Archive for Març de 2007




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Factors affecting a decision about what language to include in a prayer bookmay include theology, fidelity to historical practice, and how specific words ortexts function as identity markers. In 1998, the Central Conference of AmericanRabbis authorized the creation of a new Reform prayer book for the twenty-firstcentury. This essay examines a controversial question for the editors of this newprayer book in which issues of language, theology, and identity converge: shouldReform Jews restore the phrase “m’haiyei hametim, who revives the dead,” inthe second blessing of the Amidah? As you read and discuss this essay, you may

wish to refer to comparative translations.

 The second paragraph of the Amidah is one of my favorite passages. Thetranslation is: Eternal is Your might, O God, all life is Your gift, great is Your power to save.With love You sustain the living, with great compassion You give life to all.You send help to the falling and healing to the sick; You bring freedom to thecaptive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You,Master of Might? Who is Your equal O Source of life and death, Source ofSalvation? Blessed is the Eternal, the Source of life. Truth be told, at services I am barely conscious of the text. In my synagogue,we always chant this paragraph in Hebrew: “Atah gibur l’olam Adonai. . . .” Atthis point in the service, my experience of the liturgy has nothing to do withthe words or thoughts about God; for me, its about leaning into the music—the pleasure of anticipation of the notes, and the satisfaction of having themarrive just when I expect them. While I know quite well the meaning of the Hebrew, I can honestly say that neither last Shabbat—nor on most any other—was I thinking for a moment during this prayer about how God sustains the living and with great compassion gives life to all; I was not focused on how I can be like God who sends help to the falling and healing to the sick; I was not even reflecting upon what it might mean to be bring freedom to the captive and keepfaith with those who sleep in the dust. I consider this to be a most moving and inspirational prayer—but I hardlypay attention to its manifest content when I chant it. I carry it around withme; if someone asked about Jewish ideas, I might quote the lines of this prayer.But in the actual hour of prayer, the theology is as much contained for me inthe comfort and joy I derive from participating in the familiar, communalworship, losing myself in the rhythm of the service, as much as it is found in the actual words of the prayer. Our theological reflection about prayer typicallytakes place outside of the context of the service itself; on the other hand,any discomfort I discover when I am outside of the actual praying of theliturgy creates “static” that will return and interfere with the flow of my prayerwhen I seek to pray the text. God’s Power or Our Power?If asked to summarize what the Gevurot prayer is about, I would look to theEnglish rubric printed in Gates of Prayer above every passage: in this case,God’s Power. If pressed, I would say that this is a pr ayer about God’s qualitieswhich we, in turn, are supposed to emulate: thus, my favorite translation ofthe Gevurot is found in Shabbat Service II of Gates of Prayer: “Your might O God is everlasting;Help us to use our strength for good and not for evil.” In this English version, the opening words of the Hebrew are translated intoEnglish; however, the literal meaning of the Hebrew words—along with thetheological force of the original—is promptly reversed. While the name of theprayer, “Gevurot,” is accurately rendered as “God’s Power,” this translation draws our attention to human power and human responsibility: “Help us to use our strength for good and not for evil.” God is not “my Rock,and my Redeemer” in this version, so much as our “Head Coach in the heavens above.” You are the Source of life and blessing; Help us to choose life for ourselves and our children. You are the support of the falling; Help us to lift up the fallen.You are the Author of freedom; Help us to set free the captive. You are our hope in death as in life; Help us to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. This passage has a lovely rhetorical pattern. In each couplet, the first lineinvokes an image from the Hebrew original, describing one of God’s qualities:Source of life; support of the falling; Author of freedom. These qualitiesexist in the abstract; they are all nouns. The verbs are reserved for the responses, the action belongs to us: we choose life, we are to lift up the fallen,set free the captive, keep faith with those who sleep in the dust; we are to “useour strength for good.” This is Reform Judaism at its best: tikkun olam, globallyand personally, as the essence of living out the gift of being created inthe divine image. “Keep Faith with Those Who Sleep in the Dust”If we look closely at the text, we will see one line which does not quite fit withthe rest:You are our hope in death as in life;Help us to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. The first line of each couplet is about a quality of God; we had “Author offreedom,” support of the falling.” But this line is different; God’s quality is stilla noun, but now it refers back to us, “You are our hope in death as in life.”What exactly does that mean? Until now, God’s leadership was clearly stated:“You are the Author of freedom, the support of the falling.” Here, though, things are a little less definitive: “You are our hope”— but is this really true? If, as in all the other pairings, the first line tells us about God and the second