Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Post-Tisha-B'Av Musings: Kinot

Kinot (mournful poems focusing on the destruction of the Holy Temple or other tragedies; they originated ca. in the 6th-8th century, but many more have been composed since then) pose a special problem for Conservative and Conservadox synagogues and minyanim on Tisha B'Av. There is a tradition to say Kinot both at night and in the morning (although more in the morning since most congregations read Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, at night). The problem is that, even for those who have had 13years of Jewish day school, plus some camp or other supplementary education, Kinot are REALLY HARD to understand. They are often written in medieval Hebrew, and the genre encourages allusions to biblical and other texts which many people have not read.

In Orthodox shuls, as I have seen once or twice personally and as I understand from anecdotes, the congregation "reads" the Kinot silently, which means that some people get what they're talking about and most people don't. That doesn't mean that no one cares if people understand; it's just that the middle of Shacharit (morning prayers) isn't considered the best time to explain. Some shuls have shiurim (study sessions, often led by the rabbi or perhaps a well-educated layperson) after services, and the Orthodox Union has a video shiur on its website every year. On Tisha B'Av 5767 (aka last year), I was at my parents' house on Tisha B'Av and didn't have a morning shul option, so I watched OU Executive Director Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb's Kinot shiur. I was very impressed by its simultaneous sophistication and accessibility.

Conservative and Conservadox shuls or minyanim have more flexibility in terms of integrating Kinot into the service. I go to two different minyanim (don't ask) on Tisha B'Av, and both have the custom of "introducing" Kinot. That means that one person in the minyan, usually someone in a leadership position, gives a summary of the main themes of the Kinah before the congregation reads it, either out loud or silently, in Hebrew or English.

I heard some really well-thought-out introductions this year, but I think that the system needs tweaking. First of all, because people have to volunteer in advance to introduce Kinot, the same few people usually do most of them. I give kudos to those folks. I was asked to introduce a Kinah this year and said "no." But I fear that this phenomemon tends further to integrate those few people and to leave the rest of the congregation outside the circle of knowledge. Second, after the Kinot are introduced, it's time to "read" them. That means in most cases that, led by the writer of the introduction, those who can read the Kinah, either silently or out loud, often in Hebrew and often very quickly. I have had approximatley a bazillion years of Day School education, and I minored in Jewish Studies in college, and I couldn't get more than a sense of the text before we moved on. This is particularly ironic, I think, because, as I have observed it, Shacharit on Tisha B'Av is mostly about killing time. Unlike on Yom Kippur, when there are many, many, many prayers to get through before people need to take a nap, on Tisha B'Av, some congregations have the custom to stay in shul until chatzot (halfway through the daylight hours, this year around 12:45 p.m.), and there just aren't that many obligatory prayers to say. So the Kinot part of the service could (easily, in my opinion, although I realize some people have their favorites) devote much more time to individual Kinot, which just means fewer being read overall. There's plenty of time between Shacharit and Mincha (afternoon prayers) for indivual study by those die-hard Kinot devotees.

So, here are a few humble suggestions for integrating Kinot into Conservative and Conservadox minyanim in as relevant a way as I can think think of (Note: I said minyanim instead of shuls, bcause lay-led minyanim often have more flexibility than shuls led by rabbis. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? That's a topic for another post):

1. (see above) Decrease the number of total Kinot to be covered, thus allowing more time for each individual Kinah.

2. Supplement introductions of Kinot with more inclusive discussions. Divide minyan-goers up into groups, probably with a leader of the introduction-giving type. Give each group a Kinah to study, in Hebrew or English, for about 10 minutes. (Both Conservative and Orthodox Tisha B'Av prayerbooks provide decent introductions and English translations). Encourage each group member to say something about the Kinah text. When discussion time is over, give each group (or the whole congregation together) enough time (could be up to 4-5 minutes) to read the text silently in English or Hebrew. There's no rush, here, people! I tend to think that silent reading is more meaningful than reading aloud, but there's room for disagreement on that.

3. If you're feeling really ambitious, have one person from each group "report back" to the larger minyan on something the group found paticularly interesting about the Kinah.

4. Let's be honest about what most people find relevant: That means more Holocaust Kinot and fewer Crusades Kinot. IMHO, it is not necessary to go in chronological order.

