Skip to main content Sinai Leeds
Main content begins here
Should a Rabbi make us feel uncomfortable?

Since my interviews last year, I have consistently maintained that if there is something odd or confusing encountered in any of the changes to our services that have come up while I have led services, that I would much prefer that the questions be asked directly to me than spoken about in frustration where I am unable to aid in the dialogue. If something comes up, I encourage you to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the heading “Ask the Rabbi” and I will happily answer them in order in this space. This week, the question was What did you mean when you said that it was your job to make us uncomfortable?”

In chapter 3 of Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” the author speaks of the “stickiness” factor in marketing, that is, the ability of a product to become a “social epidemic” or something that is passed on far and wide. For a slogan, message, or marketing campaign to be “sticky,” it must successfully juxtapose the target audience with a good and needed product at an ideal time. When this happens, we get “Faulty Towers,” “Only Fools and Horses,” or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. When it doesn’t, well, chances are we won’t see the series on ITV next year or find our favourite flavour at Tesco’s.

For years, I have been controversially making the claim that, “It is not my intention to make people comfortable.” When presented here in Leeds, the message not only fell flat, it had a sort of reverse-stickiness—the phrase was passed on as a meme of “what the rabbi is doing wrong” rather than as the beginning of a discussion as to what that actually meant.

The basic underlying logic of this provocative phrase is twofold. The first is something I believe to be a spiritual truth—that spiritual growth only comes through progress. Specifically, within Judaism, the very nature of the repetition inherent in the Jewish calendar can lead to the opposite assumption, that we ritualize each day, week and holiday so that when it returns we know what to expect. Indeed, if you draw a circle and lay out the Jewish holidays over the circle in order, we see the motion of the Fall, then Winter, Spring and Summer holidays and observances moving irrevocably back to the starting point in the fall. But if you turn the circle on its side, the shape changes dramatically. Take for example the Elul to Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur underlying spiritual work. In Elul we make our cheshbon nefesh, our searching personal inventory of everyone we need to go to for forgiveness in addition to those unresolved and unforgiven pains and slights that we need to let go of. The purpose of the cheshbon nefesh is clearly not that when we return to Elul in 2020 that we have the exact same names on the list. We should have done the spiritual and personal work to repair our relationships and our lives, and when we return to the same moment in the calendar a year later we have the opportunity to not only make a new list with new healing that can be done, but as well see how far we have come from the previous year. From this perspective, the yearly cycle is not a circle, it is an ascending spiral.

The second is more psychological and evolutionary, that we seldom make changes to our lives until we are forced to do so. Most of us, for example, can immediately think of a least one bad habit that we engage in, even if we are not really willing to admit it to ourselves. The reality is, most of us will never change that habit unless we are forced to. If our addiction is to ice cream and the manifestation of the addiction is a carton of Ben and Jerry’s a night, there is no reason whatsoever to change that habit until there is. Let’s admit it—most habits include pleasure, otherwise, it is less likely to become habituated. But there is a path that many habit-forming indulgences lead to, and often until we are faced with the x-rays or lab tests we will not alter our behaviour. We are simply too good at sophistry and self-delusion, something for which we can thank tens of thousands of years of evolution. Without the ability to enter into repetitive behaviours we would have never been able to perform the tasks necessary in the lean winter months while living in caves, abris or earth lodges. Those that could use that time to cure hides or knap flint, activities of mind-numbing repetition, lived to pass on their genes to the next direction. And with no Ben and Jerry’s in caves with us to take negative advantage of these tendencies . . .

The counter-argument to the seeing change and progress as essential is the importance of tradition and repetition. Our prayerbooks have the same prayers every day and every week with minor additions (unless we count the major additions for Torah-mandated festivals that lead us to use a completely different prayerbook.) Jewish music probably back to temple times is built upon melodies that are used for specific prayers at specific times and then repeat when that time and prayer returns. Repetition and predictability are built in, and it can seem like pure chutzpah to challenge this. Add to this that with the complexity of the world that Shabbat can (and should!) be seen as a refuge from daily insanity, then it is especially easy to hear a message like “it is not my intention to give comfort” as patently absurd.

