The ways we have had to adjust our thinking, feeling and practices during this pandemic period are endless. Sometimes we feel that we have lost something precious and sometimes we feel freed by the simplification of our lives. Sometimes we miss what we used to have and sometimes we discover new things, experiences and values for ourselves.
I am pleased to announce one small but meaningful example of such a complex phenomenon as it effects our services at Shomrei.
When we gather as a community for services on certain significant days – Shabbat and holidays, for instance – we make the public reading of the Torah a key element of that service. We invite people to be honored with an “aliyah” – a “going up” to the Torah. In the good old days, we would call for that person to approach the Torah reading table, we would announce their name and announce the aliyah. This may sound simple but, in reality, it would require, for various reasons, extra time and effort. Along with other decisions we have adopted to streamline the service so as to keep everyone as safe as possible while in the building, I have revamped how we call people to the Torah and how they position themselves during their Aliyah. We have been applying these adjustments since before our services for the High Holy Days, learning and improving them as we go. Thankfully, our Ritual Committee has recently reviewed these protocols and, after thoughtful and thorough discussion, has enthusiastically endorsed them.
In brief, the present situation (- subject to change, of course) looks like this: The person honored with an Aliyah no longer comes to the table to stand with the Torah reader and the two gabbaim (helpers) who would be the honor guard standing on each side. We need to maintain social distancing for now. So, each person stays at their place, standing during their aliyah, if possible. Only the Torah reader stands by the Torah. In addition, the gabbai no longer calls out the name of the person being honored with an Aliyah – only the honorees themselves state their name out loud.
So much for losing some of our treasured practices – for now. However, along with this adjustment, it has become possible to open ourselves to a new practice and a new perspective that we have been ignoring until now. So, we also gain from making a change.
The gain is in our opportunity to be much more inclusive in the way we welcome people to the Torah. We may not pay much attention to this, but the traditional words and formulas for giving out an aliyah are all keyed to the masculine gender. This is not surprising, since, until a generation ago, only men got called to the Torah. But now we are proud to call everyone in our Jewish community to the Torah. This has presented a challenge for the gabbaim, since this change requires a knowledge of Hebrew grammar that not everyone has. (Hebrew changes gender for most words and objects.)
We want to include as many congregants as possible in participating in and running our services. So the challenge is to craft a procedure for being a gabbai that would satisfy all traditional criteria and yet also be accessible to those who have not learned the old ways and are not fluent in Hebrew. Our new Hebrew formulations for calling someone to the Torah have been simplified and are easier to apply. So we gain in our ability to include more people to help run our services.
And there is another important gain to appreciate.
As I have been writing about for some months now (- see my Torah Sparks this year for Ki Tetze and for Bereshit), we need to recognize that the simple binary system of identifying people as either male or female is inadequate to the more complex reality of humanity. So, the challenge is to find a way to call people to the Torah in as inclusive a manner as possible. This means creating a set of phrases and formulas that do not highlight our judgement of each person’s identity, but create an embracing invitation that leaves room for everyone to be who they feel they are. Thankfully, there are ways to do this, even in the highly gendered language of Hebrew. The details can be found in a separate page of instructions for any gabbai. This page will be available at services for everyone interested.
It is important to be clear that this new approach does not impose anything upon anyone in terms of how they wish to be known. Each person “owns” their Jewish name. Traditionally, one’s Jewish name includes not only one’s personal name, but also the gendered definition of a person as either the son or daughter of their parents. Anyone who wishes to declare their name in that way is very welcome to do so. But not everyone is comfortable with that gendered specificity. So a new formula has been created to respect that perspective. We make that option available as well, with no assumptions or pre-judgements. Each person has total control over how their name shall be spoken, since they are the ones announcing their own name. (And, of course, we still honor the pedigree of those who are a “kohen” or a “levi.”) This information will also be part of the page we will distribute.
I am amazed and grateful for the unforeseen opportunity that our present situation has afforded us. Yes, the pandemic has been a huge upheaval in our lives, with many unfortunate and even tragic developments. Yet it has also, by forcing us to make practical adjustments, opened our eyes to ways to live up to our values with renewed commitment.
So, what seemed like a contraction is actually also an expansion. Our new policy promotes human dignity and the sacredness of every human life in a number of ways. By shortening and modifying our procedure we keep everyone safe and maximize prospects for health. Similarly, by changing some of our phrases, we also remind ourselves of the unique mystery of each person’s identity, expanding our consciousness and translating our expanded awareness into sacred action. And by simplifying our approach we open our doors even wider to the entire community.
May this pandemic pass from us quickly and may we be wise enough to learn from the damage it has wrought and from the opportunities it has given us.
Here is the page of instructions we will make available: Guidelines for Aliyot (Being Called to the Torah)
Here are some additional resources to deepen consideration of this issue: