“Why do I pray?”
By this I mean, why do I find liturgical prayer meaningful? Why not just meditate, focus on my breath, and empty my mind?. If liturgical prayer seems founded on the notion that there is me and there is God, that somehow God is waiting for me to let him know what I need and that once I’ve expressed that need, She will hear and grant my requests, then how can I take that seriously, knowing what I do about the nature of the universe, about the seemingly limitless cruelty possible, about all the suffering that seems to go unheeded? Further, if all is One, then there really is no “out there” and to whom are my prayers actually addressed and in what direction do they go?
Once I thought to write about this in the form of a theological essay. But I am neither a theologian nor a systematic, academic thinker. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager has said and which is true for me as well, I don’t really “believe” in God; I experience God. And so my reflections on prayer arise from experiences, some cosmic and life changing; most the little insights and bits of meaning that come to me in prayer.
Jewish liturgical prayer appears to be based on two fundamental principles. The first is that there is a “me” who is addressing a transcendent God who literally is sitting somewhere above the firmament which supports the sky and looking down at all of creation.* The second is that, while the one praying may sometimes be represented as either male or female (especially since, in Hebrew, the first person singular is gender neutral), the God to whom one is praying is always identified as male. If these assumptions are correct, and to a large degree they are, then how can someone living in the 21st century possibly find meaning in this form of prayer?
There is a tendency, perhaps there has always been this tendency, to assume that when I identify a problem on my own, that this is the first time the problem has been noticed. But what happens when I discover that I am far from the first to see these issues. What can I take from previous identifications of the same issue and to what extent do I need to adjust my own conclusions based on this knowledge? For example, critical students of Bible noticed that there are sharp differences in the way creation is described in the first two chapters of Genesis. This “discovery” led to challenges of the integrity of Torah as well as its accuracy. However, these differences were also noted by rabbinic scholars of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods as well. Committed as they were to the integrity of the Biblical text, they resolved these differences by positing Divine adjustments in the plan of creation itself as it unfolded. God noticed, as it were, that the plan to organize creation only through cause and effect, karma in the east and din in Hebrew, (often rendered as judgement in English), was fatally flawed once the human being was introduced and that therefore there was a need to inject a second major, and counterbalancing force called rachamim, mercy or compassion, without which humanity, with its inherent freedom of choice and therefore of error, could not survive. This solution maintains the integrity of the text even when we grant that the two sections come from different geographic areas and times, what I’ve seen scholars in the Conservative Movement call “R,” not the redactor as in critical circles but rather “Rabbenu,” our teacher, the one who moulded these disparate units into coherence.
And so it is with prayer as well. The Jewish mystical tradition knows full well that a commitment to the absolute unity of God challenges the notion that there is a me which is so separate from God that it is only through prayer that God can know what I need. In the opening chapter of the Tikkunei Zohar, we find the expression quoted frequently by all later mystics, including the Eastern European Hassidim, “there is no place free of God.” As the Zohar understands the process of creation, somehow the unstirring, never changing Ein Sof, the Infinite, experiences a desire. At that very moment the possibility of creation, of an other, comes into being and the creative process begins. How that happens is a mystery which could not be resolved, both then and now. That it happens is obvious, for we are the products of a long chain of creative moments.
*Illustrations of this appear too many times in the Bible to list here. One example to which I’m particularly drawn is this verse from one of the Selichot prayers recited in the week before Rosh HaShanah and the melody to which Belzer Hassidim sing it. I so want this image to be true.
For the words: Hakshivah Adon
For the melody: Hakshivah•Belz
After a long delay, I’m finally working with some regularity on a booklet which responds to the concerns Reb Zalman raised with us about three years ago. He voiced his worry that our conversions were short on requirements for observance and thus on the life-changing quality of becoming part of the Jewish people and enterprise.
