Tag Archives: Shema

Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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The Ballet, the Symphony, and the Siddur – Vayyiqra 5776

By some strange series of coincidences, Judy and I managed to attend both the ballet and the symphony last weekend. (This is one of the greatest advantages to Pittsburgh over New York, BTW – while NYC may have far more options for cultural offerings, here it is cheaper and easier to see world-class performers. Just one more reason why Pittsburgh is truly awesome.)

Upon leaving Heinz Hall, Judy made the observation to me that at times, listening to a symphony orchestra live is similar to the experience of sitting in synagogue services and letting the sounds of tefillah wash over you and put you in a meditative zone.  It is a distinctly “low-tech” experience, where you seemingly do nothing more than sit.  But, psychically, spiritually, so much is happening in this state.

While I must say that usually I am a little more engaged in the recitation of words of tefillah rather than letting it “wash over me,” I certainly appreciate where she is coming from. The synagogue experience, in some ways, is the culmination of two thousand years, and arguably three thousand years of development. It is a highly-refined, carefully-constructed piece of spiritual canvas upon which the words of liturgy have been painted. Love it or hate it (not all of us are shul-goers), the synagogue experience, that is, davening / sitting in the pews is certainly the most well-known image of observant Jewish practice.

And, like the symphony and the ballet, it functions on a few different levels. On the one hand, all can enter and participate (by merely being in the audience and listening or watching or following along in the siddur / prayerbook). On the other, to truly appreciate what is being created and referenced and invoked in its vast complexity, requires much more knowledge and effort.

2011 PittsburghSymphonyOrchestra Fisheye.jpeg

Pittsburgh Symphony. ZsadlerTemplate:MichaelSahaida,photographer

And in some sense, the origin of Jewish prayer is drawn from the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Vayyiqra, which details the basic types of sacrifices offered on an ongoing basis in the Temple. The sacrificial system, as practiced in the mishkan (portable altar) and later the First and Second Temples, was the earliest form of Israelite worship, and arguably the ancestor of tefillah / prayer. Rambam (aka Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1205 Spain, Morocco, and Egypt) tells us that the ultimate goal of animal sacrifice was to bring us to the better mode of worship, that is, tefillah, the prayers of our hearts, minds, and lips.

So, while I am happy (as a vegetarian and a lover of animals) that we have not offered animal sacrifices since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (thanks, Rome!), I must concede that the very holy acts in which we have been engaged this morning are originally derived from Parashat Vayyiqra and the sacrificial rites of ancient Israelite tradition.

Back to the ballet and the symphony. Consider the following: the siddur / prayerbook that you hold in front of you is a pastiche of texts, poems, instructions, customs, and choreography that span Jewish history. The oldest parts are ancient writings that may be 3000 years old; these are drawn from the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible: the Shema, the Psalms of Pesuqei Dezimra, Veshamru, etc.  And then there is a whole range of composed prayers from the rabbinic period, in the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. Not counting the brand-new material like the Prayers for the Country and the State of Israel, the youngest parts are only about 500 years old, poems like Lekha Dodi.

The range of piyyutim, liturgical poems (the Hebrew word piyyut is a borrowing from the Greek poietes, poet) spans over a thousand years; the payyetanim, clever wordsmiths from the Middle Ages, wrote thousands of these special additions to the siddur. In certain periods of Jewish history, congregations looked forward to hearing newly-composed piyyutim presented by the hazzan (cantor) every Shabbat.

The structure of every Jewish service, like a symphony or a ballet, has multiple movements. Every service has a specific formula, and they are all built around two things: Shema and Amidah. The Shema (along with the berakhot / blessing structures around it) we say morning and night, as instructed in the first paragraph. The Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, replaced the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Together, the Shema and Amidah may be thought of as the central movements of the symphony, sometimes accompanied by special extra pieces that appear from time to time: reading the Torah, the joyous Psalms of Hallel, and so forth.

Choreography: Tefillah is a kind of dance! We step forward, away from our everyday selves and into the heavenly court when we begin the Amidah; we step back at the end to return. We bow at certain times. We elevate ourselves like angels during Qedushah, our feet held tightly together like the heavenly beings described by Ezekiel in his vision of the chariot (Ezekiel, chapter 1). We shuckle – sway to put our whole body behind our words. We stand, we sit, we cover our eyes, we march around with the Torah.

History. Like the ballet and the symphony, each movement of tefillah / prayer has a story behind it. The Amidah, for example, is rooted in Talmudic literature, and, as I said earlier, is understood to replace the daily sacrifices about which we read earlier.

In the weekday Amidah, the original eighteen berakhot (benedictions) recited three times daily were standardized by Shim’on HaPaquli in the Beit Midrash of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh during the first century CE (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 17b).

And there are stories behind the choreography and the customs. Why do we recite silently the line after the opening line of the Shema (“Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed”)? Not only because it’s not in the Torah (unlike the rest of the three paragraphs of the Shema), but also because a midrash tells us that when God gave these words to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the heavenly court of angels (yes, more angels!) responded with these words. So we add them, but only in an undertone to prevent breaking up the words of the Torah.

History, culture, our stories have all shaped the siddur.

And yet, the siddur is a work that is still in flux. Really, everything in the category of Talmud Torah, learning the words of Jewish tradition and passing them down from generation to generation, is a work in progress. While the text of the Torah does not change, the way that we read it and understand it certainly does.

Likewise, the symphony and the ballet have changed:

  • instruments have changed
  • tuning has changed
  • audience taste has changed
  • training of dancers has changed
  • interpretations have changed

And so forth.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

And we, the Jews, have changed as well. So too have our modes of prayer. And yet there is a kernel of continuity which will always make our services uniquely Jewish: the Hebrew language, the structures of berakhot, the basic “dance” moves, the silent moments, etc.

The symphony will continue. We will always dance through the choreography of services, to create that sacred space through reciting our ancient (and not-as-ancient) words from movement to movement. Whether you let it wash over you like a member of the audience or you are first violin or a principal ballerina, leading the whole endeavor, the pieces fit together in a harmonic, choreographed expression of what it means to resonate with Jewish history, culture, and tradition.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/19/2016.)

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