Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shema: Listen up! Delivered Shabbat V'etchanan, 8/13/2011

Parashat V’etchanan is a literary masterpiece! We so often isolate the various passages, the Rabbinic method often encourages us to do so, analyzing the Ten Commandments, the Shema passage that has entered our liturgy, Moses' opening description of his ineffectual plea to God, the appointment of cities of refuge. The Rabbinic method so often demands that we seek what is hidden. In many of our Torah portions, such an analytical approach is required in order to make sense of the varied contents. Our Torah is far from an orderly document. The pre-canonized editing that took place often confounds contemporary comprehension, so we strive to read meaning into the minutia. Yet occasionally such a study method prevents us from seeing the bigger picture – when the peshat, the simple understanding of the narrative arc of the text can provide the most useful lessons.

In V’etchanan, Shema is key. Not simply the familiar passage to which we are so easily drawn due to its placement in the siddur, but the verb, Shema. We see it at the start of chapter 4, towards the beginning of the portion, after Moses retells of his attempt to change God’s mind about letting him enter the Land,
ועתה ישראל שמע אל החקים ואל המשפטים אשר אנכי מלמד אתכם (Dev. 4:1). Now, Israel….Listen! I almost hear Moses imploring the Israelites not to repeat mistakes, even his own, that were made in the past. The temporal “v”, so often translated as “and” indicates an attempt to move forward, onward to the next stage: Now it’s time to pay attention Israel to the rules that have been taught! The rules have been laid out, now it’s time to Shema! As contemporary commentator, Robert Alter, notes this letter “vuv” stands out to mark the start of a “grand sermon.”

At the start of Chapter 5, Moses again summons the entire Israelite community with Shema,
שמע ישראל את החקים ואת המשפטים אשר אנכי דבר באזנכם היום ולמדתם אתם ושמרתם לעשות (Dev. 5:1)
Listen up Israel – pay attention to the laws and precepts that I’ve proclaimed (literally) into your ears today - study and do them!

Shema has become a refrain to the narrative, a narrative which now proceeds to lay out the basic outline of the law again as Moses re-iterates those basic commandments revealed on Sinai and as we will read aloud in a few moments. This is the instruction, Moses reminds the masses. Then, again:
שמע ישראל יי אלהינו יי אחד ואהבת את יי אלהיך... (Dev. 6:4…)
"Listen up Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One; and You should love Adonai with all of your heart, soul, and being..."

In case you weren’t listening, Listen up! God is one, and you are supposed to honor God by doing all of these instructions AND -- here is what is new – you are to teach it to your children, so that they too can follow the rules that accordingly will assure prosperity and safety.

I’m always struck that it is this final Shema of our portion that gets held up as “the watchword of our faith.” Sure it makes a good poetic sound bite, and it reinforces the rabbinic idea that it is the first commandment – the "I am the Adonai You God… and there are no other Gods besides me" from which the rest flow forth. But, taken by itself, it has the least substance. This final Shema of V’etchanan never quite tells us to study or do the commandments. It says were are to hold onto them as symbols – literally לטטפת- and to teach them to our children, but how on earth can we, with any integrity that is, pass on an instruction without observing it ourselves? It isn’t enough to just hold onto symbols.

The last Shema of V’etchanan, the one that has been incorporated into our liturgy, is fully dependent on the first two Shemas of our parasha. ישראל שמע, we must first listen up to those who have come before us. We must hear what they have to say about the mistakes they have made and the lessons, the chukim u’mishpatim. Notice – these aren’t mitzvot, religious commandments, these are basic rules viewed as vital to the functioning of society. שמע ישראל , we must then pay attention to what has been place before our ears. We must study – learn - and take action in order for us to keep our community in shape. It takes a bit of attention and effort! Finally, שמע ישראל , only once we have absorbed it and made it a habit for ourselves, can we pass it on to those who will follow us. To do any less makes all of the symbols that we make – those on our doorposts, synagogues, and home, no matter how beautiful, thoroughly hollow.