I know that this sounds a little hokey, especially for those of you who know me personally. "Oh, sure," I can hear you saying, "but if I had suggested that, Katrina would have made vomiting noises." Perhaps. But these and similar group efforts are the only ways I can think of to include more than 5-8 people (and the minyan that I went to for Shacharit had at least 30 for Kinot) in the Kinah part of the service. The discussion-group method won't necessarily make less work for the leader types; it might make more, since Kinot have to be selected in advance, people have to be divided into groups and kept moving along, etc. But the result, I think, would be more participation and less boredom or mental opting-out overall.

So, what do you guys think? What other ideas do you have?

6 comments:

elf's DH said...

Tisha B'Av is always a hard type of service to run. It's very different, and very unfamiliar to most of the people there. And, as you say, the unfamiliar parts of the service are particularly hard to understand. It also doesn't have the same kind of excitement as the services from most of the other holidays -- high holiday services are also unfamiliar, but there's a lot more flexibility in what you can do.

The custom of introducing kinot does make them understandable, as does reading some of them in English. Unfortunately, the Conservative Siddur Tisha B'Av (published 2003) is not very complete, so, it doesn't allow for as much selection as a more complete book; for the most part, it's a good siddur and has very readable translations. Unfortunately, the Artscroll is gaining popularity. While the Artscroll has generally accurate translations, the language is so stilted and permeated with Yeshivish that they're impossible to read as liturgy. And, the commentary assumes that all legends are true, and has all those lovely references to what "all Torah true Jews" (by which they mean chareidim) do or believe.

But I fear that this phenomemon tends further to integrate those few people and to leave the rest of the congregation outside the circle of knowledge.

This one confuses me. You complain that there aren't enough volunteers, and yet you say that you refused to volunteer. Someone's got to do it, who do you think it'll be?

1. (see above) Decrease the number of total Kinot to be covered, thus allowing more time for each individual Kinah.
Agreed here.

2. Supplement introductions of Kinot with more inclusive discussions. Divide minyan-goers up into groups, probably with a leader of the introduction-giving type.

I really don't think this would work. I've been in a number of minyanim where this kind of thing was done during divrei Torah. At least half the congregation usually devolves into schmoozing, which is precisely what you don't want to happen before midday on 9 Av.

4. Let's be honest about what most people find relevant: That means more Holocaust Kinot and fewer Crusades Kinot. IMHO, it is not necessary to go in chronological order.

There is some merit to going through a significant subset of the history of 9 Av liturgy - it helps make the day more of a generic day to commemorate historical tragedy instead of a second holocaust memorial day. Also, it's not easy to find liturgically useful Holocaust material.

katrina said...

Elf's dh: As to the question of volunteering, I wasn't saying that there weren't enough volunteers. I was saying that, realistically, our minyan isn't going to get more than 8 or so volunteers, which is only about 20% of the people in attendance. That still leaves people feeling left out, and that was my point.

As to the siddur issue, if we are concerned about accessibility, why not use the Conservative siddur as much as possible, even if someone's favorite Kinah gets left out? It is WAY more readable.

And my philosophy on trying new things is: Why not? It's easy to say it won't work, but what we're doing now doesn't work, so what do we have to lose?

Regarding the Holocaust, there is SO MUCH material out there that it seems impossible to me that there isn't anything liturgically useful. Again, I would bring in a series of different types of reading and trying.

Do you have a better idea?

elf's DH said...

I was saying that, realistically, our minyan isn't going to get more than 8 or so volunteers, which is only about 20% of the people in attendance. That still leaves people feeling left out, and that was my point.

Realistically, in any service that takes place in an established minyan (that is, not a havurah which is comprised of a bunch of friends getting themselves together), most of the people who come will just show up and not want to do any preparation before the service. If they want to not be "left out," they either have to prepare something beforehand, or Someone Else™ has to prepare things for them (and, by extension, for themselves too) beforehand. My question to you is: who should Someone Else™ be? And, then, it comes down to how many volunteers you have.

