Archive for Abril de 2007

What is the musical history of your congregation? Where did the musical traditions come from? What melodies are most important to people and why? Before you begin to discuss possible change, gave respectful attention to the past and present. 

Identify people in the congregation who have been involved in the musical life of the synagogue in the past or are active today. These individuals may include the cantor or music director, the organist or accompanist, choir director, rabbi, choir members, and members of the congregation from different age groups and backgrounds. If your synagogue has a long history, you may wish to also research its older musical history. 

Questions to ask include:1. What was the music of the synagogue like when you first arrived?2. What have been the Jewish musical influences on your life?3. If you grew up in a synagogue, what kind of music was heard in your synagogue then?4. What values did you bring to selecting or singing music in the synagogue?5. What were your favorite melodies or types of song in the past? Today?6. What do you cherish about the music life of our congregation?7. What about the music life of the congregation would you like to change? 


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First prepared as an address to cantors, Schiller introduced her now well-knownformulation of the various moods of Jewish music in this essay. You may alreadybe familiar with the categories of “majesty, meditation, meeting, momentum,and memory.” As you read it now, ask: How do these apply to the music of mysynagogue? 

Where are we going with the music of prayer of our Reform synagogues? Does some larger cultural process exist within the contemporary Jewish community that will predetermine our sacred music as it develops into the next century? 

Although the numbers of affiliated Jews are diminishing, due largely to our successful assimilation, an inner core of synagogue regulars, those who religiously attend our services and “keep the fires burning” within our communities, is thriving. Enthusiasm is flowering among those seriously committed to synagogue life. They exhibit impressive vigor and passion for prayer, study, and social activism. They take our adult education courses, attend kallot, learn to read from the Torah, and sing in our volunteer choirs. Some are so hungry for involvement, learning, and spirituality that they even join synagogue committees!  

Singing: An Entrance into Jewish Ritual Life  

These regulars have wholeheartedly expressed their desire to sing within the service. We cantors have responded to their call for inclusion by finding ways to sing with them, rather than for them, at every possible opportunity. Let us first try to understand the underlying sociological, psychological, or spiritual reasons for their desire to participate actively in the service. They tell us that they feel welcomed and accepted within our community when we invite them to sing with us. Moreover, singing prayers has become their entrance into Jewish ritual life as well as their gateway into learning Jewish sacred texts. Through singing Hebrew or English words, made possible either by soaring melody or simple nusach (prayer modes), they feel empowered to pray as Jews, in a way that undeniably links them with the larger Jewish community and affirms their Jewish identity. Singing gives them the sacred key that allows their access to Jewish sacred tradition. If the regulars are giving us this message, we can only imagine how first timers feel! 

Our future will include ever more communal singing within our synagogues. Today we join in singing the melodic refrains within large, complex compositions for cantor, choir, instruments, and congregation. In such settings of rich, sophisticated harmony and several layers of melodic counterpoint, modern composers often include sections with lyric melodies. From the first hearing, congregants can easily relate to these accessible moments and eventually enjoy the more challenging sections as well. 

An Ever Richer and More Complex Mix 

What are the musical elements of congregational song, and how will this song develop? Which styles are timeless, and which will disappear with the next stylistic wave? I believe that we will see a gradual increase in traditional chant within our services. Cantors will teach us to chant some of the liturgy in nusach, whether in Hebrew or English. In addition, we will continue toimplement various ethnic traditions within Jewish sacred music. We have discovered the Chasidic niggun and Sephardi melody, and we are rediscovering Yiddish music and culture. We are experimenting with Middle Eastern and Yemenite traditional music. Secular American styles too have permeated our contemporary musical idiom. In short, we are broadening our definition of contemporary liturgical music by incorporating various musical traditions, ancient to modern, from across the Jewish spectrum. Our artistry will be proven as we attempt to integrate this rich, diverse mix into an artistically cohesive whole.  

How do we create a fluid, musically sound, and spiritually meaningful service? What will be the balance of styles? Is our music to become fully participatory? Will the pendulum swing so far toward inclusivity that we exclude music that requires the performance by a cantor and a professional choir and instrumentalists? We must first consider a larger perspective. What dynamics affect our choices of particular musical styles? Jews today want to feel both welcomed and empowered to participate within the service. They have sought out the synagogue for communal gatherings. They come perhaps to find solace, or to meet friends. They come, in some way, to meet God. Many are burdened by the mundaneness of their lives and yearn for meaning and purpose to nourish their minds and calm their souls. What kind of prayer will speak to them? How will the music help them on their spiritual path? 

A New Vocabulary of Sacred Music 

We need to understand clearly what occurs within music itself that creates a sense of prayerfulness. If we could scientifically break down sacred music to isolate various moods of prayer, perhaps we could perceive how certain prayer experiences directly relate to particular musical expressions. We have spent too much energy defending particular musical styles as if the music were the end in itself. Let us instead develop a new vocabulary of sacred music that will focus on the unique phenomena at the intersection of prayer and music. Here are descriptions of several distinct kinds of prayer. Even though the following terms may appear simplistic, perhaps they will help us discuss synagogue music beyond purely musical categories. 

Majestic: A Sense of Awe and Grandeur 

Our first mood is majestic: that which evokes within us a sense of awe and grandeur. A classic example is the music of the First and

Temple periods. The Levites, with full choir and orchestra, assembled a magnificent offering suited only for God. What is our equivalent of majesty in musical prayer? Our liturgical texts certainly intend to inspire such passion on a regular basis. Look at the texts of the Torah service, Kedushah, Adon olam, Sh’ma, or Hashkiveinu, not to mention our High Holy Day and festival liturgy. When are we ever so moved within our service as to sense the majesty implicit in so many of our prayers? How can we create awe and grandeur when inclusivity has become the hallmark of our age? 

