Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sound the Call

The Shofar is the Icon of the Jewish New Year 

It is the sound of the shofar that is mentioned most often when Jews are asked to share a Rosh HaShanah memory. From those who are traditionally observant to those who self-describe as “cultural” or “secular,” it seems that all Jews everywhere associate the Jewish New Year with the sound of the shofar.  

And in recent years the shofar has come back into fashion. It began in the mid 2000’s, when a giant shofar “sound-off” was organized on a Massachusetts beach (that ended up in the Guinness Book of Records), and continued with Bugles Across America founder, Tom Day, whose rendition of Taps on the shofar at one of the ceremonies marking the  WW II Memorial dedication in Washington, DC, brought listeners to tears.

The origins of the shofar go way back. Author Ariela Pelaia (The Origins of the Shofar) writes that some scholars believe that its birth predates Jewish practice when making loud sounds on New Year’s night was thought to scare away demons, dybbuks and evil spirits.  As the religion developed, the shofar took on biblical proportions, mentioned as it is in the Tanach, the Talmud and a many pieces of historic Jewish literature. 

The shofar is the world’s oldest horn in continuous use. Biblical scholars state that the shofar dates back 6,000 years and was used in ancient times to announce the beginning of Jewish festivals, to signal the start of processions and to mark the start of a war. In fact the shofar’s most famous biblical reference is found in the Book of Joshua where  shofarot (the Hebrew plural form of shofar ) were used as part of a battle plan to capture the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:2-5). According to the account, Joshua followed God’s direction and the “walls came tumbling down!”

Yet it is the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah (which literally means “head of the year”) where the shofar commands its greatest respect. In fact, Pelaia writes that ”the shofar is such an important part of this holiday that another name for Rosh HaShanah is Yom Teruah, which, in Hebrew means, “day of the shofar blast.” On each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah the shofar is blown one hundred times (with the exception of Shabbat where, in orthodox and conservative synagogues, the shofar is not sounded).

It was our most famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who wrote that the sound of shofar on Rosh HaShanah is meant as a Jewish “wake-up call,” where our souls arise to the possibilities of positive change. And the four specific sounds (technically the second and third harmonics) create an atmosphere were we can concentrate on self-improvement. 

The first sound, Tekiah, “is an unbroken blast that asks us to listen, focus and pay attention.
Shevarim represent a Tekiah sound that is broken into three distinct segments and is thought to symbolize sadness as we recall how our behavior during the past year may have fallen short of the ideal. It’s the “Oy vey” sound as we recall our failings.

Teruah, a series of nine rapid-fire blasts, is described as God’s “alarm clock.” Each group of three sounds reminds us of that catch in our throat - the little sob that escapes from our soul as we remember the mistakes we’ve made.

Tekiah Gadolah – is the “Extreme” Tekiah,  lasting at least nine seconds but many who sound the shofar will attempt to make this sound last as long as possible to the congregation’s awe and delight.

Tekiah Gadolah signals the end of Yom Kippur and the beginning of the New Year. 

Below, is a quick instructional video courtesy of a shofar maker from Belgium. If you've ever struggled with producing a sound from the shofar, here a few tips:

The person who sounds the shofar is called the “Ba’al (or the feminine, Ba’alat) Tekiah, or the “Master of the Sound.” The particular shofar chosen by this “Master Blaster” may be one of the many unusual types of horns available. The instrument itself is basically the hollow horn of a kosher animal that is crafted by hand according to Jewish guidelines and specifications. The exception is the horn of a cow or a calf because these are associated with the idolatry and false worship that was rampant in Biblical times. An ox horn is also disqualified. These, known as “keren” in Hebrew, have their own place in Jewish pilgrimage tradition. The traditional shofar refers specifically to the horn of a sheep, goat, antelope, gazelle, ibex or kudu. In fact, the large, curling Yemenite shofar is made from any of several types of antelope horn. 