Anyway, a 20% participation rate is pretty good.

why not use the Conservative siddur as much as possible,

If every shul had an infinite budget, that would be more of a possibility. The only reason we had any copies of the Conservative siddur is because someone decided to donate 10 copies (not enough for everyone). Remember, 9 Av comes out once a year and these books are not cheap. Donations tend to want to get more bang for the buck, and we ended up with Artscroll because it's more complete. Artscroll is not the only translated, complete Tisha B'Av siddur; there are ones out there with translations that are readable as liturgy (Rosenfeld, for example, is written in a [mildly] archaic type of English, but it is readable and understandable).

And my philosophy on trying new things is: Why not? It's easy to say it won't work, but what we're doing now doesn't work, so what do we have to lose?

I'm not just saying "it won't work" just to be a naysayer. I'm saying it from experience with what happens when similar things are done. Maintaining the somber mood is one of the hardest things to do on Tisha B'Av. Leaving the congregation to discuss things in small groups invites breaking that mood.

Regarding the Holocaust, there is SO MUCH material out there that it seems impossible to me that there isn't anything liturgically useful.

Always looking for ideas here. Note: I didn't say there's nothing; I said it's not easy to find it. Again, Someone Else™ has to spend time sifting through a lot of Holocaust material to find what's useful to the purpose. In a lay-led minyan (at least one that doesn't canonize its own minhag), the minyan leaders are usually happy to accept an email saying "why don't we do more Holocaust kinot? I found X, Y, and Z and think they'd make good reading."

katrina said...

Elf's dh: It seems your main bone of contention is that I didn't volunteer to introduce a Kinah, and then I complained about the service. Your point is taken. But I thought I acknowledged, albeit not directly, in my last response, that what I didn't want to volunteer for was reading a Kinah introduction in a monotone, having no one listen to me, and then having everyone rush through it so fast that even I couldn't follow it. If people were open to my ideas for liturgical changes, I WOULD volunteer, of course. It would be pretty silly if I didn't.

Also, photocopies could be made from the Artscroll for a few Kinot (but remember, I wouldn't insist on doing 15+). I could do that, too.

And I have noticed that, in the past, when we have talked about liturgical changes, you have been very pessimistic about their ability to work. I have good reason, through what I have observed in the larger Jewish community, to believe that change CAN happen, and for the better. I grew up Reform. The current Reform Friday night service, on average, is almost unrecognizable when compared with the average from 15 years ago. I admit that Tisha B'Av isn't the best time to try liturgical change on account of the
necessity of keeping the mood serious, people being hungry, and it only coming once a year. But even so, it would be worth trying, I think.

Plus the nature of a blog is that I muse when I muse. These were post-Tisha-B'Av musings. Don't
get me started on psukei d'Zimrah in a regular Shabbat morning service.

elf's DH said...

It seems your main bone of contention is that I didn't volunteer to introduce a Kinah, and then I complained about the service.

It's a bit more subtle than that. I think it was that you seemed to be saying that things don't work the way they are, so, somebody else should make it work.

what I didn't want to volunteer for was reading a Kinah introduction in a monotone, having no one listen to me, and then having everyone rush through it so fast that even I couldn't follow it.

I agreed with you that fewer kinot should be read and that the ones that are read should be read more slowly.

I don't think that nobody listens to introductions. Personally, I find them very useful in understanding what I'm about to read. Even just a summary of the contents gives an idea of what to look for in the difficult medieval poetry.

If people were open to my ideas for liturgical changes, I WOULD volunteer, of course.

Have you proposed them to anyone who would have the power to implement them?

Also, photocopies could be made from the Artscroll for a few Kinot

This is kind of minutiae, but, for the reasons I said above, I prefer reading translations from almost anything but Artscroll (here's an opportunity to use the Conservative siddur). The Artscroll translations barely make any sense in English and listening to them being read has the same effect on the ear as nails on a chalkboard.

I admit that Tisha B'Av isn't the best time to try liturgical change

I don't oppose liturgical change. I just think that the nature of the changes has to be consistent with the goals of the particular service.* If the way things are working now doesn't work for the majority of the people who come, then, it's worth exploring other options.

* Example: if you want a discussion element, it would probably be better in a relatively small group (20-30), IMO, to open the floor in a controlled way than to split up into more-or-less unmanaged groups, which would likely end up as small groups of friends talking to each other. In order to manage a discussion well, though, you still need someone to lead it.

rebecca said...

Trees

(1)

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.
(2)

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

(3)

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

(4)

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

(5)

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with the rain.

(6)

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

~~~by age of conan