Samuel Barth


Senior Lecturer of Liturgy and Worship, JTS

Rabbi Samuel Barth was appointed senior lecturer in Liturgy and Worship at The Jewish Theological Seminary in the summer of 2011. He was ordained at Leo Baeck College in London, following undergraduate studies in Mathematical Physics and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and the Open University (UK). He is completing doctoral work at New York Theological Seminary, exploring the use of Psalms in the interfaith context. Recently, Rabbi Barth served as a congregational rabbi in Austin, Texas, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the past, he served as dean and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic seminary in Riverdale, New York, where he was instrumental in establishing the cantorial program and a second campus in Los Angeles. At an earlier stage in his career, he was assistant dean of The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

In the first year of his current position at JTS, Rabbi Barth developed Living Liturgy, a new course for first-year rabbinical and cantorial students that approaches liturgy through many lenses-the literature of halakhah and minhag, the history of the siddur-and also through ritual theory and performance studies. Students were asked to visit diverse congregations, and to develop their own approaches to the challenges of contemporary Jewish life. The blog posts written by Chancellor Arnold Eisen on synagogue services and an original 1950s essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel were an important springboard for a fascinating open conversation with Dr. Eisen. Rabbi Barth is currently teaching the Liturgy of the Days of Awe and Introduction to Liturgy.

Work and Philosophy

My passionate commitment is to every aspect of the process of avodah-service of the Divine. The invitation to come to JTS to teach and influence a new generation of rabbis, cantors, and educators-and to develop programs to deepen the spiritual life of contemporary synagogue communities-offered the chance to pursue my vision in the midst of a community that is peerless, both in scholarship and in religious vision and commitment. Liturgy is a field of Judaic scholarship, but it also offers the keys to the hearts and souls of individuals and communities. JTS is a place where students and many colleagues are eager to learn how to turn these keys, and fashion new ones if need be.

My love of the world of prayer and liturgy and my personal quest for deep and authentic spiritual community has led me as a rabbi through three worlds: that of the congregational rabbi, that of leadership in the seminary world (training rabbis and hazzanim), and that of academia-pursuing inquiry into the texts, context, and experience of prayer and liturgy. Each of these arenas has presented me with extraordinary opportunities, and has also challenged the core of my beliefs and ideas. I would be the poorer, and unable to teach with the broad outlook that I do, had I not been challenged by congregants from Brighton (UK) to Brooklyn to Texas to students of every denominational background, and to scholars of every outlook and from every faith tradition. My ordination certificate is signed by Rabbi Louis Jacobs (z"l), who challenged me to learn more deeply in the fields of Talmud, Codes, and Mysticism; and also by Father Gordian Marshall (z"l), a Dominican priest who gently urged me to find the points of commonality among the most unlikely groups, which would allow for moments of shared reflection, devotion, and even celebration.

It is my hope that my own personal journey through worlds of prayer and my experience in diverse congregations will allow me to offer students grounding in the core texts and sources of Jewish liturgy, as well as a sense of the truly amazing things that can be achieved in synagogues and camps, in schools, and with elders. Heschel speaks with such brilliance of prayer as radical amazement, an amazement so often to be found in his legacy to us all: his essays, books, and poems. We are all challenged and invited to open our eyes, and the eyes of our students and congregants, to that amazement-and to discern deep wellsprings that lie within the pages of our prayer books and the hearts of those who join us.

Current Research

I am currently pursuing research into the ways in which different approaches to liturgy are experienced by congregations. There is a discernible (and measurable) shift in experience when texts are changed, when music is varied, when configuration of seating is changed. Why is it that some worship experiences seem tedious and boring, while others are perceived as exciting, engaging, and fulfilling? What can the rabbi, hazzan, and community leaders learn-together-about the process of worship?
I have also been directing a project exploring the question of if, and to what extent, true prayer (carefully defined) can be experienced among those of different faiths. The Psalms offer an important context for such exploration. A chapter on "Migration in Jewish Liturgy" will be published in the fall in an interfaith anthology on this theme.

In addition, I am interested in the role of the individual who leads services, traditionally referred to as the sheliah tzibbur (perhaps best translated as "vicar of the community"; see my blog for an explanation). There is extensive discussion of many aspects of this role in talmudic literature and in the great Codes and their commentaries. I hope to publish a two-part exploration-the first part dealing with the classical texts, and the second part dealing with the contemporary worshipping community.