what we should do, how do we “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust?” I have always read this line as being a poetic reference to the homeless, or the people in refugee camps, or whoever is in greatest need. But how does that fit in with “our hope in death as in life?” Maybe this is not a prayer about tikkun olam at all. Each of the first lines in these couplets corresponds to a phrase in the Hebreworiginal of this prayer. So how does knowing God as “our hope in deathas in life” inspire us to “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”? It stilldoesn’t make much sense! Let us consider an older version of the Hebrew text. In the first line, we findthat the Hebrew word “hakol, everything,” is replaced by “metim, the dead,”giving us now: “Eternal is your might, O God; giving life to the dead, you area mighty savior.” This expression, “who gives life to the dead,” is repeatedfour times in the course of the blessing. Gates of Prayer replaces the earlierhametim, the dead” with “hakol, everything” throughout—keeping the samenumber of syllables, so that the rhythm of the prayer is not disturbed. Here we have a major theological dispute hinging on a single word: shouldour new Reform prayer book retain our traditional Reform reading of “giveslife to everything,” or shall we revert to the prior traditional reading of “giveslife to (or: revives) the dead?” Is one more authentic? More intellectually orspiritually honest? More inclusive in its symbolism? More meaningful? Moretrue? A Statement about What the Rabbis Believed What a prayer has meant in the past does not encompass all the richness anddepth of meaning that it can hold for us today. All the same, an honest consideration of what we might mean when we invoke the historical liturgy properly should include an understanding of what this text once meant. There is no question that, in its origin, this prayer was a theological statement by theRabbis about their confident belief in the resurrection of the dead. This wasnot a universally held belief in the time of the Mishnah, during the secondcentury of the Common Era. Its inclusion in the central section of the liturgymay have been intended to make clear how much importance the Rabbisplaced on this doctrine and to remind everyone in the community of thisfact. In its entirety, the Gevurot blessing can be understood as a series of imagesabout how God sustains life and saves us from death. Seasonal Insertions for Rain and Dew The prayer begins with an opening statement: Your might, God, is “l’olam,forever,” or “everlasting”—even past the time when we personally can knowit, for You are the One “m’haiyei metim, who gives life to the dead—great isyour power to save.” It is at this point that the traditional liturgy, during thewinter time, inserts an additional line: “meishiv haruach v’morid hagashem—You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall,” while from Passover untilthe end of the Fall Holidays, one recites, “who causes the dew to fall.” Theseinsertions create their own problems! They correspond to the agriculturalseasons of the Land of Israel, identifying God as the source of nature, andlinking Jews everywhere to the land of Israel. Contemporary Reform prayerbooks in Israel include these lines. They were removed from early Reformprayer books, both because of a dezionization of the early Reform liturgy,and, I suspect, because early Reform Jews didn’t want to create confusion inthe liturgy by having different readings for different times of the year. Allsuch special substitutions or seasonal changes were removed from the earlyReform liturgy. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, removedthese lines from his prayer book because, a recent commentary explains, he rejected the idea of a God who “micromanages nature;” others solved the problem of changing the liturgy seasonally by inserting one of these lines into the fixed liturgy for use year round. One of the proposals made for the new Reform prayer book is that the historicalpractice of including these blessings for rain and dew be restored.This is in line with a general Reform tendency to restore pre-modern traditionalpractices, and to conform to what other Jewish communities do. Theologically,their inclusion expresses a closeness to nature and God’s presencetherein. But what are these lines about God’s actions in nature doing in themiddle of this prayer, which we had just decided is supposed to be aboutresurrection? Rain and dew are both life-giving; the renewal of life which comes throughrain points to the promise of renewal after death. We learn in the PalestinianTalmud, “For just as rainfall restores life, so does resurrection restore life tothe world.” As for dew, it is the instrument of the resurrection, as we learn inthe Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah 12b: “In the highest level of heavenare kept… the souls of the righteous and the dew with which the Holy One, Blessed Be, will hereafter revive the dead.” In the rabbinic imagination, the soul’s connection to the body is not all that firm; it can be broken, and it also can be restored. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 57b, teaches: “Honey is one-sixtieth of the taste of manna, Shabbat one-sixtieth of the world to come, sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and dreams one-sixtieth of prophecy.” During the hours of sleep, in the rabbinic imagination, the soul leaves the body and wanders in otherworlds, only to be restored by God in the morning. Thus, in the rabbinicworld-view, the daily waking from sleep is a rehearsal of the future resurrection,and the sight of the dew on the ground in the morning is a promise thatone day those who “sleep in the dust” will one day arise again. The images ofthe Gevurot prayer are about how God’s sustains life now and the futurerevival of the dead: “You sustain life with kindness/ Giving life to the dead withgreat mercy.” The actions ascribed to God are all “mini-resurrections”:You raise up the fallenHeal the sickAnd free the captive. The Gevurot prayer, as we have received it, does not make explicit mention ofbodily resurrection, leaving unclear exactly what is intended by “mechaiyaimetim.” Some modern scholars propose that this point was left deliberatelyvague by the ancient Rabbis to allow for a variety of beliefs. While this pointis debatable, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has been a feature ofJewish faith for much of the last two thousand years. Immortality, Yes; Resurrection, No! Although bodily resurrection was emphatically rejected, German and classicalAmerican Reform Judaism never gave up on the idea of the eternality ofthe soul. The old Union Prayer Book, in its 1895 edition, promises, “Thou wiltfulfill Thy promise of immortal life unto those who sleep in the dust,” and concludesthe Gevurot prayer with a phrase adapted from the blessings for readingthe Torah: “Praised are You Adonai who plants within us eternal life.”Our founders’ discomfort with the idea of bodily resurrection originates intwo values which were very important to them, but which are not as centralto us. On the one hand, they were universalists, and did not like Jewish andZion-centered particularism. Firmly convinced that European or Americansoil was the new Zion and their cities, whether Hamburg or Charleston, the new Jerusalem—and not wanting anyone else to question their loyalties—the idea of a physical return to the old Jerusalem and Zion did not interestthem one bit. Many were actively hostile, whether the return was proposedin this life, by political Zionism, or in the future, as in the religious doctrineof bodily resurrection. So it was not bodily resurrection per se that these earlyReform Jews found so objectionable but rather the idea that once the resurrection occurred, they would be physically returned and living for eternity inthe earthly Zion. Their secondary discomfort, and this point is not as widely acknowledged asthe first, was their general uncomfortableness with their own bodies and allthings physical. In order to succeed as citizens in modern societies, Jews hadto drop the outward signs of difference which had, by edict and custom, setthem apart. Central to the claims for the legitimacy of modern Judaism wasthe oft-repeated teaching that it was an exemplary ethical system, a spirituallyelevated set of doctrines. Jewish teaching about the purity and eternalityof the soul—a doctrine, some suggest, which was explicitly anti-Christian—was celebrated while references to the body, whether in this life or some futureone, were systematically removed. Our generation has witnessed a recovery of the Jewish body—ethnicity anddiversity are fashionable, we need no longer make our differences disappearin order to fit in, and as a people we have returned to Zion. None the less, formany of us, the idea of bodily resurrection is incompatible with our understandingof science and how creation works. The classical doctrine of tehiat ha-metim, resurrection of the dead, suggests a break with history, the end of the world aswe know it—while most contemporary Reform Jewish teachers speak, as Maimonides does, of the messianic age as being continuous with the existing natural order and history as we now participate in them. But now we must resolve a very specific question: should we replace the currentlanguage of our prayer book, m’haiyei hakol, gives life to all, with m’haiyeimetim, gives life to the dead? Framed in this oppositional fashion, the questionpromptly becomes a lightening rod for accusations of “imitators of neo-Orthodoxy,” on the one hand, against “defenders of atrophied, emotionallydry classical Reform” on the other. Such polarization is obviously not helpful.In order to resolve this matter, Reform Jews, individually, congregationally,and as a Movement, need to explore the questions raised below. QuestionsThe Significance of a Word: Theology, Language,and Identity in the New Reform Prayer BookThis reading examines an issue where questions of language, theology,and identity converge. Your team may wish to focus on just one of thefollowing questions. Question #1 below is specifically about the theme ofthis unit; the following questions relate somewhat more to topics first discussedin Units Three and Four. 1. Is our existing language, m’haiyei hakol, a boundary marker for whatdistinguishes Reform Judaism, and, therefore, itself a symbol of our ReformJewish liturgical identity? Is it deserving of privileged status and “preservation,”even if it we don’t mean by its words exactly what its first exponentsdid? 2. Can we reclaim the metaphor of techiat hametim, the resurrection ofthe dead? In the Talmud, we are taught: “A person who sees a friend aftera year’s absence should bless: ‘Barukh atah Adonai. . . m’haiyei hametim,Praised are You God . . . who revives the dead.’” Can we invoke themetaphor even if we don’t believe in its literal message? 3. Does the expression m’haiyai hametim have to be understood as “bodilyresurrection”? Consider this passage from the old Union Prayer Book:The departed whom we now remember have entered into the peaceof life eternal. They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performedand in the hearts of those who cherish their memory. May thebeauty of their life abide among us as a loving benediction.4. How do the metaphor and language of these competing expressions

reflect our Reform Judaism’s theological teachings?

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  Whenever possible, Jewish prayers are built on a biblical foundation. Many familiar prayer expressions and phrases, including “Barukh atah Adonai,” are biblical in origin. The Rabbis did not, however, always quote directly or precisely. In one case that we know of, the Rabbis deliberately altered the language of a biblical verse out of fear that it would be misinterpreted. They were very intent on using the prayers as signals that established Jewish boundaries and clarified Jewish identity. The Blessing for Light: An Anti-Gnostic Statement The first blessing in the Sh’ma and Its Blessings identifies the God of Israel as the Creator of light and darkness. The blessing begins: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything.”  Except for the last word, this is a quote from Isaiah 45:7: “. . . who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates trouble [or: evil].” Why did the Rabbis substitute “hakol, everything” in their blessing for  Isaiah’s “hara, trouble? Many in the ancient world conceived as the universe as divided into two realms, one of good and light, the other of darkness and evil. A widely accepted theological view, called Gnosticism, taught that there were in fact two gods, an all-powerful but hidden god and a second deity who created darkness. It was against this background that the Rabbis createdtheir blessing, declaring one God the source of light and darkness. Lest Jewish Gnostics and others claim that the God of Israel was only the lesser deity who created darkness and evil, they changed the language of the biblical verse to underscore their God’s role as the creator of hakol, everything. In addition to a beautiful declaration of what they did believe, the Rabbis formulated this blessing to make equally clear what they did not. From Ten Commandments to Torah and Mitzvot The second blessing in the Sh’ma and Its Blessings is called Birkat Hatorah, the Blessing for Revelation. The Talmud tells us that at this point in the service originally, the Ten Commandments were read out loud. Their recitation was dropped, probably at some point during the second century, when “heretics” claimed that it was only the Ten Commandments—and not the entire Torah—which was given at Sinai. Our liturgy preserves two versions of the “new” blessings. In the evening, we declare: “Torah and commandments, laws and ordinances have You taught us.” In the morning, we pray: “[I]nspire us . . . to keep and fulfill all the teachings of your Torah in love.” While both of these statements are what we might expect to find in a Jewish prayer about the giftof Torah, they assume added poignancy when we recall their original purpose:to assert the binding importance of the entire mitzvah-system in contrastto those who dismissed its importance. For Judaism, God’s Love Means TorahWho were these heretics who rejected the importance of the commandments? The Talmud does not tell us, but our prayer gives us a hint. The last line of the prayer, the chatimah, was the one line of the blessing which did not change, while the individual prayer leader was free to compose an original arrangement of the introductory words. The chatimah tells us what the Rabbis considered to be the theme of the prayer. Our liturgy, in fact, preserves two chatimot: in the evening, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who chooses his people Israel with love,” and in the morning, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who loves his people Israel.” In the versions of the prayers which have come down to us, the word “love” is repeated again and again, as in the evening’s Ahavat Olam: Unending is Your love for Your people, the House of Israel: Torah and mitzvot, laws and precepts have You taught us. Therefore, O God, when we lie down and when we rise up, we will meditate on Your laws and rejoice in Your Torah and mitzvot for ever. Day and night we will reflect on them, for they are our life and the length of our days. Then your love shall never depart from us for eternity. Blessed are You, Adonai, who loves His people Israel. According to this blessing, God’s love for Israel is expressed through the gift of Torah. Israel’s fulfillment of all the mitzvot, according to this prayer, is not a sign of Israel’s love for God, but it does ensure the continuation of God’s care and love for Israel. For Jews, this blessing declares, love equals Torah. Who in the rabbinic world taught a different doctrine? One obvious group is the nascent Christian church. Early Christians taught that God’s love was really shown through the gift of Jesus to the world, not through the Torah. Is that why the Rabbi’s created these explicit stat ements about Torah as the ultimate expression of God’s love? Perhaps Jews who were trying to worship both in the synagogue and the young Christian church were compelled by this prayer to clarify their allegiances.  This historical reconstruction this prayer’s origins is hypothetical, and cannot be proven one way or the other. All the same, a blessing which is not highly charged for us today was probably once used by the Rabbis as an identity statement to clarify what their Judaism stood for, and as a filter to keep out those who were not able to affirm its message. Questions1. How did the Rabbis use the passage from Isaiah? Are we as free as theRabbis were to use biblical texts for our own purposes? Are our purposesdifferent today from those of the Rabbis? In what ways? 2. Neither of the two prayers discussed in this reading are especially“charged” for Jews today. What texts in our liturgy are “charged” for youand your community? How free are you, in the Reform movement and inyour synagogue, to modify them? 3. What texts, actions, or customs distinguish your congregation: From allother synagogues? From non-Reform synagogues? From non-Jewish housesof worship? 4. How does the language used in your synagogue’s worship, whether inprayers or in other forms, function so as to bring people in, or to makesome people or groups unwelcome?