Meditative: Inward and Reflective 

Our second mood is meditative: that which leads us inward, toward reflective, contemplative prayer. It is to know the “still small voice” within ourselves, the one that often eludes us. Consider the Silent Prayer, “May the Words,” Mi shebeirach, or even Kol nidrei. Is our liturgical music conducive to moments of genuine meditation?  

Meeting: Creating and Encountering Oneness Our third mood is meeting: moments in which we become aware of the larger community and literally meet other souls through prayer. When all voices join to create a resounding chorus of prayer, when every voice contributes its sound to the whole, a new expression of prayer is born. Even among strangers, we sense both a personal and a spiritual connection with those with whom we pray. Imagine a seder table where everyone joins to sing a blessing or song.   We have so many opportunities to create “meeting moments” within our liturgy: when the Torah is taken from the ark, or at the beginning or end of a section of the service, or on Yom Kippur. Whether majestic or meditative— whatever the musical style—the meeting of voices defines this type of prayer.  

Moving Along: Creating Momentum 

Of course, not every melody fits into one these categories. Some music functions as the “connective tissue” of the liturgy, carrying the worship from one section to the next—the Chatzi Kaddish on Shabbat evening, for example, may not readily be identified as music of meeting, meditation or majesty— although some of us no doubt experience it in each of these ways. Mostly, I think of it as the music of “moving along”or “momentum.” In this case, its music is traditional and connects us to our musical history. Its familiarity is comforting; its specific melody, chant or prayer mode, is a reminder of where we are in Jewish sacred time. As an individual piece of music it is relatively neutral; its function is simply to punctuate one section of the service. But “connectors,” such as the Chatzi Kaddish, fulfill an important task—they create momentum, so that one prayer flows smoothly into the next.  

These four M’s of prayer just begin to address the many subtleties of the dramatic and musical nuances inherent in sacred music. Invariably there are overlaps, for the boundaries between majesty, meditation, and meeting easily blur, but that does not lessen the individual function of each mood within a service. Some music’s primary task is to “move things along.” Memory  may also be associated with any of these moods. These distinctions remind us to focus upon the larger process of what prayer does, rather than solely upon the repertoire we choose. We will never get beyond our disagreements about musical style! Sacred music nurtures meaningful, honest prayer, whether or not the music we ultimately choose satisfies our artistic selves. The real test is whether our sacred music satisfies our spiritual selves, as individuals and as a community. To me, a successful service offers a healthy combination of moods of prayer to express an array of paths toward knowing God.  

Balance Between the Different MoodsToday our people call out to be included. They ask us to enrich their sense of meeting. Whether they know it or not, they do not wish to abandon either the majestic or the meditative moods of prayer. Ultimately these four moods succeed when they complement and balance one another. When a part of the whole is not fulfilling our communal needs, however, we must examine the effectiveness of that part and its relationship to the whole. Do we offer anarray of paths to God which all can appreciate? Does our music express the affective moods of our sacred texts? If we assess our meeting moments, both at specific times and within the entire service, perhaps we can determine how our music can encourage a sense of welcome and empowerment, even amidst a fully balanced range of moods and styles. Let us make a correlation, then, between our prayers and their most vivid musical expressions. Let us do this as individuals, and then with our community. I hope that our prayers will continue to uncover the majesty within the Godly world around us and the intimacy of our sacred relationship with the Divine. I pray that we meet one another, both in honest debate and in the prayers we sing. 

Memory: Connecting to the PastSome people suggest that a fifth function should be added to the list: memory. Sometimes it isthe associative connection that one’s memory makes to a particular melody that moves peoplethe most. In these situations, the melody and/or the words are symbols. The significance of these associations may be private—“The melody that my grandmother sang as she lit the Shabbat candles” or “The song we always sang at our family seder”—but if many people in the community have the same memory and bring similar associations, then the memory is a mood of shared prayer. If the music of meeting establishes connections with our community today, the music of memory creates continuity with our communal past. In Jewish tradition, particular musical themes serve as leitmotifs for corresponding Holy Days: imagine Yom Kippur without the Kol Nidre melody! While style and our own musical tastes have changed over time, we must nonetheless respect the power of the music of memory to evoke and embody the sacred. Memory is not a separate mood from the four M’s of meeting, majesty, meditation, and momentum; it is an over-arching category that is often experienced simultaneously with the others. 

The Many Faces of Jewish Sacred Music1. In what ways do you agree? How much do you differ? 

2. At our synagogue, is the mood evenly divided between the “majestic,” “meditative,” “meeting” and “momentum”? 

3. What do you think about the balance of musical styles in a typical service in our synagogue? Is there more emphasis on one mood than on the others? If so, why? 

4. How are each of the moods created or supported by the non-musical aspects of our service? 

5. How does this compare to the music at other places of worship you have visited? 

6. Would this exercise be significantly different at a Shabbat morning service? A bar/bat mitzvah? A festival? High Holidays?

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When we look for ways to renew and deepen our experience of liturgy, modern poetry in English is a rich source of readings, interpretations, and midrashim that can expand our appreciation of the liturgy’s received texts or “canon.” Poets have wrestled with the texts of our tradition from the very beginning, in tones ranging from praise and devotion to doubt and rebellion.* Many other poems, even if they were not consciously written in connection with any Biblical or liturgical text, explore themes that are found in our liturgy and therefore can find a useful and provocative place in our worship.

