Sunday, April 24, 2011


Dr. Spock’s Vulcan salute owes its origin to the duchenin, the recitation of the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:22-27), that Leonard Nimoy saw growing up in the Boston Synagogue. Nimoy describes the experience this way:
“They were very loud, ecstatic, almost like at a revival meeting, and they were shouting this prayer in Hebrew, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you…’ but I had no idea at the time what they’re saying. My father said ‘Don’t look’ and everybody’s got their heads covered with their prayer shawls or their hands over their eyes. And I see these guys with their heads covered with their shawls but out from underneath they have their hands up. It was chilling, spooky and cool.”
When he had to create a Vulcan greeting he copied the way the cohanim held their hands at that awesome moment.

The first time the Priestly blessing was recited, according to the Torah, was when the Israelites were gathered together for the dedication of the Tabernacle, the movable altar that accompanied them through the desert. The blessing happened in stages – God told Moses, who told Aaron, who then recited the blessing over the gathered assembly. The priestly recitation was not the actual blessing but served to link God’s name with the people allowing God’s blessing to rest on them. It was God, not the priests, who blessed the Israelites.

What did it feel like to stand in that assembly and have the Divine blessing rest on you? Would you have felt the blessing on your body, a weight pressing down or a shiver running up your spine? Would it have been more internal, your heart racing? Might you have experienced a flash of insight, a glimpse of a broader universe? The midrash offers no description of that moment, but I suspect it might have left you awestruck. Perhaps it was as Nimoy describes – chilling, spooky and cool.

These two experiences of the Priestly benediction – ancient and modern – contrast with the way Rav Huna describes the blessing as it occurred in the synagogue of his time. The procedure he describes transforms the experience from one of pure reception to an interactive conversation.
“One who is in the synagogue when the priests recite the first blessing [during
morning prayers] should respond, “Bless God, O his angels…;” to the second blessing respond, “Bless God, all his legions…;” and to the third, “Bless God all his works…” (Y. Berachot 5a)

The verses Rav Huna prescribes come from Psalm 103:20-22. He describes a similar procedure for the musaf recitation though the antiphonal verses in that case come from Psalm 134.

The experience Rav Huna describes feels so different to me. I can imagine the recitation being formal and solemn, but not chilling or awesome. I wonder why they instituted that change?

Rav Huna lived in the early 3rd century. Though the Temple had been destroyed over a century earlier the ritual of the synagogue was still developing. The synagogue functioned differently than the Temple. Worship was not confined to Jerusalem, but could take place wherever Jews gathered. Prayer replaced sacrifice with the result that the spoken word took on added importance. The prayer leader did not need to be a cohen [priest]. The synagogue, however, was only a substitute for the Temple, a status that remains evident in traditional prayers that call for the restoration of the Temple.

Perhaps that generation of sages sensed that the power of the Temple could not be replicated in the synagogue. The power of a sacrificial offering lies in the experience of seeing the gift accepted. When the offering burned on the altar one could see the smoke rise, hear the Levitical choir intone the sacred words, and receive the confirmation from the cohen that the offering was successful. Whatever else we might think about those sacrifices, they engaged us through all of our senses. We saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted the offering. There was an immediacy in the Temple that differed from the synagogue experience.

Perhaps the early sages felt that the Divine Presence was more distant. Could those words, once recited in the Sacred halls of the Temple, call God’s blessing down on the humble buildings that now served as synagogues? Rav Huna lived in Babylonia; could the words that drew God’s blessing in Jerusalem extend to the ends of the earth?

Perhaps the power of the synagogue now depended on the presence of the people as much as on the Presence of the Divine. A minyan, a quorum of ten, was now required for public prayer. Human words, spoken by the gathered community, rose to heaven in the place of smoke and incense and constituted the Divine service. In the synagogue the power of prayer was a shared enterprise between the people and their God, and so it was as Rav Huna describes the Priestly benediction. The Sacred words of blessing were met in holy, interactive conversation as the people responded to the words of Torah with the words of Psalms. Blessing emerged from the joint action of God and human.

The ritual Rav Huna described did not last. By the time of Maimonides (12th c.) the custom was different – a communal amen sealed each of the blessings. Today the custom is to respond to each blessing saying, Ken yehi ratzon, So may it be God’s will. This passage is merely a footnote in our liturgical history.

It points, however, to a problem that remains. When we sit in the synagogue holding books and reciting words, what moves us? I believe we want to know that the service of our heart stirs a Divine response, but it is often difficult to find that experience. I seek places where the chanting raises our voices above the plain meaning of the words to allow a bit of sacred mystery to enter. I hope for those moments when the prayers of the synagogue can be, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, chilling, spooky and cool.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ties that Bind / Yerushalmi Berakhot 5a

Infatuation can be intense, but it lacks mutuality and is usually short-lived. Genuine love is reciprocated and self-sustaining because both partners nurture one another. Our prayers speak of love often – the love between God and the people Israel. The mutual quality of that relationship is often reflected in our liturgy.

