Category Archives: liturgical insights

Why New Moons Matter

This is quite a holiday weekend. Americans everywhere look forward to July 4th, with its barbecues and fireworks, picnics and parades. Not to be outdone, our neighbors to the north celebrate Canada Day about the same time (“1867, July ONE, Canada became a do-min-ION”). And we Jews? We keep our respective national holidays (July 1 or July 4), but squeezed between the two mega- days of national consciousness for Canada and the United States is a specifically Jewish holiday as well: Rosh Chodesh: the new moon, the first day of the month — in this case, the month of Tammuz.

Americans do not celebrate new months; they dread them, as the day that rent and mortgage payments are due. Months are arbitrary, corresponding to nothing astronomical. We once had only ten of them; two more (July and August) were added by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Jews, by contrast, regard months as having significance. Our year is solar, but our months adhere to the waxing and waning of the moon. Holidays often fall on moon days: the new moon (Rosh Hashanah) or the full moon (Passover, Purim, and Sukkot).

Nowadays, the new moon is marked mostly just by relatively arcane liturgical customs that are noticed only by regular synagogue goers. But Jews in antiquity took the new moon seriously. According to the Yerushalmi, women observed it as a holiday. Ex post facto, the Rabbis judged it “acceptable” and gave it a midrashic rationale — but I doubt the women cared. The moon appealed to them as a natural symbol for their own monthly cycles. According to the Mishnah, they also danced on the full moon of Av, and “spun yarn by moonlight.” I suspect they were doing more than spinning yarn. This was probably part of a larger set of women’s rituals that the Rabbis knew about but neither investigated nor controlled. It was what women did: outside their purview.

It wasn’t just women who celebrated new moons, however. In medieval Erets Yisra’el, Jews marked them with a full Kiddush, the prayer we say to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays (like Pesach and Rosh Hashanah). The new moon Kiddush dropped out of use by the time of the Crusades, but we still have its wording, which is worth looking at for what it teaches us about Jewish values. It praises God for revealing the “secret of the moon’s renewal,” for “appointing people of wisdom who can determine the times of the new moons and holy days,” and for “calculating the tiniest divisions of time” that produce the calendar.

Astronomy was considered the queen of the sciences back then. What we have here, therefore, is a holiday thanking God for running the universe according to the natural laws of science, and then giving us scientists to figure out what those laws are.

What a spectacular idea – not at all like the usual holiday fare. Both American Independence Day and Canada Day celebrate the establishment of national entities. Each of them celebrates national freedom – secular parallels to Passover and Chanukah, or to the French Bastille Day, for that matter. Other holidays that turn up everywhere recall tragedy: Yom Hashoah for Jews, 9/11 (still in the making) for America. Sometimes we memorialize our war dead: Remembrance Day in Canada, Memorial Day in the States, Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Thanksgiving for food and well-being is common also: Sukkot and Shavuot come quickly to mind – and Thanksgiving Day itself, of course. Religions also mark our relationship to God: for Jews, the High Holidays, and the month of Elul leading up to it; for Christians, it is Lent, which culminates in Easter.

But science? What religion stops regularly to thank God for the laws of the universe? Where else do you find a religious culture dedicated to the awe one feels when contemplating the “starry sky above,” that philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as the ultimate source of spirituality? It is no accident that so many rabbis over the years have been scientists as well; or that so many Jewish scientists have found no conflict between their science and their Judaism.

I come from Canada, originally. I might phone home this year to wish my relatives a good Canada Day. I will certainly be out myself celebrating July 4. But I will not lose sight of Rosh Chodesh, squeezed innocently away between the two. Blessed is God who designed a universe replete with mathematical beauty; blessed is God who gave us minds to calculate the equations by which it works; blessed is God who revels in our mastery of scientific secrets.

“Clearing God’s Bad Name”: Did I Go Too Far?

Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.”  The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.

I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.

Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”

To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.

My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?

For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.

We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.

It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two.  It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”

There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.

What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it.  Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.

Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than  risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.

I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.

Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.

The Royal Wedding: More Than an Unrehearsed Sing-along

What is it that attracted so many to the royal wedding Friday morning? An estimated three billion people tuned in to it. It averaged 67 tweets and 74 facebook mentions per second. Within an hour, the Washington Post’s Royal Wedding Blog listed “25,820 articles” on it! What was that all about?

The Los Angeles Times lamented “the hoopla” as “a lesson in just how many hours some of the highest-paid television journalists in the world can spend discussing a bridal dress they have not seen while watching people they do not know mill about in Westminster Abbey wearing large hats.” But the wedding was more than that. It was a reminder of nobility, not just the nobility of the British monarchy, but the nobility of human aspiration that most of us have forgotten we have.

I surveyed my own register of liturgical experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh, an editor for the Liberal Jewish liturgies of Great Britain, spoke for many when he said, “The ceremony was a deeply traditional one, with some of the greatest hymns being sung and stirring music being played.” Dr. Paul Bradshaw, a British liturgist and priest in the Anglican Church himself, explained that “Prince Charles, the bridegroom’s father, is a lover of traditional language rites.” The couple therefore chose “our traditional language marriage rite, not the one authorized in 1662 which describes marriage as a remedy against fornication so that we should not be like the brute beasts of the field, but a slightly cleaned up version of that.”

