The Rabbi's Column
Truth and Hope - April/May 2019 - Liturgy #7
All this is true and trustworthy, and sustaining for us... Evening G’ulah
True and enduring, beloved, and precious, awesome, good, and beautiful is this teaching - for us, forever. - Morning G’ulah

The section known as the sh’ma and its blessings is added to each evening and morning service.  In addition to the bar’chu and sh’ma/v’ahavta, the hashkiveinu - which is added in the evening, and the v’shamru - which is added on shabbat evening, there are three prayers that highlight the three most important formative events in our Jewish history - creation, revelation, and redemption.  Creation (ma’ariv aravim in the evening or yotzeir or in the morning) and revelation (ahavat olam in the evening or ahava rabbah in the morning) occur between the bar’chu and the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The first obviously commemorates the creation of the world and humanity - a universalistic event. The second commemorates standing at Mount Sinai and entering into covenant with the Divine, through the receipt of the commandments.  The third, the g’ulah, includes not just words from the song we sang after the parting of the sea - the mi chamocha, but a section before which, in both the evening and the morning, begins with the word emet - truth.

Amateur historians may note that the prayers do not proceed in the order of the historical events.  The world was created, then we were redeemed from slavery, then we received the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Yet, the liturgical norm is to read the creation prayer, then the revelation prayer, and then the redemption prayer, only after the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The original authors of the prayerbook explained that while creation and revelation had already happened, there was still need for a future redemption.  The exodus from Egypt was one example of God freeing us. They believed there would be more to come in the future, ending with the redemption of the messianic age, when all would be free forever. Therefore, while we remember being freed from slavery in the past, we also look to the future.

Looking to the future is the reason for the emphasis on truth in the g’ulah. We believe in the truth of past and future redemption.  Just like a scientific hypothesis that is proven by repeated results, we look to our past to prove the future. Our ancestors who were exiled in Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, brought back the Torah with its story of Egyptian redemption, which kept them faithfully awaiting their own journey to freedom.  I had lunch with a Black pastor this week who told me that so many African-Americans became Christian, because the Exodus story of redemption gave them hope of escaping slavery.  They rejected the Christianity that justified slavery and focussed on the Old Testament teaching of liberation.

For Jews and for African-Americans (and doubly so for those who are both), the truth of eventual redemption is a desperate hope that we cling to against all odds.  Today, as we see anti-Semitism on the rise, tropes that we thought were gone forever re-appear, we might despair at ever truly finding freedom from fear.  African-Americans, who may have escaped the bonds of chattel slavery, once again found themselves deprived of rights and freedom by Jim Crow laws in the South and institutionalized discrimination in the North.  After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s, overt racism moved underground, while structural discrimination in housing, education, and imprisonment rose in proportion.  Today, even overt racism has reappeared, with groups championing the superiority of the white, European race.  Where is the freedom promised in previous redemptions?  At what point do we give up hope?

True and enduring, beloved and precious; it is true and trustworthy - and sustains us.  The g’ulah comes to remind us that there is a path forward, that redemption will come.  In our modern world, we have learned the lessons of previous journeys and know that we must, like the Biblical Nachshon, take the first steps ourselves.  When we despair, we not only turn to the repeated redemptions of our past, but also look to find partners who have travelled similar paths.  The alliance between African-Americans and Jews in the 1960’s came out of this shared language of Exodus and common understanding of redemption.  The connection has frayed in the past decades.  Facing resurging racism and anti-Semitism, we have to work together on both sides to find those truths and restore hope together.  Those are the truths that are true and enduring, beloved and precious - loving the stranger as ourselves, and standing together to pursue justice and peace.

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.




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