A Democracy of the Dead

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 2, 2019 / 1 Av 5779

UPDATE: Alan Montrose’s shofar class begins this coming Monday at 7 pm in Zidell Chapel. Please send an email to lrichmond@nevehshalom.org if you would like to attend.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak speaks about some changes in our Shabbat liturgy, and examines those changes in connection to the sociological discussion of privilege, tradition and inclusion.

GK Chesterton was an extremely prolific author of over 80 books, and a highly influential Christian thinker. His best books are demanding and chewy. He died in 1936; while he had a profound influence on another Christian author, CS Lewis (author of the Narnia series), my suspicion is that Chesterton is not widely read anymore. That’s too bad, because he really had something to say, even for non-Christians.

One of his famed quotes states: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

There is much of value in this quote. Judaism may not be the democracy of the dead. But it is a democracy in which the dead get a vote. In Jewish terms, it is Tevye’s singing of Tradition in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof. Most of the rest of Fiddler is an exploration of the tension between nostalgia and modernity, between tradition and change.

There’s more here than the nostalgia of tradition, though. GK Chesterton seems to presage today’s discussions around social privilege, in which we argue that some people’s life conditions (white, male, western, educated, etcetera) insulate them from challenges and disadvantages that other classes of people routinely must endure. That position sometimes demands that those who have privilege ought to relinquish some of their unearned merit, or at the very least, listen carefully enough so that they can recognize the many benefits they have received at no personal cost or effort.

Chesterton loved paradox and conveyed some of his most profound thoughts by turning things on their head. When he argues that tradition must not submit to the “oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” he recognizes that those of us alive today are the most privileged class of all. We get to do whatever we want to all that we have inherited. Want to smash grandma’s china service or pack it off to Good Will? Who’s stopping you?

It is only our willingness to check some of our privilege that allows any religion to endure. Indeed, we can argue that the different branches of Judaism look the way they do based on how seriously they accept Chesterton’s demand that we don’t misuse the privilege that living gives us over our ancestors who are no more.

At the same time, what happens if we believe that the very tradition we have inherited was shaped by those who occasionally abused their privilege? Or if our evolving sense of justice means that past conventions are no longer sufficient for today? If the silencing of certain voices was a persistent flaw in the fabric of our Judaism? How does one negotiate this?

This may seem like a theoretical discussion to some, but many tangible goods are at stake. The role of women in religion. A place for gender non-conforming individuals. The era and type of music used in a synagogue, let alone the values or behavior of the musical composer.

Something quite significant is at stake. The reason religion works at all, and particularly one as venerable as Judaism, is its ability to connect us to something larger than ourselves. Something transcendent. God is the most obvious example, but for many people, that transcendence resides in other connections. Rituals. Food ways, such as gefilte fish, challah or matzoh ball soup. Ancient prayers that roll off our lips just as they were chanted two thousand years ago. In a world that is increasingly unmoored, our Judaism provides us a snug harbor. Once one begins to jettison these anchors, one risks getting tossed into the storm and chaos so typical of our age. Which is to say, we risk the connections that we humans so desperately need. We risk getting lost.

Still, those silent voices of the past clamor for attention. They too craved connection. Are we not required to reconnect with them, and by so doing, strengthen the privileged present? How do we balance these very really and competing needs? This is a conversation I consistently have with myself, and that we have among our clergy and professional staff as well as with many committed congregants.

I want to share with you a small change in liturgy that we recently made and which is a prime example of the above struggle. In our new prayerbooks, there are a number of places were some of the black words are bracketed. These include additional mention of the matriarchs (imahot) or other women, such as Miriyam. Going forward, we will include all of those bracketed words when praying out loud.

I have been pondering the wisdom of this change for a long time. Our prayers in their standard form glean much of their power from their durable nature. When we pray the Amidah, we understand that a thousand years ago, our ancestors chanted the exact same words. All of those people’s hopes and fears are carried in those ancient words. How powerful! The very rhythms of the language are impacted when we make such slight emendations. There are also halakhic, or legal ramifications, for how and when one can change the structure of the prayers. So change, even small change like this, can be disruptive in many ways. The mourner’s kaddish ends with one of these small adjustments.

Nonetheless, our community is deeply committed to inclusion. This is not a buzz word for us, or the latest flavor of the week. It is a bedrock principle that flows out of how we hear the prophet Isaiah’s word that God’s house should be a house for all people. In popular culture, inclusion tends to refer to how we welcome in classes of people who were previously excluded. As Chesterton’s quote highlights, deep religious inclusion does not differentiate between the living or the dead. Long before him, the Sages of the Mishnah made this claim explicit when they argue that acts of kindness [gemilut hasidim] are a higher good than charity [tzedekah], because they can be performed for both the living and the dead, for rich and poor. We can’t extend rights or recognition to one class by excluding another.

Taken on balance, adding a few words that give symbolic weight to our commitment to inclusion seemed like something tradition could bear. Recognizing the essential contributions of women to Jewish history AND the Jewish present is necessary. Simultaneously, we add these names as emblematic of the many forgotten voices we are still learning to recognize as a culture.

The reason to make this liturgical change, therefore, is because our tradition has a deep and abiding belief in the divine spark we all carry. We change, in other words, to strengthen our tradition, not to weaken it.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is your favorite Jewish tradition?
  2. How old is it?
  3. Why is it so precious to you?
  4. Did you inherit it from a family member or learn it later in life?

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