I have been privileged to study this issue twice over the years. The first time was as a part of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where it was the subject of intense learning for an academic quarter. The second time was at the Spertus Institute, under the guidance of Rabbi Byron Sherwin (and when I still had hopes of earning of doctorate). In both instances, the issues revolve around prerequisites for converting and expectations of how life will be lived after mikveh. However, the limitations of classical halachic thinking mean that there are only two options: either become a Jew or not. No matter how much a non-Jew participates in Jewish life by attending shul or keeping kosher, those practices do not effect the person’s status vis a vis the Jewish people.
Reb Zalman offered the possibility of a third option by reviving and renewing the status of ger toshav (what might be called a resident alien in the U.S. and a permanent resident in Canada). His suggestions and our responses are detailed in this emerging booklet.
As I had promised, we convened an ad hoc committee (of anyone who chose to join) to hear Reb Zalman’s concerns, to study some relevant texts, and come to some suggested options to share with you all. In addition, the Issues in Integral Halachah course for senior rabbinic students that year also studied giyur and I’m planning to include two or three of the papers from that course in the booklet (the first that you will see is Jeremy Parnes’ which will be part of the Halachah Panel at OHALAH in January).
I have now reviewed four of the six session recordings and written about 20 pages, which I hope to begin sharing soon. In the meantime, since so many of us believe that the disruption of halachic unanimity is a modern phenomenon, I offer this responsum written by the Rambam in which he clearly states that, while he knows the halachah should be one way, he has decided to rule differently based on changed conditions and competing values. This is a wonderful example of both the value and limitations of the Codes, especially given that the writer of this responsum is also the author of a major code. I “discovered” it in a careful re-reading of another source, having missed it the first times around.
Also, there was a discussion some time ago on the OHALAH list around the question of whether a conversion can be revoked. Reb Sami sent me a link to an interesting responsum written on this question in relation to a rabbinic court decision in Israel. It is well reasoned and cites many of the same sources I have consulted (which makes me feel good!) and I recommend it to you:
PS: Readers of the Rambam text will notice a question mark following one of the abbreviations (roshei teivot). This is how it appears in both the printed texts I could consult, but it doesn’t appear in my book of roshei teivot nor could I figure it out. While I think I’ve still translated correctly, I would love to hear from anyone who thinks they’ve figured it out. You can post your idea as a comment and we can talk about it. And thanks.
“A vein runs through spiritual tradition that says that we, too, give back to the sun; indeed that the sun only continues to shine through our gratitude. Ancient sun rituals weren’t only to thank the sun – they were to keep it shining. Solar energy is the light of earthly love reflected back at us. Here, too, the circle of the gift operates.”
This is a quote from Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition (pp.183 & 444) and, as did many other things he says in this interesting book, it reminded me of the emphasis on relationships in our Judaism. While I wouldn’t say that we believe that our gratitude is what powers the sun, we do believe that our gratitude is a primary reason why this world evolved us. Particularly, I think of the second verse of L’cha Dodi which ends with the phrase, “that which was done at the end was first in thought.” Shabbat, the day when we refrain as much as possible from manipulating the parts of this world for our advantage and comfort, though coming on the last day of creation, was the purpose and goal of this creation from the beginning.
While reading this book, I felt over and over again how close he is to Biblical and rabbinic economics. I care about this not so much because I want to see Judaism get the credit it deserves in pioneering approaches to living which infuse the ordinary with cosmic significance, of trimming branches with a consciousness of the forest, of joining the material with the spiritual. Rather, it is because if we are indeed in a paradigm shift, which I do think we are, then the messianic age which has been our metaphor for the new paradigm and guided so much of our present and past, is a useful model.
It is from this consciousness that I write my little blog, focusing on seeming details through which I encourage us all to keep our connections to the larger vision alive, to guide us in the details of our personal practices, the ways in which we lead our specifically Jewish communities, and the ways in which these communities and individuals can help influence the world around us in ways which will help us move through the more difficult part of this shift.
My focus for the next little while will be two areas, one from the specifically Jewish and the other an aspect of how we actualize our place in the new emerging world.
1. Siddur and Machzor Kol Koreh: Among many reasons for praying, one is as a way that we reconnect to our values on a regular and cyclical basis. My plan is to share small essays as comments on the liturgy and observations about my personal prayer practice. I also hope to include samples of the revisions to Kol Koreh as I work through them myself.
