Holiness, the Jewish State and a Rendezvous with History

Sermon Notes 20/04/13 - Acharey & Kedoshim / Yom HaAtzmaut Shabbaton 5773

This week’s parashah starts with perhaps the most famous exhortation in the Torah:

Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (VaYikra 19:2)

This raises the perennial issue of the nature of holiness.  It is discussed by the mediaeval philosophers and has major ramifications for the State of Israel.  Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari) understood that holiness is innate not just to God, but also to people, places and even languages.  He believed the Jewish people and the Land of Israel to be intrinsically holy, in comparison with other peoples and lands.  In contrast, the Rambam (Moreh Nevochim) believed that only God is inherently holy.  For the Rambam, holiness is not innate, but instrumental – the Land of Israel offers the best environment (determined by climate, resources, location, etc.) for practising Judaism’s lofty spiritual goals.  Similarly, the history, experience and temperament of the Jewish people best empower us to pursue the objectives set out in the Torah.

The Kuzari's view has largely prevailed and informs much of modern thought about the role of the Jewish people and the contemporary state.  Yet it can be dangerous if misapplied – a view that sets one people or place as holier and somehow better than others risks fostering a destructive sense of superiority and triumphalism, and encouraging people to fight the wrong battles with the wrong people.

I believe that despite its marginalisation in recent centuries, the rationalist, instrumental perspective of the Rambam should be re-examined; it has important lessons to teach a modern, fractious Jewish state.

An important 20th-century philosopher who donned the Maimonidean mantle in this respect was Professor A.J. Heschel.  In his monograph, ‘The Sabbath’ he notes that the:

Holiness of the land of Israel is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. (The Sabbath)

For Heschel, the laws and ideals of land, and, by extension, the state, must reflect the moral values and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish people: an ethical monotheism that recognises the divine image present in every member of society and strives to bring blessing upon them all.  The land’s holiness is not innate – it is a reflection of the moral conduct of its inhabitants.

In Heschel’s later book, ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’, written following his visit to Israel just after the Six-Day War, he adapts the answer to the Kotzker Rebbe's well-known question ‘Where is God?’ (Wherever you let Him in):

God is no less here than there.  It is the sacred moment in which His presence is disclosed.  We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

But if God is mostly encountered in time, rather than space, what of a Jewish homeland, now the State of Israel?  It must certainly provide the Jewish people with a haven from persecution, as Herzl intended.  It must be a place where Jewish life, observance and culture can flourish and where true Jewish ambitions can best be expressed, as articulated by Ahad HaAm and later, in a more religious iteration, by Professor Eliezer Berkovits.  It must be a place where foreign influences can be cautiously filtered and incorporated where appropriate, rather than being the prevailing Weltanschauung, as they are in the Diaspora.  And it must encourage and implement Messianic aspirations for the Jewish people and for the world.

True to his Maimonidean leanings, Heschel explains the creative potential of the land for the Jewish people:

For the Jewish national movement, therefore, the land of Israel was not merely a place where, historically speaking, the Jews had once dwelt.  It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population.  It is here where the great works of the Jewish people came into being: the Bible, the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud, the Midrashim, the Shulhan Arukh, Lurianic mysticism.  No other people has created original literary works of decisive significance in the land of Israel.  The words, the songs, the chants of Jewish liturgy, which have shaped the life of prayer in both Judaism and Christianity, were born in the Holy Land.... It is not only memory, our past that ties us to the land; it is our hope, our future. (Israel: an Echo of Eternity)

Heschel also coined a beautiful phrase to describe the role and aspirations of the State of Israel – ‘a rendezvous with history’, one which must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.  In a section of ‘Israel: an Echo of Eternity’ by that name, he demands a ‘re-examination’:

The major weakness was to take the State of Israel for granted, to cease to wonder at the marvel of its sheer being. Even the extraordinary tends to be forgotten.  Familiarity destroys the sense of surprise. We have been beset by a case of spiritual amnesia. We forgot the daring, the labor, the courage of the seers of the State of Israel, of the builders and pioneers.  We forgot the pain, the suffering, the hurt, the anguish, and the anxiety which preceded the rise of the state.  We forgot the awful pangs of birth, the holiness of the deed, the dedication of the spirit.  We saw the Hilton and forgot Tel Hai.

