted: Jewish men and women said
many of these very words for thousands of years. As so many in the
group sought authenticity, which is why they insisted on Hebrew
prayer, then praying was authenticating because it appeared unchang
ing. In prayer performance, the worshiper made the relationship to his
tory active, hence one's own. The connection was indisputable; the per
formance sufficed to make the point. Since the covenant was made in
history, it could be authenticated by creating a relationship with the
makers of that history. One of the most reliable links to history has
always been established through a relationship with Jewish texts. The
all-important and authenticating relationship with the Jewish people
has always been made directly through prayer.
The second covenantal relationship created in prayer was between
the worshiper and the praying community, one that had been problem
atic in the Minyan. While differences in their knowledge and in their
views of the Minyan had not disappeared, after the transitional Sabbath
people were no longer willing to press them. The near demise of the
group, and the founders' abandonment of projects to transform the
Minyan, intensified their willingness to compromise. The differences
between members became less important after the abortive prayer
classes. No one wanted to abandon the Minyan, even with its imperfec
tions. They emphasized their commonalities in prayer, rather than their
differences in classes.
Members' commitment to praying only underlined what the com
munity and prayer expressed about one another—authenticity. Their
strongest tie was their ability to see and validate one another's Judaism,
as well as the tradition. The third covenantal relationship between the
self and God or the Jewish people depended on that authenticity. The
requirement for the minyan emphasized the impact that community
had on individual prayer. As one prayed, one was seen by and watched
by others, and this affected the experience. Minyan members were par
ticularly committed to communal prayer, often praying only in that set
As anthropologist Gilbert Lewis astutely notes, performing and be
holding in ritual are equally ambiguous. Because neither stance is ab
solute, each leaves open a freedom of interpretation and discovery that
makes it possible to perform ritual meaningfully even without having

created it (1980, 38). Lewis, in contrast to Maurice Bloch, finds in the
ritual act the constant opportunity to make these actions personally
meaningful. By seeing others act, or acting oneself, one is, within an
"arena of constraints," able to discover and interpret the significance of
what is being done. This process offers continuity as well as what he
calls "enrichment" to those who participate in rituals designed for cir
cumstances and experiences far removed from their original setting. In
ritual performance one becomes a creator, because as one participates,
interpretation of some sort is inevitable. Seeing one's contemporaries
pray successfully makes it possible to pray despite the doubts one might
experience. As audience, as well as actor, one's participation is intensi
fied as the possibility for personal interpretation is heightened. "I see
myself in my intimates as I see them in me when we pray." Minyan
decorum regulated social relations, which emphasized informality, ex
pressiveness, and democracy. Prayer was organized in such a way as to
emphasize these same features. The historical covenant was translated
into contemporary relations in the Minyan. Praying with Jews like one
self heightened the sense that prayer expressed the self. Insofar as prayer
created relationships between peers, it intensified the ability of the wor
shiper to pray. Communal ritual usually works in this fashion. But in
contemporary America, where few communities reflect anything inte
grative about the self, the burden on such groups is intensified. Each
prayer performance underlined the covenantal relationship among
members. Decorum and the sacred intersected as community worship
was linked with individual worship through prayer performances.
Ultimately, the covenant included the person only insofar as he or
she experienced the reality of that sacred relationship. The contribution
of aesthetics to prayer, as discussed in Chapter 5, was to transform the
person so that covenant was made real. When Mark spoke of his "as
sociations" with prayer, or Saul described prayer "playing against the
backdrop of his personality," they clearly noted how in the act of pray
ing personal links were made between the self and the text; the text was
interiorized. Only then did prayer have the quality of reality for the self.
Covenant, then, had a reflexive dimension in prayer performance.
Prayer reflected the self to the self, as it reflected the self and community
to one another.
In short, covenant in the Minyan rested on three fundamental rela
tionships that were also articulated through prayer. For some members
all these relationships reflected an ultimate connection to God. For oth
ers, though few said this publicly, God was irrelevant to that issue. The
God to whom prayer was addressed meant for them Jewish tradition or

Praying in the Minyan
peoplehood. If covenantal relations were best articulated and even re
alized through prayer, then that returns us to the fundamental questions
raised by secularization theorists. What authorizes prayer? If it is not
society, or agreement with the content of prayer, or possibly God, what
allowed Minyan members to pray?
Prayer Performance
Each covenantal relationship described above allowed members to
interiorize their prayer. Voicing prayer with the conviction that it was
one's own words within community reproduced the culture or tradition
that created the prayer. Conviction cannot come without a sense of
one's own involvement in creating a ritual, an involvement that comes
largely from performance, as either spectator or participant. Covenant,
then, was closely connected in the Minyan to performance. We can sur
mise that the real difference between Minyan prayer with prayer classes
and Minyan prayer without prayer classes was the group's reorganiza
tion, which emphasized performance. During prayer classes members
continued to pray, of course, but for that period the community empha
sized prayer as an abstracted body of knowledge rather than an interior
ized experience.
Performance is all the more important in the religion of complex
and pluralist societies because of the loss of the functional, if routiniz-
ing, elements of ritual that obligated people to action. Obligation,
nevertheless, embedded ritual and prayer in normal social life. Freed
from social obligations, women and men turned to religion to define the
self, often in opposition to the surrounding society or in order to reform
it. The individual self, no longer secured by institutional requirements,
depends increasingly on performance itself, to take a greater share in
making ritual effective as well as authoritative. The scholars of religion,
who note the in-turning that often accompanies religion in pluralist
societies, are seeing religion emphasize interior experience. Perform
ance, whether it involves meditation or davening, is experienced pow
erfully within the person, joining form with personal experience.
The absence of obligation is not a social-structural issue alone. For
related reasons, there is also no single or unifying domain of meaning
in complex society. To the contrary, there are contradictions between
domains of meaning. There are few interrelationships between family
and work, or politics and religion. There is little equivalence among the
institutions and relations that fragment the lives of men and women in
complex society. 4 Insofar as synthesis between domains occurs, it is

more likely to take place within the person than within the culture as a
whole. Since the nineteenth-century transformation of American soci
ety and the creation of its urban-professional middle class, discussed in
Chapter 1, individuals have tried to make such integrative statements
through religious organizations. Judaism, however, only intensified the
sense of alienation for its adherents, because it is predicated on the no
tion of Diaspora, that the Jewish people have been separated from their
homeland and live as outsiders wherever they are. Mark suggested this
problem to me as he talked about what was difficult about prayer. "The
Diaspora fills us with a sense of incompleteness. Whatever you do has
very partial significance to a standard of what is real. There are few
occasions for repentance, joy, sadness, or happiness integrated through
a relationship with God in America." Jews must work all the harder
to create covenant in America and to make those covenantal relations
synthesize and reflect their experiences. Performance, then, assumes a
powerful religious burden in complex society.
In the Minyan, community and a general sense of Jewish tradition
were created by the performance of prayer. Each such performance was
reflexive, a metastatement on Minyan members' success at praying
honestly, in an engaged fashion, as they believed their parents' genera
tion failed to do. They were persuaded of their identity and the rightness
of their "choice." They constructed a religious community that, though
untypical, still persuaded them that they were praying as Jews. They
achieved their tradition, emphasizing the "material that has continued to
be relevant to the ethos of the community" (Hymes 1975, 71). That
"material" was to be found in the maintenance of their traditional lit
urgy and particularly in covenant, though they were still compelled to
stamp their unique organization and aesthetics upon them. Halaha,
community, and interpretation were woven into a single fabric of expe
rience. Minyan members said in their organization, in their discussions,
and in their praying, "We are Jews." Praying was possible, that is, per
suasive, because the Minyan emphasized those aspects of the experi
ence that best expressed who members were, particularly through per
Ritual performance, in the context of a specifically defined deco
rum, was effective in creating the integration and synthesis that pro
duced successful prayer. Performance on its own, however, cannot mo
tivate a person to participate. Without "believing in" or "holding" the
covenant, there would be no reason for performance. Members came to
the Minyan more or less convinced by their families, by camp, by edu
cational experiences, or by some relationship or private realization that

Praying in the Minyan
praying and being Jewish were related activities. Active participation in
American society largely determined that Judaism would be generally,
rather than specifically, meaningful. Nonetheless, covenant and per
formance were intrinsically linked to one another, dependent upon one
another in prayer life.
Quite literally, Minyan members could not say prayers if they could
not perform them. The prayer performance enabled reaffirmation of the
equation that to be Jewish was to pray and to pray was to fully express
oneself in the covenant. A mutual relation existed between praying and
the traditional formulation of the prayers in the Minyan, which may be
true for most who pray in the modem world. Performance generated
form. To pray as a Jew was to make oneself and the prayers believable.
Acting, doing, praying, and speaking the words of tradition as one's
own words created the sense of the rightness of the ritual form. Their
performances were persuasive for them precisely because they made use
of traditional forms. The arbitrary use of just any set of words in any
particular language failed to evoke the emotions that these Jews re
quired as the condition for ritual enactment and the expression of their
Jewishness and Judaism. Various Minyan members described their as
sociations with prayers. The more observant and better educated de
scribed feelings, thoughts, and reflections on their own Jewish lives
evoked during prayer. Others simply noted the value they placed on the
sound of Hebrew, which held deep emotional or aesthetic value. Inton
ing an unknown language, not an unusual activity in religious practices
throughout the world, created a sense of attachment and connection to
the ritual and to a general sense of identity or purpose. As Sam Gill
remarked about Navajo prayer:
While it is not irrelevant to the situation, the message of prayer is
highly redundant and the encoded information is well known. The
style of the performance and the physical and emotional aspects of
the performance seem to gready overshadow any concern with the
message. (1981, 185)
Doing enforced believing, because doing in a particular context made
the form believable. As Saul stated the matter, "Praying is more impor
tant than prayer for me."
However, the process did not end there. It was not a matter of
simply rotely enacting a given liturgy. For form generated performance
as well. Prayer necessitated praying. The texts came alive and were
made acceptable and believable because the performance made them

that way. Doing what Jews do made one a Jew, and being a Jew moved
one toward Jewish activity. The prayer performance enacted in the Min
yan community was part of what generated the process of maintain
ing identity, creating visibility, and personally claiming the tradition as
one's own.
That the Minyan flourished in its prayer performances and withered
in its prayer classes demonstrates that the reasons why members pray
are not as significant as the fact that they pray together. In retrospect,
Jacob himself recognized this obvious point. "When they were asked,
members were more than willing to criticize prayer, but praying was
what makes us a group, and no one asked how they felt about that." Jay
made a similar point.
No one, by the way, offered any alternatives when they complained
about their difficulties with prayer. There wasn't an overriding out
cry, "Teach us, correct us, change us, substitute meditation or
trances for prayer." The discussion was an expression of pluses and
minuses and an emphasis on real happiness with the Minyan.
Praying worked quite adequately to maintain what they associated
with Jewish liturgy and join it with the personal conviction generated
by the actual performance of the words. When Terri explained why
the prayer classes had no effect on her davening, she also described
what did.
I'm the kind of person who needs a lot of reinforcement from the
congregation. I like good feelings all around and I daven much
more serenely and pleasandy. When people drag when they sing or
daven, I feel lousy. When there's unity, a strong bond between
people, it makes a difference. Once I was hazan and some people
were bored with the songs I picked out and it spoiled it for me and
for others.
What pleased Terri and attached her to the Minyan was the support of
others in her praying. In the retreat discussion, she described herself as
a person burdened all of her life by her failure in prayer, her fear that
God was not in front of her and not able to hear her. But in describing
her davening, we see another picture. Here is a woman moved by the
community's support of her, caught up in song and music, fully engaged
with the tradition and Sabbath prayer. She was confident of the experi
ence and of herself. She achieved a successful performance of prayer

Praying in the Minyan
and experienced herself and those around her as Jews. In doing that she
made the words of prayer her own.
Performance and the Power of Aesthetics
What performance does, in short, is to allow the person to interior-
ize prayer, thereby reproducing the tradition in general, and covenental
relations in particular. The covenant authorizes prayer, that is, grounds
Judaism in a theology, history, and requirement for communal relations.
However, praying recreated the covenant weekly for most Minyan
members and made it convincing for them. Without that conviction,
members would not "believe in" Judaism, as Stromberg put it. They
would not be emotionally invested in the religion so that the self was
connected to it.
Performance occurs within certain constraints and forms. I noted at
the outset that not any performance would do. In Chapter 5,1 identify
aesthetics as the synthesizing feature of ritual and prayer. Without it the
person cannot be drawn into the ritual, cannot be unified to others and
to the ritual event itself. Though the ritual communicates messages to
participants, the point of aesthetic forms, such as dance and music, is to
unify the person with the rite, altering his or her experience as a result.
Aesthetics are, to state the obvious, culturally variable. In the plural
world of American society there are cultural, generational, religious,
political, and many other varieties of aesthetics. A synagogue perform
ance did not "work" for most Minyan members because of those differ
ences. Particularly for the majority of members who did not feel "obli
gated" to pray, aesthetics were virtually determinative of participation.
The same words voiced in a community with the "wrong" decorum or
an inappropriate aesthetic made prayer almost impossible and under
mined a sense of covenant. Aesthetic media of song and movement, as
well as aesthetic styles, all contributed to the capacity of ritual to con
vince worshipers of their ability to pray.
The aesthetic aspects of ritual enable people to enter the altered
world created by ritual, where "the world as lived and the world as
imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn
out to be the same world" (Geertz 1973b, 112). Doing is believing.
Seeing one's fellow "doing" is even more potent in making action be
lievable. To pray with a particular aesthetic, to say words, to put one's
body in motion as one davens, is to be a Jew. As Dell Hymes suggests,
"Tradition itself exists partly for the sake of performance. Performance
itself is partly an end" (1975, 19). Performance is persuasive; it provides

the intensely felt, highly affective sense that what one does is right be
cause he or she is doing it. Clifford Geertz (1973a, 1973b), Sherry Ort-
ner (1978) and Barbara Myerhoff (1977) have commented on the per
suasive dimension of ritual. As Geertz argued, authority flows from it.
Performance translates knowledge into action. In fact, Minyan
members had not only imperfect knowledge of the tradition but argu
ments with it. All of them sought to change, to some extent, what con
stituted the bedrock of Jewish law. But they all shared the desire to take
responsibility for the performance of that tradition. They did not want
to be mere observers in their own religious lives. Though their prayers
may not have constituted what Hymes calls the "breakthrough to per
formance"—that is, authoritative performance authorized by the most
conservative definition of the tradition—their performance was never
theless convincing to them as an authentic enactment of Jewish prayer.
As such, they internalized a general Judaism.
What results from such authoritative performances? In the case of
the Minyan members, the reproduction of tradition oriented their lives
and intensified their identification as Jews and, hence, as something
unique within America. The more seriously one participated in the
Minyan, the more likely one was to observe dietary laws, to expand
Sabbath observance to all twenty-four hours, and to participate in the
cycle of Jewish festivals throughout the year. If one came as a tradition
alist, the liberalism of the Minyan also sanctioned lessening observance,
but without feeling it was impossible to remain fully Jewish. The gen
eral, rather than minutely defined, nature of tradition made it possible
for members to experience their Judaism as authentic without requiring
fundamentalist belief or total observance.
The Minyan emphasized authenticity within pluralism. Judaism
served as a repository of meanings, but the members emphasized the
ones they found most valuable. Of course members fought over prayer
content. For instance, as a result of group decisions that did not please
all members, they did not pray for the return of animal sacrifices in the
Additional Service on festivals and the Sabbath. They did not even pray
for victory and the destruction of modem Israel's enemies. In the Min
yan, however, as in America, no values were stronger than the ex
tremely general ones of community and tradition, as opposed to the
particulars of cosmology and theology or, in the end, ideas about gen
der. For some, the general nature of prayer specifically oriented activity.
They read directly from prayer to their behavior. Jay, one of the Minyan
members who prayed daily, noted the general sense of what prayer was
likely to mean for him.

Praying in the Minyan
Davening is cracked up to do a lot more than it really does on a
regular Shabbes minyan basis. I am convinced that at certain peak
experiences in a person's life, prayer can have a major role. But for
the most part, as a friend of mine says, the prayer experience is a
"down holiness," an earthly kind of thing that provides a cue in our
life. It provides us certain categories to think with, certain symbols.
In the rather abstract language of "cue," "category," and "symbols," he
asserted that this daily ritual provided him with an outlook on life. Jay's
entire life as a rabbi and educator was devoted to Judaism. The cues
were encompassing.
Doug, who by contrast told me, "I never pray alone; I need the
community," also found cues in prayer, though not as precise as Jay's
"categories" or "symbols."
Prayer is not just petitionary. It's somehow a celebration of life and
a statement of being Jewish. I work in a Jewish organization, but
that doesn't go anywhere near fulfilling my needs. I'm not sure I
draw on prayer for my life, but I do on things of Jewish culture.
Doug appeared ambivalent. Even in a single thought, he indicated that
prayer allowed him to celebrate his Judaism, but at the same time he
was not certain he drew on prayer in the way Jay described. He seemed
willing to continue to struggle with the meaning of the prayers because
it did something for him that all other arenas of Jewish life did not.
Ruth reflected on prayer in order to explain what happens to her
while praying.
When I think of davening in the Minyan I never think of anybody
out there listening to me. I just always think of it as me and a re
newal of my commitment. In a sense a check-off list of things that I
want to try and dedicate myself to and try and remember to give
direction to my own life. But there are times, mostly of pain and
trouble, where I just quietly hang my head and think, "Please don't
let there be war in Israel," knowing it's not going to do anybody any
good. And I guess at Havdalah, in the quietness and the darkness, I
really for two seconds can believe the Messiah is going to come and
somehow make it all better. That goes away as soon as the candle
goes out and the lights go on. Just trying to get in touch with your
insides is a very cleansing experience; to get in the rhythm and to
accomplish something. I really feel good after we finish Adon Olam
[the closing hymn]. The book closes and it's Shabbos; it really ded
icates Shabbos.

Ruth, Doug, and Jay, all with different levels of Jewish education and
observance, and with different ideas about a God without and within,
found in the prayer performance cues, guides, and occasions for reflec
tions that no other private or organizational setting made possible. In
their performances, their Judaism was made real, dedicated and re
dedicated and "rehearsed." As text and performance created and gener
ated one another, so they made the individual's participation compel
These men and women described the internalization of the prayer
experience. It was a unique experience, different in quality from others,
neither divorced from the great tradition of halaha nor disconnected
from an idiosyncratic approach unique to the community. Understand
ing and didactic knowledge were not its primary result. In all cases
prayer provided a frame for what they, as Diaspora Jews, thought of as
Jewish experience. For the most observant prayer offered the expression
of key categories and concepts. Mark quoted verses of prayers to me
when he expressed, for example, the importance of community. Less
observant members were more likely to speak in general terms of iden
tity or peoplehood or history. But those meanings and values were di
rectly evoked by the prayer experience, which involved a powerful link
between self, text, and performance. 5
Felicitous Prayer
Borrowing J. L. Austin's vocabulary in Chapter 4,1 ask what makes
prayer felicitious, that is, how does prayer work. Particularly in plural
and secular society, where virtually all the standard conditions rooting
ritual to society no longer exist—obligation, homogeneity, connections
to status relations, and uniform ideas—why does prayer work? Why do
people continue to pray? Prayer proposes to be about contacting God
and the expression of belief. In the Minyan there are many examples of
people who neither believe nor are preoccupied with contacting God.
Then what is their prayer and what does it do? In more general terms,
what constitutes prayer for modem women and men?
The constitutive elements of prayer vary. Though prayer resembles
performative speech in many ways, its context is far more complex. All
prayer has a liturgical field, including history, current social relations,
and inherited forms. Within that field, in the Minyan, prayer involved a
required social group (community), an inherited form (halaha), and,
uniquely to them, reflections on the process (interpretation). Not only
must these constituents be present for prayer to be effective, they must

Praying in the Minyan
be synthesized, that is, joined together. All constituents are unified only
within the prayer performance. The worshiper takes prayer in to express
it as his or her own only when they are unified. When action and com
munity are linked, that is, when prayer and minyan are linked in the
act of praying, then prayer is felicitous or effective. Judaism is repro
duced as the product of self and text reflecting one another. The wor
shipers can continue to pray knowing that prayer speaks to and for
In the Minyan, because both community and praying were volun
tary, the prayer constituents were inevitably sensitive to one another
because they existed in a somewhat closed system. Halaha, for example,
was not mirrored in either a political system or even in an ethnic en
clave. It, then, only articulated a system of obligation that basically was
negotiated by people according to their individual needs. In Minyan
prayer, discussions and texts consistently reflected upon one another.
Interpretations of texts in discussion could lead to the ability to pray.
Praying could recast certain interpretations. They flowed in and out of
one another in both the structure of any liturgical service and in creating
intention and the ability to pray. Similarly, as I discussed in Chapter 5,
community, halaha and discussions reflected one another. Changes in
the group were reflected in what could be discussed and how the obli
gation to pray was understood. Prayer in the Minyan was felicitous,
then, when these constituents could be mutually reflecting and drawn
into the person through performance.
Prayer performance, on its own, was insufficient to keep members
from distancing themselves from prayer in their therapeutic retreat dis
cussion, which led to the prayer classes. In the Minyan, prayer was
infelicitous, that is, judged meaningless by worshipers, when it did not
allow them to participate in the covenant. The retreat discussion oc
curred at a time when the community was reassessing and reorganizing
its approach to prayer. Increased negotiation about prayer intensified
differences and undermined people's conceptions of prayer. Normally
assumed difficulties with prayer took on greater significance as the com
munity became ineffective at reflecting its members as either competent
Jews or Jews with appropriate needs.
The problems created by the prayer classes were resolved through
praying. In the end, the primary authority for prayer rested in recreating
the covenant anew through praying. It articulated a message of sacred
relationships, which was reflected in the communal, interpretive, and
halahic constituents of prayer. That "general" message translated into
attitudes, cues, and behaviors for members who brought them back to

prayer. The aesthetic elements that were critical to effective performance
aided that very process of unifying community and prayer to create
what I have called throughout this book "intention," "belief in," and
"holding" beliefs. In summary, felicitous prayer unified the constituents
within prayer performance to remake covenantal relations that autho
rized participation.
The "plausibility structures" that Peter Berger understood to be es
sential to religious life exist in a radically different form in complex so
ciety. Voluntary associations, particularly religious ones, have a long
history in American society of being vehicles for authorizing and au
thenticating a religious experience tied closely to the development of
communal and individual identity. They have moved into the vacuums
created by conflicting values and institutions to provide enduring forms
such as ritual, as well as novel interpretations and applications of the
traditions transmitted by such forms. Religion, then, is an individual
matter, but one formulated through traditional frameworks that require
interaction with community and activities that carry the stamp of tradi
tion and continuity. The extent to which ritual and community can
combine disparate elements of the culture within traditional frame
works is essential to the development of identity.
Because secularization theorists have ignored the formal features of
ritual, as well as failed to explore the messages communicated by con
temporary religion, they have not examined what makes the religious
experience plausible. They have not looked at what constraints tradi
tional forms place around identity formation. Nor have they paid atten
tion to the mutual relations between traditional forms and how they are
enacted in order to see the impact of one upon the other. Only when
one combines an analysis of the formal properties of prayer and their
contribution to the prayer experience can one understand the effect of
secularization on those forms. Similarly, one must understand the im
pact of ritual forms on secularization. Fischer and Epstein, among oth
ers, have pointed our understanding of ethnicity toward an analysis of
how ethnic identity grows out of the relationship between traditional
forms and pluralistic society. Their interests parallel this attempt in order
to understand the link between performance, context, prayer, and com
The Minyan's prayer classes were ultimately about a mistake,
though not an arbitrary one. Communities, particularly fragile ones
whose voluntary membership makes them less stable, experiment in

Praying in the Minyan
formulating themselves. They do not have the generations of experience
and the wide-range of activities that would allow them to develop a
flexible but fixed form. The prayer classes were just such an experiment.
They were the vision of one group of people, who because they started
the Minyan, had the hardest time watching it change. Their prayer cur
riculum was designed to create Minyan members that the founders felt
would resemble themselves. But the classes did not work. A few weeks
of classes could not create for others what these founders experienced
as Jews.
The prayer classes were a mistake in a much deeper sense than the
temporary control of the group by a handful of teachers. They pushed
people from the community and from prayer because the classes
changed the nature of the prayer experience. They polarized discussion
and praying, making performance appear second best and analytic con
siderations primary. They pulled aesthetics out of interpretation, and
interpretation out of praying. The constituents of prayer were further
broken apart. The retreat discussion reflected a separation between
community and praying. The classes only further disengaged prayer,
community, and interpretation. Prior to the prayer classes, Minyan
members had reflected on the problematics of their prayers. Prayer
seemed meaningless. But during the prayer classes, prayer was not
worth doing at all for the majority of members. Doubt was tolerable,
but abandoning prayers spelled the group's end.
Minyan members had no interest in reflecting on their prayer
classes. They simply moved back to the Minyan they had created, a
carefully controlled, weekly performance that emphasized the conti
nuity between prayer, community, and interpretation, synthesized by
aesthetic performance. Indeed, the Minyan moved back to performance
as the primary focus for their shared time, which persuaded members
by sentiment, and aesthetics, rather than didactics.
The conflicts of these months only underscored how precise the
Minyan's organization of prayer and of social relations was. Decorum
without performance, like the sacred without the social, was impos
sible. Their performances were consistently vulnerable to misfire be
cause their constituents were so closely reflected and interrelated. Con
flicts in community affected prayer. Their solution to this problem
remained organizational. They continued to redraw the lines of their
time together to harmonize the prayer constituents. Maintaining the
balance between prayer, community, and interpretation and all that
those processes represented, allowed them to pray. Each person was

willing to sacrifice needs and expectations for the group, though that
discovery was a difficult one for the Minyan. Their visibility to one an
other through prayer remained essential.
In the event described in Chapter 7, community itself was divided
in a new way, by gender. That division raised more than personal prob
lems to be addressed by organization. The very possibility of both Juda
ism and the Minyan incorporating women was raised by women mem
bers, who turned to ritual to address their exclusion. In the prayer crisis,
the classroom was used to address intensely personal problems. In the
women's ritual, prayer was used to address exclusion. The classes pro
vided no identity and no possibility for resolving prayer issues. Chapter
7 will show how prayer, which appeared tenuous in so many ways, was
made to carry new and contradictory messages and provide visibility
for women members, and how it revealed its further significance as a
source of identity formation.
1. Jews pronounce the four Hebrew letters Yad Heh Vav Heh as Adanoi, translated in
English as "Master." This name of God was revealed to Moses at the burning bush in two
passages in the book of Exodus (Chapter 3 verse 15, and Chapter 6 verse 5). These two
verses are at the center of a scholarly controversy concerning whether Adanoi is a name
previously known by the Jewish people, or one revealed on this occasion. The sources
tend to suggest two different possibilities. Adanoi is not an accurate pronounciadon of
these letters. The name is so powerful that to say it correctly would bring death. In fact,
rather than saying Adanoi, a Jew might simply substitute in its place, Ha Shem. "the
2. TZitzit are the knotted fringes on the four comers of the prayer shawl. They are also
placed on a garment worn daily by completely observant men. The latter garment is worn
under the shirt and the fringes are worn exposed over the pants. These hinges are men
tioned in the paragraphs of the Shmah taken from the book of Numbers (15:37-41).
3. Several men in the Minyan subsequently referred to this discussion as "foreplay."
It was an interesting image for the activity that implied both its preparatory function and
their sense of the intimate and even erotic nature of prayer. The pun was never made
public and was treated as an off-color joke.
4. Roberto Da Mata discusses this phenomenon (1984).
5. The general sense of cultural knowledge is advocated by a number of anthropolo
gists interested in focusing attention on cultural performances per se. Schieffelin (1985),
for example, noted that in each seance that occurred, members of a New Guinea society
had the opportunity to fill in additional information to a system that was rather open-
ended. Hence, performance becomes the occasion not only to express cultural ideas but to
elaborate and create them. That creative aspect of ritual performance is implied in Kap-
ferer (1983) and Mac Aloon's (1984) view of performance "transforming" ritual partici