Good thing they cleaned up the “remedy against fornication” bit, but, mellifluous language aside, the rite had other problems that left some carping. Haven’t we given up the antiquated notion of giving the bride away? Lutheran liturgist, Dr. Gail Ramshaw of Philadelphia, thinks they “missed an opportunity for Christians to witness meaningful contemporary liturgy. When I hear ‘wilt,’” she says, “I wilt! And, really, ‘man and wife?’”  Indeed, try saying “woman and husband” and you get the idea.

Still, Middleburgh is spot on (as they say across the pond) when he applauds the old language as “being so much finer than its deeply prosaic modern versions.” The soaring lines of Westminster Abbey reverberated with it — and with the sung words of William Blake’s Jerusalem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This is a far cry from what we usually get in worship: folksy settings, dress-down gatherings, a guitar or two, and language by lesser lights than Blake. For one brief hour, the British Empire was resurrected from the dead, but without its imperial exclusivity. The Anglican liturgy once sought God’s mercy on “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics.” At Westminster, on Friday, Jews and Muslims joined Christians as equals, marveling together at religious ritual’s reach into the heavens. The wedding “expressed respect for monarchy, the Church [and] marriage,” comments Dr. Brigitte Sion, a liturgist in New York, “transcending race, class, religion and geography.”

“Monarchy, church and marriage,” mind you, none of which is doing very well right now. Bradshaw notes that it is “commonplace for couples in the UK to live together without marrying at all, or to marry only after their children are old enough to be bridesmaids at their own parents’ weddings.” Religions in the west have spent half a century downsizing rituals to the point where people may not think they are worth doing any more.

I understand that downsizing. It is part of the baby-boomer revolt against the sterile liturgies that relegated congregations to passivity and erected social distance between people at a time when they sought just the opposite: community, connection, and a God who meets and knows us intimately. But intimacy is one thing; sloppiness, even slovenliness, is another. People in charge of contemporary liturgies tend to forget the artistic care that even informal liturgies require.

In any event, our problem today is that public life in general has become slovenly — and not just aesthetically, but morally. Public debate has cheapened into mean spiritedness. Politicians become little thinkers who shrink our purview of the possible until whatever seems worth doing cannot be done. We are bereft of heroes to call us to our higher selves.

But on occasion, the human spirit whispers within us that it wants to soar again. And the wedding let us soar. Vicariously, at least, we all dressed up for a fairy-tale ending, prince and all; and celebrated it in something other than an unrehearsed sing-along. There is more to a calendar than holiday sales, more to the world than box stores and malls, and more to life than choosing between burgers and burritos. As the midrash puts it, we are all princes and princesses, all children of a divine ruler. On Friday we got a glimpse of royalty – not just the royal family’s but our own.

The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have A Stake In It

The New York Times of April 12, 2011 prepares the Roman Catholic communities of the English speaking world for a new translation of the mass. The maelstrom of charges and countercharges surrounding it illustrates how vital liturgy is in defining identity; at stake is a whole lot more than an ivory tower debate about the meaning of the Latin.

The “old” translation that the new one replaces followed a historic 1963 decision to authorize prayer in the vernacular in the first place. That ruling heralded a newly liberalized era for Roman Catholics. Among other things, it invited lay participation in a liturgy that had been dominated by priests; acknowledged the adverse impact of sexist language; broke down social distance between clergy and congregants; invited a new look at what united Christians rather than what separated them from each other; and abolished prayers that had fostered anti-Semitism.

The new translation heralds an equally significant shift in Catholic identity: a return of the Church to its conservative moorings.

Whereas Catholics now declare “Jesus Christ … one in being with the Father,” the new liturgy calls him “consubstantial with the father.” In the old liturgy, “he descended to the dead.” In the new one, “He descended into Hell.” In the old liturgy, the presider’s opening greeting, “The Lord be with you,” elicited the congregational response, “And also with you.” The new one has the people say, “And with your spirit.”

Critics of the proposed new liturgy charge it with (among other things) obfuscating meaning for everyday people (what’s “consubstantial”?); demanding word for word translation from the Latin at the expense of normative English word flow;  and actually missing the point of what the framers of the Latin would themselves have said if they had spoken twenty-first-century English. Advocates of change think the liturgy of the past forty or so years has twisted church doctrine and liberalized Catholic thinking to the point of encouraging moral laxity. The new texts are supposed to produce what the Vatican has labeled liturgiam authenticam, a liturgy that is “authentic.”

As an outsider, I have no legitimate standing in this internal debate. But as a liturgist, I know something about liturgical authenticity. It doesn’t exist.

We legitimately call a suspected Rembrandt or Ming vase “authentic” because we can compare them to a set of unarguably authentic specimens (the corpus of Rembrandt paintings or collections of undisputed Ming vases). When it comes to liturgical translations, however, there are no originals to point to. Nor can you point to the Latin, since it is precisely the meaning of the Latin that is at issue. The same is true of theology: what counts as authentic belief is what the argument is all about to start with.