The land rebuilt became a matter of routine, the land as a home was taken for granted.

The younger generation seeing the state functioning normally has the impression that this has been the case all along.  They have no notion of the distress and strain, of the longing and dreaming of generations. The miracle of Israel became a state like all states, with neither mystery nor sacrifice permeating it.   Habit is our downfall, a defeat of the spirit.  Living by habit is the destruction of creativity. (ibid.)

My generation (I was born a few months after the Six-Day War) have no recollection of a time when one couldn’t hop on a plane and visit Israel; when we visit Jerusalem, we need a tour guide, rather than a military vehicle, to point out the Israeli-Jordanian pre-’67 battle-lines.

Yom HaAtzmaut is a great opportunity to consider the real potential of the Jewish state and to ensure that we never take its existence – so long a distant hope – for granted.  Nor for that matter, our responsibility to build a land and a state that truly reflects the values of the Torah and the Jewish people – a life of holiness and a way of being that elevates us and all of humanity.

Kashrut and Mindfulness

Sermon Notes 06/04/13 - Shemini 5773

The second half of this week’s parashah (VaYikra 11) is devoted to the laws of permitted and forbidden birds, mammals, fish and insects.

Today it is easier to observe kashrut than at any previous time.  That’s not to minimise the challenges for those travelling, at work meetings etc., but the range of products available, the advent of easy-heat kosher meals and the growing societal tolerance to ‘odd’ eating habits mean that a fully-kosher diet is more manageable than ever before.

Yet kashrut is also subject to more stringencies than most other areas of halachah and is sometimes the subject of political turf-wars between supervising authorities.  That’s not to say that I don’t support healthy competition: some duplication is a small price to pay for competitiveness; yet it is noticeable that stringencies are less popular in the areas of business ethics or gossip than in kashrut.

In a world where it’s easy to eat kosher, are we able to return to the core values that kashrut observance was intended to promote?  Actually, the Torah is not specific about the purpose of these laws, leading some mediaevalists to assume that they were health-related.  Many thinkers, however, speak of holiness as their goal, as indicated by the verses at the end of VaYikra 11:

For I am the Lord your God; you shall make yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy.  Do not pollute your souls with any creeping thing that crawls upon the ground.  For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...  To distinguish between the pure and the impure and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten. (VaYikra 11: 44-45, 47)

Elsewhere, Rashi remarks that since it’s simple to differentiate between a pig and a cow, a more subtle distinction is intended.  On our verses, Rashi, citing the Talmud, notes that the reference to the Exodus is intended to convey the importance of these laws – should the Israelites be able to sanctify themselves through them, God considers that it was worth bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.  What is the self-sanctification demanded by these verses?

I suggest that the Torah expects us to recognise that eating – fuelling our bodies – can be a base, animalistic and purely sensory experience, or it can be an opportunity to develop profound sensitivity to our food, its sources, what it means to eat and to those who may not be as fortunate as we.  Do we think before we eat?  Do we think about the intricate chain of processes that have made diverse foodstuffs available to us?  If we are eating meat or fish, do we consider the fact that our food was once alive, moving, feeling, breathing?  Do we recognise the privileged existences we have in comparison with the lives of so many who are less fortunate than we?  In short, does eating enable us to become more sensitive, more in tune with our world and its complexities, or less so; do we become more or less human when we eat?  Do we live to eat or eat to live?

I support this contention from a curious gemara that seems to read one of our verses out of context:

‘You shall make yourselves holy’ – this refers to pre-prandial hand-washing;

‘And you shall be holy’ – this refers to post-prandial hand-washing. (TB Berachot 53b)

Washing one’s hands before a meal is a ritual intended to foster reflection and mindfulness.  Before we begin a meal, the Torah requires us to consider the import of what we are about to do – this is ritualised by the rabbis as hand washing.  Similarly, the less-familiar ‘mayim acharonim’ – rinsing the hands at the end of a meal – encourages us to contemplate the significance of what we have just done.  These rules ensure that we are able to transform the act of eating into a meaningful and sensitising experience.

Mindfulness and reflection are an essential component all meaningful religious life.  The kashrut laws, when observed in their sprit as well as their letter, lie at the heart of Jewish spiritual strivings, surely ample justification for the Exodus:

For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...

Moshe and the Fallible Leader

Sermon Notes 01/04/13 - 7th Day Pesach 5773

The Song at the Sea is prefaced by the phrase:

…they (the Israelites) trusted in the Lord and in Moshe His servant. (Shemot 14:31)

The equation of God with Moshe troubled early commentators.  The Targum Onkelos renders the verse ‘they trusted in the Lord and in the prophecy of Moshe His servant’, whereas the mediaeval commentator/grammarian Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra rereads it as ‘they trusted in the Lord and that Moshe was his servant’!  The almost complete absence of Moshe from the Haggadah is often cited as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the text’s authors to move the spotlight away from Moshe, the human intermediary in the story, and focus exclusively on God’s direct intervention in bringing about the plagues and the exodus.

Recent problems both in the rabbinic world and beyond naturally lead us to question the role of charismatic leaders and recognise the inability of their most devoted followers to accept that they may have erred.  Of course, these issues are nothing new; indeed they are as old as Moshe himself.  Let me first examine two famous, diametrically opposed visions of Moshe, both offered by Jews of rather different allegiances.

Sigmund Freud opens his final major work ‘Moses and Monotheism’ as follows:

To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people.  No consideration, however, will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.

Freud devotes his work to just that – a demolition of the traditional picture of Moses.  Briefly and scarcely doing Freud justice, Moses was an Egyptian, who strove to impose a form of pre-existing Egyptian monotheism on a fractious group of ex-slaves.  Unable to tolerate his demands, the people rebelled and murdered Moses.  Because of the heinous nature of their crime, they sublimated, but did not totally eliminate their memory of it, which has resurfaced in Jewish national angst throughout history and manifested itself obliquely in the origins of Christianity.

Of course, this narrative is utter anathema to a believing Jew.  Yet it raises important and pointed questions about how we view leaders in general and Moshe specifically.  Interestingly, Freud himself is aware of the inadequacies of his own thesis; as he says in a footnote:

When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs.

All of which makes one wonder why write the theory at all, given how successfully Freud undermines his own ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov proposes a view that makes the ‘tzaddik’ virtually infallible:

Every ‘tzaddik’ in the generation is an aspect of Moshe – Messiah (Likkutey Moharan I:2)

Rebbe Nachman’s writings are permeated with this and similar ideas (he clearly regarded himself as the near-perfect ‘tzaddik’), a perspective on leadership that many of us likely find deeply worrying, as it can so obviously lead to abuse by a charlatan or his followers.

So is it possible to forge some middle ground – to devise a model that produces leaders who are inspirational role models yet accountable; capable of strong, assertive leadership, yet who obviously share the frailties and is subject to the same temptations of other human beings?  Actually, one needs look no further than Moshe himself for inspiration.

At the end of Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz’s commentary to Nashim, the author cites an un-sourced, rather controversial midrash (it is missing from some editions).  Briefly, it tells the story of an Arab king who wanted to know about the character of Moshe, the great leader who had brought the Israelites from Egypt with signs and wonders.  He dispatched a painter to the Israelite camp in the desert to prepare a likeness of the great man.  When the painter returned with his work, the king gathered his experts to pass judgement on the character of Moshe; they universally agreed that he was a wicked man: arrogant, mean-spirited and angry.  The king rejected their opinion and turned on the painter, assuming that he had been incompetent.  Yet the painter insisted that he had painted Moshe accurately and that the experts must have misinterpreted his character.  Unsure who was correct, the king travelled to meet Moshe himself and determined that the painter had depicted him accurately.  The king questioned Moshe who admitted that all of the deficiencies that the experts had identified were indeed native to his character, but that through a long process of self-development, he had conquered them and transformed his personality. (Tiferet Yisrael to Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14)

This midrash offers a new perspective on Moshe and a model of sustainable leadership.  The leader is human, yet is a role model of self-development; he or she is immersed in Jewish knowledge and has developed an understanding of the world through the eyes of the Torah that can be brought to bear on individual and communal issues, yet is subject to the same lack of personal objectivity and failings as other human beings.  We should not forget that according to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, Moshe spoke with difficulty precisely to remind the people that he was a fallible human being – not the originator of the divine message, but merely its amanuensis (Derashot HaRan 3)

Maintaining the right leadership balance is a ubiquitous problem, but one that remains central to the Jewish experience.  Ernst Sellin, who influenced Freud’s view of Moshe wrote:

The final and most important question for all research into the Israelite-Jewish religion will always remain: who was Moses? (Cited by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in ‘Freud’s Moses’)

Deciding who our Moses will be may be just as important for us.