Community,; Visibility, and
Gender In Prayer
The logical response of a feminist to Juda
ism is to stop being Jewish. When you de
cide you cannot stop being Jewish, it is
much harder.
In the previous three chapters I examined the Minyan's "prayer crisis"
which appeared to develop out of members' claims that they did not
"agree" with or find meaning in their liturgy. Their crisis emerged when
in one particular context, prayer was cast by some members as state
ments requiring agreement. The ultimate solution to the crisis involved
restoring prayer to a setting that integrated its constituents so that it
would express and allow worshipers to remake the covenant.
At the same fall retreat, another conflict was in the making. This
one concerned gender relations in the Minyan, in Judaism, and partic
ularly in prayer. This conflict also divided the community, this time
along gender lines, in a way that threatened to undermine their unity
and their prayer. The prayer crisis was defined by some members who
despaired that prayer could not be appropriately voiced as their own. If
this first formulation of the problem was "I disagree," the other was "I
am invisible." Women asserted that they were absent from the imagery
and the content of prayers and, hence, could never be reflected in texts.
In the first series of events, the link between community and prayer
was never articulated by Minyan members, and no one acknowledged
that the prayer classes caused conflict. In the second series of events,
women made explicit that community was directly problematic. In the
end, however, their greater concern was with the texts of prayers, which
seemed equally to neglect them. These women chose a radically differ
ent solution to their problem than the prayer classes. They created a

ritual to address the problem of prayer and their connection to it. In this
ritual they altered the prayer constituents. They refocused Minyan com
munity altered halaha, and more narrowly defined what interpretation
In the prayer crisis, the text-self relationship was undermined by
disconnecting the prayer constituents and then redefining prayer as
cognitive rather than aesthetic. In the women's ritual, the text-self rela
tionship was undermined by defining prayer and community as exclu
sionary. Each case evolved forms of resolution that were directed to re
orienting the prayer constituents in order to reformulate the connection
between self and text. The events surrounding the women's service re
vealed how any formulation of the self in light of tradition rests on cre
ating a tie between performance and covenant. Precisely because the
women's challenge to tradition was so far-reaching, it demonstrated
that as meaning became more general in Judaism, its most significant
referent was to the formulation of the self through relationship to oth
ers. The strands of meaning in prayer were abstract and exclusively cos
mological and increasingly reflected identity. But as this chapter's epi
graph notes, when staying linked to the Jewish people is at the core of
one's identity, then prayer must work to articulate change as much as to
maintain tradition. Performance can create conviction only when con
stituents are reformulated. This chapter, in contrast to the analysis of the
prayer crisis, examines how performance can resist the text, though not
the tradition, and can redefine successful prayer. The cases taken to
gether show different uses of prayer performance in the formulation of
The Women's "Problem" in the Minyan
Men and women in the Minyan faced two problems concerning
women. First, halaha forbade their full and equal participation. Second,
though the members agreed to ignore halaha in favor of gender equality,
women did not fully or equally participate during the community's first
two years. The women began to experience this as a problem in the
third year of the group. The first public recognition of this problem on
the part of men and women came at the fall retreat. When Martha asked
who would like to join her in organizing a creative service for a forth
coming Sabbath, only women raised their hands as volunteers. Men
laughed loudly and nervously. Though no one said anything for a mo
ment, everyone seemed to take it for granted that the theme of this
service would surely focus on women. Issues about gender equality

Community, Visibility, and Gender
were prevalent in America in 1973, among Jews and in the Minyan.
Martha did say soon after the laughter subsided that they would address
the halahic inequality of women and men. Several members, besides
the initial volunteers, met regularly over the next few months, during
the period of the prayer classes, to plan an event that took place in
March 1974. As unequivocal as the group was about the importance of
equality for the genders, women nevertheless felt excluded and wanted
to organize a Sabbath service to make that explicit.
It was to avoid that sense of exclusion that Minyan members origi
nally made their boldest transformation of halaha. 1 From its beginning,
the community included women in all ritual activities and simply ig
nored any halahic limitation on women's participation. The Jewish tra
dition is unambiguous about the role of women in public worship. They
may not sit with men or be visible to men during prayer. Their voices
may not be heard by men in public worship. They may not even count
in the prayer quorum, the very word the community took for its own
name. The absolute distinction between men and women is ever pres
ent. In Europe, therefore, the synagogue was the male domain par ex
cellence. 2 Women attended synagogue for prayer briefly and infre
quently. They never participated in study. Their religious education was
minimal or nonexistent, and they were rarely taught Hebrew. They took
responsibility for child care on all ritual occasions. Even their brief peri
ods in synagogue behind the mehitza (the divider that separated men
and women during a service) were full of the distractions that attention
to children creates.
American Judaism, however, was not primarily framed by halaha,
and gender relations were dramatically changed as a result of immigra
tion. Virtually all denominations transformed male-female relations in
the synagogue in the early twentieth century. In 1851, Rabbi Isaac
Mayer Wise, a German Jewish Reformer, introduced radical change
with integrated seating at the services of his Albany, New York, syn
agogue. Integrated seating was an ideal of classical Reform, but it was
only realized in America. Wise emphasized the importance of what
he called "family worship," obviously facilitated by integrated seating
(Philipson 1907).
Throughout the twentieth century, as new denominations devel
oped, each responded to issues of gender equality. None were as radical
as Reform, but each found ways to integrate women, whether in syn
agogue seating or in lectures and programs that allowed men and
women to participate together. The model for the integration of services
and social events was American churches, where women were not ex-

This curtain is the mehitza of a first settlement Los Angeles
synagogue. Women sit in pews behind this curtain.

Community, Visibility, and Gender
eluded from worship, and sanctuaries were not the domain of one gen
der. The degree of involvement of women in American synagogues var
ied widely, and their participation in Reform, for example, was never
equal until contemporary feminism, but the walls of male-dominated
synagogues had been breached by early leaders of the developing de
nominational Judaism.
The Americanization of Judaism and its family orientation created
an expanded educational system that trained girls and provided rituals
parallel to those for boys marking the culmination of their various
stages of education, particularly among the non-Orthodox. Though
Jewish education was not extensive for most boys and girls in America,
it was increasingly, though not fully, equal throughout the fifties and
sixties. The more traditional the denomination, however, the more per
sistent was educational inequality. Nevertheless, Jewish girls received
messages about the importance of their competence as Jews that would
have been unthinkable even fifty years before.
Insofar as Minyan members wanted a traditional Jewish commu
nity, halaha stood against gender equality. They discovered, however,
that changing the law was not sufficient to include women completely.
Though gender-related changes constituted the Minyan's boldest break
with tradition, its members felt the most vulnerable about their failure
to accommodate the needs of women members. Women consistently
felt like less than full participants. Over several years, many women in
the Minyan came to think of themselves as invisible in the eyes of the
community and the tradition. They felt excluded because men domi
nated the discussions and the leadership of the services. But they also
felt excluded because their prayer texts and Torah readings included no
women with whom they could identify. They felt doubly marginalized
by community and tradition, resulting in an invisibility that was both
social and symbolic. 3
Their constant consciousness of incomplete equality was engen
dered by contemporary feminism, which provided Jewish women with
a systematic vocabulary for articulating their anger at continued mar
ginalization and exclusion from the public arenas of Jewish life, partic
ularly in the synagogue. By the early 1970s, the term Jewish feminism
had been coined to describe the efforts of women in particular, but some
men as well, to address and transform Jewish law. 4
The period of the first half of the seventies, when the Minyan began,
was one of intense public activism for women in America. A contem
porary women's movement had taken shape. Feminist writings were
widely available. The "Judaeo-Christian tradition" presented an early

target for feminist criticism and analysis. Both academic and political
feminists saw in that tradition the foundation and support for the fun
damental Western conceptions of male and female roles in the social
and cultural order. They examined every aspect of religious tradition,
from the language of prayer and theology, to the gender of the clergy, to
history, to the Bible and liturgy. 5 Most American denominations re
sponded to these concerns in the subsequent decade. Jewish feminists
joined their voices in the debate. Their writing and political action were
also obvious in the Jewish press as well as in the New York Times.
From the start, the issue of gender equality was crucial in the Min
yan. Without equality, members believed they could not integrate tradi
tion with a countercultural decorum or succeed at establishing a unique
community. The men, in particular, could not explain why women
would not participate more actively in the Minyan, other than the dif
ferences in their Jewish educations. At that time only one woman in the
country had been ordained as a rabbi. 6 Few women in America had
substantial Jewish educations because of the traditional view that dis
couraged educating women, and those few would have been unlikely
to participate in this Minyan because of its liberalism. Rather than alter
ing Judaism, as had been their hope, it seemed that the Minyan was
replicating it. They were all intermittently frustrated about why things
had not changed. In the Minyan's third year, men and women came to
define the problem, each with his or her own definition and solution.
Though they struggled with great sincerity over those issues, their differ
ences indicated that interiorization of prayer required different experi
ences for men and women. If that was the case, then community, one
of their prayer constituents, was not the same for men and women. The
most important function of community was to mirror the authenticity
of all members' participation. Men and women had not equally partici
pated in the Minyan, and women had begun to question their place in
the community.
How the Minyan Responded to Jewish Law
When Jacob and Mark had their first meeting to discuss the Min
yan, they invited a woman student who was active in Hillel. She never
became involved, but offered some ideas and participated briefly in the
planning. They involved a woman immediately because it seemed evi
dent to them that women would be equal partners in the Minyan. Jacob
had attempted to organize a minyan two years previously, and the male
and female students had insisted on separation and inequality of the

Community, Visibility, and Gender
sexes, because of halaha. Jacob was uncomfortable with this attitude
and was somewhat relieved when the group stopped meeting. They
failed to recruit ten men so that they could form a minyan. According
to tradition, of course, women could not be counted.
The original participants at Minyan planning meetings finally dis
cussed Jewish legal issues about women at their third session. Jacob
described the tense moment of public decision.
I think the Gold brothers raised the question, "Did we want women
to be full members?" Paul came out very strongly opposed to it and
said he could not be in a minyan where women were full members.
My fear was that because both of them were valuable members,
people would give in to keep them. The exact opposite happened.
People were very firm. No one argued with him I think. They just
said, "This is very important to me and that's how I want it to be."
The result was that the brothers left the group. They stated that there
were many deviations from custom they could agree to, but they would
not reject laws that forbade women's public participation. The new
Minyan had lost essential participants. They were knowledgeable Jews
and fine hazanim. The Minyan's early members never formally voiced
their commitment to equality. Jacob noted that no one made strong
ideological statements about their beliefs or aspirations for the new
group. Though a fundamental premise of the group, it was rarely ver
balized. Susan, a Minyan founder and undergraduate student, described
why equality was a given of the community.
Near the end of the Minyan's first year I traveled in Europe and
worshiped in synagogues where it did not seem particularly un
usual or wrong to sit separated from men and not be able to partic
ipate. But because we created the Minyan ourselves, it would have
felt strange and wrong to have built inequality in, despite the ha
Without rancor or recourse to a developed set of principles, Minyan
members followed a general sense of what was appropriate to them as
Jews. They created an egalitarian minyan built on a tradition in which
such equality was unthinkable. As such, their radical decision was
treated as what I have referred to as an "organizational" issue. They
simply appropriated a traditional male status for women. Women were
made full participants. Just as there could be two hazanim, there could
also be a new group of people—women—allowed to participate fully.

The direct result of this organizational, as opposed to ideological,
approach was, in effect, to treat women like men, hence neutralizing
the gender of both. As a result both men and women were invited to
wear all prayer garments, use all prayer gestures and participate in all
worship. Women acquired the symbols associated with males and
clothed themselves with them. The group's intent was not to make
women men, but to set aside the questions of gender and keep halaha
basically intact. 7 Maintaining the tradition was the essence of the orga
nizational solution, and it was one that reflected what Jewish feminism,
indeed feminism in the early seventies, called for. But its effect was ex
perienced differently by men and women, making it virtually impossible
for women to interiorize prayer.
Integrating Women
The Minyan's first years abounded with examples of women's ap
parently successful integration. Ideological polemics on equality were
absent. Rather, the rituals and roles performed by women spoke elo
quently for what the members believed an egalitarian Judaism should
be. For the first time in their lives, many women put on prayer shawls
and skull caps historically associated exclusively with men. Many
women, for the first time in their lives, said Torah blessings, putting
them physically close to a sacred object. Religious activities familiar to
any preadolescent boy became accessible for the first time to women
who were already in their twenties. These women expressed awe, plea
sure, anxiety, and appreciation.
One Sabbath early in my fieldwork, I watched a woman receive an
aliyah (Torah blessing) and put on a prayer shawl for the first time.
Miriam indicated at the start of the Torah service that she would like to
say one of the blessings at the Torah. Though she lacked a formal Jewish
education, she had participated in innumerable Sabbath services as a
young child in Latin America and in college at her university's Hillel. In
addition, she had attended the minyan for eight months. She was called
to the Torah by her Hebrew name, which she had told to the gabbai
(organizer of the Torah service), and went up to the bimah where the
Torah was read. Jay, who was the Torah reader that Sabbath, explained
all the behavior required for saying the Torah blessing. Such public
prompting in the middle of a service was not unusual in the Minyan.
First, Jay asked Miriam if she wanted to put on a tallit. (Some in the
Minyan believed that no one, either male or female, should bless or be
near the Torah without one. Others disagreed). When Miriam said

Community, Visibility, and Gender
"Yes," he helped her put it on. Jay then showed her how to perform the
Torah blessing. He demonstrated how to put the fringes of the tallit to
the first word on the Torah scroll to be read and then to bring the fringe
to her lips to kiss it. He showed her where to stand while he read and at
what points to recite the blessings: Prior to his reading, she was to say:
Bless the Lord, the blessed one.
(The community responded with the second sentence she repeats.)
Blessed be the Lord who is blessed for all eternity. Blessed art Thou,
Lord our God, king of the universe who has chosen us from among
all peoples and has given us His Torah. Blessed art Thou, Lord, giver
of the Torah.
Following Jay's chanting of one section of the Torah she said:
Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has given
us the Torah of truth and planted among us life eternal. Blessed art
Thou, Lord, giver of the Torah.
Miriam did as instructed, saying the blessings in English, though in the
Minyan as in normative Judaism, they are most often chanted in He
brew. After the Minyan service Miriam said to me:
I have heard people say those blessings literally hundreds of times.
But as I got close to the scroll, I suddenly felt very apprehensive.
Then, as I did all those things that were at once familiar and new, I
felt I might cry. I was unprepared for what a moving experience I
would have.
Miriam, without any knowledge of Hebrew, found her participation
powerful despite how commonplace the event was for her as an ob
server. In her switch from audience to actor she experienced the inten
sity of engagement. Clearly direct participation heightened her sense of
involvement with ritual activity.
For women who came to the Minyan with a Jewish education from
homes where observance and tradition were well established, the Min
yan presented the opportunity to acquire and use skills never previously
allowed. Women became activists in synagogue worship as their fathers
and male relatives had been, but they never imagined it would be pos
sible for them. Women would, for the first time, publicly lead services.

