Here, O Israel, We Take Our Stand – or Don’t We?
As always at Biennial, Shabbat worship was exuberant and inspiring. The most startling event of the services came when Rabbi David Stern, who led our worship on Shabbat morning, asked the congregation to be seated after the Barchu, and then discussed the long-standing Reform practice of standing for the Shma – a practice not typically followed by the other streams. He followed with the suggestion that this time we sit. (Some will no doubt quarrel with my characterizing his words as a suggestion, and I couldn’t quarrel with anyone who preferred to call it an instruction.)
When I remarked on this in a post-Biennial email to my colleagues on the iWorship list-serv, it unleashed a torrent of dialogue, even controversy, that went far beyond the matter of standing or sitting for the Shma, and in fact spread beyond the list-serv and onto Facebook and into the blogosphere. I have now seen over one hundred comments on this and related issues, from some forty individuals, both lay and clergy, and there may be voices yet to be heard – including those stimulated by this report.
The comments fell into several different categories:
- How dare the Union deviate from the time-honored Reform choreography of standing for the Barchu (or, in the neo-traditional style, for the hatzi kaddish that precedes the Barchu) and remain standing through the Baruch shem? (One worshipper accused the URJ of thus ruining her Shabbat.)
- Was this innovation, as one commentator hinted, part of an ongoing conspiracy to push Reform Judaism one more step in its dangerous march towards Orthodox ritual?
- When we talk about the Shma, should we be talking only about the six-word proclamation and its six-word response, or should we be talking about the passages that follow that historically were considered part of the Shma? This is a matter of particular concern for liturgist/blogger David A.M. Wilensky, whose own practice of sitting emerges from his view of the Shma and its blessings as a totality. Since in general Reform practice, we join him on our seats no later than the Ve’ahavta, his “big picture” analysis doesn’t really impact on the consternation felt by some in Toronto.
- Should the congregation be instructed on standing or sitting, or should this be a matter of individual choice, in keeping with the principle of autonomy?
- Is this topic worth talking about at all?
The answer to Question 5, or at least my answer and that of some forty others, is clearly yes, this is worth talking about – not just when to stand and when to sit, but who decides and with what authority. And at least part of the answer to that question follows automatically from the decision by the editors of Mishkan T’filah not to suggest or stipulate choreography but to leave it to the leader(s) of any particular service. This “local option” differs from Gates of Prayer, which stipulated that we rise for the Barchu and remain standing through Baruch shem – and also from the practice of the Union Prayer Book – rise for the Barchu, then sit, and rise again for the Shma and Baruch shem. (For a complete historical perspective, see the backgrounder from Rabbi Richard Sarason, which tells us, among other things, that the argument over standing vs. sitting goes back to the time of Hillel and Shammai.)
It’s not my impression that the decision to omit stage directions from Mishkan T’filah was meant to leave all choreographic decisions to the individual worshipper, but rather to the leaders of the service. My impression is bolstered in two ways:
- Elements of prayer choreography like bowing, turning, and rising on tiptoe are noted, in footnotes, preceded by the carefully chosen words, For those who choose. Calling attention to specific actions for those who choose seems clearly to mean that other actions are not matters of individual choice.
- One of the prime aspects of Jewish worship that were seen in early nineteenth century Germany as needing reform was the every-man-for-himself chaos that characterized the prevailing worship style (and that still seems to prevail in Orthodox worship, at least to the uninitiated eye).
Thus I find little merit in the suggestion voiced in the on-line discussion that no stand-sit instruction be provided and that the decision be left totally to the individual worshipper. The Reform principle of autonomy extends to the autonomy of the community, but not to the freedom of the individual to disrupt the community; and in the Reform community, most of us do look to our worship leader for guidance in the protocol of worship.
Cantor Alane Katzew of the Union staff, who was deeply immersed in orchestrating worship at the Biennial, pointed out that a goodly number of participants chose to disregard the guidance from the bimah (and I infer from her comments that one reason for introducing the new/old choreography was to stimulate awareness of the freedom both the siddur and Reform Judaism give us to experiment and “try on” new worship modes). Conformity is no longer enforced in Reform worship – many of us remember when an usher would discreetly tap you on the shoulder and ask you to remove your head covering – but neither is non-conformity encouraged.
Marge Auerbach, who has cantorial certification from Maalot Seminary in Rockville MD, provided her informed theory that the recommendation to sit was based on musical rather than theological choices:
The choir was singing Doug Cotler’s “Listen,” which includes the Shma as part of the song. So it would have been intrusive for people to stand in the middle of the choir’s and cantor’s song. I guess we could have stood throughout the song, but that seems a bit silly. Maybe it was what we used to call in the ed biz a “teachable moment.”
Marge’s theory works for me, not only for the reasons she suggests, but also because my creaky bones don’t mind standing, and don’t mind sitting, but do rebel against a jumping jack regimen, where I constantly have to get up and sit down. This squares with Rabbi Sarason’s suggestion that the change in GOP from UPB’s instruction to sit after the Barchu and then get up again for Shma was practical rather than ideological
Peter Pundy, a vice-president of the Guild of Temple Musicians, and the accompanist for the Biennial Choir, pointed out the need to handle any worship change sensitively. Too little change, he reminded us, becomes monotony, certainly at different levels for different people, but sooner or later we all take “for granted” that which remains absolutely constant.
Unfortunately, there is more than a homonymic affinity between taking for granted and engraved in granite. If we ever allow ourselves to be so fettered by today that we can look neither at yesterday or tomorrow, we will no longer need the Biennial, because the Biennial is, among other things, our laboratory for experimentation, for innovation, and for trying on garments that we may once have outgrown but have now grown back into.
Elizabeth Lacher interpreted sitting for the Shma as an experiment, not that we were being asked to make any permanent change, to give us the opportunity to hear the prayer in a different way, and to approach it in the future with renewed kavanah rather than in a rote (albeit familiar) manner. And just as I was getting ready to email this post to the blog, Barbara Shuman added her comment: The issue for me is not whether this is a Reform or traditional practice, but what elevates my prayer. It is a spiritual challenge, not a political one.
I think Barbara is right on. The Shma experiment was intended to challenge us spiritually, educate us liturgically, and open our eyes to the range of possibilities offered by our movement’s new siddur. It was not intended as a “statement,” and certainly not as a mandate. My own stand on the Shma is unchanged – I will continue to stand until my rabbi suggests otherwise. But I have a better idea now than I did before of what I am supposed to Hear and why I am supposed to hear it. And I have a clearer understanding that, while our God is One, our ways of worshipping God are not.