Tag Archives: tefillah

Measuring Ourselves – Behar-Behuqqotai 5777

There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:

As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”

reb zusya of anapol

The final resting place of Reb Zusya of Anapol

How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?

Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.

What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.

One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?

For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.

Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.

We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to  judge our choices.

I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.

We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.

We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.

***

Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.

You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.

And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:

Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few  things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)

This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.

There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ

Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.

Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)

This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם

Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim

[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)

This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת

Bohen kelayot

[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)

This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).

וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו

Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.

… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)

An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה:  כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה

Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.

Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)

This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).

What is the lesson here?

One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.

lev shalem

And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.

The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.

And that is what we do throughout our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)

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Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch

Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

old-kotel-1

The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

jews_at_western_wall_by_felix_bonfils_1870s

The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)

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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

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.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar

Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

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.

Shabbat shalom!

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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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Elevating Ourselves Through Jewish Mindfulness – Ki Tissa 5776

Some of you may have read in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine about how mindfulness meditation produces some positive health outcomes. In fact, the research group that produced the study (which originally appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry), is based at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the authors is our member, Jennifer L. Ferris-Glick.

The study showed that individuals engaged in mindfulness meditation, after three days, exhibited

more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

Now that’s good news for those who meditate, but it also might be good for those of us who are invested in Judaism and Jewish life. I’m going to propose the following, arguably un-scientific, and yet potentially transformative way to understand Jewish prayer (although Jen told me on Friday that there is data to back this up):

If performed properly, the daily practice of tefillah can indeed be a tool for mindfulness.

PrioTime: Mindfulness – focused awareness in the present moment

For the last seven months, I have been thinking about how we can elevate our tefillah / prayer experience here at Beth Shalom.

There has been a certain amount of discussion lately about our weekday minyanim (daily services, morning and evening) mostly because attaining a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews, has occasionally been challenging. This has been particularly true in the evening, when our minhah service has begun as early as 4:35 PM on weekdays, since we have customarily held this service around sunset time. As you can surely imagine, rounding up a minyan at that time is challenging when most of us are still at work.

However, in some sense, the timing of minyan is merely a red herring. It’s an answer to the wrong question. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read today, told the story of the molten calf (Ex. 32:1-6; while some of us have traditionally referred to it as the “Golden Calf,” the Torah itself calls it the egel massekhah, literally, “molten calf”).

What is fascinating to me about the calf story is not the aspect of idol-worship, but rather the need for our ancestors to have a tangible, visible God. It’s a strong need. And let’s face it – for the people who had left idolatrous Egypt just a few weeks earlier, it made a lot of sense. But it was the wrong approach for the new order, the order of Torah, which the Israelites were about to receive. It was not the right kind of worship.

And of course, what makes the molten calf that much more disturbing is that it is sandwiched in-between four parashiyyot (weekly Torah readings) about the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary designed for proper worship of God by the Israelites in the desert. There is an understanding in our sources that the mishkan was necessary because of that need for a physical center of worship.

Today, Judaism does not offer that kind of tangible theology, the kind represented by the mishkan. Our connection to God is through actions and words. And yet, we do have a physical requirement for Jewish prayer – that need for minyan, for ten adult Jews (from the Hebrew root m-n-’ – to count). As many of you know, certain prayers may not be recited without a minyan: all forms of the Qaddish, including the Mourner’s Qaddish, the Barekhu, the Qedushah section of the Amidah. And, of course, we do not read the Torah without a minyan.

For some of us, one very important reason for holding weekday services morning and evening is so those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit (annual commemoration of the passing of an immediate relative) may recite the Mourner’s Qaddish. Without a minyan, we do not say Qaddish, and that seems unfair to those who are recalling their loved ones.

It is not too difficult to understand why, then, that for some of us, the reason for supporting the daily minyan is to enable those who are grieving to say Kaddish.