read from the Torah, and chant special books of the Bible associated
with Jewish festivals. They used the skills that mark an educated Jew.
These more educated women, however, often commented on their in
tense anxiety around performing these skills. Before the Minyan service
began one January morning, for example, Ruth told Terri how nervous
she was about reading from the Torah that day. Terri nodded her head,
corroborating all the symptoms. Ruth said:
I'm so nervous this morning. But the Shabbat morning nervousness
is different than the nervous stomach I have all week long after I
volunteer for the Torah reading for the next week. Now I have the
"morning of" aches which aren't nearly as severe as the five min
utes before going on panic.
These symptoms seemed extreme. Ruth and Terri had Jewish educa
tions. In fact, Ruth was a rabbinical student at the local Reform semi
nary. She returned to the Minyan after her first year of rabbinical school,
which she spent in Israel. She was from a minimally observant Jewish
home and became involved in Kelton Hillel activities when she was an
undergraduate. Inspired by Jacob, increasingly interested in Jewish ob
servance and prayer, she decided to become a rabbi. Yet she felt very
aware of "how much more the men know." She did not want to embar
rass herself publicly. As a female rabbinical student she was constantly
aware of her minority status, and she was concerned about becoming a
competent rabbi.
Terri grew up in a suburban Los Angeles, Conservative Jewish
home. She was in her mid-twenties and a nursery school teacher in a
local Jewish synagogue. She received a Jewish education, but was pro
hibited from participating in synagogue leadership of services because
she was a woman. In the Minyan she was one of the women most likely
to volunteer to lead a service or to read the Torah. Despite her apparent
competence, she still expressed overwhelming anxiety about each role.
She did not call herself a feminist and always refused, with horror, to
put on a tallit, which she saw as a male garment. Nevertheless, she
wanted to be an active participant. Earlier she had attended the hasidic
center in Kelton, but finally left, frustrated by her inability as a woman
to participate fully.
Certainly the embarrassment of public correction of mistakes during
the Torah reading is awkward. However, I heard poorly practiced men
read Torah who were corrected constantly, and none of them expressed
such anxieties. Some of the younger men were intimidated by the pros-

Community, Visibility, and Gender
pect of reading publicly, but every woman in the Minyan articulated real
fear. They always presented themselves as anxious newcomers to Juda
ism, whether or not their command of Hebrew was excellent and de
spite the aspirations of some to the rabbinate. Jews all of their lives,
their roles in the Minyan were new. In the Minyan they were more than
members of a synagogue sisterhood, or even participants in an adult
education class; they were full participants, and none of them had seen
Jewish women fully participating in prayer. At a point in American his
tory when women were being made conscious of their right to equality,
as they assumed those rights, these women found themselves struggling
with the intimidating power of the tradition. There were occasions
when they felt like outsiders to the Judaism they felt was important to
their own identity. That outsider status must have only been heightened
by their need to assume traditional activities and symbols that had been
associated with men.
The successful integration of women into Judaism, as well as the
Minyan, was highlighted by a birth ritual in 1973, near the Minyan's
second anniversary, in honor of the first baby bom to active Minyan
members. The ceremony enforced the community's sense of itself as
both unique and unequivocally committed to gender equality. The
child's parents, Michael and Ellen, were Minyan founders. Michael, a
Kelton University professor in the natural sciences, was the Minyan's
strongest spokesperson for tradition and halaha. He was the least com
promising, though committed to equal rights for women. His wife had
no Jewish upbringing or training. When she married Michael she found
herself responsible for a kosher kitchen, for observing the Sabbath, and
for participating in worship. The Minyan proved an excellent compro
mise for them. It was Ellen's lack of Hebrew fluency that led Jacob to
suggest English praying and to establish the “office" of English hazan.
When Ellen gave birth to a girl, they decided to ritualize her birth
far more extensively than is usually the practice among traditional Jews.
The normal custom is to simply give a daughter a Hebrew name on the
Sabbath following her birth during the Torah service at the synagogue.
The child, rarely present, is given a blessing and her name is announced.
The father is invited to bless the Torah in honor of her birth. This cele
bration pales by contrast with the rituals that mark the birth of a son.
His Hebrew name is given on the eighth day following his birth at his
brit milah (ritual circumcision), which is followed typically by a large
and lavish party for friends and relatives.
The distinction in ceremonies is related to the reproduction of gen
der roles within Judaism. The circumcision is the sign of the continuing

covenant made between God and Abraham. Hence, the ritual not only
names the boy but brings him into the ancient relationship established
between God and men. Women have no ritual that marks their relation
ship to God. The baby-naming ceremony has no ritual significance be
yond the naming. One may find proof for this difference in the blessings
bestowed upon each child. At the brit milah, the community wishes
that the parents will "rear their son" to marriage, to study, and to the
performance of good deeds. The wish for the daughter is that she be
reared to marry and to do good deeds; there is no mention of study, the
most significant responsibility of the mature Jew. The new ceremonies
that were being developed for girls in the early seventies did sometimes
address the issue of covenant, in addition to acknowledging that the
daughter bom was worthy of celebration.
Michael and Ellen made their daughter's naming a major Minyan
celebration. In addition to giving her name during the Torah service,
they asked the members to communally recite biblical Psalms. These
passages formed an acrostic derived from the first letters of the sentences
spelling their daughter's Hebrew names. Following the service Michael
and Ellen hosted a festive lunch and invited the whole Minyan.
One month after the birth, the child's parents invited Minyan mem
bers to an adaptation of the ceremony Pidyott ha Ben, the redemption of
the first bom son, for their daughter. 8 Upon introducing the ceremony,
the Pidyon ha Bat, redemption of the daughter, to all his assembled
friends Michael said:
Our daughter was as important to us as a son at her birth. After
living with her for thirty days, her importance is more so. Therefore,
we could not imagine not celebrating her birth in exactly the same
Their ceremony, except for gender references, was identical to the re
demption ceremony for a son. Michael made a statement that explicitly
appealed to the need for equality despite the dictates of halaha. That
statement, and the ritual itself, were more powerful because of their
association with people who most firmly upheld the Jewish tradition.
The Results of Women's Integration
Events such as these suggested that women members had found an
ideal community. They were free to participate as equals. Publicly, how-

Community, Visibility, and Gender
ever, women tended to be silent; women privately complained to one
another that they felt silenced because they were overshadowed by
men. Though the women founders were a crucial part of the Minyan
fabric, for a number of reasons they were not aggressive participants. As
new members joined, they commented on women's minimal participa
tion and silence. Jacob summarized women's involvement during the
first year in the community when he said:
That was also a problem the first year, the place of women. Yes, of
course women were equal. But it became very clear that first year
that women were not participating in discussions in the way men
were. Some men participated more than others, but almost all the
women did not participate. There were no women who knew as
much as some of the men. There were just no women with enough
Jacob presented the standard analysis of why women did not participate
actively. They could not because they were not sufficiently educated.
They were at an inevitable disadvantage. At the same time, and pri
vately, women acknowledged the difference in their knowledge, but
thought more was at work. They felt they could not compete with men
and were not given the opportunity to participate actively. Like the
larger culture in which they lived, they felt silence was expected from
women, otherwise men would work harder at listening to them. For
example, one woman member led a controversial discussion about the
value of the laws of keeping kosher, for which she believed she was
aggressively attacked by male traditionalists. The participants in this
conflict did ultimately discuss the incident and dispelled lingering bad
feelings. Nevertheless, women remembered that incident and did not
want to be open to that kind of aggressive conflict if their position was
unacceptable to some men.
The membership explosion that transformed the Minyan at the
close of its first year brought with it two new women who became dif
ferent kinds of participants. Beth and Martha not only shared a Con
servative Jewish background, but had the interest and competence to
lead services. Martha was Hebrew hazanit (female form of hazan) at the
second Minyan she attended. At the close of the service she remem
bered: "I was surrounded by people congratulating me. 'Gee I'm really
impressed,' they said. 'I'm glad you are a woman and you did it.'" She
had not been the first woman to lead a service, but by the Minyan's first

Women Participants in the Women's Service
graduate student
unaffiliated with
graduate student
rabbinical student
nursery school
graduate student
graduate student
rabbinical student
graduate student
office worker
anniversary her ritual role was still an event. Beth and Martha were
interested in feminist issues, and Beth in particular considered herself a
Jewish feminist and wore a tallit, one of the first women to do so con
Throughout the Minyan's second year, they were joined by a grow
ing number of women with ritual skills and interests in more active
participation in the Minyan's religious life. In this period Terri joined
and regularly took several offices. Women who joined with minimal
knowledge, such as Miriam, were often motivated to try to acquire skills
or to take honors and roles because they were identified as feminists.
They were consciously creating a new pattern of religious life for Jewish
women. The women without higher Jewish education often had secular
ones. Miriam, for example, was pursuing a doctorate in religious studies
and led impressive discussions about Torah portions from the point of
view of her scholarship.
In 1973 and 1974, three more women joined the Minyan (see Fig
ure 5 for women Minyan members). They expressed their feminism
more boldly. While different in many ways from one another, their
shared commitment to feminism, to a focus on women, and a concern
for women's participation in Judaism was widely discussed. Deborah
had just moved to Kelton to begin her third year at the Reform semi
nary. She had lived in Israel and New York and moved to Los Angeles to
join a boyfriend of many years. She attended an Eastern undergraduate

Community, Visibility, and Gender
college where she majored in religious studies, and chose to begin rab
binical training and to become one of a tiny number of Reform women
rabbis. While participating in the Kelton Minyan, she also acted as a
rabbi-intern at Kelton Hillel where she worked with Mark and Jacob.
Like Jacob, she too was influenced by Mark's more traditional Judaism
and considered him one of her most important teachers. As a woman
rabbi, she was conscious of being a "role model" for members. She was
a relative newcomer to traditional Judaism because she was raised as a
Reform Jew, yet as a rabbinical student, she believed she represented
the tradition.
Nan came to Kelton to study music as a graduate student. She had
lived in the Midwest, grew up in a Conservative home, and attended
religious school and Jewish camps. She was interested in acting as ha
zanit and Torah reader. She was also concerned that women be active
participants in the Minyan and was committed to the Minyan as an
egalitarian community. She frequently expressed these opinions pub
Jean joined the Minyan with no Jewish education. She was waiting
to enter law school, and in the interim she worked as a secretary at
Hillel. In the Minyan she had become romantically involved with
Harvey. Such liasons were infrequent. Her intermittent participation
emerged out of her interest in understanding the tradition that was so
important to Harvey. She brought feminist issues to the Minyan in order
to make the tradition consonant with her own life.
A fourth woman joined the Minyan who was to become actively
involved for the academic year 1973-74. Sarah was on the Kelton Uni
versity faculty as a professor of Yiddish. She had moved from New York,
where, as the child of Holocaust survivors, she was raised as a secular
Jew. She introduced Yiddish material to the Minyan, including a num
ber of women's prayers. She did not identify herself as a feminist, but
was nevertheless interested in changing Jewish law to allow men and
women equal participation.
The Minyan women active from 1973-75 represented a wide-range
of Jewish educational backgrounds and aspirations. They were repre
sentative of the same variation in Judaism as the men. They neverthe
less shared a more intense concern about the place of women in the
These overtly feminist members led Torah discussions whose topics
increasingly focused on "female role models in the Bible" and "a lack of
female imagery in texts." In winter 1974, when the Minyan had been

meeting for two years, Torah discussions on women in the Bible were
initiated by women on the average of once a month. In addition, some
women frequently shifted the discussion topic to include women. The
Minyan's feminists kept women and their place in the tradition a central
concern. And other Minyan members acknowledged their significance
by entering into exchanges and discussions.
In January, for example, Nan led a Torah discussion in which the
whole group participated. She focused on the verses in Exodus that tell
the story of the infant Moses surviving the Pharoah's command to kill
all male Israelite babies. She commented:
This passage is unusual. The mother and sister of Moses, as well as
Pharoah's daughter, are all very positive models. They are cou
rageous and act independently. They are compassionate. Though
enemies, the Israelite and Egyptian women cooperate. Perhaps
their roles are so positive because of their association with Moshe
[Moses]. Because they preserve the greatest leader of the Bible, the
normal criticism and contempt for women becomes approval.
In February Beth led one of the two women-led Torah discussions
that month, again on the book of Exodus. She took a single phrase as
the subject for her discussion, "God is a man of war." She remarked:
We face a definitional problem in these words. The attributes of God
are male. God himself is referred to as male. We know God has no
gender. Yet we think of God in male terms. War is not associated
with women. The Bible alienates me, constantly causing me to be
aware that I am after all not like God. I do not share the attributes
or images associated with God.
These comments were typical in 1974. Several women brought a persis
tent set of questions about the tradition and their own place in it to
discussions. They scrutinized the texts and made their scrutiny public
rather than private. "Who were the women of the Bible?" Feminism
had affected members' participation by providing a vocabulary and a
series of questions through which traditional texts were to be studied.
The Minyan was beginning to feel and look like a different group.
The increasing presence of women in the Minyan led one male founder
to comment in 1974:
There was even a time, by the way, when I had the feeling that the
women were going to take over the Minyan. They had become so

Community, Visibility, and Gender
together and so confident, and so many of them could do so many
different things, that if one took a count of who in the Minyan could
fulfill all the offices there might be more women than men.
Women appeared to be better integrated into the group.
An actual count of who held offices for nine months in 1974 does
not reveal a group dominated by women. From January to October,
forty-two men and women took roles in Sabbath services, ranging from
bringing food to reading the Torah. Twenty-five of that number were
men and seventeen were female. Men, however, dominated the two
most important offices, Hebrew hazan and English hazan. For thirty-
five services, including Sabbath morning, three additional festivals, and
one extra Sabbath evening service during a retreat, twenty-six males
and only nine females served as Hebrew hazan. The ratio improved only
slightly for the office of English hazan, where no special Hebrew skill is
required, and the occupant is less responsible for leading the service.
Men occupied that role twenty-four times and women only eleven. The
thirty-seven offices occupied by women were assumed by only ten of
the fifteen to twenty-five women members in the entire group. But
eighteen of the twenty to twenty-five different men occupied the fifty
offices taken for the various worship services. More men were likely to
volunteer for more offices in the Minyan.
Participation in discussion marked the male-female difference more
strongly. 9 Most Minyan participants thought that men were more vocal
and visible in discussions than women. My earliest impressions of the
Minyan recorded in field notes repeatedly mentioned the virtual silence
of women in discussion. And when a trip to Kelton brought one of my
faculty advisors from the University of Chicago to the Minyan, he
quietly asked me at the end of a discussion, "Aren't the women allowed
to speak?"
By 1974 it seemed as though women volunteered for many offices.
Their participation widened in comparison to the Minyan's first two
years. New female members made it clear that women could be active.
But the group was by no means equally led by women in a formal or
informal sense. The Minyan's unquestionable commitment to equality
simply had not been realized. The silence of women could not be asso
ciated with the simple fact that they were not sufficiently educated, be
cause an increasing number were. Relations between men and women
seemed to have an effect on who would or could speak. The very per
ception by men that women were dominating, when they so clearly

were not, indicated that the visibility of women was held to be unusual,
despite their commitment to it.
Gender Emerged: Women Spoke up
Even in the Minyan's first year, its reticent founding mothers began
to complain about the group's domination by men, just as men were
expressing disappointment over the paucity of competent women to
take key roles. There was a perpetual, if unarticulated, dissatisfaction on
the part of men and women over gender-related issues. Overtly they all
agreed they wanted equality. But there were diverging explanations for
their failure.
Women members met occasionally from 1971-1973 to talk with
one another about their Minyan experiences. They brought their con
cerns to the Minyan services in 1973 as they led discussions on gender
issues. Finally, following the fall retreat in 1974, as noted above, they
organized a Sabbath service devoted to the themes of women, gender,
and Judaism. Their discontent took shape in these discussions, and their
ultimate—if for them unsatisfactory—solution was to use the forms of
the tradition to present their view of the situation. They moved from
anger at individuals, to criticism of Jewish texts, to conducting a ritual.
In each instance they defined the problems and made their compro
mises with other women. In conflict and compromise, women were the
vocal and visible actors on a stage they together defined as authentically
At the end of 1972, some Minyan women met at Rachel's home to
talk about the community. Susan, Ruth, Linda, and Ellen remembered
meeting and each other's presence. Ruth in particular emphasized a sit
uation she was finding intolerable. She recalled saying:
I don't feel taken seriously in the Minyan. We are under-valued and
not listened to. Whose voices dominate the discussion? Who does
everyone pay attention to? It is the men and the most traditional
ones. Sometimes we are simply talked over.
Not everyone agreed. Rachel said:
I think we are heard less because we know less. We must study
more, learn more, and then I believe we will be included. I agree
that there are problems, but I think we can solve them.