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Deuteronomy 6: 4-9Hear O Israel, Adonai is your God, Adonai is One.[Blessed is the One the glory of whose kingdom is renowned forever.] 

You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with allyour might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon yourheart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall speak of themwhen you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and whenyou rise up. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hands, they shall be for frontletsbetween your eyes. You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and uponyour gates. 

Deuteronomy 11:13-21If you carefully heed my commands, the ones I command you today, to love Adonai your God and worship Him with all your mind and body, then I shall grant your land’s rain in its season, in the autumn and in the spring, that you might gather your grain, wine and oil I shall grant grass in your fields for your cattle, that you might eat your fill. Take care lest your mind tempt you to revel by worshipping other gods and by bowing down to them. For the then the fire and fury of Adonai will turn against you. Adonai will stop the flow of the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce. You will quickly perish from the good land that Adonai grants you. So put these words of mine in charge of your mind and body, bind them to your hand as a sign and set them between your eyes as a symbol; teach them your children, using them when you sit at home and when you walk about, when you lie down and when you stand up; write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates—that your days and your children’s days in the land that Adonai promised to give to your ancestors maybe as numerous as the days that the sky overlooks the earth. 

Numbers 15:35-41Adonai spoke to Moses: “Speak to the children of
Israel, and tell them to make themselves a tassel on the corners of their clothes in every generation, and to put ia blue thread on the tassel of each corner. Let it be a tassel for you. When you see it you shall remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them, and not follow your mind or eyes which you follow in false worship. You shall remember and do all of my commandments and be holy unto your God. For I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of
Egypt to be your God; I am the Eternal your God.*

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Yoel KahnTheology is not just an abstract conversation; it has a direct impact on the languageand form of our prayers. Sometimes, though, there are conflicts between our theologyand other values we seek to honor. The case of how we should present the Sh’maand V’ahavta in the Reform movement’s new prayer book is a case in point.One of the most familiar and beloved texts in our liturgy is the V’ahavta. Thispassage is a quote from the Torah, or to be precise, two quotations fromthe Torah. The first paragraph is taken from the book of Deuteronomy 6:5-9:You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul,and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day,shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children,and shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by theway, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them for asign upon your hands, they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shallwrite them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. 

This is immediately followed by a closing section, taken from the book ofNumbers 15:39-41: 

You shall remember and do all of my commandments and be holy unto yourGod. For I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of
Egypt to be your
God; I am the Eternal your God. 

These two texts are seamlessly woven together in our Reform liturgy. Butthey did not star t this way. The V’ahavta was not a distinct rubric, separatefrom the Sh’ma, before the emergence of Reform Judaism. According to theMishnah, the second century guide to early rabbinic practice, the Sh’ma hasthree sections: our familiar opening paragraph from Deuteronomy 6 andthen a second reading from Deuteronomy 11, verses 13–21, beginning: 

If you carefully heed my commands, the ones I command you today, to loveAdonai your God and worship Him with all your mind and body, then Ishall grant your land’s rain in its season, in the autumn and in the spring,that you might gather your grain, wine, and oil. . . . Take care lest your mindtempt you to revel by worshipping other gods and by bowing down to them.For the then the fire and fury of Adonai will turn against you. Adonai willthe flow of the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce.You will quickly perish from the good land that Adonai grants you. . . . 

The third paragraph begins with the mitzvah of tzitzit: 

Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the children of
Israel and tell them to make
themselves a tassel on the corners of their clothes in every generation, and toput a blue thread on the tassel of each corner. Let it be a tassel for you. Whenyou see it you shall remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them,and not follow your mind or eyes which you follow in false worship. 

Then it closes with the lines that we are familiar with:Thus will you remember and do all of my commandments and so be holybefore your God. I am Adonai, your God, who led you out of the land of
Egypt to be your God. I am Adonai your God.
Early Reform Jews, starting with David Einhorn in his Olat Tamid [1854],eliminated the second two paragraphs of the Sh’ma from their worship, retainingonly the first paragraph (and adding a closing line from the Numberspassage). They justified their actions based on their firm belief that it wasonly the first section which was originally part of the liturgy when this prayerwas recited in the
Temple, and, more importantly, they rejected the theology
of the second two paragraphs. They believed in and wanted to affirm thecentrality of the Exodus but strongly repudiated the strict, this-worldly reward-and-punishment directly at the hand of God presented in the secondpassage from the Book of Deuteronomy. The opening of the third passage,with its reference to the wearing of tzitzit (fringes), was precisely the type ofexternal Jewish ritual the ear ly Reformers disapproved of. 

By and large, we don’t like the Deuteronomic theology any better than ourReform predecessors. Instead of the assurance that everything is for a reasonand is explicable as the direct consequence of a just God, today we find thecounter-theology of the Book of Job a better representation of what we believe.For Job, God’s reasons are inscrutable; illness, disaster, suffering cannotbe explained as the consequences of our actions. Even in non-Reform synagogues, in recognition of the difficulty of this passage, the second paragraphsof the Sh’ma are universally recited silently and never read out loud.This passage remains seriously problematic for myself and, I believe, the overwhelming majority of Reform Jews. Why then are some Reform Jews askingfor it to be included in our liturgy? Well, we have, as an overriding theologicalvalue, the commitment to k’lal yisrael–the unity of the Jewish people.Some times we are willing to make significant compromises with our ownpersonal preferences in favor of maintaining continuity of practice with eitherthe pre-modern historical traditions of Judaism, or with normative Jewishpractice outside our movement. Is this such a case? 

In one Reform synagogue, a recent, experimental edition of the prayer bookincludes the full traditional text. A lengthy footnotes explains that: 

This warning has ironic ecological significance in today’s world. “Servingother gods” could be interpreted as serving the gods of greed, ambition, andshort term profit at nature’s expense; “the skies will close up, the rain willnot fall, and the land will not produce” would be an accurate prediction ofthe environmental disasters caused by pollution, as opposed to a sign of divineretribution.* 

Is this an adequate solution to the theological difficult ies this passag e presents?Does the reduction of the divine justice to a mechanistic cause- andeffect response diminish the image of God which the Torah seeks to teach?Are there are other metaphorical readings of this passage which would makeit more acceptable to us? 

Another theological value we hold is fidelity to tradition. But, as you read in“But It’s Traditional!”, (see Session 1), the tradition is rarely if ever monochromaticor uniform; do we have a particular obligation to maintain fidelity to ourReform tradition? Having integrated this liturgical passage, by taking the lastlines and adding them to the first paragraph, Reform Judaism created theV’ahavta as we know it; what would it mean to split them up again in orderto restore an older practice? Is the desire to replace a two hundred year oldReform Jewish liturgical tradition with its second century, Mishnaic original,an instance of our buying into the theological and religious conceit, thatthe more ancient something is, the more “authentic” or “proper” it must be?Or is this an example of fidelity to our ancient tradition and compromise in

order to maintain fellowship and commonality with the wider Jewish community?

1. Look at “The Sh’ma & V’ahavta in Traditional and Modern Prayer Books,”How do the three original paragraphs relate to one another? Whatphrases and themes do they have in common? How do the two paragraphsin the Reform version relate? 

2. Out of our commitment to k’lal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people,we sometimes make significant compromises in order to maintain continuityof practice with the pre-modern historical traditions of Judaism or withnormative Jewish practice outside our movement. In your opinion, is thissuch a case? 

3. One Reform congregation’s prayer book interprets the second paragraphof the V’ahavta as a prophetic statement about our responsibility to actwith responsibility towards the environment. Is this an adequate solutionfor you of the theological difficulties this passage presents? Does the reductionof the divine justice to a mechanical cause-and-effect responsediminish the image of God which the Torah seeks to teach? 

4. Are there are other metaphorical readings of this passage which wouldmake it more acceptable to us? 

5. Do we owe more fidelity towards our immediate past or our ancientpast? Do you believe that the Jewish people at one time or the other wasin closer touch with God’s word or teaching? 

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We can describe the contents of our prayer book as having three primarytopics:1. Cosmology: what the prayers say about the nature of time and space, including,most particularly, the condition of the Jewish people as part of history.2. Anthropology: what the prayers say about human nature.3. Theology: what the prayers say about God. 

