Sunday, August 10, 2008

Avoiding the appearance of showmanship is also showmanship

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Once I landed on the bimah I was surprised to learn that somewhere inside me lurks a tendency to tear up. I cry on happy occasions and sad occasions. I cry when speaking at Kol Nidrei. I cry during Tefilat Geshem, especially if I am chazan (תולדותם נשפך דמם עליך כמים). I cry at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Which brings me to the following incident: On the first Shabbos after it became clear that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, ה' יקום דמם, had been killed, I stopped including their names in our shul’s prayer on behalf of hostages. That first week, I reached the spot where their names ought to have been inserted, and I just couldn’t go on. It took me a couple of minutes to be able to continue.

The following week, I received an email from someone assuring me that he believed wholeheartedly that what I had done was genuine, and not at all theatrical.

Of course, I now had to wonder: Did someone actually think that my crying was theatricality? Theatricality when crying over dead Israelis?!

Then, a couple of weeks later, I spoke in shul about a family who was moving out of our area. I have a longstanding emotional bond with this family. It was no surprise to me that I got choked up while speaking about them. But later I wondered: Did someone think that this, too, was rabbinic theatricality?

I don’t want to have people analyzing my tears and judging them authentic or phony, emotion or showmanship.

That discomfort shaped a decision I made this past week. In retrospect, think it was the wrong decision, but now it’s too late:

I cry every year as I read the Haftorah of Chazon. Some years it starts while I’m reciting the berachot, other years it waits for devastating lines like “מי בקש זאת מידכם רמוס חצרי, Who asked you for this, for you to come trample in My courtyard?” But it has happened pretty much every year, as best I can recall, since I started leining Chazon some fifteen years ago.

So this year, in the wake of that email and its implicit skepticism, I decided to ask someone else to read Chazon.

My replacement did a fine job on the Haftorah, and no one could see my emotion this year, but after having pondered my decision through Shabbat and Tisha b’Av, I think I was wrong to back out:

- Wrong for this specific case because, as I was told by a few people afterwards, my public emotion in reading Chazon helps them feel the impact of Tisha b’Av.

- Wrong in a more general sense because my crying is the “heter” allowing other people (yes, particularly men,) to express emotion in a public, religious context.

- And wrong a third time, because that email has, paradoxically, made me phony, or at least less authentic. That emailer convinced me I had to pretend not to cry; this Shabbat I was not the real me.

I’m still uncomfortable about crying, wondering what people think when they see the tears well up. But I don’t see that I have a choice. Gd-willing there will be no Shabbat Chazon next year… but if it should come up again, I’d like to think I would reverse this year’s reversal, and let the tears flow where they may.

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  1. When I read about the e-mail you received "... assuring me that he believed wholeheartedly that what I had done was genuine, and not at all theatrical", I could only think that "Assurance of the lack of doubt is not assurance."

    I think your tendency to weep is evidence of your authenticity and sensitivity.

    (And, perhaps, the "reassurance" of the congregant is evidence that s/he needs help in the sensitivity department.)

    May you lein the haftorah of shabbat chazon next year awash in tears of joy.

  2. I find crying to be quite difficult and only wish that it were easier to do.

    I think that you have something special and that this is one of those situations where you need to ignore the congregants.

    There will always be those who second guess and question you. But if you are true to yourself you'll always go to sleep with a clear conscience.

  3. Juggling, Jack-
    Although on the point about having a clear conscience if you are true to yourself - on that I'd have to disagree. Iquestion my conscience plenty.

  4. It is not unusual to question and second guess. I suppose that what I am saying is that I think that on many issues we have a "gut" feeling about the right thing to do.

    But doing the right thing is not always comfortable nor easy. That makes it "easy" to second guess and question yourself.

  5. Hi
    I just landed on your post through your HH (which I got through from jameel)

    My father is a big cryer; always has been since I could remember. He's also a fantastic ba'al tefilla- he really pours all of his emotions into his tefillot, which is why pple respond with such enthusiasm.

    I think there is something special when Jewish leaders can freely express their emotions during tefillot and other important "Jewis moments". Don't give up your crying; pple who comment are only reflecting their own emotional issues, not yours.

  6. Commenter Abbi-
    Welcome, and thanks for commenting. I certainly agree regarding baalei tefillah; I don't enjoy chazanut, but I love having a baal tefilah whose heart is in the davening.

  7. What is important is what you and GD know to be true.

    1. Thank you, Rita - but of course, there is always the requirement that we care about how we are perceived...