Monday, January 19, 2009

Accessibility and Service

This section from the mishnah describing the bringing of the first fruits is one of my favorites because the ritual described is so deeply personal and personalizing. The individual farmer marked his first fruits, harvested them, and brought them (in either fresh or dried form) to the Temple to offer them to God while reciting the "Arami oved avi" paragraph from Deuteronomy, which we now associate with the Passover seder. This passage situates the individal in relation to history, people, land, and God-- a powerful "recentering" and giving of credit where credit is due. There was great pomp: decorations, flute players, singing Levites. Even the king carried his own basket, his acknowledgement that the land was not his own, but God's. (By the way, the notes in the Albeck mishnah say this is Agrippas I, 10 BCE - 44 CE, grandson of Herod the Great, which dates the setting of this mishnah to a time when some of the Tannaim, the "writers" of the mishnah, were alive or only one generation removed from the action.)
The next mishnah (the end of our text in Sefer HaAgaddah) demonstrates an early and compelling example of making a ritual more accessible to the community. Originally, those who could recite the Torah passage by heart would, and those who could not would repeat it after the priest. However, this led people to avoid bringing their first fruits because they were embarrassed about having to repeat the passage. The community recognized this as a loss, and thus instituted the practice that everyone, regardless of their education, would repeat the passage after the priest so that no one would be ashamed.
This mishnah shows us that clearly, the issues of accessibility and education that we struggle with in our communities are not new. How many communities are willing to change a ritual so that all community-members can participate and not be ashamed of their lack of knowledge? How many communities are able to pay attention to the needs of those who are so disenfranchised they don't even participate? This is an example of truly hearing the silence of those who are absent. While there are other voices elsewhere in the mishnah that priviledge ritual skill or proficiency, here the highest value is placed upon inclusivity. Part of this may be due to the nature of the ritual; it is positioned as the crucial moment when each individual Israelite reaffirms his connection to the people and its history and land as a whole, so the participation of each person is key. Having each person repeat the whole passage after the priest may have made the ceremony longer and more cumbersome; those who had worked hard to memorize the passage may have resented having to repeat it. However, those disadvantages did not outweigh the importance of the ritual's accessibility. For communities that struggle with how to be more open, this mishnah can be a guide.
President-elect Obama has asked everyone in the country to dedicate today to community service, which I think is a similar kind of act to the bringing of bikkurim (first fruits). Since we don't have a Temple today, our acts of service/ avodah are often acts of community service that promote social justice. This national "day of service" is a way for all of us to reaffirm our ties to our larger community-- the people of the United States-- and our commitments to a shared historical narrative by giving to each other.


Richard Friedman said...

The near-universal practice for Torah aliyot underwent a similar change. Originally, the person called up for the aliya actually read the aliya. When some people were not able to read on their own. To avoid embarrassing them, there was instituted the practice of having a ba'al kri'ah (a Torah reader separate from the individuals going up for aliyot) who read for everyone.

Howard said...

There is a difference between today and Temple times. The Temple was the only place to bring the Bikkurim (First Fruits), but today we have a range of service options in many places. This means that both groups and anyone in between can find a service that satisfies them. We need to respect the "other" when different denominations deal with one another. I may want to daven in Hebrew or use gender balanced G!d language while others may want English or traditional G!d language. WE can each meet our needs and appreciate that the others position is a legitimate expression of Judaism. Multiple Havurot within a single Shul can also meet this need.