Progressive Judaism – has the rabbi ‘do’ Judaism too often (and the reason why is counter intuitive)

I’ve just finished studying Mishnah Rosh Hashanah with a group through the Lyons Learning Project and had not noticed the literary quality of the ending of the final two chapters until now. Chapter three concludes with a reflection on who is qualified to perform a mitzvah and, in so doing, release the obligation to do the same mitzvah in others who witness/hear it performed. Whereas chapter 4 notes the Shofar service of the ‘Shaliach Tzibbur’ (emissary of the community in performance of the liturgy) also releases others from their obligation. (For more discussion of these mishnayot see my teacher, Dr Josh Kulp’s brilliant exposition of every mishnah including these for the Conservative movement).

The whole massechet (Tractate) of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah moves geographically from the Temple to a Synagogue based religious world. At the same time, rabbis assume overall power instead of the Priests. And it is in these circumstances that the role of the ‘masses’ shifts from testifying regarding the new moon (about which there is a great deal made in the mishnah of not doing anything that might discourage witnesses from travelling to testify) to the hearing of the shofar.

It seems to me what we see here is an overall shift in the religious practices – the mishnah already indicates the evolution in the setting of the new moon, the format of Rosh Hashanah liturgy and so on. But it also points towards the maintenance of the hierarchy of Jewish leadership, whilst offering a new function for the rest of the Jewish population. In a sense the role for the ‘Jew in the pew’ contracts and becomes more passive from testifying regarding the new moon to hearing the shofar blown on your behalf by someone else.

It’s this that go me thinking as we concluded our study of the massechet. And here I’m drawn the innovation in liturgy that occurs in the 19th century in what becomes Reform Judaism. Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet writes:

A variety of issues affected decisions about Reform liturgy in the 19th century. The external one was the consequence of emancipation and the desire to become accepted as full citizens of European societies. This meant bringing the actual service into conformity with contemporary Christian ‘models’, including greater decorum, aided by the introduction of musical accompaniment; a shorter service, by removing repetitions; reading prayers in unison instead of individually; and the introduction of a sermon addressing contemporary issues.

The move to unison and increased conformity was later followed by a move to greater participation accompanied with a shift away from expecting someone to perform rituals in public and thereby release you from the obligation for them. The corollary of this is also the increase in musical accompaniment and the ‘participatory performances’ which summer camps have engendered in progressive synagogues today (though the most classical of progressive synagogues favour decorum over participation in their music, with professional choirs and organs). For more reflections on synagogue changes in music and services Larry Hoffman has a very accessible description in the book ‘Sacred Strategies‘.

Overall the theory, at least, is that everyone fulfils their obligation themselves and is not dependent on a shaliach tzibbur. So in theory, Reform Judaism should be full of people who are expert in praying – well I suppose we have developed many experts in singing the prayers but I wonder if there’s a difference.

Anyway, here’s where I got to in my reflections on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah – what if these trajectories towards notional ideas of democratisation, participation and ‘you have to read it together because no-one can say it for you’, has counter intuitively failed to produce expert participants. Progressive Judaism, with some wonderful and significant exceptions, has a rabbi ‘do’ more Judaism for their congregations than I suspect other philosophical perspectives – to the extent that in more than one community I have felt like a very over qualified page turner and reader of the siddur – five years of rabbinic training and I’m reading out loud to adults.

Of course this is slightly polemical – I doubt it is the case that there are ‘lots’ of Jews in other denominations all literate and expert in the liturgy able to be shlichot/shlichei tzibbur (emissaries for the community). That’s the romantic picture. But the counter-intuitive position does work both ways to an extent – in a community where there is a designated person who does something and releases you from that obligation there seem to be more people willing to take up that role and the rabbi is not the one who is always required to take up that function. The liturgy has a sense of being something obligatory and therefore you become skilled in it and it becomes second nature to the extent that you could lead the davening with little problem.

I wonder what other people think? And what the solutions might be?

(And I’m not looking for everyone telling me how great/rubbish their or someone else’s denomination is or isn’t)

As a post-script – we do have some confusion in progressive synagogues since some things are still performed by ‘someone’ – the shofar blowing for example. You can see the curious way this manifests itself in many synagogues where the whole congregation will participate fully in the singing of kiddush on Friday night and then respond with a hearty ‘amen’. I remember a conservative rabbi admonishing his congregation – if you said the blessing (the b’racha) you don’t need amen…one or the other!

“You were strangers” – when the universal bursts forth from the particular

Dear Wonderful Future Colleagues, Rabbinic Students

In the last semester of teaching at the Leo Baeck College, we spent several weeks learning together about the description of the ‘ger’ (the stranger – though probably more accurately, the convert) in Jewish texts of late antiquity.

We read, that the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael – a 3rd century (CE) text – is at pains to remind us that “YOU WERE GERIM (STRANGERS)”. In other words, remember that whatever I think about ‘the other’, probably applies to me too. Or to put it another way, be very careful not to call a stranger by a fault that you might have too. An aphorism for which we have many parallels today.

“You were strangers”. It’s been the subject of many posts with regards to the way that Trump has used the executive order. My future colleagues, we did not mean to set out to teach you a text that underpins almost everything about how the Jewish community reads textually its response to refugees and the other.

We’ve seen how the text we’ve used as our springboard for learning, the Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 58b-59b, a text that concludes with reference to 36 (or is it 46?!) warnings about the mistreatment of the stranger, knows that malevolence which begins with the words we speak, ends in death.

I didn’t think that the gates we would be seeking to open would be the gates of truth, righteousness and compassion. The gates of wrong, of tears, of prayer and of repentance, seem woefully insufficient.

We could not predict it. But I know that your thoughtfulness, integrity, strength and courage, qualities that will be called upon as rabbis, will remain resolute. Just as you have taught me a great deal in our learning together about the need for careful analysis and a clear moral path.

Chazak ve’amatz


A moment of pedagogical reflection:

I wrote this letter to rabbinic students who I had the honour to teach in the last semester at the Leo Baeck College. The interesting thing about rabbinic education is that we walk a delicate line between the academic rigour when learning Jewish texts and the applied reading of Jewish texts to weave a sense of purpose and meaning. What is more the Rabbinic role is changing, even since I was ordained 10 years ago. It used to be said that the Rabbi needed to be ‘Priest, Pastor and Prophet’. Our future colleagues will need to be resilient to these changes and strong in their sense of the purpose of the rabbinate.

When it comes to our textual tradition, I still think that the way in which we respond to the texts, through our critical understanding of their development and the evolution of the ideas contained in them, is powerful. Negotiating a way of interpreting our world and our texts in tandem is always a challenge and teaching this text, the goal was not to jump to how it could be applied – tempting as it was. We were focussed on the critical study of the text, the language, the history of the ideas, etc. But now I’ve read over and over again, Jewish voices bringing the ideas to bear of ‘love the stranger’ ‘you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’. All of this is valid and hugely important, and the rabbinic text has a subtlety that can be lost in ‘soundbites’.

What I find more fascinating is that though the sentiment is core to our literary tradition it has relatively little wider traction if you’re not engaged in Jewish sources or not Jewish. What it does is provide us with an interpretative world view, a vocabulary for articulating our particular perspective through our own unique literary heritage. Suddenly, the universal message from within our particular tradition, has an urgency that bursts forth. In that moment, the subtlety is also of value – since it betrays our own particular misgivings, psychology, communal anxiety and so on.