Is Chazzanut Good for KJ?

Adapted from a sermon delivered at KJ on Shabbat Va'era

The beginning of Parashat Va’era describes a critical conversation that took place between God and Moshe. God told Moshe that a new chapter was about to unfold for the Jewish People, as God will now be known by a new name.

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem.”

The problem with this statement is that it’s not true. The name, Hashem, was in fact so familiar to Abraham that he even called God by that name early in their relationship, asking “Oh Hashem, what can You give me?” God introduced Himself to Jacob by that name too: “I am Hashem, the God of your father Abraham.” So what then is the meaning of God’s words to Moshe that I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem?”

Seforno (16th century Italy) suggested that God did not mean that He never used the name Hashem when interacting with the forefathers, but rather that the attributes and abilities that the name Hashem connotes were not shown to them. “God is saying,” Sforno writes,  “that He did not become familiar to the patriarchs by the name Hashem when appearing to them...because He never had the need to change the laws of nature on their behalf. Seeing that the patriarchs could not have passed on knowledge about Me which I had not revealed to them, they in turn had not been able to pass on such knowledge to their children. I have to do this now in order to ensure that I can preserve Bnei Yisrael as My people.” According to Seforno the name Hashem refers to God’s ability to manipulate the laws of nature. Hitherto, God never needed to display this capability, he never broke the normal laws of nature. Instead He presented Himself to the forefathers as El-Shaddai, an all powerful ruler but one who exercises His will through nature. 

Simcha Bunim of Peshica (19th century Hasidic rebbe) wrote that the meaning of the name El Shaddai comes from the word, Dai, enough. According to him, El Shaddai is God when He reveals himself “just enough.” This name describes a God who only reveals a trace of Himself in the world, while the name Hashem connotes a fuller revelation.  Other commentaries suggested other meanings for the names: According to Rashi, El Shaddai refers to God as One who makes promises, while Hashem refers to God as One who keeps those promises; according to the Midrash, Elohim refers to God’s attribute of justice and Hashem to God’s attribute of mercy.  But everyone agrees that, in this Torah reading, when God said that hitherto He had not been known as Hashem, He did mean the proper name Hashem, but rather, that God referred to distinct qualities or attributes. 

So what is God? Is He an all powerful ruler, Who works only within the laws of nature and reveals Himself just enough to be uncovered by those who are looking; or is He One who makes His presence known by overturning the laws of nature. Is He just or is He merciful? The answer of course is both. 

Yet, as the Sforno suggests, if you had lived at the time of the Patriarchs you would not have known that. You would assume that God can only act within the laws of nature because that is the only way in which you had seen Him act. You might even pass that idea onto your children. But then you would be guilty of a grave error, simply because you didn’t know any better. It’s only natural to see something, experience something, and assume that’s what it is, that’s the sum total of the thing that we see.

When God told Moshe at the beginning of Vaera, “I will call Myself by a new name,” He was really saying that He was about to reveal an aspect of Himself that was always present within Him but never shared before. God needs many names because He is endlessly complex and multifaceted. The side of God we see or feel at any given time never captures His totality. It’s our responsibility to avoid the fallacy of thinking one part is everything, and to do our best in seeking all of God’s aspects.

Having been created in the image of God, we human beings are the same way. We are microcosmic reflections of the divine. And so humankind is complex and contradictory. We have so many aspects to ourselves and to our being, and because of worldly limitations, we can only perceive some of them some of the time. Certainly, we would not wish to be judged based on just one aspect of ourselves, one way some people experience who we are. Different aspects of who we are come to the fore in the various situations in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings - that doesn’t mean we are “liars.” A lawyer may not want her family to judge her temperament for who she is in the courtroom; a doctor may not want his patients to judge his opinions about health based on what he eats when he goes out to a big dinner; a mathematics professor may not want her intellect judged based on her demeanor when she plays with her grandchildren - and she wouldn’t want her grandchildren to judge her based on her classroom demeanor either. Like God, we are multifaceted and complex, and an aspect of ourselves that is revealed in one situation or another does not represent the totality of who we are. We hope that those who know us and love us experience us completely, at every level, every aspect of our being.

Judaism is the same way - multifaceted and complex. There are just so many aspects to Judaism: intellectual, emotional, philosophical, legal, historical, literary, artistic, musical, and the list can go on. Rav Kook devoted the 13th chapter of his Orot HaTorah to a vision for Jewish engagement in the contemporary era. It is a pan-disciplinary engagement with Judaism. Nowadays, argued Rav Kook, we should be generalists with our Judaism and not specialists; that this will allow us to have a fuller experience of Torah, of our tradition, and of God. We can learn from the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud Yerushalmi, halacha and aggadah, philosophy, history, the prophets, midrash, everything. We can learn from hasidut, from the litvaks, from Western European Judaism, from Sepharadim, North Africans, Yemenite - everything and everyone - we should not limit ourselves to just one aspect of Judaism. 

The Yeshiva where I studied was built on this model - our texts were taught from every perspective - halachic, analytical, conceptual, academic historical, philosophical - and there were opportunities to study anything and everything connected to Judaism - and tefilah was varied just as well. Sometimes neo-hasidic, sometimes sephardic, sometimes German, and we are all enriched for it. The beauty of having a community synagogue experience is that together, we can all develop an appreciation for and a relationship with everything Judaism has to offer - with various styles of speeches and lectures, visiting speakers from different disciplines, and deliberately varied encounters with prayer. We never know which aspect will catch us; those of us blessed with children to whom we hope to pass on our beautiful tradition and a commitment to it, we never know which aspect will resonate with them. The best thing is to put ourselves in the position to try and experience and learn as much as we can in as many different ways.

So is Chazzanut good for KJ? Of course it is. It is yet one more perspective, one more facet of our glorious tradition. Personally, the Shabbat Chazzanut  at KJ was my first time praying with a professional Western European style synagogue choir. It was an enriching experience for me and I am grateful to Chazzan Berson for leading the effort. We are all fortunate to be part of a community that embraces a holistic approach to Judaism in our prayer and educational programming; such an approach enriches our understanding of our tradition, of each other, and of God.


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