The Rabbi's Column
Body and Soul - March 2019 - Liturgy #6
Blessed are You, Adonai, Healer of all flesh, Miracle-Maker. - Asher yatzar, morning liturgy
Blessed are You, Adonai, in whose hands are the souls of every living being, and the breath of every corporeal human. - Elohai nishamah [These prayers are paired in the morning liturgy.]

There is an argument for faith in the existence of God that goes this way: When asked, how can a rational person believe in an invisible God, with no proof of God’s action in the world, the answer is that love, too, is invisible, but we believe in it all the same.  We ascribe to love many tangible effects - emotional and even physical.  We spend a great deal of effort in pursuing love; even in discussing the subject.

Our lives are not just the product of the visible and the tangible, that which is measurable by science.  The rabbis who created the prayerbook saw a duality that they needed to respect in their order of worship. The section of the service now known as the morning blessings, are a collection of the realizations that a reflective (feel free to read “mindful”) person might have as they come into a new day.  One of those on-going revelations was the push and pull between physicality and incorporeality. 

We are reminded each morning of the physical needs of our bodies, as we creak out of bed into the bathroom.  The asher yatzar, which is sometimes known as the bathroom prayer, is a rueful acknowledgement that our bodies are complex; that sometimes parts that are supposed to open, close,  and parts that are supposed to stay closed, open.  Sometimes this is a minor inconvenience; sometimes it can be mortal.  The text of the prayer challenges God by saying that if the right parts are not doing the right things, we are unable to praise God, let alone do anything else.

Immediately following this prayer, which is firmly rooted in the concrete and touch-able, the Sages contemplated the invisible parts of our existence, those things which we cannot see, hear, touch or taste, but nonetheless, propel us forward in our daily journeys.  There is breath - inhaling and exhaling- a mixture of tangible and intangible.  There is thought - abstract and that which causes us to move. There are emotions - which may cause physical reactions but are invisible in and of themselves.  We thank God for having returned those things, which may be invisible to us while we sleep, into our bodies each morning.  Together, this intangibles make up the soul - a word in English with at least three different words in Hebrew - some connected to breath, to wind, to spirit.  The Sages imagined there was an invisible animation of all life, but also a different animation of thought and emotion.

God is the source of both - a body so complex and intricate that we still struggle to understand how it works, and so often fail to find ways to fix it when it does not; and a soul invisible and unmeasurable, but also so obvious when no longer present.  We acknowledge the frailty of each part, on its own, as well as delicate balance between as we come to these prayers each morning.  When so much is beyond our power, we ask for the visible and invisible to be maintained, to remain in relationship and in balance, so that we may pursue the tasks of our life.

Judaism is a pretext to stand back and see the context of our lives - not only to learn how we should act and what our role is in the world, but also a chance for us to appreciate what we have; to acknowledge the fear and the knife’s edge on which we walk, yet to let that fear go in the common knowledge that the price we pay for existence is often anxiety for its continuance.

We pray and we have faith, because there are things that we can see and touch, and things that we cannot; things that we can influence, and things that are beyond our grasp.  Prayer may be an attempt to control, a method to understand, or even a moment to give thanks.  Prayer is invisible, except as it affects what we do.


#createdintheDivineimage - February 2019 - Liturgy #5
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, who has made me in the Divine image
Nisim b’chol yom (Miracles of Every Day), Morning Blessings

In his book, The Three Blessings, Rabbi Yoel Kahn traces the history of three of the blessings of the prayer that we call the nisim b’chol yom - the Miracles of Every Day, found in the morning blessings section of the daily and holiday morning service.  He traces them to an aphorism common in Hellenistic influenced civilizations, and ascribed to the philosopher, Aristotle: “There were three blessings for which he was grateful to fortune: First, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.”  Perhaps one could imagine that Aristotle was grateful to be a part of society which allowed him to engage in study and philosophic contemplation, which he imagined might be impossible were he any other than those three things, although in our modern eyes, he comes across as a xenophobic misogynist.

