Some years ago, I attended a bat mitzvah for my sister and 14 other women, their years spanning seven decades, at a suburban New York Reconstructionist synagogue. Present was Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the world’s first bat mitzvah and the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Her husband, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, gave an unforgettable sermon on the metaphorical character of religious concepts — an idea, he argued, that might resolve interdenominational theological disputes.
The idea was appealing, intriguing, but also puzzling: If religious language is metaphorical (including passages about the chosenness of Israel and the resurrection of the dead) why did Reconstructionism alter the language of the prayer book? If our liturgy is merely a mythological expression of lofty aspirations, why not sing it with kavannah? There is virtue, after all, in all of Israel sharing a liturgy.
I asked; he answered, surprisingly: “If I could do it [rewrite the prayer book] again, I would change nothing.” Though it took me awhile to assimilate his answer, I liked his idea. But questions remained: Are difficult, even ugly, prayers — such as calls for vengeance, or gratitude for not having been created a woman or a gentile — worth reciting? Why do we pray for the reinstitution of animal sacrifice? And while there is something magical about the thought of reuniting our entire ancestry (t’chiat ha’matim — the Hebrew sounds so much better than “resurrection of the dead”), the concept is not what most people would ask for in sober moments.
Eisenstein would likely suggest that finding naturalistic substitutes for such concepts — for example, perhaps rendering t’chiat ha’matim as a metaphor for a renewed sense of connection — would solve the problem. I want to suggest, on the contrary, that we engage with these concepts as they stand. Eisenstein’s suggestion is that we are really asking for something else; my suggestion is that the asking be seen in the light of poetry. Thus, to ask for t’chiat ha’matim, the resurrection of the dead, is a way — our way, Israel’s way — of connecting with the magic, the wondrousness of intimacy with one’s seriously extended family, with one’s history. It’s the magic that deserves our attention.
During my first sojourn in Jewish religious life, as a college student, I struggled with the question of God’s existence. I don’t remember much struggle with the finer points of downstream theology — the Messiah, for example. That was too much, too hard to get near. But now, in my second sojourn many years later, I have come to think that messianic concepts go to the heart of what we are about: One should never lose the vision, the dream, of what it might be like for humanity to come together as a single family. We can fill in the details of the messianic dream as we like, but we must take it seriously; we must teach our children about the cosmic importance of small steps toward that dream.
How about our prayers concerning the Temple and animal sacrifice? What might we make of such prayers? To so pray is to express solidarity with a crowning moment in Jewish history. We can’t go back to Temple times; we don’t even want to go back, but one can dream of the way things were before the exile, before the destruction of our ancient culture. (And no doubt the historical reality of the sacrificial culture was not quite as we imagine it.) There is, certainly in my own case, some measure of ironic consciousness in asking that we be returned to that period. But such is the way of prayer, as is the way of poetry.
There are no doubt other dimensions. We should not forget that our focus on the “return” began when we were lost, recently exiled, and hopeless. Our current words, said with fervor, may express solidarity with those exiles, with our exiles over the centuries, even with exiles everywhere. It is our way of being with them — and, at moments, of crying with them.
Perhaps attention to the nuances of tefillah (prayer)— to the variety of activities that count as tefillah, the variety of feelings and thoughts implicated — would ease the mental cramp induced by our requests for things we don’t exactly want. Think of the power of our collectively falling on our faces during the Avodah service’s rehearsal of the priestly activity on Yom Kippur. Consider an engaged reading of Psalms, with its poetic exploration of religious and human feelings, from the sublime to the profane. Think of the praise, the gratitude expressed, the whining, the whisperings of love and hope and fear. Think of those all too rare moments of prayer when the activity — sometimes individual, sometimes communal — induces in us a precious seriousness about life, about others, about God.
The Kohen HaGadol and his Descendants
Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest, is descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Kohanim are, theoretically at least, descendants as well.
The Kohen aliyah is the first aliyah to the Torah (when a community observes this practice).
Any adult Jew (any adult male in Orthodox synagogues) can lead the Avodah service on Yom Kippur — that is, the sh’liach or shlichat tzibur, the communal representative in prayer, can be a Kohen, but is not chosen to lead the Avodah service because of that status.
Today, many surnames — such as Cohen, Cohn, Katz, and Kahn — derive from this legacy.email print