Smoke on the Altar

A fire went out from the Lord and consumed the elevation offering and the fats upon the altar; the entire people saw and sang; they fell upon their faces.

Leviticus 9.24 (Parashat Shemini)

Upon the investiture of Aaron and his sons as priests, they offered sacrifices upon the altar. At the conclusion of the ceremony, this Divine fire came own from heaven to consume the offering, concluding the service. The people cheered, sang their songs and offered their own prayers as they lay prostrate upon the ground.

I have seen film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of England, along with other great royal affairs. They are magnificent in their pomp and circumstance. The elevation of a pope is also a time of great of great pageantry. On a more personal note, my own ordination was a time of wonderful ceremony, replete with special music, a parade of rabbis and professors and a setting in a moorish-style synagogue, unique and historic in American Jewish history.

Leaders, both secular and religious, are well aware of the value of pomp and circumstance. Gala and pageantry are vital tools used to establish and enhance leadership. A recent example comes to mind: the celebrations in North Korea celebrating the founding of the modern state. No matter what we think of its current leader, the parade, the display of weapons and the speeches given on that day certainly had its intended effect: to cement the power of her leader and to send a message to the world that North Korea, in spite of her severe internal problems, was a world power and a dangerous one as well.

But on a much safer level, we learn from this Torah portion that religious ritual is actually pageantry and hence, theater. As religious leaders, we will be more effective when we tap into the power of pageantry in order to enhance our worship experiences; we will draw more people into our chapels and send more people out of our chapels with a deeper religious feeling. This does not mean that we should be sacrificing goats and sheep, nor should we only mimic 18th and 19th Century worship practices that our people have clearly rejected. Rather, we as religious leaders should be able to enhance religious pageantry in contemporary forms, using techniques such as video projections, high-end light and sound systems, contemporary dance and ethnic dress and foods when appropriate.

So our task as leaders is to tap into the power of pageantry to use it to our advantage. When we employ pomp and circumstance – and are authentic and use it to true and noble purposes – our people will respond in the affirmative. They may not bow down and pray to us (and I hope that they don’t!), but they will walk away more loyal to the mission and more eager to fulfill their role in it.

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2 thoughts on “Smoke on the Altar

  1. more effective in what way?

    Like

    • Admittedly, effectiveness is hard to define and harder to measure. It is different for different faith groups – and within faith groups. Service attendance is but one measure – and a poor one at that. So effectiveness can best be measured by how an individual or group responds to the teachings and rituals of the faith: ethics and worship patterns – displayed both within and outside of the church/synagogue/mosque walls.

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