2. Ger Tzedek and Ger Toshav: The ways in which we view and actualize entry and exit from the Jewish project, vision, and people say a great deal of what it is that we think being a Jew is all about. I hope you remember that I’ve been working on a little book which responds to Reb Zalman’s challenge of three years ago to our conversion standards. I’ve now gone back to work on this book and will be sharing pieces of it with you as I go along.
PS: I am, as usual, still catching up on email and so was reading R. Rachel Barenblatt’s Elul series earlier this month. It was and is an incredibly beautiful and meaningful way to walk through that month before Rosh HaShanah. While she is gathering it into a single document, you can access her archives now if you haven’t seen it already:
For this last post of the old year, I’m attaching Hanna Tiferet’s translation of the Yom Kippur Torah reading as a rap. I’m not sure if it will remain in the upcoming revision of Machzor Kol Koreh which I hope to undertake sometime in the next few months, so with her permission I’m sharing it with you now as a pdf document.
On a more serious note, Hanna and I just completed a version of Machzor Kol Koreh for B’nai Or of Boston which they will use next week. My plan is to take many of the changes and improvements we made and transfer them to my master template for Machzor Kol Koreh. Given the number of these changes and possible issues around the embedded sound files, I can still realistically hope that the new version will be ready in plenty of time for 5785.
Some years ago, I organized our tashlich experience around making a commitment to change an aspect of behaviour to be more conscious of energy use and carbon footprint. This year, after learning how much plastic is not only floating in the ocean in the big collections but has broken into such small pieces that it’s embedding itself in the cells of marine life, I’m undertaking to reduce my plastic consumption by buying glass containers when they are available. I’m also notifying companies that make a good product but package it in plastic that I will no longer buy that product if there is an alternative which is not plastic (Annie’s horseradish mustard, my favourite, was my first).
So, best wishes to all of you for a good and sweet year. I pray that this will be the year when our recognition of climate change turns into significant action. May we experience the changes we will be making in how we organize our priorities and values as exciting. Our Judaism has so much to offer this process and you all are crucial in communicating this to others. So may all your work be blessed with clear communication and harmony between words and actions.
In my last posting, I included two outlines of possible ways to reorganize the Rosh HaShanah morning service so that its unique elements were moved into more central locations, particularly when considering the length of the service.
Today I’m including a section of the second of those services, better suited for a congregational environment. The first one, as you might remember, is already a part of Machzor Kol Koreh and is better suited for a retreat type situation where everyone attends the entire the service. This is part of the edition of Machzor Kol Koreh which is specifically for B’nai Or of Boston and it begins with the Torah service, since that is where we began the significant changes. I would like to remind everyone that, while you are of course free to use this approach, please remember that this is still a work in progress commissioned by B’nai Or and we have yet to firm up permissions from many of the people whose contributions we have included.
As with all the various parts of the Kol Koreh series, I am happy to work with individual communities to “tailor make” versions which will work for you. This was and remains my dream for Kol Koreh: rather than a single standardized siddur/machzor in use by our “movement,” to have a template which can be familiar to both the members and their guests while at the same time being uniquely local. That’s why I originally printed Kol Koreh in a loose-leaf format and now use pdf files.
Hoping that this may be helpful to some of you as you continue your planning for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
Rosh HaShanah Torah and Shofar Services: RH Shacharit Excerpt
Some years ago, I was honoured to be the ba’al musaf, prayer leader for the additional service on Rosh HaShanah. As it turned out, my son Shefa had led the same service about two years before I did and we were comparing notes. He asked me how far behind schedule the congregation was when I began and I said that they were only about forty minutes late when I began. He replied that it was a full hour late when he began and we both remembered that, by the time we were done, the full house had been halved. We both saw this as a shame, since the unique elements of the Rosh HaShanah service, namely the blowing of the shofar and the three special sections of the musaf all come at the end of a long morning when people are tired and leaving for lunch.
