A recent discussion on iWorship, a listserve for Reform congregational ritual committee members and other interested parties, has thankfully inspired me to go back for the post to this blog’s real purpose and strong suit: ritual and liturgy.
The discussion surrounds the issue of whether to sit or stand for the Shma and was started in reaction to a moment in Shabbat worship at the recent URJ Biennial when the service leader asked the Jews in the pews to remain seated for the Shma.
For someone who has spent most of their prayer life in a typical Reform settings, such a request is quite jarring. Indeed, I found it jarring the first time a service leader in NFTY suggested that remaining seated was a legitimate possibility, during the Shma. Remember that the Shma is not the two-line credo that Reform Jews often think of when they use the term “Shma.” It begins with that statement of faith and continues on with several lengthy paragraphs about the nature of divine reward and punishment, acceptance of commandments, and a brief review of several important mitzvot.
It is long, and until relatively, was not seen as central to the service. The center of the service was The Amidah. For me, the Amidah still is the most central litrugical “rubric,” as Larry Hoffman often puts it. So that perceived centrality will certainly color my opinion on this and how this post unfolds. Standing for The Amidah is thus a no-brainer. Standing for an additional, lengthy section is unnecessary.
The Reform movement did a few things to change this. By asserting in early Reform thought the centrality of what they called “ethical monotheism,” the Shma would, of course, come to the forefront of the liturgy. All the more so because, at the same, all but the opening line and the first and final paragraphs of what had been the Shma were excised from most Reform liturgies. This makes the Shma even more focused on what looks like ethical monotheism. For instance, a lenghty section on wearing tzitzit got tossed out along with divine reward and punishment, leaving a much more “ethical” sounding bulk about teaching mitzvot to your childern and about being mindful “in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you wake up.”
At the same time, The Amidah was robbed of its integrity and much of it began to be recited sitting down. So the Shma replaced it as central and we began to rise for the Shma, but only the first line of it, which was seen as a sort of analog to Christians rising to recite The Nicene Creed.
So here we are. Reform Jews have abridged the Shma and placed a new emphasis on it, which makes it perfect for standing. And that’s by and large what we do. We’ve been at this for a while, and there is little sign of change. This instance at the URJ Biennial and many instances in NFTY and at our camps are grand exceptions, which may well become the rule rather than the exception during my lifetime.
Here’s why I sit during the Shma:
- It’s long. I say the longest version of the Shma, rather than the abridged Gates of Prayer or the less abridged Shabbat morning Mishkan T’filah verion. So given the choice between standing for a long time and sitting for a long time, I’ll go with sitting.
- I don’t look to it as central. Certainly, as someone who has made tzitzit a sort of personal ritual crusade, it’s important to me on the level that it has a lengthy bit about tzitzit, but it’s not the most important thing in the world.
- To me, The Amidah is paramount and of utmost centrality. If there’s going to be one long bout of standing in the service to place emphasis, I’d much rather have it be The Amidah (which after all means “The Standing”).
- When I was first introduced to the idea of sitting, it was explained that you should try not to change your position during a single prayer. Rather, spaces between prayers are the appropriate time to stand or sit, unless there’s some good reason to do otherwise. So if the Shma and V’ahavta, treated often by Reform Jews as two separate things, are really the same prayer, it would be undesirable to stand for the first line (Shma) and then sit back down for the V’ahavta (the other two paragraphs of the Shma that Reform liturgy retains). This made a lot of sense to me and influences my decisions to sit stand and bow at all times.
What do you think? What happens in your community? Do you go along with that or do you defy it, sitting in a place where most stand, or standing in a place where most sit?