Today’s Jewniverse is about a translation of the Shema prayer — only, it’s not the prayer as you’ve ever heard it. Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh talks about the word-to-word translation, asking whether “Israel” refers to the place or the people Israel — and why would you start a prayer off “Hear O Israel” when you can’t hear?
Rabbi Leigh’s thoughts on the matter are pretty incredible. And he seems like a pretty blow-away guy as well — check out his author page on MJL, and this hilarious video of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister playing during his rabbinical ordination. But really, check out his version of the Shema. And then check out your own. And see how thinking about his version changes yours.
Here’s the way it’s usually said:
And here’s Rabbi Leigh’s version, and his explanation:
I became Orthodox under the guidance of someone who advised me to run from it. Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, the rabbi of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. — whose name you might recognize from the 2000 presidential election, when he was constantly quoted as “Joe Lieberman’s rabbi” and asked deeply-thought questions like, “If a nuclear war breaks out on Shabbat, will Senator Lieberman be allowed to help out in the ensuing battles?”
In addition to being a rabbi, he holds advanced degrees in chemistry and biology, and is a fiendishly rational thinker. While many people are attracted to religion through mystical stories and supernatural powers, for me the draw was the exact opposite. I was already totally nuts. I needed something to ground me, a rational set of rules to lead my life by. I started by going to Rabbi Freundel’s weekly halacha shiur — a three-hour class about everything from washing your hands before getting out of bed to whether one needs to tie tzitzit on a rain poncho to what happens if you start eating a ham sandwich, realize it’s not kosher, then get a craving for macaroni and cheese — are you allowed to? (Yes: because ham doesn’t fall under the category of kosher meat.) “Run the other way,” he said. “We are competists.” I’m a masochist. It just made me hungry for more.
Anyway. Rabbi Freundel has a new book, Why We Pray What We Pray, and it’s a doozy. The book is an excellent field guide to Jewish prayers, perhaps the most well-conceived and fully-realized book on the subject in English to come out in years. (And just so you don’t think my opinion is weighted, he is also the man who forced me to type up 112 pages of notes about tefillin. Five times.) What the book lacks in scope, it makes up in depth — choosing just six different prayers, giving their history, previous incarnations,
Which might sound boring under someone else’s wing. The first chapter is dedicated to the Shema — and Freundel picks apart its history step by step, discovering that, in its 3000-year lifespan, the prayer once included several other parts of the Torah — and things that didn’t even come from the Torah, including the second line of its present incarnation — as well as one whole Torah portion (this part was ultimately excised, on the grounds that it would take too damn long for normal people to get through) and the entirety of the Ten Commandments. Later chapters go through other prayers, some of which (like “Nishmat”) have just become known as long and sort of meandering in the present liturgy, others (such as “Alenu”) have become sing-songy and equally meaningless for us. This book is an adventure in the best way, a book that makes us love words again.
Reading Why We Pray, I sometimes wished that Freundel, and not some boring dictionary-like rabbi, wrote the lines of commentary underneath the prayers in my normal old prayerbook. Then I changed my mind. Those little two-line insights are good for ignoring on a day-to-day basis, and jumping right back into the prayerbook. These stories are at their best for actual reading, for paying attention to and for diving into. As Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Lord Sacks says (in this superb video), Jewish people are great at being kind to others and at studying, two of the three pillars on which the world rests. The praying part — taking these words that we say every time we set foot in a synagogue* and giving our prayer meaning, a life beyond our lips, and a meaning above the dullness of mundane routine — is what we need to work on.
And here, folks, is where it starts.
* — every time we set foot in a synagogue and it’s not for a disco Bar Mitzvah party, I mean.
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Like brooks are they turned, like gardens by the river, like cedars beside the waters the waters flow from God’s buckets… Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.”
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.
The Bible doesn’t do the best job of letting the main characters tell their side of the story. Take Moses for example. He must have been pretty pissed when God made him go speak in front of Pharoah even though he stated clearly that he had a stutter.
Another example is Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were both flawed characters who messed up when it counted most. But they also seem like overall nice people.
So if we gave Adam and Eve the podium, and asked them how they met, what exactly happened in the Garden of Eden, etc., what would they say?
“A man should never single out one of his children for favored treatment, for because of two extra coins’ worth of silk, which Jacob gave to Joseph and not to his other sons, Joseph’s brothers became jealous of him, and one thing led to another until our ancestors became slaves in Egypt.”
–Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10b
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.
A new book “relies on an imaginative reading of the Bible supplemented by legends and lore promulgated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries’ to create an “unauthorized biography” of King Solomon. (Jewish Ideas Daily)
Remarkably, “the Bible remains a vital text in secular Israeli culture,” and a new book “approaches the Bible…as an unrivaled literary exemplar, as the locus of a culture’s lasting archetypes and mythology.” (Forward)
Is the Biblical Tarshish just another name for Atlantis? (Jerusalem Post)
Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar makes the case for using the Bible as a guide for archeological exploration. (The Trumpet)
Yair Hoffman, professor emeritus of Bible at Tel Aviv University, says that the “Hundreds of linguistic and ideological differences between the Masoretic version of the Pentateuch and the Samaritan text”point to the critical role of editing, and of the later addition of diacritical and cantillation marks to the Masoretic version. (Ha’aretz)
Our good friends at AJWS are looking for a few more good women and men to write their social justice commentaries. It’s a great opportunity for writers and activists of all kinds.
AJWS is pleased to announce that we are accepting applications for the Dvar Tzedek Lisa Goldberg Memorial Writers’ Fellowship for 5772 / 2011-2012. AJWS Dvar Tzedek Fellows write insightful and articulate commentaries on the weekly Torah portion designed to inspire readers to engage in the pursuit of global justice. Dvar Tzedek currently reaches over 6,000 subscribers a week over e-mail.
Applications are due on May 2, 2011. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fellows receive a generous stipend and attend a one-day orientation.
Guess what? The Maxwell House Haggadah is being reissued this year, and it’s new and improved…but let’s face it, probably still solidly mediocre.
If you’re looking to add something new to your Haggadah collection this year, I recommend the brand new JPS haggadah, Go Forth and Learn: A Passover Haggadah written by Rabbi David Silver with Rachel Furst.
There’s two parts to this Haggadah–the traditional Haggadah text with commentary, and then a section of essays and longer commentaries on the Exodus story. The regular Haggadah part is good, but I didn’t find it as fun and interesting as the longer commentaries. One of my pet peeves about Passover is that we all make a big deal about how we’re going to tell the story of the Exodus, and then we end up talking about staying up all night, and the korban pesach and I just want to poke my eyes out with the shank bone. Where is the actual story of living in Egypt and then leaving? It’s here in Rabbi Silber’s book. He devotes a large chunk of the text to the stories that lead to the Jews ending up in Egypt, including Abraham and Hagar (usually not big players in Pesach celebrations) and an equally large chunk to meditations on what the Exodus meant for a people. I also really enjoyed the chapter that examined the creation themes in the ten plagues.
I don’t think I’d buy this Haggadah to give to everyone at my seder, but it’s a nice one to have as an added resource at the seder, with lots of interesting tidbits to add to the discussion.
And I say all this as someone who really hates Pesach and (usually) seders.