PASSOVER - THE FREEDOM FROM OPPRESSION AND THE FREEDOM TO PARTICIPATE
The customs of Passover are many and various. I was blessed with two traditions growing up, one of my Grandfather, Larry, z”l, whose support for Israel, synagogue life and the Jewish people was unwavering, and who led family festivities using the New Union Haggadah. I was called on to lead many of the songs, and the service had both English and Hebrew to maximize participation.
The second was of my Great Uncle Jack, z”l, who had an orthodox upbringing and a cheder education. The haggadah was read from the beautiful Arthur Szyk haggadah (an influence on my interest in Jewish art) and was chanted in it’s entirety in Hebrew and Aramaic from beginning to end. I was also called on to lead songs because, unlike my grandfather who had a great baritone voice and played the violin, my Great Uncle Jack, by his own acknowledgment, was not so good at replicating melodies. The melodies he used, I later understood, were melodies that were familiar, but in his own special tune that never varied from year to year. I can sing them all to this day and they are legitimate renderings in their own right.
As I look back on the more traditional seder, I realize that freedom in general was celebrated, but so was my freedom to become a participant in the fabric of Jewish life. It was my evening, once a year, in cheder or yeshiva, and as a Reform Jew it was novel. I had studied Hebrew at a conservative Sunday school from grade one (a good time to start Hebrew education) so I could follow along by grade two. My task during the seder was to chant shene’emar, meaning “as it is said or stated”, usually used to quote a source in support of another idea. I had to follow along with all of the other chanting, waiting in anticipation for the word to arrive so my voice could chime in. If I missed any of the many times this word occurs in the Haggadah, my Great Uncle would look at me with kind anticipation, sometimes proceeding and sometimes waiting for a response. It was my place in the telling of the Haggadah - this one small word with three notes. It kept my eyes on the entire text the entire time, from beginning to end, and now, for me, dispels the notion that children need to be entertained by other means at the seder, or that the reading of the text should be shortened or simplified. The phrases I learned from year to year then became building blocks for further study. They were accessible in my memory and when another concept came to connect with them, the connection was easy. This is one of the greatest benefits of text study and memorization.
I later went on to realize, through camp study programs and life experience, that text study must be the corner stone of understanding what our tradition can give us. If we are not familiar with the gems of the greatest Jewish thinkers, and able to quote them freely, as the Haggadah does throughout, then we can never call upon them for guidance. These thinkers labored and thought to make their world better, but also to make our world better. They offered us a freedom - a freedom to participate, through their gift of writing and teaching. Our familiarity with text and our ability to use it as a catalyst for change and celebration is even a greater gift. May we use it to it’s fullest this Passover, and in the days that follow. Shene-emar……
Stony Brook, New York, April 2014
THE EXPANSE OF TORAH’S VOICE
Our English sentences are getting shorter. According to an 1893 study “the average Elizabethan written sentence ran to about 45 words; the Victorian sentence to 29; ours to 20 and less.”* Compare that to the ‘OMG’s (text for “Oh my God”) and all of the other short texts that fill the mobile universe from top to bottom, especially as written by young people. The sentences that make up much of the world’s communication don’t even have words. They are simply abbreviations for sentences that are abbreviations themselves. One of the earliest of these was ‘lol’ or laughing out loud. Presumably the person who typed these three letters could still do so, even though they were overcome by laughter. Of course, the sentence isn’t really a sentence at all. Who is laughing out loud? And if they are laughing, why is it so silent?
Hebrew texts have their abbreviations as well. The talmud is written with abbreviations for commonly used phrases. The abbreviations were used to save paper in the early days of printing and they always existed in the context of longer sentences. The sentences never gave themselves to complete abbreviation. Even so, the language of the talmud in general is highly abbreviated. The ratio of actual words in an elucidated translation to the explanation is about 1:3.
Tradition abbreviates the Hebrew name of God and we see it most often symbolized as two yud’s. It is sometimes represented only by a heh, standing for Hashem, or the name. If these abbreviations are meant to keep us from approaching the real name of God unprepared or in the wrong state of being, then what can be said of the general abbreviated universe? Is it meant to create distance? Perhaps a comfortable distance from an authentic self?