Any one of these elements may challenge thoughtful worshipers with problems. Reform Jews, especially, are apt to experience some difficulties, since they tend to read their prayers in English, and in so doing, have to contend with what the words directly say. Jews who pray in Hebrew and understand what they’re saying have the same problem. Even those who pray in Hebrew but who do not understand the Hebrew completely may find their eye wandering to the English side of the page, and their mind wondering why they are reciting material with which they take exception. 

CosmologyJews, as individuals and as a people, have to come to terms with what we believe about chosenness. The liturgy addresses this theme in the blessing always found immediately before the Sh’ma and in the Aleinu. We must also wrestle with how we understand God’s presence in history to work. Do we expect God to intervene in human events? Do we expect God to respond to prayers and supplications? Do we expect that God has an opinion about our individual and collective behaviors? Do we expect a messiah or a return to Eretz Yisrael at the end of days, two themes found in the traditional daily Amidah? 

AnthropologyMost American Jews today find the pre-modern liturgy’s accent on human sin hard to take. Since the nineteenth century, we have emphasized the potential for good in every person. In the medieval era, by contrast, it was human evil that received the most attention, so we have many prayers that remind us of how far short we fall when compared to what God demands of us. It is quite clear that our conception of cosmological issues depends on the larger socio-cultural context in which we live, and that twenty-first century American Jewish views are different, in many regards, from earlier views which rose in a different contexts. 

TheologyMany people today have trouble believing in a God who appears, in many earlier texts, to be male, fickle, and punitive. This God also seems to crave as much praise as He can get, so people wonder also why God needs constant fawning from us, His people. In fact, the early Rabbis worried about these things too. They also did not believe that God was a “man in the sky,” and many also objected to the overabundance of praise. Nonetheless, our written prayers seem to be filled with material that seems to repetitiously praise an all too human and gendered deity. 

Other theological issues trouble us, too. If God is all-powerful, and allknowing, and also all-good, why is there evil in the world? This is a question where theology, anthropology, and cosmology all come together. If we excuse God from being the source of evil and explain it as entirely caused by humans, such that “we deserve what we get,” then we are asserting a negative view of humankind. Such an anthropology is problematic for our time, as most modern American Jews subscribe to the belief people are mostly good, not bad. We think that if evil is built into the rules of nature, we have a cosmic order (cosmology) that seems unjust. We wonder how a good God created it. This is the theological problem Job faced. The inclusion of the Book of Job in the Bible teaches that we are not the first to wrestle with the question of theodicy, explaining why “bad things happen to good people.”If the traditional image of God is One who is all-powerful (omnipotent), allknowing (omniscient), and all-good (benevolent), most modern theologians suggest that we might better understand God as having two of these qualities, but that we cannot imagine God having all three. 

Nancy Flam, “Reflections Toward A Theology of Illness and Healing,” Sh’ma24:475 (May 1994).Daniel Matt, “Beyond the Personal God,” in The Reconstructionist 59:1 (Spring1994), pp. 38–44.Emanuel S. Goldsmith and Mel Scult, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writingsof Mordecai M. Kaplan (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1991), pp.69–83.Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1958), pp. 3-6,11-12, 333-34, 75, 77, 78-79, 80-81.Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 136-169. 


W e include selections from the writings of several modern Jewish teacherswho have wrestled with these questions. As you read throughthese excerpts, keep these questions in mind: 

1. What does this teacher teach about cosmology? Anthropology? Theology? 



2. How does this teaching draw upon or root itself in historical Jewishteaching? 




3. In what ways does it break with prior Jewish teaching? 





4. Is God considered omnipotent, omniscient, and/or benevolent? 




5. Think back to the exercise you did at the beginning of this unit about thetwo axes of belief (see the illustration on p. 4-7). In which quadrant wouldyou assign this author? 


6. Does the God-image presented in this reading resonate with you? Whatappeals to you about this approach? What questions or hesitations do youhave?

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Lawrence A. Hoffman, in Keeping Posted (March 1977), pp. 7-10.This short essay summarizes the historical background of the prayer book, explainingwhen and how the siddur assumed the form it does today. 

Blessings, Rubrics, and ModulesThe primary unit of Jewish prayer is a blessing. Every blessing in the prayerbook has a name, called a rubric. Larger units of the service, consisting ofmultiple blessings and prayers, also each have a name or rubric.• Rubric is a technical term for a title or heading, and we use it to name anydiscrete unit of liturgy, large or small. The Amidah, the Aleinu, and the Kaddishare all rubrics. Within the Amidah, any of the numerous individual blessings,each with a fixed topic, is a rubric unto itself, e.g. the Avot V’imahot.• For the purposes of this curriculum, we have added a new term for the largersections that comprise the service, modules. Each module has several rubricswithin it. For example, we will refer to, for example, the Amidah, the Sh’maand Its Blessings, and the Concluding Prayers as modules. 

