Sermon – The legacy of Seesen and our service

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 July 2010

Today is not the 200th anniversary of the Reform movement in Judaism. Whatever you might have heard, or read last week in the Jewish Chronicle, this is not the 200th anniversary of the Reform movement in Judaism. However, today is a very important anniversary.  This day 200 years ago marked a key stage in the development of a new form of Jewish life – one to which we, sat here this morning, are heirs. It was on this day that there was the first concerted attempt to alter the tone and nature of services – a thought-through and coherent change in response to the new need of a modern religious community. Not the start of a movement, but you might say the first Progressive service.

On Tuesday 17 July 1810 the new synagogue in Seesen in Lower Saxony, Germany, was dedicated.  It was sited in the grounds of a school established a decade earlier by Israel Jacobson, an enlightened Jewish philanthropist – a school which had begun over the previous years to grapple with some of the issues of an emancipated Jewish population, including, incidentally, teaching its children to read Hebrew using Sephardi pronunciation as this was the pronunciation used by Hebraists in academia and the Church .

The new Temple, as it was deliberately to be called, was the first synagogue designed for a new kind of service – with the reading platform moved from the then traditional position in the centre of the room closer to the ark and with space for an organ.

The descriptions of its dedication that morning are hugely evocative, with music, processions and an address delivered in German.  Invited were the community as well as local dignitaries and significantly, Christian clergy, for this was also a key moment in interfaith relations.

But how could they do this?  What was going on that they felt able to make this radical shift in Jewish practice?  On one level, there was a recognition that the needs of the community had changed.  This was taking place in the first German state to grant Jews full emancipation, and the Jews were beginning to come into contact with modernity – with non-Jewish religion, with secular study, with the arts.  And whether we like it or not, the response of these Jews was not to leap back into the safety of traditional practice, but to reject it.  To the extent that worship is a functional thing the community of this part of Germany was saying – what we have no longer works.  They wanted a service that was more focussed, more orderly, more in line with their other experience.  They wanted a service which removed some of the features of Ashkenazi Jewish practice, such as the atmosphere and environment, the individual schockeling, for example, which were not core to the rabbinic ideal of prayer with kavannah, with intention, indeed which were antithetical to it.

To quote from the rules established by the Israelite consistory of Kassel at that time, their goal was to: Restore to the synagogues of this kingdom that order and that devotion which are appropriate to the true purpose of the public houses of prayer and which, at the same time, will insure that the number of those who worship God in public is not going to be further diminished. We therefore feel obliged to remove from the synagogues some inessentials which have crept into them.

Theirs was not a decision based on whim but reflected a real need to “insure that the number of those who worship God in public is not going to be further diminished” as newly emancipated Jews turned away from the synagogue.

In so doing, these pioneers also understood an important truth – that Tefillah, that worship, must evolve in order to meet the needs of the community.  Indeed, until it got stuck in the early middle ages, Jewish worship always had evolved in response to context.

Though the basic shape and structure of services seems to have emerged very early, the style and content shifted.  The worship described in the Second Temple was very different to that found in the Talmud.  And we can tell from our own literature that some of the changes were very deliberate responses to the need of the time.  In the Temple we know that the reading of Shema was preceded by the public reciting of the Ten Commandments.  By the time of the Talmud this has been removed, because, we are told, of the beliefs of others.  A major change in worship in response, it seems, to early Christianity, which sought to emphasise only the 10 commandments, deemphasising the other laws of Torah.  A significant part of established worship removed in reaction to historical context.

And the Prayer of the rabbinic period is hardly recognisable as that we find in the Siddur.  Prayer in the first centuries of the common era appears to have been a form of freestyle jazz set around a basic structure.  The prayer leader, the Shaliach tsibbur would innovate and improvise, adding new ideas around a fixed shape.  As the centuries passed, prayers became written down and standardised, but there was still choice and variety.  Prayer in different communities around the world was set by local custom. It was only in the late ninth century that the codification of our service took place with the publishing of the first siddur – the Seder Rav Amram.  Written as a responsum to a question from the Jews of Northern Spain by the Babylonian authority Amram Gaon, this was the first closing down of variety in prayer.  And it, too, was influenced by historical context – as an echoing of the Muslim culture in which Amram wrote, which gave him the authority to set prayer on behalf of others, and especially as a polemic against Palestinian Jewish practice which we know remained different until the impact of the Crusades.  And Amram’s siddur held sway in Europe not because of its quality but because of its language.  He wrote his accompanying notes in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, while the next major siddur produced, by an even greater authority, Saadiah Gaon, was written using Arabic, which the Jews of Northern Europe did not know.  And even so, still there remained local differentiation in practice within Central and Northern Europe, until this was firmly extinguished by the invention of the printing press.

So though the changes at Seesen were radical, they reflected a reality – that Jewish prayer has always evolved.  What was distinct was that for the first time a community attempted to think through its worship in response to the needs of modernity, and in so doing they created a service which has a clear link through to ours today, from its use of music to a sermon in the vernacular.

But equally importantly, many of their answers to the challenge they faced 200 years ago are no longer our answers.  If we look at some of the statutes of the community and of the Jacobsentemple they are not ones we would adopt to ensure that our service is responsive to the needs of modernity.  It was forbidden to bring a child under four into the synagogue (a rule that was later extended to those under six); the clergy were to wear canonicals when leading the service; it was forbidden to leave one’s seat to meet the scroll; the rabbi was forbidden from addressing matters of Talmud in his sermon but could only address ‘the teachings of religion and ethics’; a call up to Torah was by secular name not by family name – I would be called up as Yehoshua Levy not as Yehoshua ben Yaakov – and certainly not ben Yaakov v’Aliza, for theirs was definitively not an egalitarian community.  So much of what they strove for now seems dated and unappealing.

Today is a truly important anniversary in the development of Reform Judaism.  17 July 1810 was not the start of the Reform movement – to say that would be to identify ourselves only with a form of service rather than with a coherent ideology, theology and approach to Halachah – and it is these which really define us. But it was a key moment in our movement’s history.  It was the point at which it became clear that part of our task is to ensure that the form of prayer we use responds to the needs of a modern community.  And this task remains – the task of Seesen – to continue to replenish ourselves as a praying community, changing if necessary.  With the pioneers of Seesen we recognise that the prayer of Judaism has always evolved in response to the changing need of the community.  With the pioneers of Seesen we recognise that to fix prayer is to risk allowing ‘the number of those who worship God in public… to be further diminished’; With the pioneers of Seesen we recognise that the answers of the past – even ironically, their answers – might not be the answers for today.