But good poetry—like the poetry of the Hebrew prophets—does not necessarily fit easily into its surroundings. Because it deals in ambiguities and layers of meaning, poetry is often challenging, troubling, even subversive. It will rarely fit a narrow devotional agenda. Even when it is uplifting—and liturgical writers are often asked to supply “something uplifting” for this or that portion of the service—a poem will often contain passages that yield more than one interpretation. It may enter areas of distress and darkness even when talking about joy.


And yet this very “trouble” is a major reason why many of us need and want poetry in our lives again and again: not necessarily for words of celebration, affirmation or comfort—though all of these can be found in poems—but for a reflection of the startling ambiguities within ourselves. Here are three examples of poems that have been used in connection with the Ge’ulah portion of the Shabbat liturgy. The traditional text in our prayer books  praises God as the Redeemer of Israel who led us from bondage in Egypt to freedom, and introduces the song Mi chamokha, whose words are taken from Moses’ “Song of the Sea” in the book of Exodus.


Any of the poems might be read as settings or introductions to the Ge’ulah prayer before Mi chamokha, or could replace the prayer altogether. When using one of them—or any other poem—a service leader should consider whether the poem itself needs a brief introduction in order to help the congregation listen with more appreciation. He or she should also consider whether there are specific occasions during the year when any of the poems might be especially appropriate. Also, will the congregation get tired of any of the poems if they are used often or all the time? Finally—since poetry is an art form that is meant to be heard—it is particularly important to present any poem in a service with a strong, clear tone of voice. The reader or service leader should become familiar with the poem in advance, in case any passages are confusing or difficult.


The Jewish American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s poem in the voice of Miriam is a fine instance of poetry’s usefulness in introducing new shades of meaning into a service. As with midrash, it teases out and explores the ambiguities in the traditional text. It can be seen as a feminist commentary on the traditionally male activities of migration, conquest and war: one woman standing aside and offering a kind of wry commentary on what it means to triumph over others and become free. We can read in it a lament for the brothers who have in some sense “crossed over” and departed from her, as well as for the purported enemies whose chariots lie at the bottom of the sea. She sings so that the lands can “sing to each other”—a wish for reconciliation and peace that actually contradicts the warlike tone of triumphalism in the “Song of the Sea.” And yet it is also a song of praise and joy that leads very well into the joy of singing Mi chamokha. It is all of these things at once.


The African American poet Lucille Clifton wrote “won’t you celebrate with me…” at the time of her sixtieth birthday. Although she has written widely about the themes found in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, she was probably not thinking specifically about the liberation from Egypt when she wrote these lines. Yet her own experience as a Black woman in America does call to her mind the exile in Babylon—and in doing so, it invites us to look at the themes of exile and liberation in Jewish history from another perspective, and to celebrate more broadly with all people who have become free. In its own way, it is a very Jewish poem, not only in its exultat ion that she has survived all attempts to destroy her, but also in affirming her own responsibility in making freedom happen. We have to shape our own lives; we have to lead ourselves by the hand; we may even have to “make it up,” with help from others or not.

I wrote “The Crossing (Ge’ulah)” for the Friday evening siddur of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco synagogue with a special outreach to gay and lesbian Jews. Using a traditional verse form called the villanelle, the poem begins with a close English rendering of Exodus 13: 17-18—in which God leads the people out of Egypt, but not “by the nearer way”—and then takes these words in an unusual direction. On behalf of Jews who have often been excluded from a full participation in synagogue life—and have often had to go well out of our way, through various kinds of wilderness, to live as who we are—the poem recasts the Exodus as a kind of “coming out” story. It suggests that freedom is not simply given to us by God: like coming out about one’s sexuality, it requires choice, courage and commitment. Yet even as it affirms this experience, the poem admits our oneness with the Jewish people, who, even in their season of liberation, complained at times about the circuitous route, half yearning for the old familiar exp erience of remaining unfree. The “outstretched arm” of God must also be our own. The miracle does not happen unless we step forward, and stand fast.




1] Miriam: The Red Sea

High above shores and times,

I on the shore

forever and ever.

Moses my brother

has crossed over

to milk, honey,

that holy land.

Building Jerusalem.

I sing forever

on the seashore.

I do remember

horseman and horses,

waves of passage

poured into war,

all poured into journey.

My unseen brothers

have gone over;


deep seas under.

I alone stand here


and I sing, I sing,

until the lands

sing to each other.

—Muriel Rukeyser, from “Searching/

Not Searching,” in Breaking

Open (New York: Random House,





2] won’t

you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

—Lucille Clifton, from The Book of

Light (Port Townsend, WA: Copper

Canyon, 1993).



3] The Crossing (Ge’ulah)

God did not lead us by the nearer way

when Pharaoh let the people go at last,

but round-about, by way of the wilderness—

pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day—

to the edge of the flood-tide—uncrossable and vast.

If God had led us by the nearer way,

we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress

us as it will; let us return to the past.

But we have come out, by way of the wilderness,

in fear, on faith—free now, because we say

we are free—no longer the unchosen, the outcast.

God did not lead us by the nearer way,

but into rising waters, which do not part unless

with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast.

Roundabout, by way of the wilderness

we have come here, blessed with love, lesbian, gay,

or sanctified in ways of our own, to bless

our God, who did not lead us by the nearer way,

but roundabout, by way of the wilderness.

—Dan Bellm, from Siddur Le’erev Shabbat (San Francisco:

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, third edition, 2000).