B’rakhah (Blessing) 

A b’rakhah is a blessing or a benediction. These terms mean the same thing.Berakhot (pl., blessings) are the most common kind of prayer in our liturgy.The bulk of the Amidah is a series of blessings. The berakhot were the favoriteform of prayer of the ancient Rabbis and are the most familiar pr ayers to ustoday. Blessings are the route by which Jews greet and acknowledge the presenceof God in the world. The most familiar blessings are those which celebrateand give thanks for the common activities and events of life: these arethe “one-liners” that Jews say, for example, upon drinking wine: “. . . borei p’rihagafen;” or before eating bread, and, by extension, a meal, “. . . hamotsi lechemmin ha-arets;” or upon joyous occasions, “. . . shehechiyanu.”Blessings always end with a summary line: “Barukh atah Adonai. . . [Praisedare You Adonai]” followed by a short summary of the theme of the blessing.One-line blessings consist of the summary line alone. Blessings which arelinked to the fulfillment of specific mitzvot have a similar formulaic opening,but with the addition of a middle phrase emphasizing that this a ction is infulfillment of a commandment: “. . . asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu . . .[. . . who makes us holy through mitzvot and has commanded us to. . .].” Theblessing concludes with a description of the sacred action one is about to do,for example, “l’hadlik neir shel Shabbat [kindle the lights of the Sabbath].”These “short” blessings are easily recognizable.The Rabbis also established what they called “long” blessings. A long blessingmay be a single paragraph or continue over several paragraphs. The long blessings can be described as brief theological essays, summarizing the Rabbis’ideas about the theme of the blessing. The first blessing that precedes themorning Sh’ma, for example, greets the morning light by acknowledging God’seternal presence as creator of light. The Rabbis also liked to bracket biblicalreadings with blessings. For example, when called for an aliyah to the Torah,the honoree says a blessing before the reading, and then another after. Similarly,the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, themselves biblical passag es, are surroundedby blessings on either side. The text of the Amidah has no biblical root at all;it is simply a succession of blessings.Blessings are relatively easy to spot because of their distinctive prose style.While their beginnings vary and can sometimes be difficult to locate, longblessings always end with a two-part summary: the formulaic “Barukh atahAdonai . . . [Praised are You Adonai . . .]” followed by a synopsis of the blessing’stheme. [In some congregations, “Praised are You Adonai” is regularly replacedby an alternative expression.] This is the opposite of what English readershave been trained to expect: we learned long ago that the most importantsentence in a paragraph is the first one. Blessings in the prayer book mayindeed have a beginning topic sentence that begins with Barukh atah Adonai. . . , but just as often they do not. They always do, however, have a summarysentence at the end. This closing “topic sentence” is called a chatimah, literallya “seal,” referring to the seal on a signet ring, once used to close a letter. Itis as if each blessing is a le tter to God—or perhaps, to us, about God—signedand sealed at the end with a liturgical signature.Besides blessings, the most common elements of the prayer book include:biblical passag es (the Sh’ma), psalms, hymns (Adon Olam, L’kha Dodi), andprayers composed by the ancient Rabbis or later generations of Jews (Aleinuand Kaddish). 


The different groupings of prayers and texts, which we call modules, haveindependent origins. They were not all created at the same time, and eachone has a particular purpose in the scheme of the liturgy. Only the Amidah isincluded in every service. 

The Sh’ma and Its Blessings module is included at morning and evening services,while the Morning Blessings module is recited, obviously, only in themorning. 

The Torah service module is included on Shabbat mornings (and two weekdaymornings); when Reform Jews began to read Torah at Friday eveningservices, they simply inserted the entire Torah service module into the eveningservice. 

A specific service is composed of the appropriate modules for the day of theweek (Shabbat vs. weekday), time of day (morning, afternoon, or evening)and season of the year (High Holiday, festival, or other special occasion). 



1) Using your congregation’s prayer book, identify the modules that are

included in:

a) Shabbat evening,

b) Shabbat morning,

c) afternoon,

d) weekday morning service.

Which modules vary by the time of day? Which by the day of week?

Compare what you find to the chart below. 

2) Locate several blessings in the prayer book. Find the chatimah, and then work backwards to locate where the blessing begins.

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