This year, Hanna and I have been working with the same issue as she designs a special edition of Machzor Kol Koreh for her congregation in Boston. To follow the traditional order of the service means putting these elements at the end. In our case, it’s not so much that this means the service will run very late as that these crucial parts of the service will be further abbreviated and rushed if the earlier parts of the service take longer than expected.
So here are the two ideas which resulted from both conversations:
1. (a) Blow the shofar with its blessings, the required soundings to fulfill the mitzvah, between P’sukei d’Zimra / Verses of Praise and the barchu which formally brings the congregation together.
(b) Then weave Malchuyot / the theme of God’s sovereignty, through the amidah of shacharit / morning service. This is easy, since the core of Malchuyot is the middle blessing. Sound the shofar.
(c) Since the traditional Torah reading begins with “God remembered Sarah,” bring the verses and blessing of Zichronot to the end of the Torah reading. Sound the shofar and put the Torah away.
(d) In this format, you can then have a “real” musaf which will be much shorter. Instead of all three, only recite [selections from] Shofarot. Sound the shofar and conclude the amidah and the service.
You will find this option included as part of Machzor Kol Koreh. I’ve used it, but only in the context of a retreat where everyone was present for the entire service. Aside from its lack of familiarity, the risk of this format in a congregation is that people tend to come late to the service and they can miss the first and most important shofar service.
2. (a) In this option, one would follow the traditional sequence until the amidah for shacharit. Then, people could either say the silent amidah or have a collection of meditative readings. Following the silence, the cantor could chant Hineni or some alternative, followed by a traditional amidah which is a hybrid of shacharit and musaf in the way the Reform movement pioneered.
(b) After the amidah concludes with Avinu Malkenu and kaddish, take out the Torah.
(c) Then we sound the shofar with its blessings.
(d) Now do aleinu and whatever parts of Malchuyot are meaningful, including and especially the paragraph ending with the blessing. Then sound the shofar again.
(e) The reading for the first two aliyot could be the first and sixth days of creation.
(d) Now recite the Zichronot prayers and verses and sound the shofar.
(e) Read the first three aliyot of the traditional Torah reading and prayers for healing.
(f) Now do the prayers and verses for Shofarot and sound the shofar.
(g) Put the Torah away and conclude the service.
This is the option we’re working on now and, when completed, I’ll add to Machzor Kol Koreh. Everyone who has a subscription will be notified of the update. Those who would like to subscribe can go to alephcanada.ca to purchase.
With the hope that this may be helpful.
Are the haftarot more sacred than Torah?
I first began to read Torah on a triennial cycle when I was the rabbi in Victoria, British Columbia in 1975-76. At that time, there was already a little printed sheet which listed all the Torah readings divided such that the entire Torah would be read once every three years rather than annually. And, even then, I noticed that the same had not been done for the haftarot, the readings from the other two sections of the TaNaKah which continued to be chanted on an annual cycle. To my yeshivah trained mind, this seemed like an elevation of Nach to a higher level of sanctity than that of the Torah, since these secions were read annually while the Torah was read every three years.
At the time, this was simply an observation without much practical significance. Along with many other havurot and synagogues, I had pretty much eliminated the haftarah altogether in the interests of a shorter service as well as the ability to have a weekly discussion of the Torah reading. I preferred that more of the two and a half hours of a Shabbat morning service focus on singing, moving slowly through an unfamiliar Hebrew liturgy, and an in depth look at the Torah portion rather than speeding things up so that all the required words would be said. Nor was I prepared to advocate for the three or more hours it had taken for the synagogue services of my youth to complete the liturgy and readings.
However, the chanting of haftarot continued as a practice for bar and bat mitzvah students and for the adult versions of these ceremonies. As well, there is a small, but growing interest in haftarot within Jewish Renewal, as at least one of our synagogues and our ordination students include haftarot some of the time.
When I began this blog, my first offering was a triennial cycle of weekday Torah readings. I now offer you the completion of the three part triennial cycle with a triennial cycle of haftarot. The link below is a four part file:
Part One is an introduction to the project.
Part Two is the list of haftarot following the order of the Torah portions.