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Jewish law permits prayer in any language. Prayer in public worship, with few exceptions, was almost exclusively in Hebrew until the nineteenth century. During the first mil lennium of the Common Era, texts such as the beginning of the Mourner’s Kaddish and Kol Nidrei were conceived and written in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Middle East. These may not have originally been composed as synagogue prayers. In pre-modern Europe, a number of prayer books, usually intended for women, were written in Yiddish, Judeo- Spanish, or Italian.


At the beginning of the 1800s, most significantly in Germany, reformers initiated a movement to modernize Jewish practice. These leaders felt that many Jews were leaving Judaism because they found what they described as “Judaism’s medievalisms” inappropriate and unmeaningful to their modern life. Many of these reformers thought that praying in Hebrew was such a “medievalism,” and for them, praying in the vernacular became a defining sign of their modern Jewish identity.


Hebrew: Necessity or Just Desirable?

Just which language should be used in prayer emerged as a central issue during a series of rabbinical synods held in Germany, beginning in 1844. The compromise resolution that eventually was passed termed the use of Hebrew to be “desirable,” and mandated that prayer be divided between Hebrew and German. This disappointed both the more radical reformers for whom Hebrew was no longer desirable at all, and the traditionalists who believed that Hebrew was a “necessity” and should remain the sole language of prayer. In response to the compromise, Zecharias Frankel, then Chief Rabbi of Saxony, walked out of the meeting in protest.


Conservative Prayer Books

Conservative Judaism traces its ideological lineage back to Frankel, while Reform Judaism’s heritage is rooted in the majority opinion Frankel rejected. Over the years, Conservative worship has increasingly become more Hebraic, not less. The first official Conservative siddur is known as the Silverman Prayer Book of 1946. It was patterned after a private prayer book edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman of Hartford, Connecticut. Rabbi Silverman’s original book featured transliterations for most of the congregational responses, but these were omitted from the official prayer book that the movement published. Forty years later, Siddur Sim Shalom (1985) was planned with Hebrew clearly in mind as the language of Jewish prayer. It not only continued to omit transliteration but failed to address the sexist languag e that results from a strict English translation of the Hebrew text. (The English translation was modified in the updated edition.)


Samson Raphael Hirsch and Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy traces its roots to Samson Raphael Hirsch, another nineteenth century German rabbi. Hirsch strove to combine traditional ideas and practice with a modern identity. Above all, he focused on the importance of a rigorous, sophisticated Jewish education. Hirsch’s students compiled a siddur, annotated with commentary learned from their teacher, which follows all the traditional rubrics but is also leavened with occasional surprises. The book omits Kol Nidrei, for example, because Hirsch believed that it might give the appearance that Jews did not take responsibility for their vows. Although the original Aramaic t ext of Kol Nidrei does not really imply the notion that its declaration of annulment absolves Jews from personal responsibility, Hirsch feared that people who read the German translation might get the wrong idea. Although Hirsch insisted on praying in Hebrew, he did favor including vernacular translations on facing pages along with commentaries. Of the many Orthodox prayer books in use today, the Artscroll series has become increasingly popular, perhaps because, like Hirsch’s prayer book, it includes a thorough vernacular translation and commentary.


Hebrew and English in Reform Worship

The balance between Hebrew and English in Reform worship has var ied over the years. Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform movement in America, edited a prayer book which he hoped would be used widely by all American Jews, and so it was named Minhag America. Wise’s prayer book was roughly half Hebrew and half English, with some German. He designed his book with Hebrew pages on the right and matching translations on the left. The other major forerunner for the American Reform movement, the more radical Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, published a prayer book with almost no Hebrew at all. Einhorn’s book, Olat Tamid, served as the model for the first edition of the Union Prayer Book, published in 1894. The UPB opened from left to right, and had significantly more English than Hebrew. Although later revisions of the Union Prayer Book significantly increased the amount of Hebrew included, a 1906 survey of Reform congregations reported that over one hundred had entirely eliminated Hebrew in favor of a completely English service.


At the present time, Reform congregations are committed to bilingual worship, but remain divided over how much of each to demand, whether to make changes in the normative Hebrew text, and whether to include transliterations in the prayer book. Recent studies have shown that including transliteration in the prayer book, next to the Hebrew, increases participation and encourages the learning of Hebrew.


Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionism

American Judaism’s youngest movement, Reconstructionism, arose out of the thought of Mordecai Kaplan, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first half of the twentieth century. Kaplan was convinced that Judaism had to be reconceptualized as a civilization, not simply a religion. Reconstructionist liturgy goes back to Kaplan himself. The original Reconstructionist liturgies retained the traditional structure, but amended the contents to make room for Kaplan’s theology. The translations emphasized Kaplan’s ideas, including conceiving God as an impersonal, indwelling force in the natural world, the “force that makes for salvation,” and his rejection of the notion of the Jews as the chosen people. Kaplan also provided prayers for the American civic calendar, composing readings for Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Contemporary Reconstructionism has moved away somewhat from Kaplan’s original thinking, and has integrated the  ideas pioneered by the chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The most recent Reconstructionist prayer books strive to be faithful to the received structure of Jewish prayer, and to respond creatively to contemporary sensibilities and values, through newly composed prayers in Hebrew and English.


Hebrew and English As Symbols

The quantity and use of a given language in the liturgy have profound symbolic significance and practical consequences. Beyond the fact that many distinguish between Conservative and Reform worship on the basis of how much Hebrew or English is used during services, the use of language affects our ability to relate to the entire experience of prayer. For example, the increasing use of Hebrew in Reform synagogues in recent years may disconcert those who love the elevated English of the old Union Prayer Book, and can make congregants who are accustomed to praying in English feel ignorant or displaced.


