In this commentary, the author discusses their personal experience of the changing text of the siddur, specifically its translation of the V’Ahavta prayer.
By Ri J. Turner
The Former Rain and the Latter Rain: A Queer Jew in Diaspora Wrestling with Tradition and Progress
by Ri J. Turner on Friday August 22, 2008
21 Av 5768
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Last week, in Parashat Va’atchanan, we read in its original context the text of the Shema and the first part of the V’Ahavta. (The V’Ahavta, which means, “And you shall love…”, is part of the Shema Yisrael (“Hear/Listen, Israel”), which is one of the central prayers of Jewish practice, which tradition requires us to repeat morning and evening.) This week, in Parashat Ekev, we get the next chunk of the V’Ahavta (the V’Ahavta comes in two paragraphs, the second of which is Deuteronomy 11:13-21), which describes the agricultural riches in store for us if we follow the commandments, and the mandated rebellion of the earth if we do not. (“…if you…love the Lord, your God….I will give the rain of your land at its time….[but] beware, lest your heart be misled…the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you.”)
This text is very precious to me. I learned to read when I was three, the indistinguishable black letters gradually resolving themselves into the colors and shapes of the things they signified. In a very real sense, then, I read these words, as they appeared in the Friday night liturgy, long before I understood what they meant, or why they mattered. And at that age, I did not care. Dayenu (“it was enough”)-it was enough for me that I learned words as I went—I learned the words “produce,” “lest,” “former,” and “latter” from that passage. It was enough that I made a game of seeing how many times I could read the passage silently to myself before the congregation had finished it out loud. It was enough for me that I got to wear barrettes with my mom’s hand-sewn vest-and-skirt ensembles (yes, I was a femme little queer), and sit in the warm synagogue next to my warm, fragrant mom, and lean on her when I got sleepy, and intone those mysterious, rhythmic English words with a congregation whose monotone still had years to be comforting before I would find it stagnant. It was enough that we brought my grandmother with us sometimes, and that she and her elderly friend Esther both wore bags over their artificially-curly, salt-and-pepper hair in the rain and talked bitterly and laughed ruefully with each other, and almost seemed like real people to me then, not just figurines at whom I had to smile and who had to smile at me. It was enough that I felt myself ebbing and flowing with a room full of deep-voiced adults. “…And He shut up the hea-vens that there be no rain….and thou shalt per-ish off the land which the Lord hath giv-en you.”
I find myself returning to these early memories curiously, because they are very nearly my only purely happy memories of Jewish life in my small New Mexico town. It is curious to me that part of the peace of those early experiences was that they were populated almost entirely by women. It is also curious to me how much I loved that old translation of Deuteronomy. “And He shut up the hea-vens…”
Shortly before my Bat Mitzvah, my synagogue decided to “modernize” by getting newer siddurim, which translated Hebrew passages in a more vernacular vein. I remember reading the V’Ahavta with dismay. “And the heavens will close and the rain will cease”? I insisted on using the old siddur for my Bat Mitzvah services.
In some sense that was the beginning of my more conflicted years in that community. Not only because of the new siddur, but because the new siddur forced me to ask some questions about my relationship with tradition. I missed saying “and He shut up the heavens.” On the other hand, I come from a family of avowed Luddites in all matters, and I was getting sick of hearing, “In the olden days…” fill-in-the blank. “In the olden days” (or, often, “in the East”—the imagined homeland from which we were exiled was both temporal and spatial), “they” made higher-quality furniture, you could get pickled tongue, “they” didn’t take out all the poetry of the Bible. Also, my own nostalgia notwithstanding, I was automatically suspicious of any claim that the vernacular was inherently less poetic. And meanwhile, that same progress-aversive family that was bitter about the new translation was much less attached to Jewish continuity than I was, being as they were, skeptical of organized religion.
In many ways this tension between tradition and so-called progress summarizes much of my experience as a queer Jew in diaspora. I exist on multiple margins. On the one hand, I am fighting for the preservation of a spiritual tradition in a secular US context that tends to see any kind of spirituality, and any kind of multi-millennial tradition, as inherently reactionary and old- fashioned. On another hand, I belong to a lineage of Eastern-European Jews with a complicated relationship to assimilation—tendrils of fierce pride and fear of cultural loss mix in with a sneaking suspicion that the Jewish identity that wreaks havoc in the West Bank is the same Jewish identity that can be blamed for “having brought the pogroms upon ourselves”—which is to say that I am the progeny of a generation who hold onto the “old” as the “only valid” at the same time as they still really just want to be able to be “real Americans.” On still a third hand
(or maybe a foot), within an already-ambivalent American Jewry, I am participating in the ever- evolving creation of a new kind of Jewish practice, a queer practice, a feminist practice, an embodied practice, an interfaith practice, which requires its own complex dances with both tradition and “progress.” And in some ways my ambivalent Luddite older generation say, “Why do you bother with Judaism at all if you’re going to go about it in a way that has nothing to do with tradition?” But then again sometimes they say, “Wow. You know how I feel about Judaism, but what you’re doing with this, this I could really get into.”
The text itself, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, speaks of allegiance to tradition: “Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourself before them…” and counsels remembrance: “And you shall teach [these words of Mine] to your sons to speak with them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way….”
Reading “and the heavens shall close” instead of “and He shut up the heavens” felt like worshiping a false god. But when I heard my parents kvetch over the vernacular siddurim, it seemed that they had set up the phrase “and He shut up the heavens” as a false god. Seeking to be “real Americans” at the cost of an identity that our forbears—and some of our peers—fight and die for, that seems like worshipping a false god. And yet holding fast to laws and traditions that say that my sexual practices or my intimacy with non-Jews are vile—that also seems like worshipping a false god.
Like any passage in Torah, this one is not straightforward to interpret, and does not ultimately offer a clear message about the relationship between tradition and invention. But by many reckonings, including the most traditional, our God does not have a tendency to spell things out for us. It is our process of wrestling both with the authority of tradition and with the ethical pulls of our time that ultimately brings us away from false worship and towards devotion to the truly Divine. And no matter how much I enjoyed reading that punitive phrase (“and He shut up the heavens”), I live in the faith that as we continue to pass down practice and to create practice anew with compassionate, communal steadfastness, God continues to see what we do, and (to borrow a sentiment from Genesis) to see that it is good. And He gives us the rain of our land at its time, the former rain and the latter rain, and we gather in our grain, our wine, our oil.