Like so much of Judaism, I believe that the answer lies within balance. How do we honour the repeating circle of our tradition while attempting to elevate ourselves and each other at each repetition of the circle? We first of all acknowledge the tension of the two and then recognize that this tension is not only not a bad thing, it is the core of Jewish ritual.

Back in the Talmudic times, the ritual that we recognize today evolved through a balance of set blessings and improvised prayer. The part that was set in stone, the keva, we recognize essentially as the chatimot of today, the formulaic endings of prayers that start “Baruch ata . . .” The body of each prayer was then improvised from within the specific theme of that particular blessing, a process called kavanah, When, in about the 9th century, the texts of the blessings and the prayerbooks were filled out by mostly standardized texts, the word keva meant to encompass the entire prayer and the word kavanah slowly evolved from improvisation to intentionality. It still meant what we bring to prayer ourselves, but the focus was more internal and individual—more spiritual, if you will. Most importantly, however, this means that both elements of change and non-change are present at every moment in Jewish liturgy.

Years ago I worked with a rabbi of a large and successful European Reform synagogue. The rabbi had been instrumental in setting the keva of the community ritual, the “set in stone” music and rite that anyone who led services at the synagogue was required to learn. The rabbi had also lamented once to me the difficulty of changing even a single melody in the community and the backlash should that be done. In this case, the keva had won out and the balance had been lost. Another colleague told me of a time when at a youth retreat an external group had been welcomed in to lead a kabbalat shabbat service. The group led a jazz service that to the youth was not recognizable as kabbalat shabbat such that they gathered after and led their own service for themselves. In this case, change for the sake of change won out and again the balance was lost.

Balance takes a while to achieve. As a leader, I will never choose the path of replicated keva, but I will always strive to find balance. By definition, that means that some level of change, even if it is only how a prayer is taught or the specific energy by which I lead a song, will always be present. To set honest expectations, I have communicated that for years via some variation of comfort/discomfort. When that method of communication fails to accurately communicate the underlying intention of creating a balance between keva and kavanah, new paths of communication must be found.

In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen R. Covey begins with the principle of “starting with the ends in mind.” There should be no mystery as to what my intentions are as a leader. Anyone concerned with something I say is always encouraged to ask me. It is unfortunate that this offer was not once accepted in the wake of the uttered phrase of “bringing discomfort.” My goal is to over the course of several years create a palate of well-known melodies and expressions of prayer for each service. This is accomplished by me slowly learning favoured melodies from a variety of prayer leaders from the past, from decades of different rabbis to the wealth of lay-leadership in our own community. This is then balanced with other melodies and expressions of prayer—ones learned from the shira chagigah, ones that I have acquired in Israel, Switzerland, Germany, France and the United States, and indeed my own compositions. When I introduce a new melody or type of prayer expression, I will tend to repeat that for multiple weeks until it becomes somewhat familiar, and then after that “add it to the mix” of what was done before that. Over the course of years, it is possible to have three, four, five melodies and different ways of uttering a blessing to be a part of the familiar. In this, our relationship to our own liturgy grows, and we are able to more agile as a community as we have special services, changing demographics or even alternative services. This is not the easiest path but I believe is the best path for the overall spiritual health of a community as well as balancing an individual’s desire for the familiar with the reality that all of us require challenge in order to grow. The ultimate goal is that when I leave a pulpit that no one ever says that “Rabbi Strasko’s way” was the only way something can be done – instead we build change and fluidity, slowly and over time, into our very concept of keva!

Of course, it also takes time to learn what has come before. Especially on Shabbat mornings, there was no way for me to simply know or intuit which melodies or styles were the most beloved by the most amount of people. Creating and fine-tuning balance is a long-term process that must be balanced by my own instincts of if something “works” or doesn’t “work” to achieve whichever goal I have as a prayer leader for a specific prayer in a specific service. The reason that so many “ask the Rabbi” columns in such a short amount of time deal with change is simply because change is uncomfortable. But if kept in balance with “tradition” it is also necessary and advantageous.

So the answer to the question this week is, “because the Rabbi needed to find a more sticky way of communicating the spiritual importance of being challenged and how that balances with respecting tradition.” Suggestions for new marketing strategies begin. . . now.

Don't have an account yet? Register Now!

Sign in to your account