Part Three is notes on why I selected certain texts as haftarot in cases where I thought the process needed description.
Part Four is a list of all the haftarot arranged by the book of Nach from which they were taken and the sidrah to which they are assigned.
I hope that this list will encourage both the reading of the Torah and these haftarot. Please, as always, feel free to share this with others you think may be interested. I would also particularly enjoy an exchange of comments and questions on this website.
Finally, I have the double benefit of having wonderful friends who also help in supporting the work that I do. The time for this project came through the support and encouragement of Harley Rothstein and Eleanor Boyle, whose constant love and presence in my life has been and continues to be a blessing.
For the last year, I have been studying liturgy with Sherril Gilbert (formerly the only k’li kodesh in Newfoundland and Labrador and now the founder of B’nai Or of Montreal). We are currently learning about Hallel and read the following:
“There are twelve days in the year when a flute was played [when the Levites sang during the offering of a sacrifice]. These are when the first and second pascal lambs were offered, on the first day of Passover, on the holiday of atzeret, and on the eight days of the holiday.” (Talmud Bavli Arachin 10a)
Today, atzeret is usually preceded by the word sh’mini / eighth and refers to the last day of Sukkot. However, in this mishnah, atzeret must refer to some other day since all the days of Sukkot are accounted for. “He-chag / the Holiday” in the Talmud always refers to Sukkot and the mishnah lists that holiday as having eight days.
Why is the eighth day of “the holiday” called Atzeret today? The most beautiful explanation I know is the following: The sacrifices offered during Sukkot were unique in that there was a different number of bulls each day. When we add up all these sacrifices during the seven days of Sukkot, we find that there were 70 of them. Traditionally, there are 70 nations in the world, so on Sukkot we fulfilled our priestly function and offered a sacrifice for each nation of the world. Further, there is a tradition that representatives of other peoples came to Jerusalem for Sukkot and then left after the seventh day. So it is as though God, the ultimate ba’al ha-bayit / householder, invites us to stay one more day, just the immediate family as it were, and eat leftovers and have a quiet party together before going home to beat the rains. Atzeret, holding back, not leaving or finishing until the last step is complete.
So what is the atzeret of Pesach? The only major holiday unaccounted for in the mishnah is Shavu’ot, called here the atzeret. Because Sukkot comes just before the rains, the atzeret is immediate since travel became riskier once the rains began. In the spring, this is not the issue and so the atzeret waits for “eighth day” which here follows not immediately after the seven days of Pesach, but after seven times seven days, seven weeks, what we now call the counting of the omer.
What’s important here is to understand that, in a sense, Shavu’ot is not a separate holiday but rather the conclusion of Pesach. Historically speaking, the Exodus isn’t complete until its purpose is revealed. Redemption from slavery to other human beings must be replaced by a voluntary commitment to becoming the servants of the Holy One of Blessing, or maybe better the junior partners of the Holy One in completing the creation by revealing its purpose.
Standing at Sinai every year is not just about finding one’s personal Torah for the coming twelve months, though that is certainly a beautiful way of making revelation immediate and present. It is also, just as much, maybe even more, about affirming and re-affirming our shared commitment to being part of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people which helps channel the spiritual aspirations of all people, which provides a model of how every person can live an ordinary life in the world and dedicate it to the extraordinary and transcendent.
How we do that is the Torah we receive and help to create each year. What a holy task that is, especially in these times of great change and great danger. So I look forward to standing at Sinai, not just on my own, but with all of you.
In one of the very early editions of Moment Magazine, I remember this story:
A young Jew approaches an older person in Haifa and says, with enthusiasm and familiarity, “Shalom Aleichem, Shalom Aleichem.” The older person looks at this young Jew and says back, “Aleichem Shalom. Do I know you?” “Of course,” the young person responds, “We met at Sinai. Don’t you remember?” “Oh, of course,” the older person answers. “It was so noisy and crowded that day, I almost didn’t remember you. How have you been?”
I’m writing this on the 14th day of the Omer, malchut in g’vurah. So far, my love of this annual exercise (chesed) and my increasingly limited ability to stay focused (g’vurah) have seen me through the first two weeks with some help from Hanna Tiferet. But Hanna is back in Boston and I’m my own and I’ve never made it through all seven weeks without missing a day or two at least. However, I just turned 66 and can’t predict how many more chances I’m going to get so my plan is work to hard to accomplish a full counting at least once in my life.
I was educated in Orthodox yeshivot and have some residuals from that time. On the Thursday of chol ha-mo’ed, Hanna and I went for our Omer haircuts, since I still won’t cut my hair during this period except on permitted days. I also grew up with the Ashkenazi halachah that allows one to miss only once. If one forgets to count in the evening, one can count the next morning without a brachah and then pick up again at night. Forget twice and no more brachot, so why bother after that.
This approach always seemed harsh to me and so I was happy to learn that not all rabbinic authorities agree with this position which is based on the assumption that counting the Omer is one mitzvah which stretches over a seven week period. There are rabbis, I was told, who argue that if counting the Omer was one mitzvah, then the brachah should be said the first night and then not again. Given that everyone agrees that the brachah should be said each time, these rabbis suggest that the mitzvah is to count each day and so missing a few doesn’t stop one from picking up again with the brachah. Though I haven’t seen this in writing, it makes more sense to me and I encourage people to accept this more forgiving approach.
Thirty-eight years ago, when Hanna was pregnant with our second son, Reb Zalman taught us a little niggun for one phrase which appears in the post counting meditation. In this paragraph, we say that we hope that our counting on this night, say g’vurah in tif’eret, will correct whatever we have damaged in this s’firah and, by virtue of the counting, may great abundance be drawn into all the worlds.
The words are:
V’al y’day zeh, yooshpah shefa rav b-chol hah-olahmot.
Here is a link to this niggun. May it enhance your own counting as we move from exodus to revelation.
And, by the way, we named our son Shefa. Reb Aryeh z”l liked to call him Shefa Rav.
One deficiency in the current versions of Siddur Kol Koreh has been the abbreviated Hallel. Last January, since the Shabbaton in Boulder coincided with Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, I prepared an expansion of the Hallel for that part of the service led by our newly ordained Shulamit Wise Fairman. Now, in anticipation of Pesach, I’m sharing with you an expansion of that expansion. It is still missing the two half psalms omitted on Rosh Chodesh and most of Pesach, as well as much of Psalm 118, but otherwise it is complete. And I’ve reformatted it so that it is the same as the rest of Kol Koreh.
1. The translations are now those of Reb Zalman which will also be available in a newly revised edition of his Psalms which will appear soon.
2. For those of you not familiar with Machzor Kol Koreh, I’ve included links to nusach and niggun options which are embedded in the file. I’m hoping that it all worked as it should and, wherever possible, I’ve set them up so that they show when you are looking at the screen but won’t print if you want to use this Hallel in shul. However, I urge you to notice the heading “Comments and Forms” when you are in the print screen and be sure to check only “document.” That way, all these notations will not print.
I learned much of my nusach from my high school teacher, Mr. Rappaport. Out of my respect for all that he taught me, I continue to use it in Kol Koreh wherever I can. I realize that it may be somewhat different from what many of you know and, of course, you are free to use Siddur Kol Koreh for its text and notes and learn the musical nusach from others. And, I would be honoured, and so I hope would he, if you choose to learn it.
3. I’ve added a new feature. There will be endnotes added to all future versions of Kol Koreh and there is one here as a sample. These will be used for explanations and commentary. Likely I’ll move most of the prose from the older editions to this new format in order to make it easier to create smaller versions for public use.
This particular note refers back to a discussion on the OHALAH list some time ago about the barachah with which we begin Hallel and the conclusions of that discussion is reflected in the way the opening blessing is presented.
Please do let me know what works and what doesn’t.
I’m going to take a break from this blog until after Pesach so that I can catch up on reading papers. So I’ll take this opportunity to wish you all a joyous and liberating yom tov and I’ll return during the counting of the days in anticipation of Sinai and receiving the Torah we all need for this coming year.