Comment about Haftarah:
Nachamu, nachamu …. First of the seven Haftarot of consolation that lead us in our calendar cycle form Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Historically, Reform Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning over the destruction of the First, and later Second, Temple in Jerusalem, as we don’t even feign to seek a return to such a centralized notion of civil and religious power. At the same time, we must recognize the amount of devastation and trauma these events brought to the Jewish community and their neighbors during this time. Isaiah’s moving poetry compels us to remember these painful episodes in our history and mourn the losses that ensued. Our modern sensibilities require us to celebrate the strength of those who were able to continue building upon traditions that would serve as a foundation for modern Jewish life. The very fact that we are here to remember is a testament to those who survived and worked to restore that which was most important.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections on my visit to TENYC - A lesson in investing in worship, Shabbat Hazon, 5771

I have been working full time during the last four weeks on this manuscript (hold up dissertation). As you, our regular Shabbat worshippers, have been perhaps most directly impacted by this change in my typical work habits, I thought I’d share …. (begin reading…The liturgical rubric known as the Seder Avodah recited on the Jewish Day of Atonement provides ...) No one has gotten up to leave? Well, no one can say Temple Emanuel members don’t have good manners. I’ll spare you the rest, at least for now.

This past month has been – thankfully – remarkably productive. A draft of my dissertation is done and ready for proof reading, revisions, and the tedious process of committee review. As my work time was productive, I celebrated with a trip to New York, my first trip to New York City in a number of years that did not involve any library visits or research. Generally, there is no dearth of shabbat worship opportunities in Manhattan, but like so many other communities (like our own), summer time is not typically the time to see a congregation at its best. Typically, attendance is low, clergy are away, services, if they are held at all (often synagogues implement a reduced schedule) are not held in the main worship space. I recall an eager summer visit to the beautiful Sephardic style sanctuary of Central Synagogue to hear the cantor and choir only to find myself in their basement being lead by a less than experienced song leader. That is the reality of summer in the American synagogue. Last Shabbat, I took my chances and chose to visit our sister congregation, the historic Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue. Services were held in their chapel – though, chapel is hardly an adequate description for this cathedral styled room that is fully fitted with bema, choir loft, and organ, that albeit smaller than their grand sanctuary, is still a stunning example of architecture; yet otherwise, the Shabbat service was a typical Temple Emanuel of New York City experience, and one from which there is much to learn.

Temple Emanuel New York City was founded in 1845 by a small group of German immigrants to America. By 1868, it had built, though not in its present location, the “largest synagogue structure in America.” Perhaps not a qualification towards which we at Temple Emanuel of Baltimore wish to strive, but a qualification that speaks to the grandeur and stature of the place in terms of the history of Reform Judaism in America. Temple Emanuel of New York City has historically been viewed as the bastion of Reform Judaism, and it remains, even if its worship no longer reflects mainstream Reform worship practice, and even if the Union of Reform Judaism was perfectly happy to make its move further, literally and metaphorically, to the right of this congregation – it remains a vibrant, and based on conversation with its clergy, fiscally sound, 21st century Reform congregation.

Since a 3+ hour field trip is not high on everyone’s Saturday morning to-do list, I thought I’d share my thoughts, my devarim, if you will, on my experience this past Shabbat.

First, their prayer book – The Union Prayer Book, not Gates of Prayer, blue or grey, certainly not Mishkan Tefillah, old UPB. Now, first a disclaimer: in large part due to my youth (yes, my youth – I love saying that), I have no emotional connection to The Union Prayer Book. By the time my family made the leap to a Reform synagogue, GOP was the gold standard. UPB is an historic, and as such fascinating, text for me, but it has never served as a worship text for me. The only time I have ever ‘prayed out of’ UPB, outside of TENYC, is during earnest, but frankly lacking, attempts at recreating the past. Just as NFTY services don’t translate well outside of camp and youth conventions, UPB services often don’t do well out of their original context either.

