By Rabbi Mitchell Cohen | Director of the National Ramah Commission of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Recently I visited a group of Ramah teens on their one-week Poland experience, just prior to their summer trip to Israel. While visiting Jewish cemeteries in Krakow, I stood to the side and did not enter the area of the graves. Two of our teen participants, also both kohanim, asked me why I wouldn’t enter the cemetery, and I told them about the traditional prohibition of kohanim coming within six feet of a grave. Both decided to adopt this custom—at least for the days we were together—and both told me that even though they couldn’t explain why, it just felt right.
Two weeks ago I was amongst a group discussing the nature of obligation in Jewish tradition and contemporary life. I played some role in convening the group because this is—for me—a central and often unaddressed paradox in the world we live in today. One can argue about the bounds of halakhah and about the nature and pace of its evolution. But it is hard to argue that we are not a people with a halakhic tradition. Halakhah is too engrained in Jewish tradition and in Jewish history to argue otherwise.
And yet, the overwhelming majority of Jews today are not fully halakhically observant.
The main course at my Thanksgiving dinner—and perhaps at yours as well—is determined by a few verses in this week’s parashah, Shemini. After all, Leviticus 11 defines which living things are fit for kosher consumption, granting it a major impact on the Thanksgiving menu of kosher aviavores.
According to Leviticus 11 and the parallel text in Deuteronomy 14:3–21, when considered as food, living things are divided into four categories: land animals, fish, birds, and “winged, swarming things that walk on fours.” Each category is treated separately, reflecting the Israelite and, later, the Jewish
There is a parable that speaks of a village that once had a renowned orchestra that played beautiful music at set times in the presence of the king, bringing delight both to the musicians and their ruler, who rewarded the musicians generously for their artistry and commitment. As time passed, the original musicians grew old and their place was taken by others who were not quite so gifted, drawn perhaps by the exalted audience and generous reward.
After several generations, the structure remained in place, but the orchestral instruments were passed into the hands of descendants of the original
Are words important? This is a question that bedevils us as human beings. It is largely the ability to speak that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world. By speech, I do not mean the mere ability to communicate information; we know that other animals are capable of this feat, each in its own way. I mean the ability to speak of past and future, the ability to imagine and conceptualize, and the capacity to employ words as, using a term coined by philosopher J. L. Austin,performative utterances.
There is an exquisite irony that the same element of our liturgy—the traditional poems (piyyutim) within the siddur that are used in many of our services—is identified with both the greatest tedium and the most profound spiritual depths. We encounter Adon Olam and Yigdal every day and Lekha Dodi and El Adon every Shabbat. In the cycle of the year, there are the piyyutim for rain and dew (Geshem and Tal) associated with Shemini Atzeret and Pesah; Akdamut for Shavu’ot; and of course numerous poetic compositions adorn the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays).
Much of our liturgy and liturgical experience is verbal and analytic, based upon precisely what words we say and the meaning(s) found and embedded in those words. In these essays, we have also looked extensively at the way in which music, melody, and vocal quality add levels of meaning and experience. However, we are not disembodied minds and souls, and there are more than a few occasions when the disposition of the body is engaged to greater or lesser extent in the experience of liturgy.
Ask almost any group of Jews to identify the most important Jewish “prayer” of all, and at the top of the list will almost certainly be the Shema’. Technically, it is not a prayer, for it is not addressed to God, but to the community of Israel. But that is a technical quibble, so (for now) let it pass. Traditionally, we say the Shema’ twice each day within the formal liturgy, and also just before going to sleep. The first sentence also appears in the kedushah of Musaf (perhaps for the benefit of latecomers to shul), and at the end of the final (Ne‘ilah) service of Yom Kippur.
I remember well a warning from one of my teachers in rabbinical school (for me, the Leo Baeck College in London). We were discussing Shabbat morning services, and the warning was to young(ish) rabbis and rabbinical students that if we “indulge ourselves too greatly in liturgy, the result will be that the ovens of our congregants will come to be the homes of a new generation of burnt offerings.” The message was quite clear that these burnt offerings would be desirable neither to our congregants nor to God.
I would like to reflect a little this week on the length of Shabbat morning services,
In the preliminary section of the morning service, the siddur guides us through some of the most basic concepts of our existence. We ask each day, “Mah anu? Meh chayeinu?” (Who are we? What are our lives?), and I confess that I always wonder if the questions are rhetorical or if they demand from us, each day, an answer. Each day, we also turn to two paragraphs that address the core nature of every human being: the siddur invites us to affirm that we are more than “a body with vessels and glands, organs, and systems of wondrous design” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), and presents the