One evening, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah were eating dinner together when it was time to say the evening Shema. Rabbi Elazar was standing up, but when the time came he laid down to say the Shema. Rabbi Ishmael was already reclining but he moved and sat upright to say the Shema.
This upset Rabbi Elazar and he said, “why did you switch positions to be the opposite of me? The second I lay down, you sat up!”
Rabbi Ishmael replied, “I was acting according to the teaching of Hillel who said the Shema can be recited in any position, but you were acting according to Shammai who said the evening Shema should be recited lying down”.
Rabbi Elazar responded, “But you were already reclining! Hillel says reclining is allowed, you didn’t need to stand up”.
Rabbi Ishmael replied, “This is true, but if our students saw us both reclining to say the Shema they might think we are both of the opinion of Shammai, and assume that this was why we were both in this position. I had to move so they would know that the Shema can be said in any position”.
This story, drawn from Berakhot 11a, results from a debate over the interpretation of a line in this week’s parashah, Deuteronomy 6:7, ‘Recite them when you are sitting in your house and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up’. The places and positions listed in the verse were interpreted differently by the sages as blueprints for proper conduct when reciting Shema.
The school of Shammai put forth the argument that the verse indicates the manner in which the Shema should be said, according to the time of day. The evening Shema should thus be recited reclining, and the morning Shema when standing. Hillel argued that the words of the verse are there to indicate that the Shema can be said in whatever position a person finds themselves in at the time of recitation.
What marks this debate out is that the Talmud makes a special note of the fact that the entire exchange between Rabbis Ishmael and Elazar takes place in front of their students. It is this detail which leads Rabbi Ishmael to sit upright even though his prior position was also permissible.
The Rabbis are not just concerned with integrity in their own conduct and religious choices, but they are also worried about the impact of their choices on the generation that follows them. Though they are both aware of the rationale behind their decisions, that rationale is not necessarily evident to their students. Thus in observing the end of a process of decision making, the students would draw conclusions from what they observe and not from the process that informed it. Rabbi Ishmael is motivated by the knowledge that if he did not move then, should circumstances be different, his students would not be able to apply Hillel’s logic and make a different choice for the moment they find themselves in.
This distinction between process and output has particular significance in progressive Jewish life. In a religious community that places considerable emphasis on the importance of both informed choice and personal autonomy, there is a tension between the needs of individuals and the needs of the group, and the need of one generation to make a choice without binding future generations to the same conclusion.
In the preceding verses, the Shema instructs us to teach our children, “these things that I command you this day”, namely to love God with all your heart, soul, and might. A Midrash in Sifre Devarim (33:2) notes the significance of the words ‘this day’, commenting that this means the words should not be like an antiquated edict, but rather like a new one that people rush to read. The midrash is conscious that something that feels like it has been created for a particular moment in time can feel more personal, and thus more compelling.
Even if the text never changes, even if the process ends with the same conclusion, there is a core message about paying attention to the needs of the moment and enabling people to take ownership of text in their context that is present in both the talmudic discussion and the midrash.
Across progressive communities, contemporary minhag varies from always sitting for shema, to always standing, to choosing a position personally, or simply not moving from where you were sitting or standing for the previous prayer. The wide range of practices in the progressive movements reflects an awareness of traditional halachah that follows Hillel, the innovation of our early leaders who adopted the standing position as a way of showing respect, and the value of personal choice where people are encouraged to do what best reflects their needs. In turn, seeing this diversity as people move from community to community, keeps the conversation alive. We know there is another way, and so we have the opportunity to reflect in each moment whether the way things are done now is the way they should be done in the future.
Seeing diversity is provocative, and at its best it inoculates a community against the paralysing force of normativity. Shema exhorts us to teach our children to love God, and to live Jewishly, and the stories around its recitation offer a formula for how we might do this. Teaching so that people may take ownership and make their own choices, teaching so that people may change their minds, teaching so that the words of Torah are as fresh and exciting to each new generation as they were to the first, and teaching so that we keep the way open for those still to come to inherit Torah and make it their own once again.
Deborah Blausten LBC rabbinic student