Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.
My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.
When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”
I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.
Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”
The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.
At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.
We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.
But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”
For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.
And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.
To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.
We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.
A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.
Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.
There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.
But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:
Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.
… who made me free.
… who made me a Jew.
Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:
… who has not made me a gentile.
… who has not made me a slave.
… who has not made me a woman.
These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).
Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”
So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.
Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.
And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)
The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.
Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.