Community, Visibility, and Gender
Ellen added: "But I am tired of everything being dominated by a few
people. Why should only the tradition matter? We have other things to
say." Susan looked back on the meeting as a "complaining session." She
agreed with the sentiments expressed, but said: "We never did anything.
Perhaps it was the lack of energy or over commitment. Maybe we really
didn't know how to proceed. So things went back to the way they
Women members were not able to employ the two typical Minyan
solutions to solve their problems. They could not alter halaha; that had
already been accomplished in the decision to make men and women
equal. And they could not turn to an organizational solution because an
appropriate one did not seem readily available. Until they conceived
their creative service, they expressed their dissatisfaction in two ways:
They complained to one another, intensifying their own bonds; or they
complained to the whole group in textual discussions by persistently
pointing out the presence of gender and the exclusion of women.
The effect of both strategies on their participation was to further
separate them from the texts and the community. If every text had to be
scrutinized and interpreted in light of the contemporary exclusion of
women, the result was to shatter the personal meaning of their texts.
Even a generalized tradition failed to account for the lives of women. If
the community was persistently polarized around gender, it could not
effectively move its members into covenantal relationships. A new re
flection between halaha and community was being articulated. Without
women in the tradition, the presence of women in the community could
not be sufficient. Though the community attempted to create an ungen
dered Jew, the texts persisted in imagery and attitudes that were quite
gender specific. Women felt a double invisibility. Again, they experi
enced prayer as external to the self because of conflicts in the commu
nity, as well as within the texts. These conflicts, however, were gender
specific and implied that some in the group could not be connected to
texts, while others could, solely because of gender.
Their initial strategies for addressing their alienation only intensi
fied it. Women made no particular demands to this point, and no one
left the group over the issue, but as a result of the Torah discussions,
gender remained constantly present. Simply praying made none of
these issues disappear. To the contrary, the more they talked about gen
der, the more impossible it seemed to remedy the situation.
The women, however, found a temporary solution to their conflicts.
It developed from the ties they made to one another on the occasions
they complained about the group and from their shared positions dur-

ing Torah discussions. Women members found in one another appro
priate reflections and guarantors of the authenticity and possibility of a
Judaism that included women. The community constituent, essential to
Minyan prayer, was being redefined by women. The whole community
was crucial to prayer, but a "subcommunity" was emerging that was
equally significant. If one saw oneself as authentically Jewish through
seeing others at prayer, then no group was more important to that end
for women than other women. The more concerned the women became
with Judaism and their place in it, the harder it was to leave the Min
yan: few alternatives existed that maintained traditional Judaism and
also offered women equal rights. Women within the Minyan became
essential mirrors for one another.
The Minyan, then, simultaneously pulled and pushed women be
tween a new and heightened visibility and an overpowering invisibility.
Because Jewish women's activities were redefined in the Minyan,
women members expressed a special joy in fully participating in Juda
ism. Yet placing themselves in a tradition where gender equality, if it
existed, was in an unacceptable form for these American women, they
also found themselves overlooked and invisible. Judaism idealizes
scholarship and learning and defines the learner as male. A woman may
facilitate her husband's or son's training, but only in rare cases has a
woman herself been a scholar. The Jewish legal system directs a great
many of its most important commandments to men. That the equality
of women had to be negotiated within Judaism was problematic for any
woman who saw herself as a full and active participant in society. As
Rachel said: "We struggled with finding a valid way to live as Jews
within a male-oriented and dominated way of thinking about God and
ritual. Besides the home, how else can we find a valid way of saying I
am a Jew?" Rejecting the facilitator identity, these women found no
compatible image of themselves in the Torah, in the liturgy, or in the
texts where one might find an ideal self defined.
Of course no one in the Minyan looked exclusively to the Jewish
tradition for definitions of themselves. None conformed without com
promise to Jewish law. The legacy for these American Jews was a plu
ralistic one. The American experience of Jewish denominations has re
vealed that there are many legitimate ways to be a Jew. However, that is
not the case for women. During the childhoods of Minyan members,
women were not public figures even in the most liberal denominations.
Women simply lacked the adaptations of the tradition available to men.
The liberalization of Judaism fell short of providing women a public
vision of themselves.

Community, Visibility, and Gender
With the strong motivation provided by feminism and the real de
sires of female and male members, the Minyan was nevertheless to be
an alternative to what American Judaism had offered women. The
members were committed to an equality that would make all of them
visible, active, public participants. Women would be assured of their
visibility as members of the community by virtue of their participation
and equal expectations. The Minyan was to do even more than create a
community of equals; Jewish worship would be the stage on which
men and women could enact identity, their deepest values and commit
ments, their obligations to Jewish law and God. On that stage women
were to be adult Jews. Members of the prayer quorum, they were
clothed in the visual symbols of maturity, like the tallit. They would also
gain symbolic visibility. They would be reflected in the tradition itself, not
just in the community. They were subjects in Judaism as they never had
been before. Like men, they would be "ungendered" participants in
Jewish life.
Beneath statements such as Martha's, "I feel very grateful to the
Minyan," or Susan's, "We wanted everyone to see how a minyan could
be," was the unarticulated belief that in the Minyan women could be
Jews as they could be nowhere else. They were seen for the first time.
Certainly as women, but in all their various struggles with the tradition,
these members found a setting where they felt central. Due to these
heightened expectations, the women found their marginality, as it was
increasingly discussed and noted by women in the Minyan, intolerable.
To complain to one another or to lead discussions wasn't yielding what
they wanted. They wanted a tradition that made room for them.
The relationship between the symbolic invisibility of women and
their own interior sense of Judaism was addressed by noted Jewish fem
inist Rachel Adler, who has written eloquently on this subject:
My dilemma is that the very Judaism which gave me some names
which truly reflect for me God's holiness and my own, and some
frames for experience which truly reflect my spiritual experience,
also can demand of me that I desert my place in order to encounter
God in the place of man. When I stand to hear the Ten Command
ments, when I pray for the proclamation of the fatherhood of God
and the brotherhood of man, when I study cases of rape and seduc
tion in light of whether a woman's ketubah (marriage contract) is
reduced, then I must desert my place and imagine myself a man
standing at Mount Sinai or studying my text. And then it is not I
who am encountering God at all—it is an imaginary being, a dream
person, the person who prayed in wholeness in the section of

the shtiebel where she never set foot. And this way madness lies
(1983, 24).
As Adler notes, there is a tension between one's personal feelings
for Judaism and how the tradition regards women. Such invisibility cer
tainly occurred in the Minyan. The women were limited and often silent
participants. The texts excluded or minimized them. Discussions led by
Deborah, Sarah, and Beth made clear again and again that the historical
models for Jewish women were not respected for their integrity or intel
ligence, but for their relationship to certain men. They kept searching
for a woman they could emulate.
By 1973 many Minyan women concluded that their social roles in
the group and their symbolic representation in the texts were con
nected. They were Minyan marginals and traditional religious margin
als. They sought a Judaism capable of communicating some sense of
who they were, goals for who they might be, and images of a past they
might have wanted to live. They wanted the tradition to do for them
what they believed it did for the male members they admired. They
wanted to feel comfortable in it, assured by it, made human beings
through it.
Lacking that, they made themselves visible by making gender an
overt category of Minyan life. In discussions and conversations with one
another, they simply noted the existence of gender as a Jewish category.
Acknowledging gender was the first step. In a group committed to
equality, the women did not so much note its absence as decry its im
possibility. How could women be equal if their reality as women was
unacknowledged? "Maleness," tradition, and Minyan leadership all be
came associated. Because these women cared deeply about their Juda
ism, which Minyan membership embodied, they struggled with a way
to transform the equation.
These women were drawn to one another not because of friendship
or a feminist ideology; they were simply the ones who shared the
unique experience of Jewish womanhood. They were more than co-
commiserators; they were each other's most effective mirror image of
what Jewish women could be. There was no other place where they
could find a model for a pious woman, who wore a prayer shawl, read
from the Torah, or wondered what a feminist Judaism would be. They
were not even primarily concerned with paving the way for younger
women. They were focused on themselves in the present. Jacob sensed
this relationship when he told me:

Community, Visibility, and Gender
The first year the women felt they were being excluded. It was un
fortunately dealt with as a women thing rather than knowledge.
The women did something about it themselves, and also other
women came into the Minyan that had knowledge. Martha was the
first, and Beth as she knew more and felt more secure. Terri was
also important. Then Nan and Paula came and I sense they are im
portant to the women because of their own knowledge. They might
be less apparent to men or the group as a whole. But Rachel has
spoken of them both very positively and other women too. Their
strength as women has been important to other women in the Min
yan, and their involvement in feminist things on the outside too.
Women members never chose to leave the Minyan community or
form a permanent subgroup. Nevertheless, with women they engi
neered the compromises between the tradition and their own lives. As
individuals they joined the Minyan to create a particular type of Juda
ism. However, only through the presence of other women could any
particular woman remain visible as an authentic participant. Their effort
at being equals, being competent and authentically Jewish, required
community reflection. Men simply could not provide that. However, as
men, particularly those associated with traditional Judaism, were cru
cial to anchoring the Minyan to halaha, their approval remained essen
tial. Because the task of Minyan members was to reflect halaha and find
in it an image of themselves, women depended on both men and
women to provide the community constituent for prayer. Nevertheless,
each gender provided a different sense of community for that task. Be
cause each gender was essential, these women never separated from the
group, nor demanded any other changes around gender beyond those
agreed upon by all.
This important function of community within the Minyan, and for
female members in particular, indicates that identity is achieved only
through such reflective relationships. The Minyan's linking of covenant
and community firmly located social relations within sacred ones, be
cause the power and authority of the sacred was generated within the
community. Social psychologist George Herbert Mead wrote in the
1930s about this irreducible core of human relationships. Mead argued
that the individual experiences him or herself only "indirectly" from the
"standpoints" of other group members, or from the "generalized stand
point of the social group as a whole" (1934,138). The self is the product
of the unique "I" and the "me," which is produced out of the encounter
with the other. The self Minyan members wanted confirmed resulted

only from interactions with others who recognized the legitimacy of the
Judaism he or she practiced. Insofar as interiorizing the text grew out
of encounters that produced the "me" through contact with "others"
recognizing the self's legitimacy, identity could only flourish in self-
reflecting community. The community could withstand threats to the
legitimacy of their Judaism only because they could authenticate one
another. The issue of gender and Judaism put that possibility in ques
tion for the group as a whole, while at the same time it intensified the
ability of women to do that for one another. Women, as newcomers to
the tradition, were particularly vulnerable to the "standpoints" of the
others. From traditional men they received a sense of their authenticity,
yet failed to feel entirely legitimate. From the standpoint of other
women, they received a full legitimacy, but were also attached to the
tradition, which they did not fully control.
In the prayer crisis it was evident that halaha and interpretation
were directly related to community. As the community changed, halaha
and discussion changed as well, vulnerable to various interpretations.
In the events surrounding gender distinctions, it was also clear that
community depended on halaha. Despite members' attempts to neu
tralize gender, halaha controlled the nature of the community. There
fore, community, as a reflecting surface for identity, then required con
tinual redefinition. Covenant was dependent upon a community that
made identity possible.
Men and Women in Conflict
As women became more vocal about the importance of women's
equality, certain of the men's statements and actions troubled them. For
example, on the Jewish festival Simhat Torah in 1973, the difference,
indeed the opposition, between men and women who sought personal
expression in Jewish tradition was starkly revealed. On that occasion,
the core group of male members participated in elaborate joking. On
subsequent occasions these same men repeated the jokes and continued
to use the same style of humor. They not only excluded women but
often made them the objects of their humor. These jokes, consciously or
not, attacked all of their shared beliefs concerning who was entitled to
participate. In their humor only males and traditionalists were entirely
visible to the community. 10
This humor was the most vivid, sustained, and intense on the festi
val of Simhat Torah. It came to focus ultimately on the Torah itself,

A Simhat Torah celebration. Dancing with the Torah

which holds center stage during the festival that celebrates the comple
tion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Like all Jewish festivals, it is
observed first in the evening and then for the next day until sunset,
following the normal course of the Jewish day, which begins and ends
at sunset. During both the evening and morning services, all of a syn
agogue's Torahs are brought into the sanctuary, paraded joyously
around the room, and read. The nighttime reading of the Torah is
unique in the entire Jewish festival cycle. It is one of the year's happiest
occasions. Festive songs are sung during the parades with the Torahs,
and liquor is often consumed in the celebration. In the services that
accompany the celebration, two people (men for Orthodox observance)
are chosen for special honors. The one who blesses the final passage of
Torah reading is called Bridegroom of the Torah (Hatan Torah). The one
who blesses the first verses of Genesis is called Bridegroom of Genesis
(Hatan Breshit). The Torah is symbolized as Israel's bride throughout the
Jewish tradition, and this imagery is particularly prominent during this
festival (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1982).
The 1973 Minyan celebration was, by normative Jewish standards,
a particularly idiosyncratic one. It appeared rather like a traditional
Simhat Torah celebration until the members who were called as bride
grooms to the Torah went up to say their blessings. These two men, Jay
and Jacob, as well as Harvey, the Torah reader, and Michael, the gabbai,
were the principals in all the joking events of the morning celebration.
Their treatment of the Torah-bride was startling. For example, when Jay
was called to the Torah he walked up to the bimah and peeked beneath
“her" cover; he then leered as if he had just looked up a woman's skirt.
Then Harvey explained to Jay, “She is a poor bride," in reference to the
Torah's old and faded cover. In the course of the reading and blessings,
the bimah was jostled and the scroll lurched. Though it was not in dan
ger of falling, it was treated with less than customary reverence.
The men also ridiculed one another at length, joking about each
other's age, education, and marital status. For example, when Jay was
called to the bimah he said, "call me Rav [rabbi]," only to add, "I still
owe the seminary a paper." When Jacob was called to the Torah, he was
treated as an old man because he was one of the Minyan's older mem
bers. When the passage that pays honor to the bridegroom of Genesis
was read from the Siddur, Harvey mocked and sneered as he recited the
words. Most in the audience laughed loudly. Deborah did not. The
longer Jay enacted the charade of the groom to the Torah bride, the
more infuriated she became. Finally, leaning over to me she whispered,
"Is he going to fuck it next?"