Seder and the Body-Soul Experience

Sermon Notes 26/03/13 - Pesach 5773

Near the start of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (1:11), the king of the Khazars asks his rabbinical interlocutor why God introduced Himself at Mount Sinai as architect of the Exodus rather than creator of the world:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)

The rabbi (ibid. 12) answers that an experiential attestation (the recipients of the revelation had seen God’s hand in Egypt) is more powerful than an intellectual proof, which can be subject to refutation.  This principle is important in understanding the role of the Seder and its unique combination of ideas, rituals and experience.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a second-generation disciple of the Vilna Gaon, reminds his readers throughout his ‘Yad Mitzrayim’ Haggadah commentary that the concepts explored and promoted by the Seder – that God controls nature, that He can choose at any moment to overturn the natural order and that He intervened in Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage, thereby precipitating their independent nationhood – are the very core of Jewish belief.

But, following the Kuzari, these ideas must seem real and not remain merely in the realm of the intellect.  This objective may explain the Haggadah’s requirement that:

Even if we were all sages, all erudite, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, we would remain obliged to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt... (Haggadah, s.v. ‘Avadim Hayyinu’)

This is illustrated by the story of the five Roman-era rabbis:

It once happened that Rabbi Eli’ezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at Seder] in Beney Berak.  They were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt all that night until their disciples came and said to them, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived’. (ibid. s.v. ‘Ma’aseh B’Rebbi Eli’ezer’)

The Seder is not simply about acquiring information or even ideas, but about experiencing them in ‘real’ time and space.  It is unlikely that the rabbis discovered any new information in the story, yet they discussed and relived the old tale until daybreak.

This serves as a paradigm for all of Jewish life – Judaism certainly demands of its adherents that they understand and internalise a number of profound beliefs, yet it also requires us to actualise these beliefs within our very physical, human world.

In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the function of mitzvah observance.  He insists that:

Since man is neither only soul nor only body, but both joined together, both these constituent elements must be related to God, each in a manner adequate to its own nature.  On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action.

These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two...  In its ideal form, the mitzvah is a deed; and, like all true deeds, it is of the spirit and of the body at the same time. (Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition, reprinted in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism)

Berkovits uses this typology to launch a stinging attack on Kant’s idealisation of the separation of mind and body in religious life (citation from Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason):

It is comparatively easy to serve God as a spirit; the challenge is to serve him in the wholeness of man’s earth-bound, and yet soul-indwelt, humanity.  Immanuel Kant once wrote: “The true [moral] service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention.”’  This, indeed, is the noble formula for the historic bankruptcy of all “natural,” as well as “spiritual,” religions.  The invisible service of God is the prerogative of invisible creatures.  When man adopts such service for himself, he makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion.  He will expect Gesinnung (sentiment) and noble intentions of the soul, and will readily forgive the profanity of the body; he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week...

Contrary to Kant, Judaism teaches that man’s “true service of God” must be human.  It should be invisible, as man’s soul is invisible; and it should be visible, too, because man is visible.  It must be “service of the heart, in spirit and in truth” as well as of the body.  It must be service through the mitzva, the deed in which man’s spiritual and material nature have unified.  It is a much higher service than that of the spirit alone. It is the religion of the whole man. (ibid.)

Seder, the annual membership ceremony of the Jewish people, exemplifies this harmonistic approach and recommends it as a model for all ritual throughout the year.

Sermon Notes 01/12/12 - VaYishlach / Tefillah 6

תפלה: Kavannah, the 'Prayer Problem' and Shabbat

This is the final instalment of my thoughts on Tefillah, which began here.  The other instalments in the series are here, here, here and here.  Much of what appears here is in response to positive feedback.