Our challenge, now and in the future, is to move away from absolute positions favoring or opposing prayer in one language or another, and to move instead towards collaboratively creating a set of liturgical practices that are meaningful, rich and authentic.


1.       What do you like about praying in Hebrew? What do you dislike? 

2. What do you like about praying in English? What do you dislike? 

3. What balance between Hebrew and English in the service do you prefer? 

4. Has your relationship to prayer in Hebrew and English changed over time? 

5. Do you ever use the transliterations? 

6. Are there identifiable groups or populations within the congregation whom you associate with different responses to these questions?

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Sometimes we confuse the prayer book with the experience and reality of worship. The words of prayer do not become fully alive until they are recited, sung, proclaimed, or whispered. The text of the prayer book is to the act of prayer as the script of a play is to a play’s performance on stage. The script is essential, but there is a big difference between reading the script and watching its performance. Liturgy is a unique type of drama—it is sacred drama. Just as in theater, we go to a special place, at special times, and, when the performance begins, we agree to suspend our customary ways of imagining and speaking about the world in favor of a different language and a different perspective.


The sacred drama of worship is different from the drama of the stage in three essential ways. Most importantly, in sacred drama, there is ideally no audience— instead, everyone is involved in creating the performance. Obviously, some will have larger roles, but sacred drama succeeds when the congregation participates as celebrants and not as observers. Second, a play on stage is rehearsed again and again until the performers “get it right,” and then it can be performed repeatedly. Our liturgy is not rehearsed, and every Shabbat and each service is an entirely new creation. Third, whereas in theater, we return to the world we left when the play is over, the goal of sacred drama is to enable us to take away, and try out, the alternative world-view that the sacred drama has created. When liturgy engages us, we discover that its narrative is “our” play, our contemporary enactment of the Jewish story which resonates across the centuries.


1. Do you agree with the comparison between conventional and sacred drama? 

2. Have you personally experienced a sense of transformation in worship? 

3. Have you ever attended a service which was more like a reading out of the script than a sacred performance? What kept the service from rising to the level of “sacred drama”? 

4. How can the sense of “sacred drama” be increased in your congregation’s services?

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Lawrence A. Hoffman, Gates of Understanding 2: Appreciating the Days of Awe (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984), pp. 56–62.This article was written for Gates of Understanding 2, the companion commentary to the Reform High Holiday prayer book, Gates of Repentance. Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of S2K, tells the history of two well-known ritual symbols, the tallit and the yarmulke. Neither one, it turns out, is as ancient as many of us might suspect. When this essay was published in 1984, some Reform congregations were debating the acceptability of the tallit and yarmulke in their synagogues. While affirming that praying with head uncovered is legitimate Reform practice, the author argues for tolerance and acceptance for those who choose to worship with “hats on.” 

Perhaps nothing has been more fiercely debated through the ages of Reform Judaism’s development than the propriety of donning special ritual attire for prayer. At issue primarily were the prayershawl (tallit) and head covering (then called yarmulke, but now, under the influence of Israeli Hebrew, usually referred to as kippah). Both ritual garments deserve our attention, particularly since the debate, though dormant until recently, has once again been joined. Many Reform Jews find meaning in these traditional worship symbols; others charge that their use betrays a subtle move by Reform Judaism “back to Orthodoxy.” 

European RootsWe may begin with the Hungarian rabbi Aaron Chorin (1766–1844) who, in 1826, argued seriously for the right to pray with uncovered head. His idea was only part of a general Reform agenda, which he had first offered in a learned responsum favoring relatively minor liturgical changes in Hamburg (1819). His recommendation did not receive wide favor.Only the Berlin Reform Association followed Chorin’s advice; but from its inception, this body had demonstrated itself to be the most radical of Reformers. Its founder, Sigmund Stern (1812–1867), had expressly organized the association as an amalgam of all radical groups, into what he called “a German Jewish Church.” Its prayer book eliminated almostall the Hebrew. Its first rabbi—Stern had not been ordained—was the noted Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), known best, perhaps, for moving Sabbath services to Sunday, abolishing circumcision, and viewing Jewish ritual generally as an outmoded vestigefrom an earlier age when Jews had required visible signs of their distinction from paganism. 

In Europe, Chorin’s recommendation that head covering be abandoned was honored in Berlin. A smaller community in Soest followed suit after an 1847 address in which the president of the Jewish consistory of Westphalia urged them to do so. The same view was later presented in a scholarly study of the history of covering one’s head, written by Leopold Loew, another Hungarian rabbi (1811–1875), who included his essay as part of a lengthy tribute to Chorin. But most Jews in Europe retained the custom of the kippah. 

Nothing Aroused Greater OppositionIn America, however, worshiping with uncovered heads was accepted almost universally as a veritable symbol of Reform, with the result that, as Gunther Plaut summarizes, “perhaps no other innovation of Reform aroused greater opposition than this; no other change stirred so many sentiments.” New York’s Temple Emanuel had first discussed the subject via a lengthy responsum of its rabbi as early as 1859. In 1928, Jacob Z. Lauterbach reproduced much of Loew’s essay within the parameters of his own responsum. He concluded that Reform Jews had every right to worship with uncovered heads, that the entire matter was purely one of custom, not law, and that Jews on both sides of the question should showforbearance toward those on the other side, since “hat on or hat off . . . is a detail that is not worth fighting about. It should not separate Jew from Jew and not be made the cause of breaking the Jewish groups or dividing Jewish congregations.” 