The torah passages that our b’nei mitzvah students study never change. The particular sentences they learn are always the same length and have been as they are now for thousands of years. There is no way of converting a long passage to a ‘texting friendly’ mode, or of claiming that a shorter passage is not meaningful, even if it reads closer to a mobile text. The text is unchanged and unchangeable. As we approach it as students, it is only we who change.
If there is no simplification of our texts, no way to make them more efficient, then by studying them, we must be open to transporting ourselves to a different time, a different realm. Students of Torah text allow themselves to enter a portal to that which is not from this world. As I often point out in lessons, many of the difficulties that a young person will encounter in studying difficult ancient biblical text derive from the fact that the writers did not keep the North American bar or bat mitzvah student in mind when they wrote. It is for the student to rise to the challenge of an ancient text even if it is a difficult text. Those who master the sounds and the meaning of the ancient message become enriched.
I say that we should let our texts remain as they are and be allowed to speak for themselves. There is no need to text the Torah. These sentences, in all of their glory, may be the only reasonable focus left in an increasingly abbreviated world.
Cantor Ted Labow
Stockton, NJ, March 2013
*Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools quoting Rudolf Lesch from the late1940’s
AN ETERNAL WALL
Two Jewish observances take place during the month of Av. Tisha B’Av (ninth of Av) and Tu B’Av (fifteenth of Av). They are opposite in nature. The first is a day of mourning, particularly the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. The second is joyous and a holiday of love, mentioned in the Talmud. Joy precedes mourning.
As progressive Jews, mourning the loss of the sacrificial cult is complex. How can one mourn rituals that one would be unlikely to participate in if they were revived? Very few modern places of worship would tolerate the establishment of a sacrificial altar in their midst. And yet, the Jewish people returns to the significant remnant of a Temple retaining wall as an inspirational and holy site. To take the Kotel out of Judaism would be unthinkable; it is etched into our memory.
In a strange twist, for many Jews, the destruction of the Temple continues to this day. Once a place for the people as a whole, it has become a controversial focal point for religious antagonism. While the wall is promoted for some, others struggle for access. Definitions of what constitutes acceptable religious practice ‘shut down’ the wall equally for both sides. Rather than an open place of worship, the Western Wall stands as glowing coal representing an ancient destruction. This time, though, it is not the Romans, long gone from history who act. This Tisha B’av, we must mourn our failure understand and love as befits Tu, not Tisha, B’Av.
Cantor Ted Labow (©2018 NSTE)
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: RIGHT AND LEFT
I heard Alan Dershowitz speak in the Northern Hemisphere after 911. His latest book at the time was Why Terrorism Works. His most recent book is Trumped Up. History has progressed and his commentaries respond to world events. Nonetheless, he has always been, and still is, a strong advocate for Israel’s place among the nations. I heard him for the second time, in the Southern Hemisphere, here in Sydney on February 25 at the UIA 2018 General Division Event. With 2000 people in attendance, it was an encouraging introduction to our larger Jewish community.
Dershowitz, literally in two hemispheres for me, was this time also multifaceted. His opening statements were strong and delivered quickly and forcefully. He quoted Torah, using Hashem as the preferred name for G-d, and making this final exhortation: that Israel must always be kept superior, not just equal, in military might to the nations that surround it. I couldn’t help thinking that this was not Liberal Democrat that I remembered hearing in Canada so many years ago, at least not in tone. It was not until the discussion segment that he returned to the more reasoned rhetoric that makes him so compelling. He is a Jew to the core, but a Jew defined throughout his career as an advocate for the scorned and the underprivileged. From the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the Rights of Women and the LGBT community, his position, as presented last Sunday, is to encourage open debate and to embrace dissent. A heckler who made it into the event gave him an opportunity to amply demonstrate this.
The event also highlighted UIA support for organisations that work with youth at the periphery of Israel’s society. This contrasted well with the highly polished and emotional film segments extolling Israel’s virtues, reminding us that the Israel we love and defend is always a work in progress. Dershowitz’s visit was indeed an inspiration to continue the journey.
Cantor Ted Labow (©2018 NSTE)