1)  Throughout this series, I’ve spoken about spontaneity, but how does the fixed prayer service allow for this?  Professor A.J. Heschel suggests that it can be found through kavannah – focused, intent-filled prayers rather than rote recitation of the text.  Only kavannah can constantly reinvest familiar prayers with new meaning.  Heschel paraphrases the early 19th-century Chassidic classic, B’ney Yissaschar:

To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell on a word.  This is how the worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it so much that they could not part from it’. (Man’s Quest for God, p. 34)

Of course, this is just to illustrate the principle – it is neither desirable, nor in most cases, even permitted to actually repeat words during prayer – yet, B’ney Yissaschar teaches that it’s possible to savour every word and find new meaning each time it is said.  The words may be the same each time we read them, but the meaning with which we invest them can, and should, change each time.

The indispensability of kavannah to the prayer experience is highlighted by another pithy line from Heschel:

To pray with kavannah (inner devotion) may be difficult; to pray without it is ludicrous. (ibid. p. 53)

How does one maintain the need for kavannah, against the obvious tendency to retreat into rote prayer?  An answer may lie in a phrase that appears above the ark in many Shuls, including ours:

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Know before whom you stand

The enormity of standing in the presence of the divine is often lost on us – after all, we’re at home in the Shul, as we should be, and as God surely wants us to be.  Yet remembering that the primary function of prayer is to allow us to commune with the divine is central to the success of the entire enterprise.  See the first in this series here for further thoughts on this from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.

2)  This leads on to a difficulty with the ‘simple prayer’ model, which was raised by a correspondent, who asked me to address:

...the disjoin between the central apparent content of the request and the modern explanation of what prayer is about – critical self-assessment.

This is actually a pre-modern concern: Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim (Book of Fundamental Principles) asks a question which may be summarised as:

If God gives us what we need and does not give us what we don’t need, then if we genuinely need something, we will receive it whether or not we pray for it; if we do not need it, we will not receive it whether or not we pray for it.  As such, there is no purpose in praying. (Based on Sefer HaIkarim 4:18)

So what is the point, for example, for praying for those who are ill?

Two resolutions are commonly advanced to this conundrum.  The first, offered by Albo himself, is that pray is really about critical self-assessment and personal development – by recognising that God is the source of wealth, health, etc., the supplicant undergoes a process of self-transformation which produces a ‘new’ person who will merit a new set of blessings from God.  This is known as ‘rational prayer’ – it is intellectually attractive, but seems to be highly-counter-intuitive and very far from a normative understanding of traditional sources about prayer.  A second option is what might be termed ‘mystical prayer’ – the words of the liturgy when uttered correctly reconfigure the spiritual worlds, allowing a specific flow of blessing to come into the world.  Many find this view emotionally comforting and inspirational, yet intellectually unconvincing.

While these difficulties remain unresolved, it is likely that all of us maintain inconsistent views of prayer, uneasily melding the ‘simple’, ‘rational’ and ‘mystical’ models.

3)  Finally, I suggest that we should view the Shabbat prayers as especially important to developing our relationship with God.  From Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th-century liturgical expert from Seville:

יש שואלין מה ראו חכמים לתקן בשבת שלש תפלות משונות זו מזו אתה קדוש. וישמח משה. ואתה אחד. וביום טוב לא תקנו אלא אחת אתה בחרתנו לערבית ולשחרית ולמנחה. וי"ל מפני ששבת נקראת כלה והקב"ה נקרא חתן תקנו אתה קדשת על שם הקדושין שנותן החתן לכלה. ואח"כ ישמח משה על שם שמחת החתן כלה... ואח"כ אתה אחד על שם שמתיחד החתן עם הכלה.

One may ask why the Sages saw fit to institute for Shabbat three prayers that are different from each other – ‘You  are holy’ (Ma’ariv), ‘Moshe will rejoice’ (Shacharit), ‘You are one’ (Minchah) – whereas on Yom Tov they instituted only one – ‘You chose us’ – for Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Minchah.  Perhaps it is because Shabbat is described as a ‘bride’ and the Holy One, may He be blessed, is a ‘groom’, the Sages established ‘You are holy’, corresponding to the betrothal which the groom gives to the bride; after that, ‘Moshe will rejoice’, corresponding to the rejoicing of the groom and bride’… after that, ‘You are one’, corresponding to the moment when the groom and bride consummate their marriage. (Abudraham, p. 147, free translation)

I first learnt this beautiful idea many years ago.  I think about it often and it has strongly influenced by conceptualisation of the Shabbat prayers.  It’s a good place to end this series with the brachah that each of us find meaning and purpose in our prayers and may they always serve as a vehicle for a mature and developing relationship with God.

Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - VaYetze / Tefillah 5

תפלה: Private and Public Prayer – the Challenges

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here, here and here.

At the start of this week’s parashah, we find Ya’akov unexpectedly stopping his journey for the night; as he lay down, he made a makeshift pillow or barrier from stones.  Based on a difficulty in the text, Rashi comments:

The stones began to squabble, each saying, ‘let the righteous man rest his head on me’.  God transformed them into a single stone... (Rashi to BeReishit 28:11, based on Chullin 91b)

A parallel midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 68:11) casts Ya’akov wondering whether he would simply transmit the monotheistic ideal to a single inheritor, like his father and grandfather before him, or if he would be able to establish the twelve tribes of Israel, the beginning of the Jewish People.  When

...the twelve stones amalgamated, Ya’akov knew that he would establish the twelve tribes.

This midrash highlights a general difficulty with religious life – maintaining the correct balance between individual aspirations and one’s membership of a people or community – a group with a single, shared purpose.  This is especially acute when it comes to prayer, as highlighted by the following message which recently appeared in my Inbox:

Are you going to touch on how to daven in a collective where the man behind intones out loud and out of tune, your neighbour comes to shul for social reasons and someone's gorgeous child decides it is screaming time? How to use the mantra of familiar prayers as a launch-pad to lift you over and above the immediate interruptions and distractions of praying in a kahal? That's the baton I would so like you to pass on so that I do not continue to believe I can best step out beyond myself when I am by myself.

The question is not easy to answer, but a good starting point is acknowledging that from time to time I also have the same thoughts – while I love our Shul, sometimes private or spontaneous prayer works better for me.  I suspect this is true for all of us.

Not talking during davening may seem novel to some, but is really essential for creating an appropriate environment as well as showing respect for others and their own ‘prayer space’.  I know that the urge to talk In Shul can sometimes be overpowering, but when it strikes, please consider going out until it passes.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that public prayer was never intended to replace personal and spontaneous prayer.  In fact, they are interdependent.  The Rizhyner Rebbe told the story of a small Jewish town which had almost every amenity – a bathhouse, cemetery and even a hospital, as well as every artisan, except for one – there was no watchmaker.  Inevitably, all the clocks became increasingly inaccurate with no one to repair them.  Some people chose to let their clocks just run down, but others decided to keep winding them every day even though they showed the wrong time.  One day, a watchmaker appeared in town and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  The only one he could repair were those that had been kept running; the abandoned ones had become too rusty.  The application is obvious – to keep our ‘prayer’ faculty well-oiled, we must maintain our regular public prayers, even when they seem substandard and fall short of our expectations.

These ideas are thoughtfully explored by Professor A.J. Heschel:

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the individual soul. We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community 

It is not safe to pray alone. Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of, the community; that public worship is preferable to private worship. Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other. To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both...

Those who cherish genuine prayer, yet feel driven away from the houses of worship because of the sterility of public worship today, seem to believe that private prayer is the only way. Yet, the truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer. The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety... (Man’s Quest for God, pp. 44-5)

I am particularly taken with Heschel’s assertion that personal prayer cannot survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik develops the need for prayer with a community to ensure that we do not become too entrenched in our individual needs:

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a two-fold affair: a transient "I" addressing himself to the eternal "He."The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

Of course, public prayer, with all its challenges, is actually a collection of private prayers, and is dependent on each individual for his or her contribution.  On this, Heschel again:

Even the worth of public worship depends upon the depth of private worship, of the private worship of those who worship together. We are taught that the fate of all mankind depends upon the conduct of one single individual, namely you. (ibid. p. 46)

Sermon Notes 17/11/12 - Toldot / Tefillah 4

תפלה: Mechitzah, Responsibility and Transformation

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here and here.

It is worthwhile clarifying the role of the mechitzah (separation between men and women) in our Shul.  In the 19th century, a group of influential Hungarian rabbis insisted that the function of a Shul mechitzah is to completely separate the men and women, ensuring that they cannot see each other.  These rabbis went as far as saying that a Shul in which men and women can see each other does not qualify as a place for Jewish prayer.  Many other halachic authorities rejected this view and determined that the mechitzah serves only to prevent social intercourse between the genders during prayer and need not be opaque.  This is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the one that is followed in all ‘modern’ Shuls, including our own.  Indeed, our temporary mechitzah, designed for the ‘New Minyan’, was built to Rabbi Feinstein’s specifications, mentioned in Igrot Moshe Orech Chaim 1:39-42.  While we work on redeveloping our Shul space, we will continue to discuss the style and design of the new mechitzah and how exactly we will use it to divide our prayer space.