Community, Visibility, and Gender
While joking is normally associated with Simhat Torah in Judaism,
it is never mixed with the Torah service, and never invites the casual
physical intimacy displayed that day. The women sat around the edges
of the room. None of them participated actively, or joked with much
gusto. Women members who were normally held in esteem by everyone
were silent. Some laughed at these antics. Others did not. There was no
place for women in this event. Each member was given an aliyah, as is
the Minyan custom on the festival. Though the Minyan's formal com
mitment to equality was maintained, no one there that day would have
mistaken who had the strongest claim to the community and the tradi
Deborah, at least, was willing to question those overt commitments
to equality. She discussed this service with several people privately, ex
pressing her anger at the exclusion of women. But for her there was
more than the issue of "insensitive men" at stake. "What is my relation
ship to the Torah," she asked, "if the Torah is the bride to the male
Israel? Where do I fit in?"
Ultimately anger at male members was supplanted by anger at their
texts. Both as a result of Simhat Torah and various discussions, the an
ger was finally given shape, and at least an ephemeral resolution, in the
spring of 1974. Most of the women previously introduced joined to
gether to organize and conduct the creative service initially proposed at
the fall retreat. Planning began in the fall of 1973. In the intervening
five months, some of which overlapped with the prayer classes, the is
sues women would address continually surfaced in Sabbath services
and discussions, both because women brought them up and in antici
pation of the service.
What charged both the event and the planning of it with excitement
and anxiety for these female members was that they conceived, orga
nized, and led it. As leaders of the service, they planned a ritual in
which their traditional expertise would be displayed and the tradition
itself would be held accountable for its failures. They would provide
liturgical alternatives and make consciousness of their personal experi
ence uppermost. The Sabbath service they planned became nothing less
than a personally designed rite of passage, which simultaneously
acknowledged its organizers as completely competent Jews and as
thoughtful critics of Judaism. Both were essential for these women
who, in 1974, as early advocates for the possible combination of femi
nism and Judaism, sought a place in the tradition and sought an ac
knowledgment of themselves as women groping to find a role in public
prayer and study.

The Women's Service
As they formulated and performed a specially designated "women's
service," Minyan women finally created their vision of a "gendered"
Judaism, one in which they could express themselves as Jews. Accord
ingly, the service and the process of planning it involved a reformulation
of Minyan prayer constituents. Their altered community was already in
the making, as the bonds between women in criticizing the Minyan and
the bonds between men in their humor demonstrated. The women's
service introduced an altered halaha and another type of interpretive
discussion. They used Minyan prayer to assert new relationships be
tween Minyan members and between women and their tradition and
their view of God. Their ritual, designed for a single performance, re
sisted traditional Judaism by "feminizing it." They chose an aesthetic
form, nevertheless, that required performance to articulate Jewish iden
tity. 11 In their service one sees how, at that point, women sought and
achieved (even if temporarily) the social and symbolic visibility that al
lowed them to link the self and the text.
The women's service was planned under the rubric of "creative ser
vices." In the Minyan that label provided very limited license to modify
the normal ritual order Minyan members had agreed upon for their
Sabbath service (see Chapter 4). The first volunteers were not the ulti
mate planners of the event held in March 1974. Martha moved from
California to New York in December. Two other women became less
involved in the Minyan and one became only intermittently active.
Short associations with the Minyan were not uncommon. But in the six
months of inconstant planning that followed, there was always a group
of three or four women willing to think about and organize a creative
service on the theme of women. Three members became the core plan
ners. Three more helped them with planning and executing the service.
These six invited three other women to take smaller roles in the actual
service because they had been long-time participants in the Minyan.
They enthusiastically agreed. 12
The long-awaited Sabbath morning arrived on a clear spring day.
The service was held at Jacob and Rachel's house. It had been many
months since the Minyan had met in the largest home of its members.
But this day was clearly a special occasion. The long living room was
already crowded by ten o'clock. In the crowd were many faces of
women members who had belonged intermittently to the Minyan.
Clearly news had spread about the service, and the curious and the

Community, Visibility, and Gender
enthusiastic arrived. By 10:15 a.m. almost fifty people were crammed
into the house.
Some of the organizers sat placidly waiting for the service to start.
Deborah, however, was in the back bedroom practicing the Torah por
tion she would read in full. She quickly reviewed the pages as many
times as she could. Rachel acted as a self-conscious host, shepherding
people to chairs and finding them comfortable spots. As the service be
gan Jacob took over the job. Finally, everyone sat down. It was un
usually quiet. The service organizers looked around the room with sat
isfaction. So many people had come, and so many of them were
women. Nan introduced the service.
I was terribly excited about our service. We dared to create a wom
en's service. It raised my consciousness as it has for so many others.
The planning of this Shabbat is as important as what will actually
happen. We all have a lot to learn. I do not always feel I have the
power to change things, and the impact of planning the service has
made me feel powerful.
Then Jean added:
All the women involved in planning the service will explain the
ways they have uniquely participated. Last fall we decided that from
time to time people would organize creative services. It was from
that decision that the idea of a women's service emerged. I have
been part of the planning since that time. The traditional service has
things that I cannot relate to as a woman or as a person. I have
written an English version of a modified Amidah. I wanted to hu
manize it and make it acceptable to everyone. I do not know He
brew, but I did not feel it was a liability to work from the English
translation. You have a copy of it. I hope you will pray it during the
Sarah said:
My feelings have been different than most of the other planners'. I
have not been troubled by the Siddur as others have because I sus
pend my judgment about what is in these words. Yet I valued the
meetings in which we explored what it means to be a Jewish
woman. Perhaps my conclusions are different, yet the process has
been invaluable. I have contributed a Tkhine, a Jewish woman's
prayer in Yiddish, which we will daven instead of Psalms today.

Then Ruth changed the tone, adding:
Beth and I think this is much too somber. We don't have to be so
serious. This hardly feels like the Minyan. The changes we made are
simply not that monumental. I do agree that the planning process
has been far more significant than the actual event. Our discussion
about what to include and why it belongs there have taken up mat
ters of halaha as well as women.
Rachel then explained:
What happens today really should not be seen as a performance.
People should consider what we might want to keep in the regular
Shabbat service. We are not putting on a special event. We want to
integrate these things into the Minyan.
Ellen finally added a personal and historical note:
When we began to meet in 1971, there was some talk that women
might not even be counted for a minyan. We have all come a long
way. The conversations we had and the service we have created
would simply have been unthinkable two years ago.
Then Jean said that Beth and Nan would be happy to explain to people
who had never worn a tallit how to put one on. Beth said: "I knew
what to do with a tallit because I watched the boys learn how to do this
in Hebrew school. No one had ever explained to me what to do." With
seriousness and care both of them showed the proper way to put on the
prayer shawl. They recited the prayer one says when putting on the holy
garment and explained how its fringes were used during the prayers.
Finally, Nan explained that the tallit is associated with the universe be
cause of the reference to the four comers of the earth in the prayer that
precedes the verses requiring men to wear the garment. Deborah was
the only person to put on the tallit at that point. The rest of the Minyan
regulars had already put on their own, and no visitor expressed an in
terest in doing so, though several listened to the explanations. Nan was
Hebrew hazanit and Jean was English hazanit.
The service planners had altered the regular Minyan Sabbath ser
vice in three ways. The alterations were, by Minyan standards, daring,
as Nan claimed. They hoped that these changes would focus the group's
attention on women and Judaism, that is, on the place of women in
Sabbath liturgy. The first change they made was the substitution of what

Community, Visibility, and Gender
they called "women's forms of prayers" for portions of the traditional
liturgy. They did not change all of the prayers. They deleted the three
Psalms beginning the service, which Beth described as "male-defined
poetry." In their place were a modem Israeli poem by a woman poet
and the Yiddish Tkhine. 13 The service planners provided an alternative
and freely translated version of the central liturgical prayer Amidah,
though the actual Amidah remained available for praying in the Sab
bath Siddur and was said by many. No other creative service planners
had ever changed the Amidah. As quintessential prayer, Minyan mem
bers considered the central prayer of the liturgy beyond alteration in the
The other changes in the service were not liturgical. They involved
filling all the day's "offices" with women and altering the normal dis
cussions. In place of the preprayer discussion, they introduced the
women's service. In place of a discussion of the Torah portion, they
chose three topics for groups to discuss. One concerned the language
used to address God and how it is effected by gender. Another focused
on how "men and women relate to God." The final one focused on how
"men and women relate to Jewish symbols." Planners led all discus
sions. Then a discussion of the service itself followed lunch.
The Torah service was modified as well. First, a smaller than usual
Torah was borrowed for the service so that all the women would be
perfectly comfortable handling it. The sheer size and weight of the scroll
made it difficult for most women to carry it. The women brought the
Torah into the room and marched it around the reading table. Before
reading it, Deborah said:
A pause in our service.
Time to take the Torah out of the ark.
It's an unfamiliar pause for me.
Usually I sit and watch my men friends approach the ark.
Touch the Torah,
Hold the Torah.
Can I lift her?
Will I know how to hold her?
Why do I call the Torah "her?"
Is it because the word itself is feminine?
Or because we think of God as male
And his gift to his people as somehow female?
How do I relate to the Torah,

I who have never been close to her?
The Torah is the central symbol of Judaism,
But I've hardly read from her.
The Torah is the central symbol of Judaism,
But I've hardly held her.
Her statement was affecting. There was silence until Beth, as gabbai,
called people up for various honors. Then, at the conclusion of reading,
Ruth lifted up the scroll as no women had been physically able to be
The discussions followed and again everyone participated. All those
present at the Minyan took the service seriously. The most traditional
founders audibly and forcefully prayed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish,
the various poems and Amidah translations. Most others did as well.
The service went smoothly. The women's service concluded with con
gratulations and great relief.
Visibility and Invisibility
The women's service was precipitated by women's deepening sense
of their social and symbolic invisibility in the Minyan. They felt margin
alized by the men and excluded by sacred texts. They verged on saying,
but never said, that prayer was impossible. They avoided, as in the pre
vious case, defining prayer as infelicitous. Nevertheless, the ritual had
to address these issues. There were two crucial ways in which the ser
vice—its goals and methods—created the social visibility the women
sought. The first was the planning process itself to which so many plan
ners referred. They all held that the most satisfying part of the process
was the planning. The rehearsal was more important than the perform
ance. They subsequently acknowledged to me their constant awareness
of, and concern for, what others would think of their service, particu
larly those men who epitomized tradition in the group. Deborah said:
"I did this for the Minyan as a pedagogical tool, for Jay, Harvey, Jacob,
and Mark. To be taken seriously by the Minyan is to be taken seriously
by them."
Even the seriousness their recognition implied was less important
than what the women had called the process of planning. The process
represented the following to Rachel:
We had put a lot of thought into it, had done reading and thinking
and held meetings. We've come to grips with the very essence of the

Community, Visibility, and Gender
Minyan and that is what is in the pages we read and reread. We
took the text and came up with a point of view.
By "the process" they meant the many months of considering what
their service would be; what could be excluded or included. The plan
ning often occurred at Kelton Hillel, where Ruth, Deborah, and Jean
worked. It was the subject of phone conversations and lunches, and
a matter of great importance, even if it primarily transpired privately.
They asked as women what words were appropriate to use in Hebrew
and English for addressing God, or creating prayer images for God. 14
They discussed "the tradition," and what they wanted to ignore, chose
not to ignore, or could not ignore. And though the changes made in the
actual service were few, the process of making those changes had been
important and well considered.
The process was, as noted, exclusively carried out by a group of
women with varying ideas and concerns. Within this diversity, the
"women acted out of responsibility to other women," Deborah said.
With women they tried to address problems for women, and they had
achieved their somewhat limited goals. They stopped complaining "as
women" and began acting "as women." They planned a service that
involved study, judgments, and decisions. While they were always con
scious of traditional male members, men were not the sole authority for
what the tradition would bear; the women planners were. Deborah, for
example, very much valued her exchanges with Jean, who had little
commitment to the tradition. Deborah believed she had successfully
communicated to Jean why "we can't throw everything out." She liked
being challenged and enjoyed being a spokesperson for tradition, a role
she would not have normally taken in the Minyan.
Not only was the planning done by women, but more importantly
the prayer performance was exclusively led by women. Hence, when
women pointed to the importance of the "process," they implied their
leadership as well. That purposeful casting of characters was critical in
achieving "social visibility" in the Minyan. This service was the only
one to be run entirely by women. They held not only the more typical
responsibilities of English hazanit and discussion leaders, but took the
other more difficult roles. Deborah read an entire Sabbath section of the
Torah. Nan was Hebrew hazanit. Ruth lifted the Torah in the ritual role
of magbiah. Of course, women had done these things occasionally, but
their participation remained the exception.
At every point in the process of leading the service, a single fart was
unavoidable: gender was an issue. These women held these roles as

women members, not simply as members of the Minyan. They acted as
women, not in spite of being women. Deborah read the Torah conscious
of herself and its gender. When Ruth lifted the Torah, everyone was
aware of how rarely women did this. When Beth taught people about
the tallit, she recalled her feelings of being a girl on the outside looking
in. Their active assertion of difference and uniqueness contradicted the
Minyan's own ideology and initial solution to legal inequality: that gen
der would not matter. They made themselves visible by insisting on rec
ognition of both their inequality and competency.
Afterward, Rachel said the event felt to her like a Bat Mitzva. The
women's service did not focus on a "first" occasion for individuals.
Rather, it focused on women as a group visibly acting as adults in the
community. It was that unique event that made the service a rite of
passage. 15 In achieving this social visibility, they achieved symbolic visi
bility as well. By increasing their competence through their creative ser
vice, the Minyan's women intensified their claims as Jews and won a
place in the Jewish order of things, which normally undermines wom
en's claims to religious maturity.
Nevertheless, their awareness of themselves as occupants of every
role created conflict for the planners. One of their last controversies in
planning the service revolved around the distribution of Torah honors
by gender. One planner urged that only women be called up to the
Torah. Others refused, arguing that "women had never been excluded
by the Minyan." Their compromise made certain that more women than
men would be given aliyot. The careful counting, even while refus
ing sweeping gestures, indicated the real importance of being seen as
women throughout the women's service.
Gender was an issue in another sense in this service. The planners
focused on the gender of Jewish symbols. They forced a consciousness
of the presence of or absence of gender in Jewish tradition. As Beth put
it after reflecting on the service:
In the Minyan, despite equal rights, a pronounced feeling of male
dominance still remains. In the past many of us attributed this to
our lack of education or familiarity with the tradition, but as the
women in the group became more knowledgeable, the problem did
not disappear. Rather, it emerged more definitively as a feeling of
exclusion from a traditional liturgy, filled with masculine imagery
in the metaphors and attributes associated with God and therefore
more acceptable to men.

