Here, O Israel, We Take Our Stand – or Don’t We?



by Larry Kaufman

Biennial Toronto Shabbat worship 1

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman is a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coaches b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he has served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and is a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Although semi-retired, he still consults with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

11 Responses to “Here, O Israel, We Take Our Stand – or Don’t We?”

  1. avatar

    There is a story of a well-established Jewish congregation that hired a young rabbi to lead its members. Every week on the Sabbath, a fight erupts when the congregation comes to the part
    of the service where they are to recite the great “Sh’ma Israel” — the “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One.” Week after week, at that point in the service, half of the congregation stand and the other half sit. The half who stand say to the others, “Stand up! For the thousands of years Jews have died with the words of the Sh’ma on their lips.” To which the sitting half of the congregation responds, “No! According to the code of Jewish law, if you are seated when you come to the Sh’ma, youremain seated. So sit down!”
    “Stand up!” “Sit down!” they yell at one another.
    Finally, the exasperated rabbi learns that a nearby retirement home there lives a 98 year-old man who was a founding member of the congregation. So the rabbi appoints a delegation of three — himself, one person who stands and one person who sits during the Sh’ma — and together they visit the old man.
    They enter is room and immediately the one who stands for the Sh’ma rushes over to the old man and says “Wasn’t it the tradition of our congregation to stand for the Sh’ma?”
    “No,” the old man replies in a weak voice. “That wasn’t the tradition.”
    “Aha!” the other exclaims. “Then wasn’t the tradition in our congregation to sit for the Sh’ma?”
    “No,” the old man says. “That wasn’t the tradition.”
    At this point, the rabbi can contain himself no longer. He cuts in angrily, “I don’t care what the tradition was — just tell me! Do you know what goes on in services every week? The
    people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting and the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing.”
    “Yes,” nodded the old man. “That was the tradition.”
    [Telushkin, "Jewish Humor," pp. 97].

  2. avatar

    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).
    Sure, but this was long before autonomy was a stated principle in Reform Judaism. Now that it is, it’s time to reconsider some of the aesthetic roots of Reform worship.
    The Reform principle of autonomy extends to the autonomy of the community
    Really? I’ve always heard that this is the on-paper distinction between Reform and Reconstructionism: in Reconstructionism, decision-making authority rests with the community, and in Reform, decision-making authority rests with the individual. (Emphasis on “on paper”, but if we’re talking about principles…)
    but not to the freedom of the individual to disrupt the community
    But there can be a middle ground, containing individual actions that are not standardized across the community but do not disrupt the community. The boundaries of this middle ground are subjective and in the eye of the beholder, but those who value autonomy should at least agree that this middle ground is nonempty.

  3. avatar

    We should also distinguish between two very different scenarios:
    1) The service leader says “Please rise” but some people stay seated (or vice versa)
    2) The service leader gives no instructions, and people do different things
    In the latter case, there’s no way for individuals to “disrupt the community”, since no communal standard has been defined, so there’s nothing to disrupt. In that case, people who stand and people who sit are acting equally normatively.

  4. avatar

    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.
    Is Mishkan T’filah meant to be used for individual prayer too? If so, who would make these decisions for someone praying by him/herself?
    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.
    I would explain this a different way: Bowing, rising on tiptoe, etc., are discrete events that happen (if at all) only at specific points in the service. These footnotes are there to show people where those points are if they’re interested. (Someone *could* bow at other points too, but this doesn’t happen so much.) Standing and sitting, on the other hand, are continuous actions, and one is either standing or sitting (or, most commonly, some of each) for the entire service, and it would be redundant and useless to print “Some stand and some sit” on every single page of the siddur. [Even though empirically this would be true: I've been to services where people stood for the entire time (e.g. shiva minyanim in crowded apartments where seats were in short supply), and for almost every prayer I've been to a service where most people sat for that prayer (including a Yemenite synagogue in Jerusalem where they sat for Barechu, which was shocking but reminded me of the diversity of Jewish practice).]