I am glad the Reform movement has moved away from UPB. The little, literally little, book was a nice change, but the language was difficult – I stumbled over the “Thee”s, “Thou”s, and “Thy”s which in turn interfered with my appreciating the prose. While the trend can certainly be taken too far, I’m glad we’ve injected a sense of informality into our worship. I don’t think God cares whether we use “Thee” or just “You.” To most of us born after WWII, “You” is plenty formal enough. While formality can create an atmosphere of worthy respect, it can also create distance, distance between worshiper and text and between us and God. I prefer language that balances the disparate images of God: that of God as a transcendent and distant force (the “Thou” image) against that of God as part of each and every one of us (perhaps the “hey you” image).

I am also grateful for the Reform movement’s success at adapting our traditionally male centric language to a more gender inclusive experience. Recall, it wasn’t until the publication of the 1994 ‘interim’ "Gates of Grey" that Gender inclusivity formally entered our worship. Gender neutral language has now become normative, and I want it to be for generations who follow. And, even though male centric language was the norm until I was close to 30 years old –the male language used last Shabbat was jarring and felt entirely dated.

While using UPB reinforced my appreciation of the positive changes in worship that have developed in the Reform movement, the worship service generally reminded me of what is perhaps our greatest failure. The Reform movement has a lot to learn from the sheer aesthetics of worship at TENYC. A professional choir of 17 voices regularly enhances their Shabbat worship. During the High Holidays, this group swells to 25 professionally trained singers. In addition to the choir, their worship staff includes an organist and choir director (who mans a newly restored 3000+ pipe organ), and an administrative assistant whose entire job is devoted to the maintenance of the choir. And, of course, TENYC employs a cantor who pulls all of these pieces together in exquisite form while sharing her own mastery of liturgy, Jewish music, and nusach.

Now please be clear, I am not arguing that TENYC’s style of worship should be replicated here or elsewhere. A 20-25 person choir and pipe organ is fitting for their cathedral like structure. Our sanctuary (let alone our budget) couldn’t possibly contain such sound, and we prefer a musical style that balances the performative with congregational singing (of which there isn’t much of going on at TENYC), but the ATTENTION PAID to the expression of worship is worth emulating.
Many Reform congregations across the country are facing budgetary challenges by eliminating those very professionals trained to deal with worship, namely cantors. Worship expression becomes the easy budget cut. Throw in a guitar player and few poems and presto – worship. Even our own Temple Emanuel has had to make choices – the cantor is often replaced by the rabbi. Luckily, we get along most of the time (and the ‘new’ rabbi gets to work with a cantor who has 20 some odd yrs of congregational experience). Indeed, it is a credit to our Temple Emanuel leadership that the cantorial, the chazzanut, the expression of worship and liturgy, was not disposable when tough choices had to be made; yet, there is no question that my attention to the rabbinic function has impacted the amount of attention I devote to the expression of the liturgy. And I certainly couldn’t do both tasks if I had been new to both at the same time. My experience as a congregational cantor was vital to my being able to do both roles seamlessly.

I don’t believe there is a “one-worship-model- fits-all” approach to successful worship. TENYC’s model works beautifully for them. Reform congregations need to invest in worship in order to figure out what works for their own communities. That doesn’t mean mimicking what may have been successful elsewhere, it means working to understand one’s own community. It means making an investment of time and resources into worship. We’ve begun a serious exploration into worship at Temple Emanuel, and I hope it continues. Worship must be a priority of Jewish life. In the Biblical period, the journey to Canaan was the glue that held the Israelites together (assuming the community was as cohesive as the Biblical text would like us to think. The scolding we are about to read throughout Devarim suggests otherwise.) Torah has become that glue in the post Biblical period. The observance of Torah, of law and ritual, works as a cohesive element among Orthodox Jews. The study of and continued interpretation of Torah as a mandate for social justice holds the liberal Jewish community together. Can Torah survive without worship? I doubt it. Al Shelosha D’varim ha-olam omeid: Upon three things does our world stand, Torah, WORSHIP, and acts of loving kindness – our early sages doubted it as well.