Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of Chazara, Return. Jews return to their texts, liturgy, ritual, and experiences year after year as they cycle through the weekly Torah portions and annual holiday rituals. I wondered about the obstacles and pitfalls of returning again and again to the same liturgy: Does this process create an inherently conservative framework in Judaism? Or, does it allow us to return to a touchstone and that grounds us and provides a deep confidence that fosters innovation? And I wondered how we’re different as individuals and communities as we revisit the stories we’ve heard before.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem introduces readers to the concept of “chazara.” She writes chazara is a tool to help us, as Jews and creators, refine and reshape our practices and behaviors. “We come to our Judaism through such diverse avenues, and we return to it with deliberation. Whether it is the student of Torah who returns to a text or the praying body returning to the fixed language of tefillah — it is this chazara, this return, that helps us shape our Jewish selves.” She goes on to share how she returns to a holiday “one rung higher than the previous year, having evolved and arrived at the season with new understandings. While the raw materials — the Haggadah or the foods on the seder plate, the language of prayer, or the ritual of candle lighting — remain the same, we are different, and we see new possibilities for how to work with our ‘clay.’” What are your moments of being “clay” and shaping “clay”? As you approach Passover and a return to the seder table, what—among the stories you anticipate sharing—will be reshaped and what motivates that reworking of an old text? What are two ways you are returning to the seder table differently from last year?
- Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller writes about his return to activism. In today’s political climate, what is different? He writes: “My return to Jewish activism is marked by a feeling of relief. Since my retirement as director of University of California Los Angeles Hillel, I feel freer to act. Although I had never experienced overt censorship, I and my rabbinic colleagues employed a degree of self-imposed censorship that precluded our clearly expressing our opinions on a range of issues, especially criticism of Israel.” Are you aware of censoring of speech and activism in Jewish communities today? If so, how have you managed those experiences? As an activist, has your focus changed over time and what have you rejected as irrelevant or unhelpful today? How have you changed as a political thinker and activist since the 2016 election campaign?
- Tamar Biala shares several contemporary midrashim by women who have returned to scriptural text to “search out new meanings with new eyes.” These women start with a problem passage in a classical Jewish text and then return to these foundational texts, _chazarah l’sifrei kodesh, “_in order to write new sacred texts…that shift the moral message.” What are some of the traditional Jewish stories that you would consider returning to with fresh eyes and a red pen? What is the process of midrash-making that you find most creative and fulfilling? Would you consider writing a midrash on a text that has haunted you over the years—with a writing partner?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore the Hadran prayer, traditionally recited after completing a tractate of Talmud. The prayer begins, “We will return to you, holy, sacred texts, and you will return to us.” Ilana Kurshan writes about the classic talmudic wordplay on the word, “hadran,” which comes from the word “hadar,” meaning both return and beauty**. **She explains that this prayer can also mean, “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us, which conveys the notion that each of us, with our wn individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can beautify the study of Talmud, and the Talmud can beautify us.” Rabbi Sheldon Lewis asks us to consider the study of Jewish texts as a conversation started long ago and yet accessed and joined today as though we are living interlocutors. He writes, “We can almost hear the tenor of their [rabbinic] voices. The ancient sages who populate a rabbinic text were surely searching relentlessly to live with purpose and with beauty, and they address the modern student as well as each other. When we open a page of Talmud with a chevrutah, a study partner, our dialogue seems often to merge with that of our ancestors. Past and present connect.” And Rabbi Kami Knapp writes that “Just as we commit to return to our literal texts, we should also commit to return to our precious relationships.” How do you see the relationship of individual to text relevant to the relationship of one person to another? Do the voices of Talmudic rabbis feel relevant today, and if so, how do you build on their teachings? If not, how do you set aside the voices of these early teachers?
Adina Polen writes about her daily prayer practice. “Returning to the same words every day feels like an act of love, like any of the regular things we do every day for loved ones: making lunches, eating dinner together, singing bedtime songs. Not creative, generally speaking, but nourishing and meaningful in its regularity. The liturgy has a texture and an arc that I’m at once deeply familiar with and also aware that I’m still a stranger to even now at 34 years old. I’m not sure I’ll ever focus sufficiently to access all that the prayers truly contain.” What repetitive actions, practices, and behaviors of yours do you treasure? And is the repetition mind-numbing or meditative or both or something else? How do you imbue repetitive practices and behaviors with meaning?