Later Jewish liturgical development took these three blessings and adapted them for inclusion into the blessing recited each morning, that became the nisim b’chol yom.  The Jewish formulation was more of a glass half-empty version: “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, who did not make me a slave; ... who did not make me a goy (non-Jew); ... who did not make me a woman.”  Again, a charitable interpretation would imagine that we were supposed to thankful for being able to take up ol mitzvot - the yoke of the commandments, which neither slaves nor non-Jews are obligated to do, and which is not fully required of women (at least not the positive, time-bound mitzvot).  However, one might also imagine how this appeared to Jewish women, who watched their sons, fathers, and husbands rejoice each morning that they were not of the same gender as their sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers.  In modern terms, we call this a micro-aggression (although this might be more of a macro) - a statement that, perhaps unknowingly, makes others feel separate, apart, denigrated. 

Kahn notes that he found a medieval prayerbook that had been created for a woman that said the opposite, which might indicate that the blessing was about celebrating one’s own nature, but it is also possible that this change was a protest at the normative formulation.  When the Reform movement brought the nisim b’chol yom back into its liturgy, a few changes were made to make the prayer more affirmative.  We thank God for having been created free, for making us of Israel, and for making us b’tzelem elohim - the phrase from the first creation in Genesis, which we translate as in the image of God.  The reference is even more pointed because the rest of the line states, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God - male and female, God created them.” [Gen. 1:27]  This was actually the second revision.  The first was thanking God for creating me male/female, where the reader could choose their preference.

The earliest Reform Jews in Germany began the process of equalizing Judaism for men and women.  A conference was scheduled on the role of women in Judaism, which was never held, but the early Reformers did proclaim that, contrary to traditional halakhah, men and women were equally bound and equally able to fulfill the mitzvot of Judaism.  Despite that, only one woman was ordained in Germany (and privately, not by a seminary) just prior to World War II - Rabbi Regina Jonas.  The first woman ordained in a Reform seminary was Rabbi Sally Priesand, in 1972.  It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Priesand and her successors the g’dolei hador (great ones of the generation) and the challenges they faced finding their place in Jewish life.  Their stories are horrific.  What is even more horrific is that many of the prejudices they faced almost fifty years ago are still prevalent today.

The Lutheran Church in North Carolina put together a video this past year that detailed only the tamest of things that had been said to female pastors, called, “Seriously?” I commend you to watch it.  Students at the Conservative Jewish seminary, JTS, created a Purim Spiel called “If Men Rabbis Were Spoken To The Way Women Rabbis Are Spoken To”  But for confidentiality, I could share with you the horrifying statements made to female rabbis and, worse, the situations of harassment and sexual predation that colleagues have endured which shocked me when a thread was created on our Reform Rabbis’ Facebook page. 

The problem is not one-way.  There are rabbis who make inappropriate comments and put congregants and staff members in uncomfortable situations.  There are congregants and volunteer leaders that put each other in such situations. Our tendency is to sweep such incidents under the rug, imagining that we must have heard wrong, or that the person offending is just a product of their upbringing or culture.  In doing this, we further victimize the recipient of the offense, rather than making our congregation a safe place for them, and for everyone.  When we make people uncomfortable in our synagogue home, and compound the offense by not sympathizing, or worse, not believing them, we drive them out not only of our community, but often from Judaism.

We must commit, as a congregation, to do all that we can to make our community a place where no one feels threatened or lessened because of their gender (or background, or race, or sexual identity or preference, or even politics).  To do that, we need to set clear guidelines for staff and members that allow us to call people out when they are making our space unsafe.  But guidelines are only words on paper.  We need - staff and volunteer leaders alike - to commit to training: training on how to recognize such behavior - in ourselves and others; how to react in the moment; and how to follow up after.

Finally, a word about sexual, physical, and psychological abuse and harassment.  I was told recently by a female colleague, whose father was a rabbi, that her father only had two incidents in his career where people came to him to share personal experiences of abuse or harassment.  As a female rabbi, she had over twenty people come to her in her first year.  We have created a society where people do not feel safe seeking help and comfort, especially by those who are perceived to perpetuate the culture that sweeps such behavior under the rug.  On my part, I pledge to listen, not to judge, and to believe; to be a non-anxious presence and to offer whatever help is requested, not to impose my own solutions.  We need to create a congregation that truly supports and shelters its members.  We can only do that if we recognize the defense mechanisms already in place around us, and consciously tear them down.  Only then will we be able to truly give thanks for the blessing that each and every one of us was created in the Divine image.




I Pledge Allegiance - January 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.


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