By Susan Laemmle, May 13, 2017

God, Torah & Israel: the Responsive Shma within the Torah Service

There is a moment in the Torah Service whose power is undeniable: the shaleach-tzibur grasps the Torah, which has just been removed from the Aron Ha-kodesh; faces the congregation; and sings out, loud and clear: Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu, Adonai Echad. The kalah responds by repeating. And it repeats again after the leader proclaims: Echad elohanu, gadol adonaynu, kadosh v’norah shmo.”

The impetus for this Dvar Torah derives from my feeling the power of that moment, both when leading the Torah Service and as part of the kahal — and to my noticing years ago that it is typically done differently in Reform and Conservative congregations. Most Reform synagogues I’ve davened with recite it in unison, leader and kahal together, like the Shma line within Shacharit. In contrast, most Conservative synagogues are like Temple Beth Am in doing the Torah Service’s Shma and its attendant line responsively. What, I wondered, could be the reason for this difference?

More broadly, I’ve long been interested in, and moved by, the liturgical rubric called devarim sh’b’kedushah — literally, the words or things that are holy. We know them as the sections of the service that require a minyan. If you’re an egalitarian woman in an Orthodox setting or a mourner wanting to recite Kaddish when fewer than ten people are present, you’ve particularly felt this principle in action. What interests and moves me about devarim sh’b’kedushah is their back and forth rhythm — the “antiphonal” structure within which their holiness presents itself. All the devarim sh’b’kedushah are characterized by that back and forth, that antiphony.

Writers on the Mourner’s Kaddish typically extol the way in which it draws the mourner out of his or her isolation into the comforting arms of community. For me, the Kaddish’s effect comes not simply from the mourning individual’s being in the presence of other Jews but from the way in which the words spoken by the mourners interleave with those said by the others who are present. (In this, all the mourners are, as it were, unified into one entity.) To my mind, the mode of recitation in itself affirms the interconnectedness of individual and group — the Jewish and human commonality of mourner on the one hand, and those whose family circle is currently intact, on the other. I believe that the way in which Mourner’s Kaddish is recited — the reciprocity in itself, apart from the words’ meaning or even their entrancing rhythm — strengthens mourner and non-mourner alike.

I am no psychologist, but let me suggest that this saving, soothing, strengthening reciprocity goes back to the bond that forms between parent and infant; the bond that goes on to support the toddler who ventures forth and then returns to the parent’s side; the bond that echoes and culminates in the love that binds couples who become life partners.

I’ll take a deep breath now and return to my topic of devarim sh’b’kedushah and the requirement of minyan. It turns out that Parshat-Emor contains one of the three Torah verses that generate that requirement through the Talmudic rule of g’zeyrah shavah. The Emor verse is Leviticus 22:32 on page 724: “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people” [read Hebrew]. The word b’toch, “amidst,” also appears in Number 16:21: “Separate yourselves from amidst the congregation.” And this verse’s word for “congregation” — ha-eydah — is also used in an earlier Numbers verse (14:27) that describes the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. From this triangular combination, the Talmud in Megillah 23b concludes that “sanctification” should take place in the midst of a congregation of ten.

This morning, the first point when we required that magic number was Borchu; next, the Kedushah within the Amidah; and then came the Torah blessings and congregational responses which precedes the out-loud public chanting of Torah — which were originally just one blessing and one response. Like variations of the Kaddish which occur at sectional breaks, these minyan-dependent liturgical moments go back and forth between the one and the many.

And so it is, I now suggest, with the responsively done, echoing, repeated Shma that comes at the beginning of the Torah Service. Through being performed responsively rather than in unison, it gets elevated in sanctity, becoming a dvar s’b’kedushah. Some of you may will know that a devar sh’b’kedushah is also what’s called a “doxology” — praise of God and God’s eternality. The Shma does not present the classic face of doxology, but it does affirm God’s enduring oneness in relation to Israel.

I am still at the beginning of my understanding of connections between minyan, the Shma, and the Torah Service. But for now, let me bring forward a few ideas gathered from others: The early twentieth century liturgist Ismar Elbogen postulated that in ancient worship, the Shma and its sequel — Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed — were recited antiphonally, with the congregation and what he calls the “precentor” alternating. In the fullness of time, the non-Torah sequel line was traditionally repressed into a whisper except on Yom Kippur. And the Shma within Shacharit became a unison affirmation by shaleach tzibur and tzibur together — even if there is not a minyan present. This and other instances of the Shma, both congregational and private, have been set free of the reciprocal restraint characteristic of devarim sh’b’kedushah. Thus the person who davens at home, who prepares to sleep, or who — God forbid! — faces danger or even martydom can summon the Shma unilaterally. In contrast, the Shma of the Torah Service is always a communal event. As our own Elliott Dorff puts this in My People’s Prayerbook: “Here, in the Torah service, the responsive face-to-face rendering of these lines makes them dramatically declarative: we as a community affirm the convictions contained in them.”

Let me very briefly broaden the context to say that ancient sources do not know of any special prayers before, during or after the reading of the Torah. That changes by the 8th century, when removing the Torah from the Ark gets surrounded with prayers that convey pomp and majesty. It has been argued that, consciously or unconsciously, the biblical account of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem by King David in II Samuel (6:5) had a decisive influence on the formation of this ceremony. The responsive Shma Yisrael and Echad Elohaynu are mentioned in the 8th century Masechet Sofrim, as is lifting of the Torah to display its text — which we do at the end of the Torah reading while Sefardim do it at the beginning. All branches of Judaism recite Psalm 34, verse 4 — Gadlu Adonai ee-tee — every time Torah is read but the two verses “Hear O Israel” and “One is our God” are found only in the Roman and Ashkenazi rites, and there only on Shabbat and Chagim.

We’re so used to it that we hardly notice the extent to which the Torah Service, and especially the responsive Shma, highlight Adonai, rather than the Torah. Rabbi Dorff suggests that “the Rabbis wanted to guarantee that we worship God, the Torah’s author and source of its authority, rather than the Torah itself.” Here during the central, most public portion of Shabbat and holiday services, amidst choreographed and formalized ritual, the closest thing to a creed in Judaism, the Shma, is proclaimed in the most elevated and impactful manner that Jewish liturgy knows.

Before concluding, I want to bring forward another responsive moment in Jewish life that moves and pleases me. This moment is much smaller than the Torah Service’s Shma and it requires only two people, not a minyan. Technically then, it is not a devar sh’b’kedushah. And yet, this moment captures the communality of Jewish life and adds real sweetness to the Shabbat (or holiday) table. It comes when the person reciting Kiddush on Friday night (or Erev Chag) concludes the introductory verses from the first chapter of Genesis that culminate in the creation of the Sabbath (or their holiday equivalent), and prepares to recite the blessing over wine leading into the Kiddush itself. The leader looks out at whoever else is present, whether one or hundreds, and asks their permission, their moral support really, in going forward to sanctify the holy day, proclaiming: ­­Savrai maranan v’rabotai or Savrai chaverai.

And the response comes, echoing across the centuries of struggle and persecution, achievement and aspiration. We respond in one voice: L’chayim – To Life!

Shabbat shalom!


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