The tallit occasioned far less invective. It, too, was banned by the Berlin Reform Association, though it was generally maintained in Europe. In America, it was rarely worn by worshiping congregants, though rabbis frequently donned a tallit—or a more decorous modern equivalent of one—while leading services. In his “Ritual Directions” with which he introduced his 1866 prayer book, Minhag America, Isaac Mayer Wise summed up the regnant Reform attitude here: “It is no more necessary to wear a tallith [sic] in the temple than anywhere outside thereof…. As a memorial, it will suffice that the minister wear it.” 

Origins of the TallitOf the two ritual objects, certainly the tallit is more authentically rooted in Jewish sources. The wearing of tsitsit (the fringes sewn on the hem of the tallit, and the religious rationale for the tallit in the first place) goes back to a biblical commandment (Numbers 15:39–40), which explains that their purpose is:”You shall see [the tsitsit] and remember all the commandments of God and do them. . . . and be holy unto your God.” Scholars are divided on the kind of tsitsit worn in biblical times, but later, by the second or third century C.E., at least, it was common for the scholar class (though not necessarily for the masses) to attach fringes to a large tallit that extended over the whole body. Wrapping oneself had become a significant ritual act expected of judges before trials, teachers before discoursing on weighty subjects, and rabbis preparing for prayer. 

Opinions differed on the extent to which a tallit might be worn. Some wore it all day, though most did not. In any case, it was generally not worn at night, since the purpose of the tsitsit (which were by now attached) was that they be seen, and without daylight they could not be viewed clearly. Palestinian Jews went so far as to omit the last paragraph of the Sh’ma from their Evening Service, since its primary topic is the commandment to wear and to see the tsitsit. 

Through the ages, two major changes in the wearing of the tallit occurred. The first was the introduction of a tallit katan, a little tallit, worn underneath one’s outer garments. This was an innovation to meet the need of generations who had decided that the tallit should be worn all day, but who lived in an environment where outward display of such garb would have marked Jews off adversely from the non-Jewish population. The second was the relaxation of the ban against wearing the tallit at night. All agreed that it should be removed before the Evening Service, with the exception of Yom Kippur, but some Sefardic Jews wore it during the afternoon service. 

At least in modern times both Sefardim and Ashkenazim have favored the reader or the preacher wearing a tallit even at night, “because of the honor due to a congregation.” This latter innovation was known as a custom among some by the 17th century; one hundred years later, it was frequently the established rule.  

Accordingly, Isaac Mayer Wise’s regulation in 1866 was not without precedent. He generalized the wearing of a tallit by the prayer leader at night to every service. Considering the commandment to wear and to see the tsitsit outmoded, and—as a Reform Jew of his time—being hardly able to consider his own wearing of the tallit an “honor to the congregation,” he justified his custom as a “memorial” which, no doubt, he thought would satisfy those in his congregation who might miss the familiar tallit if they did not see it at all. 

Hats On or Hats Off?The yarmulke, on the other hand, has neither biblical nor Rabbinic legal basis. There is no evidence that biblical Jews covered their heads for any other reason except that, as desert dwellers, they needed to protect themselves from the sun. In Rabbinic times, some of the scholar class used headgear, sometimes as a halfway measure to meet the custom ofwrapping one’s body, sometimes as a mark of special piety (one rabbi in Babylonia remarked that he would not walk even the shortest distance without a hat, since God’s presence is everywhere). Later, in Islamic environs, head covering was the recommended way for Moslems to distinguish themselves from unbelievers. Moslem tradition described how Mohammed himself had worn it. Especially on religious pilgrimage to a shrine, Moslems were advised to cover their heads. Jews followed suit, copying Moslem religious aesthetics. They, too, now wore hats, and significant personalities such as Maimonides selected the turban variety favored by Moslem nobles. (Incidentally, many Jews also copied the Moslem custom of taking off their shoes before entering synagogues, and Maimonides’ concern for Moslem aesthetic sensitivities even extended to his desire to do away with the silent recitation of the Tefillah, since the masses made noise during it, thus embarrassing Jewish potentates who had to explain the unseemly display to their Moslem neighbors.) 

Northern European Jews, on the other hand, had no Moslem customs to observe, and they accepted the practice of wearing hats much more cautiously. Only in the thirteenth century was it becoming common, and it was still by no means mandatory, even while praying. A celebrated statement on the subject from relatively modern times is a responsum by the Polish Talmudist Solomon Luria (1510–1573), who was asked whether someone suffering from a headache might eat (and say the accompanying blessings) without wearing a hat. Luria responded forthrightly that there is no prohibition against praying with head uncovered, and that he himself might even do so; but in the end, he notes, covering one’s head has become a universal Jewish custom, and custom counts for something in Jewish reckoning. He did not want to contradict great rabbis who had gone before him, nor to advise dressing in such a way that observers might be led to the false conclusion that people are in the habit of blatantly disregarding Jewish law. Something that seems wrong is, in fact, wrong; inasmuch as people assume that the head must be covered, it would be incorrect to flaunt the opposite practice, thus giving the wrong impression publicly. 

Reform scholars, like Lauterbach, later quoted Luria at some length, but disagreed with his conclusion. They were intrigued by the fact that Luria, one of the mightiest Talmudic scholars of all time, had proven that the whole matter of headdress was only (!) a custom and, as such, could, in their opinion, be abrogated in favor of other customs more in keeping with the dictates of modern times.  