Shofarot are never manufactured or factory produced. A shofar cannot be painted with colors but it can be delicately and intricately carved. Some Sephardi shofarot feature decorative silver-plating, which makes them (like eating rice on Passover) un-kosher according to Ashkenazi tradition. In fact, some Italian communities where “b’nei anousim,” have their ancient roots, these Jews who were forced into Christian conversion centuries ago continue to follow Jewish tradition. Centuries ago these Jews were prohibited from celebrating Jewish holidays and persecuted if they did so. But these ancient Jews found a way so even today it is not unusual to hear the soulful sound of a ram’s horn exactly at midnight on December 31st.

Via Jerusalem School of Visual Theatre
Throughout history Jewish communities created shofar shapes and sounds unique and appropriate for its people. At the time of the Expulsion and Inquisition, the Jews of Spain used a flat, straight shofar that featured a low pitch. Shofar maker Zvika Bar-Sheshet explains that “in the past Jews were not allowed to carry a shofar or use it. So it was necessary for these Jews to smuggle it hidden between the body and the trouser belt. The straight shape was adopted for this purpose. To make the hiding possible.” Today many Sephardic communities preserve this tradition by using this type of  “temple trumpet.”

After the Expulsion from Spain, some Jewish communities migrated through Central and Eastern Europe, where it was difficult to find or make the shofarot they were used to. It was during this period that the ram’s horn became popular. The sound produced from these new horns was a high, thin, weeping-like sound. Because the ram’s horn shofar was bent and not straight as the ibex horn had been in Spain and North Africa, the rabbis taught that the bent horn was a symbol of the human heart, which, on Rosh HaShanah inclines or “bends” toward God.

In Yemen and Iraq, Jews created the long, spiraling shofar. Unlike European shofarot that were drilled lengthwise to create the traditional sound, the large Yemenite antelope or bushbuck horn was cut width-wise at its hollow point, thus creating the long, low sound that creates an echo effect. Some historians believe that the Yemenite Jews preferred the antelope horn because its strong echo brought to mind the image of the mountain where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son.

Will Seberger/ Interfaith Service in Tuscon
With its Hebrew roots in the letters “shin, peh, resh,” the word “shofar” originates from the Hebrew word meaning, “hollow.” Regardless of its specific type, the shofar is a perfect hollow shell that, with the human breath, brings to life the culture, tradition and meaning of the season.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Not Coca Cola Lite

Modern Liberal Judaism--We're Not "Coca Lite" (as Diet Coke is called in Italy)

As the first and only woman rabbi and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy, I am often asked to explain the differences between modern liberal Judaism and the more traditional approach to Jewish belief and practice.  From my very first year in Italy (2004) when I was appointed rabbi at Italy’s first non-orthodox synagogue in Milan, the population in general, as well as specific groups, from journalists to Jews, wanted to know how this modern approach to Judaism interfaces with orthodoxy – the only branch of Judaism that Italy has ever known.

At first I was given to long explanations where I would try to weave theology with history and history with heritage – all in Italian, which is not my madrelingua.  Oy vey! As my discourses became more complicated and as my audiences and I became more frustrated, it was a young lady who was a guest at a wedding where I was the officiant who turned things around for me and helped me find my way.

The ceremony was held in a gorgeous setting – on the grounds of a villa that bordered Lake Como in the north of Italy.  The bride, a Jewish girl from Milan was marrying her beloved, a young man from a Catholic family. When I first met Rubina I was impressed with her determination to incorporate both faith traditions into the ceremony and I was honored and delighted to help this couple who so very much wanted to invite God into their interfaith partnership. 

On a lovely Sunday evening we three stood under the chuppah, the Jewish bride, the Catholic groom and the modern liberal woman rabbi!  The ceremony itself was “meravigliosa!”  Wonderful!  It included the traditional bridal canopy, the kiddushin blessing, the Shevah Brachot (seven wedding blessings where the bride circles the groom) and the ketubah, the Jewish wedding document that the couple designed to celebrate their mutual respect for each other’s faith. Readings included Bible passages from the Book of Psalms and Proverbs, which were part of the groom’s  Catholic traditions, along with an instrumental version of Ave Maria. Of course, the ceremony concluded with the breaking of the glass.

But it was at the wedding reception when I was confronted by one of the bride’s close friends, that I truly understood how important it is to clearly define the differences between traditional and modern streams of Judaism.  The guest’s comment enlightened me when, after she thanked me for the beautiful ceremony, she went on to say, “I didn’t expect to see anything Jewish at this wedding.”  When I asked her why she thought that way, the young woman said, “Well, you are a woman rabbi which is not permitted. You have broken all the Jewish rules. I heard that you make Shabbat in five minutes, that you don’t ever read Torah and that at the Passover seder you serve lobster!” 

That’s when I knew. The orthodox community in Milan, and later as I observed, in most of Italy has the misconception that their brand of Judaism is “Coca Cola,” while we modern liberal Jews are “Coca Lite.” Attribute it to fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of losing a level of comfort or security, but the perception that a modern approach is necessarily a watered down version of Jewish tradition is something that I now work hard to dispel.

Jewish law, “halakah,” as it is called in Hebrew, derives from the Hebrew root, “holech” which means “to walk.”  This relationship strongly implies that Jewish law is ever changing, adapting with the times, or, as the 15th century Rabbi Isserles put it, “halakah must always be based upon new knowledge.” 

So as we modern Italian Jews do our “holech-ing,” or as we walk the path of progress, we incorporate new knowledge into existing Jewish tradition. Specifically that means that we study Jewish dietary laws and learn about establishing and maintaining a kosher kitchen. Then we modern Jews make personal choices about the food we eat, with the knowledge that if we maintain a strictly kosher diet, we know why we do it and if we do not keep kosher, we have made an informed choice as to why we do not.

Today an informed public understands that homosexuality is not a “life style choice,” but as biologists have discovered and as Lady Gaga emphasizes, people with gender differences are “born that way.”  Given this new knowledge, modern liberal Judaism openly welcomes gay and lesbian Jews as well as their partners and their children.

Rashi, said to be Judaism’s greatest commentator, pointed out that there was never a  prohibition that stated that women could not read Torah, lay tfillin or participate in prayer service and Talmudic studies. Rashi and others emphasized that women were “exempt” from these mitzvoth  given their responsibilities at home.  Over the years this exemption became a prohibition.

As modern liberal Jews we examine our history to verify the value of women’s participation and as such our women are free to become rabbis, to read Torah, and to become a Bat Mitzvah with the same level of participation as is required of her male Bar Mitzvah counterparts.

If my wedding guest were to visit our liberal synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud, on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning, she would feel Jewishly quite a home. Like the traditionalists, we light the Shabbat candles, make all the blessings in Hebrew, sing the Shabbat melodies and on Saturday mornings, we read from the Torah scroll.  At a recent Bar Mitzvah service in our synagogue, Alessandro Yosef laid tfillin and, using an ancient Italian trope, chanted directly from our 1783 Torah scroll. And then we all enjoyed a kosher kiddush lunch. The two videos that appear in this blog post feature Alessandro; in the first video he chants Parasha Pincha, and in the second (below) he sings the Sh'ma.

It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve served as rabbi here in Italy, and I’ve learned so much. I’ve come to understand and respect a traditional approach to Judaism while at the same time offer an open and welcoming opportunity to those Jews who appreciate the incorporation of modernity and relevancy into Jewish belief and practice. 

How does that translate?  Very well, especially since I now begin my lectures with two familiar bottles, one in each hand.  “If Judaism is Coca Cola,” I say to my audience, “I am here to explain to you how modern liberal Judaism, is grounded in Jewish tradition. We are NOT “Coca Lite.”