Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Parshat Mishpatim
20 Tevet, 5772
January 21st, 2014

Every year, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue partners with Turner AME Church for our Martin Luther King Jr./Abraham Joshua Heschel Shabbat. 800 people pack the synagogue to the rafters (our sanctuary is two-floored). This Shabbat, and our visit to their service on Sunday morning, are by far the most spiritually intense experiences of our year.

Our two institutions share a special relationship. Sixth & I was the original home of Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue still extant and thriving. However the community moved as demographics shifted, and the synagogue was bought in 1951 - by Turner AME Church.

Turner lived in that unique space for over 50 years, until their community moved away - at which point the church sold the original synagogue to three Jewish businesspeople, who then created Sixth & I.

What’s extraordinary to me about MLK Shabbat is how well it works. Prayer is so often experienced as a burden. But during this Shabbat (and on Sunday morning), our people seem to be set free. As someone who has spent a great deal of time and passion in davenning (the Yiddish word for prayer), MLK is one of the few times of year that I find the spiritual high natural to the more intense prayer experiences towards which I gravitate.

Some may claim that MLK Shabbat’s success is its novelty: basically, some version of “hey, isn’t it fun to pray with an AME church - they’re so much less boring than we are.” This is what Pastor Lamar meant when he described, “the Traveling Black Church show.”

But he, Rabbi Shira, and I do not think that that is the case here. It is unlikely that our relationship with Turner would survive if our shared prayer was a case of spiritual spectatorship. Something else is happening.

And I think the something else is that, on MLK Shabbat, the room is filled with believers.

Whatever one wants to say about our two communities, we believe in the shared dream of civil rights and the ongoing pursuit of dignity for all. And though we may falter while chasing that dream, or struggle to imperfectly implement just conditions, or even harbor resentment towards each other for the failures and delays of justice, we believe, with full hearts, in civil equality. Dr. King was not just the inspiring minister of a religion other than ours - he is a prophet of the religion of human dignity in which we believe.

There are a myriad of details to parse out in order to explain what I’ve described above. But for the Jews out there, what should be said is that MLK Shabbat is what prayer looks like when pray-ers believe. The issue with our services is not primarily that they are too long, nor in a foreign language, nor failures in Jewish education, nor failures of clergy, nor of lay people – it is that we have lost shared belief.

The great spiritual challenge of the 21st century will not be to create a new kind of prayer service; it will be to create, together, Jewish spiritual propositions which speak to heart of the contemporary condition: that is, it will be finding a Judaism in which we can believe again.

So the thing to do is to lean in, to borrow from Sheryl Sandberg. Rather than relentlessly search for new exterior forms for prayer, we have to reach into the content of Torah, and fashion spiritual beliefs that speak to the expanded knowledge and new ideas of the last centuries, so that we are filled with the holy fire. Prayer is an accurate representation of our spiritual state. Learning to pray again is the great religious work of our time.

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