Community, Visibility, and Gender
Equality between men and women would never be possible, most
planners felt, until the tradition itself had what they called "female met
aphors for God," "female attributes of God," and "matriarchal figures
and biblical role models." The planners described their invisibility in
what they called the "symbols of Judaism." They planned their women's
service to provide this missing imagery.
Jean addressed this issue in the new translation of the Amidah that
she wrote, and which was offered as an alternative translation to be said
in place of the traditional Hebrew prayer. As a theologically complex
prayer that describes many of God's attributes and powers, Jean used
her freely translated Amidah to actually reword and reformulate divine
qualities. Jean frequently exchanged images. For example, in her trans
lation she changed the phrase "God who is great, mighty and awesome"
(De Sola Pool 1960, 196) to "God who is great in infinite smallness and
mighty gentleness." A similar transformation of language consisted of
"Thou are the rock of our life and shield of our Deliverance," (De Sola
Pool 1960, 204) to "Yours are the cradling arms of life and the womb of
our safe deliverance." Her feminist Amidah populated the cosmos with
matriarchs where there were normally patriarchs and avoided the fre
quent image of God as "king," "father," and "master."
The Effects of the Service
The women's service sought visibility for the planners and other
women. None of the planners believed that the traditional liturgy would
be permanently changed as a result of their efforts. Nor is it clear that
they wanted the normative liturgy permanently altered. Most were
sympathetic to traditional Judaism, if not themselves observant, and
their community rested on a general regard for Jewish tradition. Never
theless, ritualizing a different set of images for women and hearing their
new liturgy prayed by most Minyan members validated the possibility
for such changes. The women's point of view was acknowledged that
Sabbath. And a few months later at a regular Minyan meeting, the
group agreed to alter the formula invoking the biblical patriarchs that
begins many prayers, "God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob," to include their wives. The new formula was thereafter chanted
by the hazan as "God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and our
mothers, Sara, Rivka, Lea, and Rachel." This formula was included in
the Amidah and at prayers said at the Torah, so that it was said fre
quently in Sabbath prayer. No other prayer had been altered for any

reason. The decision to add the matriarchs acknowledged women's
needs to exist within the tradition.
No other real changes resulted. The tradition remained problematic,
even if the community, by its limited acknowledgment of women's ex
periences, provided momentary visibility for them. The planners ex
pressed some bitterness months later, commenting to me that nothing
was carried through. "We addressed the problem," one said; "we didn't
resolve it." The visibility that Judaism could give their lives was realized
only momentarily. After that they returned to the struggle of being Jew
ish women in the Minyan, where their self-definition as women was
made peripheral. The struggle was apparently worth it because the im
perfect visibility the community could offer was essential to them. The
ideals embodied in the struggle were shared, if only paid lip service. As
Deborah said, "No one calls us girls or expects us to cook," referring to
some of the more egregious stereotypes of women held by American
The sources of conflict and forms of resolution that led to the wom
en's service were a virtual mirror image of the prayer crisis and prayer
classes. The break between self and prayer that resulted from the retreat
entirely focused members on the cognitive content of prayer, which was
ultimately abandoned in favor of their return to praying. Prayer again
became felicitous when the community acknowledged its shared needs
and shared commitment to praying.
In the events surrounding women, members channeled their alien
ation from the prayers into creating an altered prayer performance for
the Minyan. They changed, rather than returned to, every prayer con
stituent and created a rite of passage for themselves that marked a new
status for women in the community. They embraced Jewish ritual forms
in order to make them reflect themselves and to challenge prayer texts.
Performance, in this case, heightened self-consciousness because the
women planners brought "interpretation" into the act of praying. The
form and content of the women's service were the product of interpre
tation joined with prayer. Performance allowed participants to resist the
tradition through the tradition itself. As members davened, they synthe
sized the constituents of prayer through all the aesthetic means they
normally used, but the messages were dramatically altered. Community
was altered by making women the dominant figures. Halaha was di
rectly altered through rewritten prayers. Interpretation was guided by
the planners who defined the relevant questions to ask of the text. The
general meaning of covenant was expanded to self-consciously include

Community, Visibility, and Gender
women, not to assert gender neutrality. On this occasion, aesthetics
joined these altered constituents to emphasize different messages.
Those who participated in the creative service acknowledged the
legitimacy of this message and of the women who organized the service,
if only temporarily. Women's identities as Jews were made as much by
their participation as by their being seen by the community. Not only
women's actions but men seeing women as actors were critical to the
formation of identity because of the different "viewpoints" they repre
sented. Indeed, that mutual reflection is what allowed women to return
to regular praying in the Minyan. Knowing that they were seen as
women allowed them, although they were far from particularly satis
fied, to return to regular liturgy. They remained in a group that was
obviously critical to legitimizing themselves as Jews and something of
their view of Judaism. A community that acknowledged these issues
made it possible for these women to regard themselves as part of a cov
enant that was reflected in the Minyan itself.
Though the prayer crisis and the women's service were mirror im
ages, each rested on the ability of worshipers to internalize the prayers
and recreate the covenant. What differentiated these events, however,
was that only the women's service used performance to modify the
meaning of covenant. The women did not simply reassert the general
nature of tradition; they altered and resisted it, doing the same to com
munity. Their ultimate and painful message was that men and women
could not participate in the same way in Judaism. However, in the im
mediate situation they wanted only to assert their legitimacy and com
petence as Jews and to suggest what a Judaism affected by women
might express.
The women's service redefined for women a strategy for sexual
equality within the nonegalitarian Jewish tradition. The women's focus
on gender led them to a ritual strategy. They denied the success of the
original Minyan strategy, which was to act as if there was no gender in
the tradition. They demonstrated forcefully that by breaking the tradi
tion as women, they were redefining it and reclaiming it. In their service
they asserted that a redefined tradition could and should not be identi
cal to the one embodied in the prayer book. Yet the tradition was
weighty for them. Their commitment to it allowed them to break and
maintain it, grow in it as adults, yet be kept invisible. They needed and
wanted the tradition to allow them to be Jews. They did not find in the
tradition the place for themselves that they desired.
This paradox was the given of their community life. Because tradi-

tional prayers and a commitment to generalized tradition were central
to constructing Jewish lives, they, as the chapter epigraph states, put
aside the easier solution of finding Judaism lacking and leaving it. Their
choice of a ritual forum for their new solution was well suited to their
paradoxical position. From the start, they knew that the long-term ef
fects of their struggle in the Minyan would be negligible. Nevertheless,
ritual provided a powerful setting to make a framed and circumscribed
statement. It was the occasion for heightened visibility. Ritual commu
nicated effectively, less by didactic means than by "presentational"
ones. 16 It expresses a logic of simultaneous experiences in which linear
relations are not so much communicated as multiple possibilities are
performed. The ritual arena created by the planners powerfully pre
sented not just the language of concerns and resolutions, but the emo
tions associated with the passage of time, maturity and visible presence.
There were didactic discussions about women's exclusion, but, more
importantly, there were performances demonstrating women's compe
tence, which made the exclusion intolerable. The tradition was fulfilled
as its inadequacies were demonstrated. The ritual embraced the contra
dictions and simultaneous truths of women's inclusion and exclusion.
It was not that the ritual was mystifying or obfuscating, momentar
ily confusing participants. Its intentions were entirely lucid. The per
formance aspect of the ritual allowed both women and men to be Jews
and to criticize Judaism. The performance was weighted on the side of
the tradition. The protests, like the new Amidah, clothed so often in the
language of the tradition, ultimately maintained the tradition. Perform
ance allowed the unity of symbolic and communal visibility, which was
immediately relinquished when the ritual ended, though thereafter the
visibility of women within the Minyan grew even as substantial change
was put aside.
The Effects of Change on Male Members
The upheavals focused on gender, and the strategies for coping with
inequality were not the issues of women alone. Men are affected by
gender in religion, even as Minyan men sought to undermine the exis
tence of gender. When women seek religious change, the impact on
men is often ignored. Men may be portrayed as bastions of tradition
(enemies) or silent complicitors (allies) or both. Men, as coinhabitors of
the tradition, are also affected when gender is raised as an issue, when
consciousness is demanded about hidden and powerful symbolism, or
when tradition is found problematic for some community members.

Community, Visibility, and Gender
When Minyan women expressed their changing views about the
viability of the tradition for them, men had strong responses; they
understood that women were challenging fundamental notions of the
covenant. Although these responses often appeared in masked form,
they suggested male members' real concerns, indeed anxiety, over the
viability of the transformed tradition.
Male comments engendered by the women's service indicated the
confusion and discomfort evoked. Beginning with the hysterical laugh
ter on the fortuitous day when only women volunteered for the creative
service and ending with the comments about the service itself, many
men in the group voiced deep concern over what was happening. In a
discussion that followed the women's service, participants rather than
planners talked about the service, and the voices were primarily male.
Most members were warmly appreciative of the effort and results. But
they expressed other concerns as well. Harvey, for example, flatly stated,
"When I pray I will always see God as male, through male images."
Another man, whose wife had been a planner, said, "It's fine for women
to see God in female images, but I don't want to do that. Men should
see God in male terms."
A visitor to the Minyan that day addressed the whole issue of gen
der symbolism candidly when he said during one of the discussions,
"Everyone knows that the Torah is female, but no one talks about it."
The women aroused deep discomfort with their insistence on making
explicit what in its implicit form was marginalizing. Women gained vis
ibility by revealing their invisibility. Men maintained visibility by deny
ing that the tradition caused invisibility, because gender could simply be
removed. Women gained visibility by exposing hidden dimensions of
the tradition. Men felt that the tradition was threatened for them by
such exposure.
The concerns of male members were genuine. Their own needs
made them oppose the solutions of the women's ritual. Men and
women, then, had different stakes in the tradition and different strate
gies for solving problems and different visions of what their equality
meant. They shared a desire for community and a tie to the imperative
of a generalized tradition. In short, men had much more to lose in the
total transformation of tradition than women did. Men wanted an al
tered but fundamentally recognizable Judaism. Through the slow pro
cess of women considering their positions in Judaism, they created
other ritual forms and, as Nan said, found them "empowering."
On the occasions, such as the Simhat Torah discussed above, when
the most traditional men joked in an exclusive way, their attitudes about

the tradition were made clear. On other occasions when such humor
occurred—Purim and during a retreat when a parody of a rebbe's tish
was staged by Mark—they articulated identical themes. 17 Once again
women as sexual beings and the entrapments of marriage and father
hood were the subjects of their jokes. These barbs were often made
through biblical references and puns or through joking dialogues.
Harvey for example, said to Mark during the tish, "Let me drink at the
briss [circumcision] of your son." And Mark's retort was, "No, at your
son's first," or "At Jacob's son's." Men consistently joked that others
would marry before them, or that married men would have sons before
them. They joked about "women's place," about prostitutes when they
appeared in Torah readings, and about all the female imagery associated
with the Torah.
This satirical humor recreated the status relations of Judaism that
the Minyan formally eschewed. It strongly differentiated men and
women. The joking, engineered by the best educated, sharply separated
who could and who could not participate.
The differentiation of male and female, however, was not just a re
sult of who participated. The key performers on all of these occasions
exaggerated and linked "feminine" qualities attributed to the Torah to
tradition and women. The oscillation between jokes about women and
jokes "on" the Torah, in its raucous and sexualized handling, linked
sexuality and Jewish tradition. Those who were comfortable enough
with the tradition to ridicule it and to use it to ridicule others also por
trayed women as entrappers. Women were transformed from copartici
pants with men to nonparticipants in the Minyan. The tradition was
transformed from generalized and malleable rules providing an outlook
on life to an onerous elite formulation. The key male participants con
trolled and claimed the tradition, even as they ridiculed it, by control
ling the satire.
They expressed their hostility at constraints and rules toward the
Torah by associating it with female stereotypes. They did not accept hal-
aha without revision. Their commitment to expressive individualism
and democracy was at odds with a system of obligation. Hence, their
discomfort with constraint was rationally translated in the creation of
the Minyan, itself a group devoted to a traditional sensibility, yet willing
to alter the tradition. Their joking emphasized the emotional power be
hind their discomfort with orthodoxy.
Clearly, however, the men who dominated and the ones who
laughed were committed to the maintenance of tradition, albeit altered
and within the Minyan. The more direct target of the humor was

Community, Visibility, and Gender
women or female images. Women were not coparticipants in the hu
mor, sharing a world view in which they jointly ridiculed the world of
constraints. The traditionalist males who expressed anger at constraint
also articulated anger at women, who in the Minyan came to increas
ingly symbolize a wide range of changes in the constraining law. In the
Minyan women looked like men, wearing their prayer garments, taking
over the men's exclusive control of the tradition. Minyan men had two
problems: first, they did not want to uphold an unchanging Judaism
represented by orthodoxy. Second, however, they seemed to fear be
coming part of an unrecognizable Judaism. The second was associated
with women's aspirations for visibility. The men "used" ritualized hu
mor to express their fears at what the new Judaism, cut off from all
important traditional gender roles, would be. This process was not en
tirely conscious. For these men were committed to egalitarianism. All of
them participated actively in the women's service. They were willing to
be the audience the women wanted, though they were committed to a
single service, not ongoing change.
Women relinquished their hopes for a true alteration of Judaism the
moment their service ended. Male humor did not disappear. They re
mained afraid of a possible transformation of tradition that would leave
them without a familiar Judaism. Their humor was persistent, if occa
sional. The ongoing Minyan, Sabbath after Sabbath, represented to both
men and women an acceptable if imperfect consensus. It allowed most
members to feel, most of the time, that Jewish tradition may be both
preserved and altered. Male humor and female ritual revealed the con
flicts, conscious and unconscious, in the creation of community. 18
The Minyan's ritual and humor also revealed how maintenance of
the traditional system was embedded in formulating one's own identity,
so that the emotional investment in tradition was tied closely to the
ability to continue to see oneself as a participant in that tradition. Their
witnessing of one another's identities was vulnerable as well as essential
to their lives as Jews. Humor and ritual represented opposite positions
for men and women, because gender was the most difficult issue they
faced in the Minyan. Where decorum met the sacred in regulating gen
der relations, tradition and the counterculture were on a collision
course. Because the covenant itself was at stake, performance and aes
thetics were used toward opposed ends: to resist and to maintain the
general meaning of Judaism. Because members relied on the Minyan to
authorize and authenticate their Judaism, their ability to pray together
demanded their constant compromise.