  5. avatar

    I read the on-paper distinction on autonomy/authority between Reform and Reconstructionism differently than Ben does…and I agree that the principles tend to vary considerably from the reality. And I don’t know how the authority vested in the community in Reconstructionism actually works in practice.
    But I do know that the Reform autonomy of the individual stops at the door to the sanctuary, and that our congregations by and large accept the full authority of the rabbi over the bimah. (We do now have the personal autonomy that once Reform denied us to wear kipa or tallit if we choose.) In the very self-selecting communities in which Ben habitually worships, people have the knowledge and prayer skills and desire to make certain decisions for themselves; in most of the communities with which I daven, people know and want only what they’re used to, and that includes signals of one kind or another on what to do when.
    As to the individuals using Mishkan T’filah for their indivdual prayer, my argument still holds: they are their own service leaders, and thus have the authority to make choreographic decisions for their congregations of one. But if Ben has any access to information from the publishers, the CCAR, he might share with us how many copies they estimate have been sold for private prayer vs. the number for congregational use, and how those numbers square with their original projections.
    Finally, as Ben himself points out, the everybody-stands-all-the-time that characterizes many shiva minyans has nothing to do with informed decision making about where standing is “required,” and everything to do with logistics and with what people remember from their grandfather’s shiva. (But to digress, nothing makes me angrier than being in a Reform shiva house where the women huddle in the kitchen while the prayers are being said.)

  6. avatar
    David A.M. Wilensky Reply November 29, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I’ve said it before, but I suppose I must say it again. To stand or to sit while everyone else does the opposite is no “disruption”! A disruption would be to begin the Shma and find that some yahoo has jumped onto his chair, beating his chest while he screams the Shma.
    Gimme a break.

  7. William Berkson

    David, Hillel had different opinion. He said “Do not appear standing [when others sit], do not appear sitting [when others stand] …do not deviate from the usage of men.”
    Standing when others sit or sitting when others stand is not disruption, but it creates discomfort as it seems less courteous and respectful.
    Personally, I don’t care whether the custom is to sit or stand during the Shema. Just decide on a custom and keep to it so people’s minds can be at ease and concentrate on their thoughts and prayers.

  8. avatar

    I read the on-paper distinction on autonomy/authority between Reform and Reconstructionism differently than Ben does…
    How do you read it?
    And I don’t know how the authority vested in the community in Reconstructionism actually works in practice.
    Probably no better or worse than the authority vested in the individual in Reform…
    But I do know that the Reform autonomy of the individual stops at the door to the sanctuary, and that our congregations by and large accept the full authority of the rabbi over the bimah.
    I agree that this is an accurate description of many/most Reform congregations. But how is this justified by Reform principles?
    (We do now have the personal autonomy that once Reform denied us to wear kipa or tallit if we choose.)
    What is the distinction in principle between kipa/tallit and standing/sitting? I see them as essentially the same.
    In the very self-selecting communities in which Ben habitually worships, people have the knowledge and prayer skills and desire to make certain decisions for themselves; in most of the communities with which I daven, people know and want only what they’re used to, and that includes signals of one kind or another on what to do when.
    But the Biennial is a self-selecting community too, certainly much more so than a regular Shabbat service.
    Finally, as Ben himself points out, the everybody-stands-all-the-time that characterizes many shiva minyans has nothing to do with informed decision making about where standing is “required,” and everything to do with logistics and with what people remember from their grandfather’s shiva.
    And I chose that example intentionally as one case where people stand even though it isn’t “required”. Indeed, neither sitting nor standing is “required” for most prayers (the only prayer I can think of where sitting is “required” in any Jewish tradition is Tachanun, which I’ve never seen done in a Reform context) – for example, as you note in your post, Reform siddurim have gone back and forth about sitting vs. standing for the blessings before the Shema. And I support autonomy about sitting/standing even in the absence of a Stage 1 claim that one of them is “required”.
    That said, I’m not entirely opposed to “decorum” in prayer — specifically, I think it is best for the prayer atmosphere when people are somehow engaged in prayer rather than in side conversations (though I don’t so much care about the precise details of how they do that), and I think it’s good to have a norm that (a critical mass of) people get there on time.

  9. avatar

    William: I agree with you and Hillel: “Personally, I don’t care whether the custom is to sit or stand during the Shema. Just decide on a custom and keep to it so people’s minds can be at ease and concentrate on their thoughts and prayers.”
    When we pray together, we should act in unison. Otherwise the chaos becomes very annoying, distracting from prayer and meditation.

  10. avatar

    William Berkson writes:
    Standing when others sit or sitting when others stand is not disruption, but it creates discomfort as it seems less courteous and respectful.
    If 50% of people are standing and 50% are sitting, then who is being disrespectful to whom? What about 60/40?

  11. avatar

    I don’t think it really matters whether we sit or stand during the shema,what matters is that we live what the shema is teaching us. The whole fight over stand or sit is counterproductive for the Judaism of Love and harmony that our rituals and traditions manifest symbols. If a person is distracted by anothers movements in a service where sometimes hundreds attent, he or she might want to pray at home in private where he or she is not distracted by anything. How could have a disagreement in regards to sitting or standing when the verse in question is And you shall love the Lord thy G-d with all thy heart and soul and mind?
    Loving G-d is Loving Man. So what’s the problem.

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