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Monday, June 27, 2011

THE TECHNOLOGY OF THE SHEMA - Y. BERACHOT 14A

Twenty five years ago I participated in a session led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi for klei kodesh: rabbis, cantors, prayer leaders and others who serve the Jewish community as religious leaders. Among the many teachings Reb Zalman shared was the assertion that the technology that rabbis and others needed to master was our texts, including liturgy. In this context technology means the use and knowledge of given techniques and systems in order to serve a purpose, such as enhancing prayer. Just as we would hesitate to use an electrician who had not mastered the details of working with his technology, so we should be cautious about a rabbi or prayer leader who had not mastered and was not adept at using the liturgy of the prayerbook.

I like that notion; as a Reform rabbi who often chooses what prayers to include in the service on any given occasion I believe it is essential to understand the function of the prayers and be able to articulate why I am choosing the service I lead. If I cannot explain why I am including or excluding a given prayer, why would I think my congregants could understand the service?

Some of my colleagues have objected to my description of the liturgy as a technology. They argue that the prayers have intrinsic meaning and that describing them as technology lessens that meaning and turns them into the “nuts and bolts” of the service. I appreciate their concern. I certainly agree that the prayers have meaning and that constitutes the heart of the service. But I also acknowledge that I and many others manipulate the service from time to time and I believe we need to know the import of our choices every bit as much as an electrician knows what wire to use when.

Which leads to a surprising discussion regarding the Shema found in Y. Berachot 14a. The broad discussion is about the function of the Shema. The problem is that the Shema is not a prayer but a quote from Torah. Other prayers, like those in the Amidah or the ones that surround the Shema, fit the categories that we normally associate with prayer – petition, praise, gratitude or adoration. The Shema is composed of three passages drawn from different sections of Torah. While we sometimes describe it as “the watchword of our faith” and the mishna describes it as “accepting the yoke of heaven and the commandments”, it is an anomaly in the prayerbook.

This particular passage is concerned with public prayers held on a fast day. The service is convened as one of the steps beseeching God to end a drought. The service is held late enough in the day for people to gather, but after the designated time for reciting the Shema. R. Aha is concerned that the recitation will not “count”, will not fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema or may mislead others to think it would be effective at that hour, while R. Yose argues that the recitation serves a different purpose on this occasion.

R. Yose and R. Aha were present for prayers on a public fast day when the congregation recited the Shema (but after the 3rd hour of the day). R. Aha wanted to stop them [because the time had passed . R. Yose said, “They have already recited the prayer in its proper time and are now repeating it so they can pray the Amidah along with words of Torah.” R. Aha responded, “Nevertheless I object because it may mislead unlearned folk who will think this is a proper time for the Shema.”

R. Aha's concern is understandable. As one who believes that the Shema is only effective as a prayer within certain time boundaries, he does not want to give anyone the wrong impression. He wants every word of prayer to be as effective as possible.

R. Yose introduces two new thoughts. First, that the Shema may carry power as words of Torah over and above its power as words of prayer. Most of the time I suspect we are unaware of the Shema as a passage of Torah. We encounter it in the prayerbook, read it as part of our service and describe it as an affirmation of our love of God. All well and good, but it is also words of Torah and we account those words as having power.

Second, he states that prayer requires Torah study. In order for the prayers of that fast day to be effective, he argued, they needed to include words of Torah. The Shema was chosen, I suspect, because in a large crowd which includes scholars and non-scholars, it is the best known passage one could choose.

This exchange between R. Aha and R. Yose is all about technology, what tool works in what situation. While R. Aha argues that the purpose of the Shema within a prayer service is limited, R. Yose understands that it may serve multiple purposes. R. Yose is willing to use the “technology” of the Shema in multiple ways, while R. Aha is not.

The past half century has been a time of amazing creativity in Jewish liturgy. Among the most obvious examples are the creation of innovative ceremonies for welcoming daughters into the Covenant, the composing of egalitarian Ketubot for weddings, and the groundbreaking use of the mikveh as a place of healing. Similarly the explosion of new Jewish liturgical music, from Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman and many others, has changed the musical landscape of synagogues across the globe. Along the way there have been many failed attempts at shaping meaningful liturgies for these occasions and similar occasions for prayer.

If I consider why some of these efforts succeeded while others failed, I come back to the debate between R. Aha and R. Yose and to the advice offered by Reb Zalman. Every piece of our service has meaning and purpose. Nothing is there just because it sounds nice. Every element, if properly understood, moves us toward a spiritual goal. Like any technology, if an expert uses it well, it succeeds; if one simply moves the pieces around without purpose, it fails.

Imagine attending a service where everyone present understood the import of every prayer. As the service progresses each pray-er awakens their body, their heart, their mind, and their soul to the possibilities before them. Not everyone can reach the same height; nor can any individual enter the prayers with the same energy day after day. But as a community our prayers can soar. The technology of prayer, properly used, can make this happen. May we all be blessed to experience it.



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