12 August 2011

This and That

In this week's Torah portion, the Shma Yisrael--שמע ישראל יי אלוהינו יי אחד--Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One--makes its official appearance.  Our purest expression of the monotheism that was Judaism's unique gift to the world.  We recite it twice daily, as the paragraph following the Shma suggests--ובשכבך ובקומך--when we lie down at night and when we rise in the morning.

In Reform Judaism, for the better part of the last century, Reform Jews have recited the Shma while standing as a public expression of faith, doctrine, pronounced creed.  And Reform prayerbooks have, additionally, eliminated from the liturgy the paragraph following the Shma (the original Torah text of which appears in next week's Torah portion) mostly because in its articulation of why one ought to observe God's commandments, there is an explicit articulation of the Biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, to wit, if you follow My commandments, I will give rain in its proper season, God warns; but if you don't, the earth you hope to cultivate for sustenance will not yield its fruit in its proper season.

It's always struck me as a regrettable loss that the early Reformers excised such ideas, depriving generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.

In my own daily prayer, I use a traditional siddur and therefore daven these words--not believing that God willfully punished us (or the people of Sub-Saharan Africa) with drought because of sin; rather, as a focus on our stewardship of the earth in general.  Additionally, as the Sages suggest, while the Shma serves to allow the individual to declare his or her own relationship to the God of Israel in the singular (since the paragraph following the Shma is written in the singular) the prayer for accepting responsibilities for the commandments (the excised paragraph in Reform liturgy) is written in the plural!  This tension is a very real tension in liberal Judaism, that is to say, the tension between a spirituality of the self versus a spirituality of the community, a topic that, frankly, we don't talk about enough but one in which I would like to devote considerable time to in the weeks ahead.

Whenever I return from Israel, I am always acutely aware of the contrast between the communal nature of Jewishness in the Land of Israel as opposed to the less shared aspects of an American Judaism.  We speak of "communities" and "congregations;" or we might talk about "my minyan" or "my family," but in our daily Jewish discourse, we often lack a sense of the collective, what many people are today wrestling with as the notion of "Peoplehood," an unfortunate term, when you get right down to it, since it already represents a conceptual step removed from what it is meant to be referring to:  עם ישראל--the Jewish People.

What I want to say here is that when wrestling with my soul and with my God, I prefer the more challenging ideas, not the purely rational ones, and I prefer to do it with others.  The valorous, truth-seeking missiles of rational battle, embers occasionally still found burning from the raging fires of 19th century thought, are dichotomies that are rarely any longer very useful.

It's this and that.  And so, as we approach our Torah-given declaration of God's oneness this week, while preparing to bind ourselves to our fellow Jews next week, here are some words of inspiration for having it both ways.  Truth and metaphor.  Rationality and mystery.  The Jew and the Jewish People.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost


1 comment:

EdibleTorah said...

Nicely stated!

Back in 2008, I gave a d'var which said (in part):

"I don’t think it’s so extreme an idea that our adherence to the mitzvot has an impact on the physical world around us. It just may take a little more thought. I believe that passage appears in the portion named “Ekev” (as a result of) for a reason. If I accept that everything happens as a result of what came before it; and if I accept that in the same portion we are told to be thoughtful and thankful about our consumption, THEN I find my key to understanding Shema paragraph 2.

If we continue to shove resources into the gaping maw of our society without regard for whether we need it or not then we not only use what may be difficult to replace but we also pollute – spiritually and physically – whatever is left over. If we observe the commandments – the ones that deal with respect and love and fair use – when we consume stuff and interact with others then blessings will flow. And if we don’t, they won’t. It is we ourselves who are handing out the reward or punishment mentioned in the Shema."

You can read the rest here: