Why Ritual? Saying the Shema

Image: Women of the Wall, Nashot HaKotel, reciting the Shema. (http://womenofthewall.org.il)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about ritual. I’m getting ready to write an article about ritual, and I wanted to brush up, so that I don’t look like too much of a dinosaur when I publish the thing.

Most of what I know on the subject I learned from an Episcopal liturgist, the Rev. Dr. Marion J. Hatchett, z”l. He taught at the University of the South back in the 1980’s and I first learned about ritual from him. He was planted firmly inside his tradition, and he would tell you that when he celebrated the Eucharist (the Mass,) he was bringing a past event into the present, making the sacred happen right there in St. Luke’s Chapel. According to phenomenology of religion (a fancy name for that understanding of religious activity) we perform rituals in order to bring a sacred event into the now, to sanctify the participants, the present time, and the present place. (His text on the subject, now out of print, was Sanctifying Life, Time, and Space.)

I am no longer an Episcopalian (it turned out to be a stopping place on my journey from Catholicism to Judaism) but Dr. Hatchett’s lessons shape a lot of my understanding of ritual to this day.

What does that look like, for me as a Jew? When I say my prayers, for instance, the Shema, I say it (1) because I am commanded to say it (2) because in saying it, I join all the Jews, past, present and future, in saying that elegant, compressed statement of belief and solidarity. In saying the Shema, even by myself, I am participating in a cosmic Now, a moment of oneness with the Holy One and with the Jewish people across time and space.

In that moment, when I sit or stand with my hand over my eyes, and I recite the ancient words:

Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu! Adonai echad!

Hear, Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is one!

– Deuteronomy 6:4

In that moment, I am standing next to Rabbi Akiva, who recited those words as the Romans tortured him to death.

I am sitting in the study hall with Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, as he covers his eyes to recite. (BT Berakhot 13a)

I sit next to the writer of Deuteronomy as he recites them to a scribe, who scratches his goose quill across the surface of a scroll. (Deut. 6:4)

I say them with every Jew who has whispered them, fearing for their lives.

I whisper them with the mothers who teach that first prayer to their babies.

I say them with the Women of the Wall, every Rosh Chodesh.

I say them with the Jews, past and present, who might not agree that I am a Jew.

I have said them many times sitting by the bed of a Jew who is about to leave this world, sometimes with them, sometimes for them.

I expect to say that prayer at the hour of my own death.

We say those words together at bedtime, and when we rise up.

We say them on the road, and in our houses, and in our schools.

We say them twice a day, and in times of great stress:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!