Lessons Learned and Thoughts for Students

I have learned to read texts carefully and critically; I have been trained to look for the small clues that offer insight into the motivation and human concerns of the authors. I have loved the moments when the humanity of the author of an ancient text or poem becomes clear. I find the greatest fascination in the examination and close reading of modern prayer texts, because the authors are often alive and well; we do not need to guess at motivation and sources of inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, I have found that our own age is no less profound, no less filled with mystery and inspiration, no less blessed with sages and masters of religious law, than preceding eras.

My best advice to students, especially those interested in liturgy and worship, is to read widely and pray more widely. Go to synagogues, many of them (even the ones you would not normally attend), and look more closely at the factors and variables upon which you base your judgment. Read Abraham Heschel and Saint John of the Cross, Lawrence Hoffman and Janet Walton, and turn always back to the pages of the siddur and the mahzor. Memorize the traditional prayers so that they become a part of your inner "hard drive" against which you can test ideas, insights, and comments.

Personal Background

I was born in Israel to a Polish father and Scottish mother. My father escaped from Warsaw just before the Nazis invaded, and after fighting in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army made his way to "Palestine," fighting in the Palmach at the siege of Jerusalem. My mother was a founder of Reform Judaism in Edinburgh in the 1930s, and would never be content in any environment where she was not an equal citizen. In spite of an array of misgivings, I attended a yeshiva high school in London where I learned Rashi and Mishnah, and a little Maimonides, flunked out of music, but was drawn to pure mathematics and physics.

In undergraduate school, the paradoxes of modern physics beckoned to me strongly-until I found myself preparing more for the campus seder of Jewish students than for partial differential equations, and more drawn to the stillness I found at a local meditation center than to the frozen stillness of absolute zero. I spoke with Rabbi Dr Albert Friedlander, the dean of Leo Baeck College, to ask if I might attend for a year, and six years later I received the title of "rabbi and teacher."

I realized some time ago that I am part of a philosophical intermarriage-my wife Karen earned an MBA at Harvard, and then worked as a consultant with McKinsey and Company. I have learned from her that there is a rigor and intellectual depth within the business world not often appreciated by scholars in the "Ivory Tower," and the wisdom of that world has much to offer the Jewish community. Our children Yishai and Miriam have taught us more than we have taught them; Yishai as an emerging leader in the Jewish community and a person living with CP (cerebral palsy) will have much with which to challenge us all. It is in response to my experience as his father that I have begun to research and teach in the areas of human "wholeness" and dis/ability. Miriam will soon be on track for her black belt, and I would not like to be overtaken on this path. In quiet moments, I can be found seeking out white water (or ocean inlets) for kayaking or rafting, listening to the Scottish folk music I learned to love from my mother, or practicing karate or aikido.

Activities and Events

It has been my pleasure to engage with and build upon the long and friendly relationship between JTS and Union Theological Seminary across the street. Director and Assistant Professor of Worship Troy Messenger and I have worked together to begin "Gateways," a series of shared services, which we hope will create a regular context for our communities to come together for prayer, reflection, and celebration of life. We recently presented a successful event entitled "Gateways-A Liturgy of Psalms," which discussed Psalms as a shared text and devotional context for those of different backgrounds and belief systems. At a more formal level, we will co-teach a course about ritual in the coming academic year. The interfaith arena is of growing importance in contemporary society, and I have recently begun to work on several projects with Odyssey Networks, an interfaith network of which JTS is a member.

I continue to find great joy in visiting congregations to teach and lead worship and discussions for weekends (or longer). There are many ways in which some of the challenges of synagogue religious life can be addressed, and my experience as both a scholar and a congregational rabbi (in synagogues from 175 to 650 families) has allowed me to bring an array of ideas and approaches that have (hopefully) enlivened religious services for many. While members of congregations may lack the Hebrew skills necessary for work at JTS, engagement with the deep questions about the meaning of prayer, doubts about the length of services, and concern about repetitive elements of our liturgy are widespread in the contemporary Jewish world.

Sometimes there is important work to be done with a small leadership group in a synagogue, or with the critically important team of rabbi and hazzan. My work as a consultant to congregations began as a member of the core team of Synagogue 2000 (now known as Synagogue 3000), and has continued as I have supported congregations in the process of reflecting on their services, on the texts they use, and aspects of worship "beyond the text"-architecture and lighting, seating arrangement and signage, inclusivity and integrity.