In my last posting, I discussed two models the Rabbis envision for us in prayer. Both involve standing erect with legs together: angels and priests. Having mentioned the priests, the Gemara turns to a discussion of the descendants of priests who recite the Birkat Kohanim (the priestly benediction) in the synagogue. Birkat Kohanim is inserted in birkat shalom (the final benediction of the Amidah) during the reader’s repetition. There is a tradition of duchenen in some synagogue: all those who are considered kohanim (descendants of the biblical priests according to the paternal line) assemble in the front of the congregation, place their tallitot over their heads, and blessed the assembled congregation with the threefold benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites, found in Numbers 6:24-26:
May God bless you and keep you. May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace.
Here is a picture of the kohanim delivering the priestly benediction (duchenen) at the Kotel on Sukkot.

The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) explain that the congregation responds antiphonally to each of the three blessings with a verse from the Bible, creating a conversation between the kohanim blessing the people, and the people receiving God’s blessing through the kohanim. Alternatively, you can think of it as a canon in which two different tunes are interwoven and their “notes” blend to create a new piece of music. In Shacharit (the morning service) the kohanim recite Numbers 6:24-26, and the congregation responds with Psalm 103:20-22.

The verses from Psalm 103, as we find them in that psalm, speak of the heavenly retinue, God’s hosts, who do God’s will. They come at the end of the psalm, seemingly as a contrast to human beings, who are the subject of the psalm up through verse 18. Verse 19 introduces the idea of God’s sovereignty over heaven, as well as earth. The psalm then closes with these three verses:
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul.
The “canon” looks like this:
PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word. (Psalm 103:20)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will. (Psalm 103:21)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul. (Psalm 103:22)
My first observation is that the antiphonal voice of Psalm 103 makes relational sense: the kohanim are calling down God’s blessings on the congregation, and the congregation responds by blessing God. For a relationship to be meaningful, it must be mutual. (We see this affirmed liturgically in the insertion of Shema after the blessing for Revelation. The prayer for Revelation says, in essence, “God loved us so much, God gave us Torah.” Shema is a response to the question that affirmation inspires: how do we show our love for God?) But Psalm 103:20-21 are not about human beings blessing God; these are the blessings of angelic creatures in heaven. It is as if the kohanim are the earthly stand-ins for God’s angels. The priests-as-angels bless the people, and the people respond by affirming that those who bless them also bless God – like angels. Perhaps this is inspired by the earlier discussion about standing erect like an angel to pray (please see my previous posting on this subject). The third response, Psalm 103:22, clearly refers to those in the congregation. Perhaps what is happening is that the congregation affirms the stature of the kohanim to call down God’s blessings in the first two responses, and then after all three blessings of Birkat Kohanim are recited, the congregation responds by blessing God.

The Gemara goes on to say that for Musaf (the additional service on Shabbat and festivals), the congregation’s responses are taken from Psalm 134:1-3 (Psalm 134 has only three verses), creating a second canon that looks like this:

PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who stand nightly in the house of the Lord. (Psalm 134:1)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and bless the Lord. (Psalm 134:2)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (Psalm 134:3)
Here, the first and second verses of Psalm 134 project the image of a priest in the Temple, standing guard at night, lifting his hands toward the Mikdash (the Hebrew in verse 2 is “Kodesh,” a term for the Temple itself). This seems altogether fitting, since it is the descendants of the kohanim who are calling down God’s blessing on the congregation, and the congregation responds yet again by affirming that the kohanim bless God – this time as priests. The third verse, however, shifts the focus, as did the third verse in the Psalm 103 triplet above, but not in the same direction. It does not serve as the congregation’s blessing for God. Rather, in the context of Birkat Kohanim, it functions as the congregation’s reciprocal blessing of the kohanim.

In this way, both “canons” of Birkat Kohanim link the kohanim, congregation, and God in a circle of blessing, an intimate relationship of love and nurturance. The kohanim – as both angel-stand-ins and as Temple priests – serve as the tie that binds, just as they did when the Temple stood. I am not calling for a return to duhenen in liberal congregations that no longer practice this tradition, but certainly understanding how our liturgy and rituals function to bind us closer to God is valuable.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Becoming: imagined or inspired / Yerushalmi Berakhot 4b

I was chatting with a colleague about the new Visual Tfilah project whose creators describe it as utilizing “contemporary technology, including but not limited to digital projectors and screens, to display liturgy for the community intermingled with art and other visual imagery.” Having recently experienced Visual Tfilah for shacharit (the morning service), my colleague was taken by the Mi Chamocha of the Ge’ulah. (Please go here and click on Mi Chamocha. You are supposed to feel you are walking through the Reed Sea, the waters parting on your left and right.) “I felt like I was there, on that path, going through the Reed Sea,” my colleague said. For my part, I couldn’t even recall the image. My colleague felt that the images – especially those of the natural world – were inspiring, “just like being there.” Perhaps I am less imaginative, or more experiential, but for me, there is a world of difference between an image and the reality. The exquisite beauty of nature can never be captured in a photograph because so much of the beauty is being there, in the moment, in that place, surrounded by it, part of it, intoxicated by it. For me, photos may trigger memories, but can never capture the experience itself. The assumption of Visual Tfilah, in part, is that images can convey experience. Clearly, that is true for some, and the rest of us prefer to daven with a siddur in our hands.