As far as terminology is concerned: the word tsitsit is biblical; tallit emerged later, in Roman times, as the technical name for a cloak of honor (similar to the Latin pallium and the Greek tharos). Tallit is derived from the Aramaic root tly, meaning “hang down.” The origins of the term yarmulke are less clear. Gunther Plaut has argued that it derives from the name applied to a hat worn by Catholic priests at a particular point in the Christian Mass. Sixteenth century Polish Jews wore hats that looked very similar, so that the term for the clerical hat was applied by non-Jews in their descriptions of the Jews. The Church hat was an amice or armuce (with the “c” pronounced like a “k”). A smaller version of that hat, one similar to what Jews wore, was described by the diminutive armucele. In time the “c” and the “l” were transposed, becoming armulece, or, eventually, the slurred Yiddish word yarmulke. Kippah is Hebrew, and can be found among terms included in literature of the first two centuries C.E. 

Women Claiming Ritual PracticesFinally, we should say a word about women who wish to wear either the kippah or the tallit. Authorities are divided on the question of whether women covered their heads in Rabbinic times. If they did, it was only to follow rules of modesty then in effect. They certainly wore no tallit. By the second century, the Rabbis had ruled that women were exempt from positive religious precepts governed by time; and tsitsit, which one must look at during the day, falls into that category. On the other hand, Moses Isserles (the sixteenth-century Polish authority who rendered the Shulchan Aruch acceptable to Ashkenazi Jews) says expressly that if  women want to wear a tallit and even to say the blessing over it, they may do so. Thus, in his Reform responsum of 1971, Solomon Freehof finds no objection in women joining men in the adoption of the tallit.  

Freehof does not argue that the tallit should be worn, only that in congregations where men wear it, women may do so as well. The issue for him is not only that there is no prohibition against the practice. There is also the positive consideration that “in our Reform movement . . . special emphasis is placed on the equality of men and women.” Interestingly, the radical Berlin Reform Association, which took the extreme step of prohibiting the yarmulke, argued equally vociferously for the application of the Reform doctrine of sexual equality. This principle of equality had no sooner been enunciated at the 1845 rabbinical conference in Frankfurt, when the association did away with the women’s gallery in favor of seating women on the same plane as men.  

Given all this information, every Reform Jew will have to determine what his or her position ought to be regarding the tallit and the kippah. The structure of our prayer books already presents us with a possible stand on matters of this sort, although worshipers are free to accept or to reject that stand along with the prayer books in which they are found. What, then, is the structured message carried by Gates of Repentance, and how consistent is it with Reform Judaism as described in the last few paragraphs? Clearly, by its very decision to include ritual garb as optional, Gates of Repentance differs structurally from the Union Prayer Book. The traditional blessing (predating the year 200) appears on page 79. We recognizethat people may now wear a kippah too, but because the kippah (unlike the tallit) is rooted only in custom, there is no traditional blessing for it, and no prayer book space need be allotted to it. But the page begins with the instructions that what follows is “for those who wear the tallit,” implying that some will do so and some will not. Thus, the structural message of the new Reform Machzor is that the wearing of special worship attire is optional.At first it would appear that we have here a reversal of the classical Reform position. Such a conclusion would be only partly correct. To be sure, American Reform worship now differs from what it traditionally has been, in that the tallit and the kippah have become acceptable items. But the essence of Reform Judaism was, and still is, its insistence that the eternal verities of religion go deeper than its obvious trappings. Even the Berlin Reform Association, which did away with special worship attire, did not absolutely prohibit covering the head; rather, they voted for “worship with uncovered head,” with the stipulation, however, that “the wearing of a black skull cap . . . [is] permitted to individuals.” We recall how Lauterbach summed up his epic survey: “Hat on or hat off. . . is a detail that is not worth fighting about. It should not separate Jew from Jew, and not be made the cause of . . . dividing Jewish congregations.”  

Tallit and Kippah As SymbolsThe reality has been, however, that temples which allowed individuals to wear kippah or tallit in theory often asked them to remove such garb in practice. Even as Lauterbach wrote his summation, “hat on or hat off” was in fact provoking the very divisiveness he deplored. Clearly, the matter went beyond the logic of academic debate. The reader of this commentary now knows all the relevant data that Lauterbach’s readers did. Whether these data will be used to harden positions for or against the wearing of kippah and tallit, or to promote a patient acceptance of those on the other side of the issue, is a matter that transcends the facts themselves. 

We should recognize that the issue of tallit and kippah is in the realm of symbol. By invoking the realm of symbolism, we mean that our positions on the wearing of worship attire are deeply rooted in our psyches for reasons we understand poorly, if at all. Yet, we feel so strongly about the matter that we cannot comprehend the rationale of people who differ with us. Discussions are apt to flare into angry debates. 

Still, our new prayer book heralds the fact that the Reform Movement remains open to change, and change in our day implies a willingness to consider a wide gamut of traditional options drawn from our Jewish past. The founders of our movement would have supported our continued emphatic reassertion of Reform ideals, such as the Mission of Israel, the ongoing covenant with God, a religious definition of Jewish identity, and so on. By the same token, they would agree with the view taken by Gates of Repentance: wearing a kippah or tallit to enhance the experience of worship does not belong to that critical core of Judaism deserving of argumentation. Pioneering Reform ideologues proved that one could be a good Jew without covering one’s head; the statement of our generation is simply the obvious corollary: one does not become a bad Jew if one covers one’s head anyway.