1. Women's legal status in Judaism is addressed in Berman (1976), Koltun (1976),
Lemer (1977), Greenberg (1981), Umansky (1979), Heschel (1983), and Schneider
2. Descriptions of male domination of the synagogue and female marginality may
be found in Abraham Cahan's novel of immigrant life The Rise of David Levinsky (1960)
and in Zborowski and Herzog (1971).
3. In their introduction, Ortner and Whitehead draw a distinction between social
and symbolic representations of women (1981, 2).
4. Steven Martin Cohen (1980) outlined the history of the organizational structure
of the Jewish women's movement. The two most important anthologies of Jewish feminist
writings are Koltun (1976) and Heschel (1983).
5. Early writings on women and Western religions include Daly (1973), Mc
Laughlin and Reuther (1979), Christ and Plaskow (1979).
6. A discussion of the ordination of women in Judaism may be found in Umansky
(1979). Analysis of the protracted discussions and votes on ordination of women in the
Conservative movement and its seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, may be found
in Stone (1977) and Friedman (1979). The resolution concerning equality of women of
the governing body of Conservative synagogues may be found in Marcus (1981, 918-20).
The faculty of the seminary voted to admit women to its rabbinical program in 1983 and
ordained the first woman in 1985.
7. See Prell (1983) for a discussion of an alternative formulation of this problem in
classical German Reform. There, changing halaha also necessitated maintaining gender
neutrality. As in the Minyan case, that neutrality inevitably favored the maintenance of
male power and authority.
8. A thoughtful discussion of a number of Jewish female birth rituals, including the
Pidyon ha Bat, may be found in Leifer (1976).
9. Women's silence is an issue that has interested feminist scholars and writers.
Minyan women's silence is typical of Western women who are products of a cultural
tradition that commended women's silence and decried participation as unfeminine. Stud
ies in education as well as literature reveal the fact that women and girls more often than
not acquiesce to that injunction. The struggle between men and women and among the
women themselves about silence places them within a cultural tradition that they do not
seem particularly conscious of.
10. Discussions of humor in the Minyan and its implications for their commitment
to a general tradition may be found in Prell (1988). A discussion of humor and gender
relations in the Minyan may be found in Prell (1987). Both articles provide more ethno
graphic detail about the events sketched here.
11. Heilman suggests the terms for altering and maintaining tradition, "contempor
izing" and "traditioning" (1983, 62). In the case of communities or individuals attempting
to live a tradition they are willing to alter, the terms may not be appropriate. For the
implications of the women's ritual were quite radical, while the effects were minimal. All
participants acknowleged both elements. What occurred in the ritual was part of a process,
an attempt to imagine and enact real alternatives to tradition. But because the event was
a ritual, it necessitated no actual change. This unique relationship to "attitudes" results in
a more dynamic conceptualization than the opposition of traditionalizing the new and
contemporizing the tradition. Susanne Langer, for example, saw an Indian rain dance as
"dancing with the rain," rather than acting upon it ([1942] 1978, 158). The limits on the

Community, Visibility, and Gender
possibility for change may be set both by a community's view of tradition and the forms
through which a tradition is enacted. The real issue is through what agency does the
tradition exert its power? Victor Turner provides insight into this issue in his discussion of
the redressive phase of a social drama (1957).
12. A further discussion of this service may be found in Prell-Foldes (1978a).
13. The poetry was provided by Harvey, whose field was Hebrew literature. He gave
the planners a poem by the modem Israeli poet Yocheved Bat-Miryam. The poem is ad
dressed to "you," which is rendered in the Hebrew in the second person feminine. The
poem's imagery is prayerlike and is critically interpreted to be speaking to God, though
God, of course, is usually rendered in the second person masculine. The Yiddish Tkhine
was chosen and translated by Sarah. It was called "A New Tkhine for Blessing the Candles
(Specially for America)."
14. Rita Gross discusses the use of gender in liturgy or what she calls God language
15. Barbara Myerhoff might have interpreted this ritual as a "definitional ceremony,"
one whose point was to provide an audience to witness one's change in status or life phase
(1979, 185, 222). The result of such occasions is the reiteration of collective or individual
identities. Her sensitivity to the need for visibility among the elderly in a community of
seniors led her to examine how ritual in general provided "reflecting surfaces." But tradi
tional prayer, which in the Minyan was directed in part to "definitional ends," also was
directed to traditional ends. Hence, the tradition dictated its form as well.
16. The "presentational mode" is a concept of Susanne Langer ([1942] 1978, 96).
She argues that it is a form of nonlinear logic in which several meanings can be simulta
neously juxtaposed and grasped because sense and feeling are spoken to directly through
it. It communicates the meaning of the whole rather than the dissected and translatable
17. Purim is the holiday in the Jewish festival cycle that is closest to a saturnalia. The
Megillah Esther is read recounting a Jewish victory over the machinations of a Persian
advisor to the King, who engineered a death sentence on all Jews. The victory is celebrated
with masquerades, plays, a banquet, and giving charity (Gaster 1953). The rebbe's tish
(rabbi's table) is a hasidic custom. The followers of a particular rabbi sit and stand around
his table to share in his wisdom and food. Rank in the community is acknowledged by
proximity to the rebbe at the table. These events are described in greater detail in Prell
18. These tensions have not disappeared, even though Jewish women's equality has
been generally accepted by non-Orthodox congregations. Some women have continued
to seek to alter or reinterpret ritual. Conservative Jews in particular have been embattled
over the struggle to maintain tradition and gender equality, with men and women often
defining the flexibility of tradition differently. A short time after Jewish feminism devel
oped, both liberal and Orthodox Jews also became interested in spirituality. Hasidism
attracted a small but growing number of assimilated Jews, and liberal Jews experimented
with prayer and ritual. Jewish feminists have looked to feminine aspects of God as an
important path to exploring spirituality. Some men have welcomed the opportunity for
religious change and others have articulated fears similar to those of Minyan men. Femi
nist issues of the 1970s focused on how to bring women into Judaism as full participants.
In the 1980s a feminist Judaism addressed not only its halahic roots, but how to shape the
experience of prayer.

In 1985, ten years after I left the Minyan, virtually all of its members
had moved from Los Angeles and the group ceased meeting. It had
flourished until 1980, attracting new members and incorporating the
growing number of children bom to its founders and newcomers in
special Sabbath programs. Mark moved to Israel permanently in 1981,
having married an Israeli woman some years before. By then Harvey
and Michael were pursuing academic careers elsewhere. Jay, Rob, Ruth,
and Neal had rabbinical positions in other states. Beth, Doug, Aaron,
and Martha were all involved in careers in New York City.
Jacob was the only founder who remained in the Minyan continu
ously. He and his family returned from a six-month sabbatical in Israel
in 1980 to discover a dramatically different Kelton Minyan. Of the
dwindling number of members who remained in Los Angeles, most had
begun going to other alternative minyans in the city. One minyan in
particular attracted twelve members. It was near their homes and its
members were closer in age to these men and women, now long-past
being students. The Minyan had a new core of a few couples, alumni of
Kelton University. However, they lacked the religious skills of the
founding members, and the needs of a leaderless group became burden
some for them. Despite constant effort, they could not recruit new
After Mark left Los Angeles and Jacob assumed an administrative
position, the new Kelton Hillel rabbis began their own Sabbath minyan.

They met in the same building and an air of competition developed
between them. The Kelton Minyan had lost its base of support.
In 1983 the members voted to merge with another minyan that met
within an Orthodox synagogue in the area. The merger was an ambi
valent one and passed by a single vote. The new group had several
much needed, knowledgeable members. They also had a more narrowly
defined traditional approach to prayer and Judaism. However, the Min
yan's attitude toward tradition had already changed. In the transitional
years from the old to the new group, newcomers abandoned the office
of English hazan; they reinstituted the Additional Service on the Sab
bath and a blessing for the priestly class. According to Jacob, all that
these new members wanted to know with reference to prayer was,
“what is the right way to do it?" He found them more concerned with
“form" than "substance." Their ties to more Orthodox Jews only
seemed to intensify those concerns.
By 1987 the group had disbanded. That year I spent some months,
calling and writing people in Los Angeles, trying to locate the mizrach I
describe in Chapter 3, the Minyan's only permanent possession. I
wanted a photograph of it. Jacob was kind enough to look for it, and he
did so in as many places as he could imagine, but he was unable to find
it. Committed as Minyan members were to foregoing the permanent ties
of buildings and formal leadership, the group left no trace behind.
The fate of the Minyan was not unusual among other such groups
in the Jewish and American countercultures. Indeed, one of the found
ers of the very first havurah told me in a conversation in 1986 that the
whole idea of the havurah movement was a failure. He asserted: "No
one beyond the generation that began the havurah joined or created
new ones. Where are the college-aged students turning today? They are
becoming Orthodox Jews. We could only speak to ourselves." This
harsh judgment would be the one that every leader of every American
Jewish movement would have passed on his or her labor. Each had
hoped to speak for American Judaism; none did. Leaders of every de
nomination have despaired as a younger generation rejected its aesthet
ics, its vision of the synagogue, and its idea about the proper way to be
an American Jew. Just as each of these movements and denominations
spoke eloquently only to its generation, so the havurah movement, with
its vision and wisdom, spoke only to its own.
Nevertheless, havurot did not die. Their members created or joined
egalitarian, small-scale associations throughout the years. They call
themselves minyanim (plural) rather than havurot to indicate, as did
the Kelton Minyan, their primary emphasis on prayer. Several of these

minyanim in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are associated with
synagogues, using their building and paying dues, but remaining auton
omous within them. The younger men and women who join these
groups tend to have a more traditional, less questioning outlook than
the original havurah generation, which is now in its forties. All of these
minyanim give women full adult status. Like the Kelton Minyan, which
was among the first groups to do so, women are simply incorporated
into the male role. Tradition is preserved even in a radical alteration
of it.
What the havurah movement's creators did understand was a desire
among Jews for religious experience on a new scale. Havurot never re
placed synagogues for the majority of Jews, but they did underscore the
need for community and participation that was made difficult by large,
second generation synagogues. They were the first generation of accul-
turated Jews to question the value of a decorum of uniformity and re
straint, and, as such, they dramatically reconceptualized the place of
Jews in American society as merely conformists to a homogeneous cul
ture. They emerged from the American counterculture to reshape, al
most single-handedly, the issues of identity that pervaded post-war
American Judaism.
Their vision will not soon be forgotten. Havurah founders now oc
cupy significant positions in the Jewish community as deans and ad
ministrators of denominational seminaries, as directors of Jewish cul
tural arts agencies, as congregational rabbis, and as administrators of
Jewish educational institutions. Several Minyan members have also be
come educators, rabbis, and members of boards of political organiza
tions. With or without their particular communities, they have used
these ideas to shape the American Judaism of the 1980s and 1990s. As
most of them remain in minyanim, they continue to support these
views in their personal lives as well as in their professional ones.
I began this book by suggesting that the available models for under
standing the significance of the havurah and religion in complex society
were inadequate in two ways: First, in focusing exclusively on the so
cial-structural relations of a complex, plural society that made religious
authority irrelevant, secularization theory could not explain religious
persistence. Second, failing to look at religion as activity, they could not
explain what religious participation reveals about the society in which
it is embedded. I suggest that Judaism is best understood within the
contexts that shaped it for its adherents. These contexts include the so
cial and cultural relations that affected the forms through which Jews
forged a relationship between Judaism and American society and the

ritual arena in which religious activity occurred. Both institutional re
lations and ritual forms are essential to understanding why religion con
tinues to attract adherents and what religions express about society.
Immigration from Europe to the United States created a unique
American Judaism, because what preoccupied those immigrants was
decorum, how to recreate Judaism within American society. That ad
aptation varied by generation, shaping Judaism to the cultural impera
tives and social aspirations of every era. American Jews created their
generation-specific identities by forging a relationship between the self,
community, and tradition, in part through decorum within the syn
Decorum always took a particular aesthetic interpretation. Whether
Jews prayed altered or traditional texts, how they organized their wor
ship carried the messages of assimilation and cultural uniqueness for
them. Behavior that is cut off from any but the most general interpreta
tion of sacred texts transmitted definitions of the American Jewish ex
perience and joined Jews to other Jews in interpreting themselves as
The havurah emerged in a generation concerned with decorum-
related issues. Not only was the formulation of a counterculture carried
on through the aesthetics of interaction and self-construction, but it was
the foundation of various approaches to social change. When some
young Jews turned to prayer as a way of recreating American Judaism
they were articulating a response to America and to Judaism through
aesthetic means. The sacred texts were relevant to them, but more so
was the way they expressed their approach to prayer.
The s