Jewish prayers are meant to invoke a wide variety of images, emotions, ideas, and experiences – including experiences that the worship has never had. Jewish prayer is a multi-sensory experience: it involves music and movement, sight and sound, poetry and choreography.

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) begins with a mishnah that asks when the Shema should be recited in the evening, launching a lengthy discussion about how we define evening, night, and morning. The conversation continues for pages. And then, quite abruptly, another idea is introduced: One who stands and prays must line up his legs. In others, one should stand erect with his/her feet together, while praying. In reality, Jews tend to sway rhythmically while praying, both because the Hebrew of the prayers themselves has a beautiful poetic cadence and because, after all, who can stand still for very long? (Certainly not me.) Nonetheless, I can appreciate that the ideal is to stand respectfully, reflecting the dignity of the activity, and respect for God and the community.

The Sages go further. They want us to have an image of who we are when we stand with our legs together in prayer.
One who stands and prays must line up his legs.

Two Amoraim [disagree about how to understand this]: R. Levi and R. Shimon. One says like angels, and one says like priests.

The one who says like priests [supports his position by citing] You shall not ascend My altar with stairs [so that your nakedness should not be exposed over it] (Exodus 20:23) – that [the priests] would walk heel next to the big toe, and the big toe next to the heel. And the one who says like angels [supports his position by citing] And their [four] legs were a [or: one] straight leg (Ezekiel 1:7). R. Chanina bar And’rei [said] in the name of R. Shmuel bar Sutar: The angels do not have knees. What is the proof? I approached one of those standing (Daniel 7:16) – “standing” [means always standing].
R. Levi and R. Shimon offer us two images: we are like angels in heaven praising God and basking in the divine glow of God’s holiness, or we are like the priests in the temple who ascended the altar to offer sacrifices that assured Israel’s well being and daily renewed the people’s relationship with their God. We might begin by asking why we need these images at all. Isn’t it enough to be a respectful human being in covenant with God? In his Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts a classic:
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
Do I need to be other than who I am? Isn’t the goal to become my true self? Isn’t the goal of prayer to enable me to search within myself – my true self – to find God, the divine spark within? Isn’t daily prayer (and even more so, Shabbat) a pause in our lives to reclaim our true selves?

For the Rabbis, an even higher goal seems to be to take on the identities of the angels in heaven and the kohanim (priests) who ministered in the Temple. Why angels or priests?

Angels are divine creatures who do only, and exclusively, God’s will. They can do nothing else. Their entire existence is devoted to pure worship of, and service to, God. In a sense, our lives can model that too, in that the work we do to sustain our families, communities, and the world is service to God; the love we lavish on others is service to God; the pleasure we take in our lives and in this world reflects gratitude to God. But it’s not the same as being an angel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves – or truly try to be – angels.

Priests are a special family within Israel ordained to preserve the connection between God and Israel through sacrifices. Sacrifices serve to unify the nation, and are made in response to what Israel understands to be God’s will. They are an act of obedience, but also spiritual uplift. To be a priest is to stand as close to God (figuratively) as a human can stand, representing Israel to God, and God to Israel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves as the offspring of Aaron – priests.

For the Rabbis, becoming in your mind an angel or a priest was elevating, ennobling, inspiring. For me, it is much too far a stretch. I am more moved by Zusya’s revelation that his purpose was to become Zusya – the very best version of himself he was capable of becoming. For me, the model of angel or priest is a reminder that I am more than I often think I am, and that thinking I can be more will help me make that a reality. When I was newly ordained and faced particularly difficult situations (the death of a child, a vigil at a deathbed, people’s deep emotional pain) I usually thought, “Don’t they realize that I’m nobody? Don’t they know I’m just a kid?” But in their faces I saw not only trust, but more importantly the acute need that I be the rabbi they required at that moment – and that was enough for me to propel me to become just that rabbi.

I began by recounting my first experience with Visual Tfilah, and said that for me, there is a world of difference between an image and the reality. The notion of becoming an angel or a priest does not move me, but the underlying message that there is more to me than I recognize, and that prayer is way of tapping into it, inspires me to be the Zusya within.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman