The Rabbi's Column
I Pledge Allegiance - January/February 2019 - Liturgy #4
Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God; Adonai is One. - the Sh’ma

Each morning in public school, just before the announcements, we would stand up as a school body and together recite the Pledge of Allegiance. What always moved me about the Pledge was the words “and to the Republic for which it stands”.  For me, that meant that we were not pledging ourselves to the piece of fabric hanging off the chalkboard in the front of the room, but to what it symbolized - the idea of the United States of America, as embodied in the Constitution.  We were not idol-worshipping the flag, but rather recommitting ourselves to the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Reform Judaism in America viewed the sh’ma in the same way.  In the Orthodox tradition, the custom is to rise for the bar’chu, then be seated for the rest of the section of the sh’ma and its blessings.  The Reform Movement, which called the sh’ma the “watchword of our faith”, innovated standing through the first line (sh’ma) and its response (baruch shem kevod), and then being seated for what we separated out as the v’ahavta.  In truth, the line we know as sh’ma (Deut. 6:4) is immediately followed by the beginning of the v’ahavta, without the later added response (baruch shem kevod, which is said under the breath, in Orthodox tradition).  For that reason, non-Reform custom is to say the v’ahavta in whatever pose, standing or sitting, one was saying the first line, sh’ma.  Reform custom, which envisioned itself as the Judaism of the United States and its democratic ideals, is that one would stand particularly for the sh’ma, and that this declaration was tantamount to a public profession of faith, a pledge of allegiance.

In context, the line in Deuteronomy is a command from Moses.  Having recapitulated the Ten Commandments, Moses explains how the covenant is that the people will follow God’s commandments; that this covenant is binding on future generations; and that following these commandments is what will allow us to inherit the land promised to our ancestors.  He then reminds the people of their relationship to a particular divine being.  “Listen [up], O [people who will call themselves] Israel.  [The god designated by the name] yod-hey-vav-hey is our God [and that aforementioned God] yod-hey-vav-hey is [unique and solely] one.”  This statement is immediately followed by a command to love that God.  That love is not an ineffable emotion, but rather a practical endeavor which includes following commandments, teaching them to those that will come later, and using various tools to remember to follow those commandments in all places and times - public and private, night and day.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that our American Reform ancestors saw the sh’ma as not just as a moment of worship, but as a reaffirmation of our commitment to carry out the mitzvot that mattered, the ethics of prophetic Judaism.  Standing up to say the sh’ma was not about clarifying which particular god we worshipped, but rather a communal stance to fulfill our part of the bargain of tikkun olam.  “Listen,” we say to each other, “we worship the same God and agree that God demands of us a path of ethical behavior that is the same for all of us.”  Reform Jews therefore, contrary to others’ custom, kept their eyes open during the sh’ma in order to hold each other to the pledge of behavior.  The sh’ma was not to be an interior moment, but a mutually supportive bonding opportunity.

Perhaps this action is something we miss in our modern world; perhaps this moment is the true reason to attend worship together.  Currently, the time at which the largest number of our congregation stands together is at the moment of kol nidrei - a time not when we pledge to do better, but rather a moment when we ask God to forgive us, in advance, for not living up to our promises in the year to come.  Maybe we need to come together more for sh’ma.  Maybe we need to spend more time looking into each other’s eyes and pushing each other to make the world a better place for all, as well as promising to work together, as a community, in that endeavor.  The secular New Year is a time for resolution - let us resolve together to hear this ancient call, and make the pledge together.

We Need to Keep Building this Sukkah - December 2018 - Liturgy #3
Adonai, our God, let us sleep in peace; our Watchkeeper, let us wake up to life. Spread over us a sukkah of peace. Hashkiveinu, evening liturgy

At a recent clergy meeting, convened by Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey, the rabbis around the table were asked what they felt to be the most pressing social justice issue.  One rabbi said that we could not tackle any of the other vital issues until we first restored civility in our discourse; until we found a way to listen to each other with respect.  That has long been a goal here at Temple Sholom.  As opposed to congregations that shun conversations about politics, we have tried to be a safe place where we can all share our views, no matter how diverse.

We have not always succeeded - and we need to do better.  The Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago, because of sinat chinam - baseless hatred between one and another.

The prayer hashkiveinu was meant to be said each evening before going to bed.  The Sages viewed sleep as one sixtieth of death.  When we are asleep and unconscious we are vulnerable and there is that fear that one morning we may not wake up.  Each night, we ask God to construct a shelter of peace for us - a sukkah.  That sukkah is our protection, our blanket of comfort, but each morning it disappears and that night we have to ask for it again.

Peace is a sukkah - a temporary structure that only lasts so long, and that we must rebuild.  The safe conversational space is also a sukkah.  With each person, in each conversation, we must remember our guidelines of kavod (respect) and b’tzelem elohim (that each of us is created equally in the Divine image).  A conversation in which we respect another’s right to hold a different opinion and acknowledge that they are as human as we are takes constant attention, rebuilding, and has to go both ways.

Both ways - not only must we be able to listen to opinions that are different than our own, without judging the person who is speaking, but also, when speaking, we should not imagine we know how are words are being received.  

In Pirkei Avot 1:6, Yehoshuah ben Perachayah says, “ וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת Judge each and every person as if they had full merit.” We may not understand what they have chosen to believe.  We may be baffled by the way they have reached their beliefs. However, that makes them no more or less human than we are.  If we are hurt by someone else’s belief, or perceive their belief as harmful to us or someone we care for, we can express that, but we must also acknowledge that our beliefs - or even our disbelief of their positions - might make them feel fear and hurt as well.

The requirement of the sukkah is that it be open - open to admit others, a shelter for all, but also, we must be able to look up through the roof of our sukkot and see the stars.  The safe space of peace that we build and rebuild together is a place where we can look together to the heavens that we imagine as our goal on earth. On Shabbat, the chatimah of the hashkiveinu ends: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, the One who spreads out a sukkah of peace - over us, over Jerusalem, over all Israel, and all the world.

(See this column from summer 2016 for our Temple Sholom Jewish values for respectful conversation.)

Chosen? What Did I Do to Deserve That? - October/November 2018 - Liturgy #3
Let us now praise the Sovereign of the universe... who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations....perfecting the world. - Aleinu, trad. Liturgy

The aleinu has always been one of the more controversial prayers in the Jewish prayerbook. Although we see the prayer as a moment at the end of the service to recommit to a vision of a more perfect future, the beginning of the prayer focuses on the idea of being a chosen people, different from others.   During the Middle Ages, under pressure from the Church, lines that were construed as critical of non-Jews (“worshippers of mist and emptiness”) were expunged.  The Reform movement removed the original wording of the first paragraph and moved up wording from the second paragraph which praised God for being the sole Creator of the world.  The Reconstructionist movement, at one point, removed the prayer completely from their liturgy.  This summer, at our movement’s youth leadership camp, I spoke with a few students who had decided to remain seated and not to participate when the prayer was sung. They told me the particularism of the prayer was offensive to them.

What does it mean to be “set apart”?  To be a chosen people?  I would argue that one of the challenges to the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews is that those abroad expect Israel to live up to Jewish ideals and act better than other nations.  Israelis reply that they are a nation like any other, and to act otherwise is suicidal.  Remember Tevye’s plea, “For once, God, can’t you choose someone else?”  We are criticized for being elitist and thinking ourselves better than others, when often the reality is we are set apart from whatever nation we find ourselves among.

The early Reformers decided that we could be uniquely chosen, but that meant we had a special path and task, not that we were better than any others.  Our history - from slavery in Egypt, through covenant at Sinai, and continuing throughout our wanderings - gives us a unique insight into humanity.  Our sovereignty in Israel ended not as a punishment, not in exile, but so that we could live among the other nations of the earth and teach the message of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”.

In the end, the aleinu is a message of hope.  For the Orthodox, the prayer is a hope for the arrival of a physical messiah who will usher in God’s rule on earth.  For us, we believe that our human role is to bring us all closer to a messianic age - an age in which those ideals we imagine are manifest on earth.  L’takein et ha-olam b’malkhut shaddai - to repair the world until it reaches the Divine ideal.  As Reform Jews, this prayer takes us into the world, rather than out of it.  This prayer comes at the end of our service for that very reason - to remind us that whatever we pray for inside the walls of our synagogue will not come to be unless we do the work to make it possible when we go back outside those walls.  If our synagogue is a sanctuary, we are not meant to hide here.  Instead, we come in to recharge and to rededicate; to strengthen ourselves after a brief respite from our labors.

Bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad ush’mo echad - and on that day, God will truly be one and the nature of the Divine will be understood by all.

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