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There are many gestures and movements associated with Jewish prayer, from the lifting of the hands for the Priestly Benediction to “bowing before the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed Be” during the Aleinu. Such gestures and movements can add texture to our worship and deepen our personal involvement in the experience of prayer. When specific gestures and movements are visible to other members of the congregation, they may become identity markers for a community. Classical Reform Judaism discouraged gesture and movement in worship; both were considered, along with tallit and head-covering, to be tokens of excessive “ritualism.” Their absence was long a hallmark of Reform Judaism and shaped not only the identities of individuals and communities but their understanding of what proper worship prayer should be. In recent years, many older practices—as well as some new ones—have become increasingly common in Reform Jewish services. Listed below is a selection of the most common gestures and movements associated with Jewish prayer.  Blessing over candle lighting: Covering the eyesAfter lighting the Shabbat candles, gently move the hands before one’s face in a circular motion three times, cover the eyes with both hands, and recite the blessing. At the conclusion of the blessing, the eyes are uncovered.  This moment marks the beginning of the Sabbath. According to the halakhah, a blessing is recited before the action for which it is intended (for example, we say hamotzi and then eat bread). Once the Sabbath begins, however, one cannot light fire. So, after the candles are lit, the blessing is recited with hands shielding the eyes from the light. After saying the blessing, the eyes are then opened and the Sabbath begins.  Recitation of Lecha DodiAt the beginning of the last verse of Lecha Dodi, the congregation rises, and turns to face the door of the synagogue. At the words, “Boi, kallah! Boi, kallah! (Come, o bride!),” people may bow.  In this liturgical hymn, the Sabbath is personified as a Queen. The congregation enacts a formal gesture of welcome, as if they were in the physical presence of royalty, bowing as the Sabbath Queen enters.   Bowing during the Bar’khuDuring the Bar’khu (the “Call to Worship”), the prayer leader bows at the opening word, “Bar’khu (Bless!),” and rises. The congregation then responds, bowing at the first word (“Baruch”), and rising when saying the Name of God.  The most common physical movement in traditional Jewish prayer is bowing; it is an ancient, formal way of showing respect. Because Jewish tradition likens the act of prayer to having an audience before a throne, one bows upon approaching, upon leaving, and at other appropriate moments. The Amidah (standing prayer), in particular, is considered to be a personal meeting with the Holy One, and therefore is associated with a specific series of movements. Traditional practice is to bend the knees when saying “baruch (praised),” bend at the waist at “atah (are You),” and stand erect again when saying God’s name.  Reciting the Sh’ma: Covering the eyesWhile the Sh’ma is recited, cover the eyes with one hand.  This gesture is intended to increase concentration on the words and reduce distractions. The custom derives from the practice of Rabbi Judah the Prince described in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 13b.   The AmidahBefore beginning the Amidah, take three small steps backward followed by three steps forward. Many people do this while reciting the introductory phrase, “Eternal God, open up my lips . . .”  This gesture, borrowed from the etiquette of the ancient court, marks our recognition that we are entering into the presence of a Sovereign. It marks and separates the Amidah from the prayers that precede it, and helps us imagine ourselves approaching closer to the presence of the Divine. The first three backward steps are purely utilitarian, so as to make room to take the three forward steps safely and with deliberation. Many people are careful not to move their feet again until the conclusion of the Amidah.  Tradition teaches that one bows at four places during the Amidah: at the beginning and end of the first blessing, and at the beginning and end of the next to last blessing, the blessing for Thanksgiving called the modim. This practice of bowing is taught in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 34a), and is considered to be an act of humility. According to this passage, kings and high priests were obligated to bow more often during the Amidah than during other prayers—perhaps because they had a greater need to cultivate their own humility.  The third blessing of the Amidah, the Kedushah, is only recited by the service leader in the presence of a minyan. The Kedushah describes the angels singing God’s praises at the same t ime that we do. At the words, “They called to one another … (v’kara zeh el zeh …),” it is customary to turn and bow to either side; and at each of the words, “Holy! Holy! Holy! (Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!),” to rise up on one’s toes, as if reaching upward to heaven.   At the beginning of the Amidah, one may take three steps forward. At the end of the Amidah, many people take three steps backward, representing their leave-taking from this time of special intimacy. Some people also bow to the left and right after reciting Oseh Shalom, the last line of the traditional Amidah.   Over the years, many people have also added these steps and bows after Oseh Shalom to the end of the Kaddish prayer.  Bowing during the AleinuThe literal meaning of the phrase, “V’anachnu kori-im umishtachavim,” is, “We bend the knee and prostrate ourselves. . . .” In fact, the Aleinu began as a Rosh Hashanah prayer, and on the High Holidays many Jews do prostrate themselves. When the Aleinu was added to the daily liturgy in the early medieval period, this full prostration was considered inappropriate, and bowing was substituted. As with other prayers, one rises up when God’s name is mentioned.  Swaying during PrayerThe most “stereotypical” gesture in Jewish prayer is the rocking or swaying called “shokeling.” Based on a Yiddish word, shokeling is often identified with the spiritual practices of Eastern European Jewry, specifically with Hasidism, but shokeling has been a recognized feature of Jewish prayer since at least the eleventh century, when Medieval Spanish sources—Jewish, Christian, and Moslem—made note of this distinctive Jewish practice.  No one knows how the practice began. Most Talmudic sources seem to recommend standing straight and still while praying, emphasizing that concentration during prayer should be absolute. For example, based on Ezekiel’s description of the angels of the divine chariot standing “with legs straight” (Ezekiel 1:7), the Rabbis held that one should keep one’s feet rigidly together during prayer.  Newly emancipated Jews in nineteenth-century Europe, however, considered shokeling to be a medieval practice violating the solemnity and decorum of worship. Having seen this practice in other communities, and having learned various teachings about its meanings, some Reform Jews now bow and sway in their personal prayer practice. While historically inaccurate, this practice indicates the intensity of a community or an individual’s commitment to what they consider to be traditional Jewish practice.

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