On Wednesday afternoon, three people were killed and 40 were injured, some of them seriously, when a terrorist ploughed the car he was driving into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, and then went on to stab a police officer on duty at the Houses of Parliament. Sadly, one of the critically injured has since died. Just as on Thursday, refusing to be terrorised, Londoners continued to go about the business of their daily lives, so remembering the dead and injured and the bereaved families in our prayers, today I would like us to focus on the ordinary business of celebrating Shabbat together as a congregation.
So, what are we doing here this morning – and every Shabbat morning? I’m not asking, ‘why are we here?’ – a more complex question, with as many answers as there are individuals sharing this moment. There are at least three possible responses to the question about what we’re doing here: We are meeting together; we are praying; we are engaging in the Shabbat morning service. The first possible response doesn’t explain exactly what we are doing. The second, may not reflect the experience of everyone; praying is primarily a personal matter. The third possible response is more precise: we are engaging in the Shabbat morning service.
Now, it seems appropriate to ask the ‘why’ question: why are we doing this? Of course, there will be personal responses, like, ‘because I enjoy it’, or, ‘because this is how I spend most Shabbat mornings’. How might we frame our collective response? We are here participating in the Shabbat morning service because the synagogue organises weekly Shabbat services, and always has done since its inception in 1935 – indeed, at this particular address, 6 Lansdowne Road for the past 80 years.
But, of course, this synagogue is not alone. Jewish congregations across the country and around the world, of all denominations, hold Shabbat morning services. And while all these thousands of synagogues follow a similar order of service, each denomination produces its own prayer book – known as a siddur, the rabbinic Hebrew word for ‘order’ – reflecting its own cultural milieu, theological perspective and values. But each denomination does not simply have its own siddur for all time. Even Orthodox denominations that are less responsive to social change bring out a new edition of their siddur once in a while. In the case of Liberal Judaism here in Britain, since the movement was founded in 1902, a new siddur has been published every 25 to 30 years to ensure that the content of our services meets ‘the needs of the age,’ as Lily Montagu, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism, put it back in 1899. 
The siddur we are using today, Siddur Lev Chadash, meaning, ‘prayer book of a new heart’, heralded a major departure from previous Liberal prayer books, when it was published in 1995. On the one hand, it was more traditional than previous incarnations, adopting the traditional structure of Jewish services, and including more Hebrew. On the other hand, it was more radical, using an inclusive gender translation throughout; that is, language that does not speak, either, of God, or of our people, past and present, in exclusive male gender terms. So, gone were the references to God as ‘He’, a ‘father’ and a ‘king’, and to our ancestors, as our ‘fathers’.
But times continue to change and Siddur Lev Chadash no longer feels so up-to-date. So, the process has begun within the Liberal Judaism rabbinic conference towards producing a new siddur. For the first time, the siddur will be co-edited by two women rabbis, Lea Mulstein, Associate Rabbi of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, and me. That in itself marks a new milestone. Further, the rabbinic conference siddur group has agreed some crucial innovations, most significantly, that the entire Hebrew text will be transliterated, the transliteration most likely to appear directly to the left of the Hebrew, with the English translation next to it. For many years, it was felt that the inclusion of transliteration would mean that people would be disinclined to make the effort to learn to read Hebrew. The current feeling is that the more familiar non-Hebrew readers are with reciting the Hebrew, the more likely they are to want to learn to read it. Another important change is that the English translation of the prayers will avoid archaic language – and so, for example, the word ‘blessing’ will be used instead of ‘benediction.’ We are also paying attention to the rubrics to ensure that they are less prescriptive. And so, for example options for standing and sitting will be introduced, and italics and musical signs will be omitted, so at any given service, congregations may choose which passages they will recite together and which ones they will sing.
At the moment, we are in the process of preparing a draft of the Shabbat morning service, with a view to circulating it to congregations in January 2018, for use on a monthly basis throughout that year. In this way, congregations will have a chance to get used to it before offering feedback. Meanwhile, we will get to work on the Erev Shabbat liturgy.
I’ve told you a little about the new siddur, which we hope will be published around 2022, but I still haven’t addressed the deeper question of what we are doing when we participate in the Shabbat morning service: what is actually going on when we recite ancient prayers, albeit edited and presented with new settings and translations? One way of beginning to address that question is to take a step back from our preoccupation with the service, and look at what the Torah has to say about the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. For the past four weeks, following the account of the Revelation of the Eternal at Mount Sinai, each successive parashah (portion) has included material about the construction of the sacred tent in the wilderness, which is variously referred to as mikdash, a ‘sanctuary’, ohel mo’eid, a ‘tent of meeting’, and mishkan, a ‘dwelling’, usually translated as ‘tabernacle’. Let us remind ourselves of the reason given for this sacred dwelling-place. We read in the opening verses of parashat T’rumah:
V’asu li mikdash, v’shakhanti b’tokham
Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the import of this verse. The dramatic scene of Revelation concludes with Moses ascending the mountain and disappearing into the cloud. As we read in the closing verses of parashat Mishpatim:
Then Moses went up into the mountain, and cloud covered the mountain. / And the glory of the Eternal dwelt upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day God called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. / The appearance of the glory of the Eternal was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the Israelites. / Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mountain; Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights.
