There was a time when Reform Judaism shied away from uncomfortable texts. Some Torah portions were even once regularly skipped in Reform communities. I thought that time was over, until I discovered Mishkan T’filah’s attitude toward Kabalat Shabat.
Last week, while at Temple Sinai in Denver I noticed something that had somehow escaped my attention until now. Though all of the psalms we traditionally associate with Kab Shab are represented, five of the eight of them are abridged. Only 98, 93 and 29 survive Mishkan intact!
So what’s missing?
In Psalm 95, the final four verses are missing, verses 8-11:
8 Do not be stubborn as at M’rivah,
as on the day of Masah, in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test,
tried me, though they had seen my deeds.
10 Forty years I was provoked by that generation;
I thought, “They are a senseless people;
they would not know my ways.”
11 Concerning them I swore in anger,
“They shall never come to My resting place!”
In Psalm 96, four verses are missing from the middle, verses 7-10:
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name,
bring tribute and enter his courts.
9 Bow down to the Lord majestic in his holiness;
tremble in his presence, all the Earth!
10 Declare among the nations, “The Lord is king!”
The world stands firm; it cannot be shaken;
he judges the peoples with equity.
In Psalm 97, six verses from the middle are gone, 3-9:
3 Fire is his vanguard,
burning his foes on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world;
the Earth is convulsed at the sight;
5 mountains melt like wax at the Lord’s presence,
at the presence of the Lord of all the Earth.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness
and all peoples see his glory.
7 All who worship images,
who vaunt their idols,
all divine beings bow down to him.
8 Zion, hearing it, rejoices,
the towns of Judah exult,
because of your judgments, O Lord.
9 For you, Lord, are supreme over all the Earth;
you are exalted high above all divine beings.
In 99, verses 6-8 are gone from the middle:
6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,
Samuel, among those who call on his name–
when they called to the Lord,
he answered them.
7 He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud;
they obeyed his decrees,
the law he gave them.
8 O Lord our god, you answered them;
you were a forgiving god for them,
but you exacted retribution for their misdeeds.
92 lacks four of its middle verses:
9 But you are exalted, O Lord, for all time.
10 Surely, you enemies, O Lord,
surely your enemies perish;
all evildoers are scattered.
11 You raise my horn high like that of a wild ox;
I am soaked in freshening oil.
12 I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes,
hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.
So what are the uniting themes here? Mostly anything that glorifies God by ascribing violence to him or by describing the defeat or our enemies. God forbid we even engage with this image of God. I can understand discomfort in the face of this type of language. Indeed, it makes me uncomfortable.
Is the solution to the problem posed by these uncomfortable passages to excise them? Must prayer be all comforting reinforcement of what we already think? Or should it challenge us to engage with an uncomfortable world?
But this is the Reform way. When it comes to Torah, we’re okay reading and re-reading passages that treat female characters with little detail or ignore them altogether, but when it comes to liturgy, Reform has to sprinkle the text with women, from Sarah to Miriam. We’ll read Torah portions about sacrifice till the cows come home, concocting all sorts of exegetical reasons that those passages have worth, anything that even vaguely reminds us of sacrifice is right out. And it’s the same story here.