Today is August 19, 2018 -
Rabbi’s lach lecha column for june and july, 2018
College graduations are deservedly joyous and celebratory occasions for both the parents of the graduates, who are understandably quite proud of their child’s accomplishments, and who have likely contributed financially and in myriad other ways to their child’s educational experience, and for the graduates, themselves, who have dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in class and study time, and who may well have worked part-time jobs and/or incurred student loans to finance their education.
To all of the proud parents and recent high school, college, and graduate school graduates in our community, I want to offer a well-earned mazal tov!
I do have, however, a brief critique of college graduations, or at least the ones that I recently attended, and that is their length. At one of the graduations I recently attended, for example, the main speaker opened his remarks by noting that he was tempted to keep his remarks to but one or two sentences, for he was fully aware the graduates would likely not be listening, with their understandably having other things on their minds. I thought to myself, “this is one of the wisest things I have ever heard a commencement speaker say,” and Ii looked forward with great anticipation to listening carefully to his brief remarks. He then, ignoring his own words, proceeded to render advice to the graduates for the next half hour or so!
At another graduation that I recently attended, the ceremony was entering its third hour and the “robing” of the 400 plus graduates was only one-third completed. As I looked around seeing many in the audience checking emails on their cell phones, the following riddle came to mind, “what do college graduations have in common with Jewish liturgy, especially services on the high holy days?” While many people would prefer that graduations and prayer services be somewhat streamlined, the fact is that both, if anything, seem to be growing longer, not shorter, with new prayers, rituals, etc., continuing to be added. Jewish liturgy and graduations seem to have taken on lives of their own, with there being the feeling that the matbeah, the format, of our liturgy is somehow sacrosanct and etched in stone, so that it would be a shanda, some type of sin, to shorten or streamline them.
Yet, were the truth be known, while parts of the prayer service do date back to the early centuries C.E., such as the Amidah, the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the Aleinu prayers, others date back only hundreds of years, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening, and while still other prayers and readings have been deleted from the liturgy over time.
For example, for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot this year, we studied together a Mishnah from the Talmud, Pirkei Avot, “the sayings/ethics of our ancestors.” This practical and readable text, full of scores of aphorisms and teachings to help us lead more joyful and meaningful lives, was once part of the liturgy, still appearing in most siddurim, including the one we use at C.B.I. [because of the depth and richness of this Mishnah, and because we only had time to study several of its many teachings, I am thinking about making Pirkei Avot the subject of our next one or even two Sunday morning adult ed classes.]
On Shavuot, as part of the Torah service, we read the Aseret Hadibrot, “the 10 sayings/commandments,” which in ancient times were thought by many sages and scholars to be among, if not the, most important of the 613 mitzvot, and, for this reason, were read during the Shacharit, “the morning prayer service” each day. In fact, the 10 Commandments were once deemed to hold such a seminal place in Judaism that they were, along with the Shema, inscribed in the tefillin worn by many of our early ancestors.
So why do we no longer recite the 10 Commandments as part of our daily liturgy? According to a number of prominent early Jewish scholars and Talmudic sages, the reason is that certain “rival” groups to Judaism, particularly the early Christians, claimed, as part of their theology, that the only laws given by God at Mt. Sinai and thus binding on them were the 10 Commandments, which was and is inconsistent with Judaism’s belief that the entire Torah, as well as the oral law, was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and that, as a result, all 613 mitzvot are binding. In other words, because our sister religion, Christianity, placed such emphasis on the Ten Commandments to the exclusion of the other commandments, our ancestors felt the need to de-emphasize the importance of the 10 Commandments, one of the ways being to omit them from the daily prayer service. [This debate over whether to include or eliminate the 10 Commandments from the daily liturgy continued throughout the middle ages up to the present time, with the consensus possibly being that they should be recited, along with the other personal prayers, by the individual, alone, but not as part of the communal prayer service. For this reason, the 10 Commandments continue to be included in the siddurim of several movements in Judaism.]
Whatever side one may take in this debate, what is incontrovertible and what is most important to the CBI community today is that change, while perhaps coming more slowly and gradually in a religious vis-à-vis a secular setting, can not only be a good thing, it is inevitable in the life of any living entity or organization. In fact, it has been its ability and willingness to change and adapt that, as much as anything, has enabled Judaism to survive, even thrive, over the many centuries.
With its moving to a new building, and with its hopefully soon engaging the services of an outside consulting group, C.B.I. is going to be focusing, during the coming months and year, on envisioning and exploring ways to grow, improve, and, yes, change in a number of ways. To do this well, the Synagogue is going to need the participation, commitment, and involvement of as many current and potential members as possible.
Wishing your loved ones and you a safe, fun, and relaxing summer!
Rabbi Howard Mandell