It’s an evocative description, which turns on one particular phrase: ‘And the glory of the Eternal dwelt upon Mount Sinai’ – Va-yishkon k’vod Adonai al-har Sinai. Throughout the narrative of Revelation, the top of the mountain is the dwelling-place of the mysterious, elusive, ineffable, and yet commanding Eternal One. Nothing surprising about that. Where else would you expect a mysterious presence to reside if not on the top of a mountain wreathed in cloud – which is why where the Torah takes us next seems so remarkable. I repeat: V’asu li mikdash, v’shakhanti b’tokham – ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ As long as the Eternal exists only in relation to the Eternal then it makes sense to describe that Eternal aloneness as utterly apart, above and beyond the arena of human endeavour. This state of utter aloneness is beautifully described at the beginning of Adon Olam, the song usually sung at the end of the Shabbat morning service: Adon olam asher malakh, b’terem kol y’tzir nivra – literally: ‘Eternal Lord who reigned alone before every form was created.’ By contrast, when we read the opening verses of the Torah, in parashat B’reishit, it becomes apparent from the narrative that as soon as the Eternal engaged in the work of creation, the lone reign of the Eternal came to an end. From then onwards, the Eternal existed in relation to the Earth and everything on it, and set about trying to establish a reliable relationship with humanity. And so, we read in the third parashah, Lekh L’kha, that after a couple of failed attempts at relating with humanity as a whole – the tales of the flood and the tower of Babel related in parashat No’ach – the Eternal sent out a call. The response to that call came from Abraham and Sarah, and so began the story of the ancestors of the Israelites and their journeys with the Eternal.
The Eternal exists in the nexus of relationships formed when people create community. From a Jewish perspective, the context of community is paramount – which brings me back to what we are doing here today, to this Shabbat morning service. The prayer book that preceded Siddur Lev Chadash was called ‘Service of the Heart, published in 1967. Centuries after the descendants of the Israelites entered the land beyond the Jordan (c. 1250 BCE), the mobile mishkan was replaced by the first Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon (c. 970 BCE), with sacrifices offered by the priests on behalf of the people as a service to the Eternal. When the second – and last – Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, avodah, the ‘service’ of the Eternal in the form of animal sacrifice came to be replaced by what the early rabbis called avodat ha-lev, ‘service of the heart’– that is, ‘prayer’ – not personal prayer, but rather, liturgy, the framework of communal prayer. So, when we engage as a congregation in a Shabbat morning service, or in any one of the three services daily services, or a festival service, as we build and rebuild our relationships with one another as a community, we also enable and reinforce the relationship of the community with the Eternal.
This week’s parashah is a double portion, Va-yakheil-P’kudei, which concludes the Book of Exodus with a description of the setting up of the mishkan, following its completion, on the first day of the first month of the second year of the journey in the wilderness. The account closes with the words: ‘So Moses finished the work.’ – Va-y’khal Moshe et-ha-m’lakhah – mirroring the language used to describe how the Eternal ‘finished’ the work of creation. Martin Buber draws our attention to seven correspondences between the first narrative of creation and the account of the building of the mishkan. As God created the world and everything in it, so it is our task to create community.
But that’s not all. The last four verses of the Book of Exodus echo the verses I quoted earlier from the end of the narrative of Revelation about the Eternal dwelling on Mount Sinai – only the location has shifted:
The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Eternal filled the tabernacle. /Then Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud dwelt upon it, and the glory of the Eternal filled the tabernacle. / Whenever the cloud was taken up over the tabernacle, the Israelites journeyed on their journeys. / But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey until the day it was taken up. / The cloud of the Eternal was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire within it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
Just as the concluding verses of the tale of Revelation tell us that the Eternal dwelt in cloud and fire on the top of Mount Sinai, so as the Book of Exodus closes we have a vision of the Eternal, whose palpable nearness is signalled by ‘the cloud’ – he’anan – that ‘dwelt’ on the tabernacle by day and the ‘fire’ – eish – that burned within it at night. The Eternal: a mystery, and yet, a presence, residing in the midst of the community, and journeying and resting with the people, whose community-building efforts have brought the Eternal down from the fathomless heights into their lives. Every time we consciously gather together as a community, reinforcing our bonds with one another, we also invite the Eternal to dwell in our midst. May the ineffable presence of the Eternal give us strength and courage, hope and purpose on all our journeys through the wilderness of Life. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
25th March 2017 / 27th Adar 5777
- 22.03.17. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-39355505 ↑
- The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1899. ↑
- T’rumah, Exodus 25:8 ↑
- Mishpatim, Ex. 24:15-18 ↑
- No’ach, Genesis 6:9-9:17; 111-9. ↑
- Lekh L’kha, Gen. 12:1. ↑
- Gen. 12:4-5. ↑
- See: quotation from the Talmud in the inside cover of the 1967 prayer book:Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 2a. ↑
- P’kudei, Exodus 40:33. ↑
- B’reishit, Genesis 2:1-2. ↑
- See Studies in Shemot – Exodus by Nehama Leibowitz. WZO, 1983, pp.497-481. ↑
- P’kudei, Exodus 40: 34-37. ↑