In a previous thought on Tefillah, I referred to Professor A.J. Heschel’s concern about the great responsibility to create a meaningful experience that falls to those running communities:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

Heschel, a genius from a Polish Chassidic background, was frustrated by the sterile prayer environment he encountered in mid-20th century Conservative America.  Thank God, our community does not resemble the one he describes, nor does it reflect the aspirations of any of us, yet overstated as it is, it’s worth reading.  (Note that where Heschel uses the word ‘Temple’, we would substitute ‘Shul’ or ‘Synagogue’.)

Has the temple become the graveyard where prayer is buried? There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray? There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

Of course, people still attend “services”—but what does this attendance frequently mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer, temple attendance has become a service of the community rather than service of God. People give some of their money to philanthropic causes, and some of their time to the temple.

The modem temple suffers from a severe cold. Congregants preserve a respectful distance between the liturgy and themselves. They say the words, “Forgive us for we have sinned,” but of course, they are not meant. They say, “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy Cod with all thy heart ...” in lofty detachment, in complete anonymity as if giving an impartial opinion about an irrelevant question.

An air of tranquillity, complacency prevails in our houses of worship. What can come out of such an atmosphere? The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony. You know no one will scream, no one will cry, the words will be still-born.

(I might add in jest – and you know that no one will hear you scream – RHB)

People expect the rabbi to conduct a service: an efficient, expert service. But efficiency and rapidity are no remedy against devotional sterility.

We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. Men and women would not raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. Alas, they have come to regard the rabbi as master of ceremonies.

Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. (ibid. p. 50)

This powerful passage requires no comment, other than to say that we’ve all been to Shuls that look like this.  Heschel effectively captures the sterility of the ‘someone in the middle will do it for you’ model.

On the topic of sterility, in the third verse of this week’s parashah, the unusual word(עתר)  appears in two different forms:

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַידֹוָד לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְדֹוָד וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren, and God was entreated by him, and Rivkah, his wife, conceived. (BeReishit 25:21:Translation – New Hirsch Chumash)

Real prayer is one in which the supplicant entreats God and, in response, God ‘allows’ Himself to be entreated.  According to a midrash, the word עתר means a hoe – a tool used to turn – transform – plants.  The message is clear – if we expect God to ‘transform’ Himself and respond to our prayer, we must first transform ourselves though prayer.

Sermon Notes 10/11/12 - Chayey Sarah / Tefillah 3

תפלה: Connection, Engagement and the Mind-Body Experience

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here.

This week’s parashah begins with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron as a burial plot for the patriarchs and matriarchs.  The word Hebrew Chevron comes from לחבר – to connect, and suggests a sensitivity to the co-existence of body and soul, something those buried in Chevron epitomised.  A midrash notes that the reward of those buried in the Cave was ‘doubled and redoubled’ (BeReishit Rabbah 58:8), indicating that in their lifetime, they lived complex existences – melding their physical and spiritual sides.  This is the very essence of Jewish life.  It pits Judaism against other religious systems, which either divide the two or disregard physicality altogether.

In his essay ‘Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition’, Professor Eliezer Berkovits explains that the soul and body must not ‘exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two’.  He continues:

Through the mitzva, man overcomes the dualism of his nature in the God-oriented deed.  In the mitzva, man is one; as a whole he relates himself to the one God.

This holistic approach must also be reflected in our approach to prayer, and again distinguishes Jewish prayer:

All my bones shall say, ‘O Lord, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10)

Professor Berkovits explains:

Man’s situation requires that his very bones should be capable of “prayer”.  But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzva, unifying body and soul.  It has to be a physical action, informed by intention...  The prayer of man should be human and not angelic.