But I’m going to say something right now that might seem scandalous. Hold on to your kippah:

Coming to minyan so that others may say Qaddish, while noble, is not an ideal which we should emphasize.

If it gets people here, that’s fine, and if it helps those minyan-goers understand and appreciate the value of daily tefillah, that’s even better. But if supporting the Kaddish-sayers becomes the only impetus to maintain a daily minyan, then as far as I am concerned, we should just pack it all up right now. Because in any case it will only be a matter of time before all of those for whom this is a motivator are gone. And then we will be left with nothing.

We have to reach higher than that.

On Thursday, I heard Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL (The Center for Learning and Leadership) speak at Rodef Shalom about engaging the “nones” (i.e. the growing number of people who claim no religion). He effectively said that synagogues and churches are like Barnes & Noble in an Amazon.com world – bricks-and-mortar institutions clinging to a model that will soon be obsolete. The type of prayer, and well the whole synagogue model that was familiar to our parents and grandparents, and the motivations to belong and participate, do not speak to the Millennial generation.

Rabbi Kula’s suggestion was not to despair, however. Rather, he reminded us that while the traditional music business has lost to Spotify, and that print newspapers are crumbling in the face of online content, people are still devouring news and music. He pointed to the success of Soulcycle, a fitness chain that presents spin classes in a “spiritual” environment. Plenty of people who would never set foot in a traditional church or synagogue are spinning away to candlelight and soulful music. Here’s a quote from their website:

SoulCycle doesn’t just change bodies, it changes lives. With inspirational instructors, candlelight, epic spaces, and rocking music, riders can let loose, clear their heads and empower themselves with strength that lasts beyond the studio walls.

The question is not, therefore, “What time will people come to minyan?” But rather, “How will we make tefillah relevant to the next generation?”

I cannot yet say that I know the answer to this question. In the meantime, however, I do know that we need to re-orient ourselves as to why we support daily prayer. Here are some better reasons to support the minyan. We pray on a daily basis:

  • to acknowledge our brokenness, our vulnerability;
  • to seek healing for ourselves and others;
  • to seek awareness;
  • to find the place in ourselves that understands the holiness and complexity in human relationships;
  • to judge ourselves (that is the literal meaning of lehitpallel, commonly translated as “to pray”);
  • and ultimately, to change the world through transforming ourselves.

התפילה: גוף ונשמה

Consider the following requests made during the weekday Amidah (traditionally known as the Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “eighteen,” even though there are nineteen berakhot therein):

  • Re’eh na ve-onyenu. Acknowledge our suffering.
  • Refaenu Adonai venerafeh. Heal us, God, and we will be healed.
  • Velamalshinim al tehi tiqvah. To our enemies, let there be no hope. (Our enemies are not necessarily the physical enemies of the ancient world. They are within us. Help us to conquer our enemies, the enemies of envy, anger, hatred, desire, greed, gluttony, hedonism, etc.)

And consider the humble undertones of tahanun, supplication, wherein we ask for forgiveness, privately, with our heads resting in the crook of our arms.

The quiet, peaceful, meditative nature of these daily tefillot gives us space for contemplation, something that this all-too-noisy world often lacks. It is a time to consider and re-consider, to examine ourselves and our world. And if we are mindful in the context of tefillah, as our tradition teaches, then it can truly become a sacred practice that will offer far more spiritual nourishment than any health club or online commercial portal could conceive.

And if that is not enough, another essential reason in my mind to support the minyan here at Beth Shalom is that we are the only egalitarian minyan in Squirrel Hill that takes place morning and evening, every day of the year – the only such service where women and men count as equals. That is tremendously valuable, and a fundamental statement of who we are as a community. And particularly on this day, when we celebrate the elevation of women in our community as shelihot tzibbur, liturgical emissaries of our community, we hold aloft that principle of equality as a beacon.

Let’s elevate ourselves and each other through Jewish mindfulness: daily tefillah. Come to minyan, and find yourself.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/27/2016.)

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