In Safed, the Abuhav synogogue, which local lore cites as having flown like a rocket-ship from Spain, is set up in Classic Sephardic mode: People look to one another along cushioned benches. In the middle, the Torah reader or Cantor leads the prayers. I often think of the liturgical texts which the piytanim would compose & sing to the congregations in Spain. Here was poetic-devotional theater.When I was a younger man, living in Washington D.C., I davened every week at Fabrangen, a long-standing havurah made famous in Rabbi Arthur Waskow's writings, although he is no longer living in the area. The worship space was a room at the George Washington University Hillel, and the setup was in the round, as Adam describes the Sephardic synagogue in Sefad. After a few weeks, I certainly felt like part of the collective performance there, although after a couple of years, I must confess that I always drifted out when we got to the Torah discussion. It felt too much like a seminar discussion of poetry--too close to work, I guess. I liked the singing more.
Certainly hearing the original compositions was more stimulating than a Rabbinical sermon.
I was also present recently at the Liberal Jewish Synogogue in London. There, the choir & organist led the prayers. I found that somewhat alienating as it seemed that these Jews wanted their service to resemble Anglican Church or Roman Catholic performances rather than the authentic Jewish expressions.
(In Leon Weiseltier's derisive phrase--to me, simply a description--I believe in the "religion of singing.")
My sense is that the second architecture Adam describes, with organ and choir, puts the congregation into the role of audience, rather than performer. I grew up in synagogues like that, and hated them, as a rule, because I was lucky if anyone in the room was actually praying. No one in the pews seemed to be--not that I could acually see them--and the rabbi and cantor, although performing roles, never seemed to lose themselves in actual devotion. Whatever gates there are stayed closed.
(I should add, though, that my own ability to pray was deeply fostered by the Roman Catholic, mostly-black church in D.C. where my wife's cousin was the priest, whose praying and singing styles were more Baptist than traditionally Catholic.)
My wee Carlbachian twist a moment ago, about "the gates," was inspired by yesterday's obsessive on-line listening to Matisyahu, the young Lubovitcher reggae singer who is making such a splash these days. Whatever his merits and flaws, I'm struck by how watching him perform Jewish identity (in songs and in videos) opens up a performance style for me, singing along, that I haven't used in several years now: and through that style, certain emotional registers as well. What does Michael Ventura say about Elvis's hip-swiveling equivalent? "A dance it took a whole civilization to forget, and ten seconds to remember," or something like that. I'll be interested to watch, over the coming ten or twenty years, the ways in which his stylings filter up into unOrthodox Jewish prayer performance.