For Berkovits, the ability to ‘unify body and soul’ defines Jewish religious experience and is best articulated through prayer.  Berkovits attacks Immanuel Kant, for whom ‘the true moral service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is only the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention’ (Religion within the Limits of Reason).  Berkovits is certain that this approach produces what he calls the ‘historic bankruptcy of all “natural”, as well as “spiritual”, religions’ and assures his reader that human prayer that doesn’t fully engage the body and soul not only fails to qualify as a Jewish experience, but actually:

...makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion... he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week.

Not only our hearts and minds, but our lips and bodies must sing and dance in prayer.  Jewish prayer can never be performed on our behalf by someone in the middle of the Shul; it demands of us that we participate, not watch, that we sing, not listen; Shul services are not concerts, although there is surely a place for them.  We must ensure that our Baaley Tefillah challenge each of us to engage our bodies and souls in a single experience, to lead us in inspirational tunes that all of us will want to sing.  Only this will enable us to be transformed, not merely entertained, by the tefillah experience, to be players and not spectators. Only this, not the bifurcated alternative, is Jewish prayer and only this will enable us to thrive as individuals and as a community, enlivening ourselves in the presence of the Almighty.

Having one minyan makes this challenging, as people have different ideas as to what the service should look like and in which style it should be led.  It’s made still more challenging as there are numerous local alternatives of every type and at every time, which are welcoming and close by.  One thing’s certain – if we offer a style of service that some favour, but a number of people don’t like, they simply won’t attend, something we can’t countenance.  Not offering an alternative also means only providing services that everyone, or at least as many as possible, find palatable.

We’ll get there, but it will take forbearance and good humour from all of us as we adjust to the new space and what works best there.

Sermon Notes 20/10/12 - Noach / Tefillah 2

תפלה: Standing before God, the Quill of the Soul and Participation

In last week’s instalment, I posed a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

1) When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven or to have davened?

We ought to consider whether we view prayer as something to get out of the way – simply to meet an obligation, to be, as they say ‘yotze’, or if the process of prayer itself is a meaningful experience.  My favourite passage in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ reads:

Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker, and to pray has one connotation only: to stand before God. To be sure, this awareness has been objectified and crystallized in standardized, definitive texts whose recitation is obligatory. The total faith commitment tends always to transcend the frontiers of fleeting, amorphous subjectivity and to venture into the outside world of the well-formed, objective gesture. However, no matter how important this tendency on the part of the faith commitment is—and it is of enormous significance in the Halakhah which constantly demands from man that he translate his inner life into external facticity—it remains unalterably true that the very essence of prayer is the covenantal experience of being together with and talking to God and that the concrete performance such as the recitation of texts represents the technique of implementation of prayer and not prayer itself.

I particularly like the last line of this excerpt, which insists that our services are a means to prayer, but not prayer itself.  Clearly, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, prayer is about the encounter with the divine, the moment of communion, the privilege of standing before God, something every human being should crave – it is not so much about outcome, but process.

2) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch is quoted as saying:

הלשון היא קולמוס הלב והניגון הוא קולמוס הנפש

The tongue is the quill of the heart and music is the quill of the soul

Our prayer experience must be at once personal, yet shared and combine the ‘two quills’ – the tongue and the heart, allowing us to articulate our feelings, needs, fears and aspirations within the context of engaging, participatory, communal services.  Each of us is responsible for the atmosphere in our Shul, ensuring that it is welcoming, spiritual and purposeful.  As Professor A.J. Heschel remarks:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

What we will ensure those attending receive is an opportunity to sing along in a joint, yet personal experience.  There is room in our community for different styles of davenning – from the traditional to the modern, but all Baaley Tefillah must bear in mind that fostering communal participation, principally singing, is vital.  This way, we can all enjoy a varied, unifying experience that leaves us moved and, hopefully, meets our ‘profound expectations’.

3) Turning to more prosaic matters, we will experiment with commencing the Shabbat morning service at 9.30am, with a slightly earlier start on special or longer services; the goal is to finish regularly no later than 11.40am.  It’s important that we don’t convey the idea that Shul and Shabbat are synonymous – even during the winter there must be time to enjoy Shabbat lunch and spend some time with family or friends.  Shul is a central and vital part of the Shabbat experience, but there is more to Shabbat than attending a service.

4) Finally, a challenge from the Rokeach (Eli’ezer of Worms, d. 1238).  He is supposed to have said that the most difficult daily challenge within a daily religious life is to pray with proper intention.  How do we relate to this?