Conservatives frequently use the word “authentic” to chide liberals for playing fast and free with “the real thing.” Using “authentic” that way is not, well, not “authentic.” It’s not the way “authentic” is authentically used.  By all means, let the Church do due diligence in debating what it wishes to pray, but not under the misleading rubric of authenticity.

The real issues are much deeper than a pseudo-debate on authenticity. What should Catholics believe about God, human nature, and the promise of salvation? What is the proper relationship between the laity and the clergy? Should Catholics be in communion with Protestants? What do Catholics believe about Jews?

How the church goes about deciding these deeper liturgical questions says a lot about who has power and who doesn’t. How hierarchical should the twenty-first century Church be? Who gets to weigh in on liturgical matters? Whose opinion counts and whose does not?

As a Jew, I have no say on Catholic doctrine, but I do have an interest in it. The whole world does. At stake is a great Church with a magnificent heritage. Under the impact of Vatican II, it apologized for anti-Semitism, and rejected its imperialistic past. It emerged from medieval triumphalism and sought common ground with others. Through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it has issued conscientious statements on matters of economic justice and human equality. We should hope that it remains a mighty force in the world, allying with good people everywhere in the fight for saving the planet, ending hunger, and achieving world harmony.

I don’t have to be Catholic to pray that the new translation does not further divide Catholics from others, or return the Catholic Church to the day when it thought Jews were damned, men counted more than women, and no one else had God’s truths. I hope the Church does not decide that “authenticity” to the Catholic past trumps possibility for the human future.

Is Blogging a Liturgy?

Zvee Zahavy posts the fascinating question of whether blogging is liturgy. All liturgies are rituals, so we can begin by asking if blogging is a ritual. There is something ritualistic about it, in that it follows certain procedures and obeys certain loosely defined rules of what counts as a proper blog. It even has its own vocabulary. But is that enough for it to be a ritual?

I think not. A great deal of behavior is ritualized, but not all ritualized behavior is a ritual.

Ronald Grimes, perhaps the most influential founder of the field called Ritual Studies, distinguishes “ritualizations” from actually acted out “rites.” What he calls rites, most people call rituals. Rituals, in that sense, get names: bar mitzvah, Kol Nidre, a funeral, Easter vigil, Shabbat services. Secular examples include birthday parties, St. Patrick Day parades, and a Christmas office party.

Ritualizations include any behavior that gets formalized and consciously repeated a certain way. Grimes mentions canoeing, watching TV, and housework. These are ritualizations but not yet rituals. They might become rituals, but to do so, in my view, they would have to have cultural importance beyond themselves; they would have to mean something, the way a birthday party means celebrating another year of life, an office party at an accounting firm means marking the end of tax season, and Shabbat services mean keeping Shabbat.

Blogging is a ritualized form of communication. It is a ritualization. It is not a ritual, although, conceivably, for certain bloggers under certain circumstances, it might become one.

What’s this blog all about anyway?

I do not usually admit this right off the bat – it is definitely a conversation stopper – but here it is: I am a liturgist. “Liturgy” is a common enough word among Christians, but it does not flow trippingly off Jewish tongues, and I am not only Jewish but a rabbi to boot. The word comes from the Greek, leitourgia, “public service,” which is how Greek civilization thought of service to the gods. The Jewish equivalent is the Temple cult of antiquity – in Hebrew, avodah, which meant the same thing, the work of serving God. That eventually morphed into what people do in church and synagogue. Christians call it liturgy; Jews call it “services.”

Narrowly defined, liturgy is the history and meaning of the prayers that go into services. But that constrained understanding misses the most important point, namely, that liturgy is a kind of performance. No one buys a prayer book for personal reading purposes. If the thing doesn’t get prayed from, it doesn’t count as liturgy any more.  So liturgy is the way a community defines its public identity; it is the ritualized ways we go about announcing who we are to other people (who, we hope, will say the same sort of thing back to us, and thereby let us know we are not alone). That’s where “life” comes in. Liturgy is the place where text meets life. Everyone has a liturgy, usually more than one, in fact.

Birthday parties are liturgies; so too are presidential debates, Super Bowl parties, Oscar night, half-time shows, and a whole lot of business meetings. Sometimes these accomplish other things, but they are liturgical in form: people dress a certain way, sit in certain seats, eat certain foods, and say predictable things. Liturgies define calendars: the way we mark time, what we consider holidays, and why those holidays matter. They require certain spaces: board rooms for executive meetings, dining rooms for formal parties, the Oval Office for presidential announcements. They establish community (who gets invited) and pecking orders within them (who hosts, acts as chair, gets honored, and sets the agenda). They both build on and establish tradition. The liturgies people attend and the energy they put into them are pretty good indications of who and what those people value most.

So what’s this blog all about? It’s “a little bit of liturgy” but because liturgy is the way we ritualize life, it is a whole lot more about life. It’s my unabashed take on a lot of life: our communities, our values, our identity, and our stories in the making – but with a twist, a liturgical twist, the insight that comes from knowing that human beings are ritualizing animals, and that how and what we ritualize says a lot about who and what we want to be.