Ethnography of the Sh’ma Yisrael Prayer

A Jewish Performance of Gender and Queer Introspection

Authors

  • Elazar Ben-Lulu Ariel University Israel

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/firn.20949

Keywords:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Reform Judaism, gender, sexuality, prayer, LGBTQ

Abstract

Prayer is a performative act to construct religious identity, express faith in God and sense of belonging to the community. In Judaism, reciting the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer is one of the most important commandments which identifies commitment and belief. It is practiced by the worshiper twice a day. According to the Jewish law, women are not obligated to recite the Sh’ma, but non-Orthodox communities, which support gender equality, view this issue differently and promote their participation. In this ethnographic study, I demonstrate how Sh’ma Yisrael prayer, conducted by women and LGBTQ members in Reform Jewish congregations, is constructed as a performance of gender-sexual recognition and empowerment. By changing the text of the prayer, experiencing the setting, and performing various bodily gestures, this religious declaration is charged with a political call for gender equality. Reciting the traditional prayer is not only dedicated to express religiosity or faith, but also an egalitarian ideology of excluded sexual-gender identities and life experiences. It transforms the focus from God to the self.

Downloads

Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Elazar Ben-Lulu, Ariel University Israel

Elazar Ben-Lulu is a lecturer (assistant professor) at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ariel University in Israel. He is an anthropologist of religion and gender with particular interest in the intersection of LGBTQ+ identities and Judaism.

References

Adler, Rachel 1998 Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Boston, MA: Jewish Publication Society.

Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, and Arthur Emery Farnsley 1997 Congregation and Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Ben-Lulu, Elazar 2017 Reform Israeli Female Rabbis Perform Community Leadership. Journal of Religion & Society 19: 1–22.

“Let Us Bless the Twilight”: Intersectionality of Traditional Jewish Ritual and Queer Pride in a Reform Congregation in Israel. Journal of Homosexuality 68(1): 23–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2019.1621555

a “Who will say Kaddish for me”? The American Reform Jewish Response to HIV/AIDS. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 20(1): 70–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2020.1763070

b Who Has the Right to the City? Reform Jewish Rituals of Gender-religious Resistance in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Gender, Place & Culture: 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2021.1950643

Benson, Bruce Ellis, and Norman Wirzba (eds) 2005 The Phenomenology of Prayer (No. 46). New York: Fordham University Press. https://doi.org/10.5422/fso/9780823224951.001.0001

Bielo, James S. 2011 Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York: New York University Press. https://doi.org/10.18574/nyu/9780814789544.001.0001

Chrétien, Jean-Louis 2000 The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, edited by Michael Fagenblat, 147–75. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Clair, Robin Patric 2012 Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods. New York: SUNY Press.

Clowney, Edmund P. 1994 A Biblical Theology of Prayer. In Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, edited by D. A. Carson, 136–77. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Coffey, Amanda 1999 The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity. London: SAGE.

Cohon, Samuel S. 1950 The Name of God, A Study in Rabbinic Theology. Hebrew Union College Annual 23(1): 579–604.

Derrida, Jacques 2013 Acts of Religion. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203724309

Deshen, Shlomo 1979 The Kol Nidre Enigma: An Anthropological View of the Day of Atonement Liturgy. Ethnology 18(2): 121–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/3773286

Donin, Hayim H. 2019 To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life. Revised ed. New York: Basic Books.

Drinkwater, Gregg 2019 Creating an Embodied Queer Judaism: Liturgy, Ritual and Sexuality at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 1977–1987. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 18(2): 177–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2019.1593687

Eger, Denise 2020 Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells. New York: CCAR Press.

El-Or, Tamar 2002 Next Year I Will Know More: Literacy and Identity among Young Orthodox Women in Israel. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Ellis, Carolyn 2016 Revision: Autoethnographic Reflections on Life and Work. New York: Routledge.

FitzGerald, William 2012 Spiritual Modalities: Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Gertoux, Gerard 2015 The Name of God Y. eH. oW. aH which is Pronounced as it is Written I_Eh_oU_Ah. Lulu. com.

Gross-Prinz, Rachel 2019 Sh’ma Yisrael, Notice Israel: Jewish Mindfulness Meditation & the Reform Rabbinate. Doctoral dissertation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati.

Guzmen-Carmeli, Shlomo, and Asaf Sharabi 2019 Textual Healing: Tailor-made Kabbalistic Therapeutics in Jerusalem. Anthropology & Medicine 26(2): 244–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/13648470.2017.1361653

Heschel, Abraham Joshua 1954 Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism. New York: Scribner.

Hoffman, Lawrence A. 1989 Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Irshai, Ronit 2019 The Construction of Gender in Halakhic Responsa by the Reform Movement: Transgender People as a Case Study. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 18(2): 160–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2019.1595496

Kaplan, D. E. 2003 American Reform Judaism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lahav, Pnina 2015 The Women of the Wall: A Metaphor for National and Religious Identity. Israel Studies Review 30(2): 50–70. https://doi.org/10.3167/isr.2015.300204

Langdon, Susan W., and Gina Petracca 2010 Tiny Dancer: Body Image and Dancer Identity in Female Modern Dancers. Body Image 7(4): 360–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.06.005

Lipshitz, Yair 2016 Embodied Tradition: Theatrical Performances of Jewish Texts. Ben Gurion University Press, Israel [Hebrew].

Mak, Hananel 2001 Introduction to Israel Prayers. Broadcast University series, Ministry of Defense Publishing House.

Marcus, George E. 1998 Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Martin, Deborah G., Susan Hanson and Danielle Fontaine 2007 What Counts as Activism? The Role of Individuals in Creating Change. Women’s Studies Quarterly 35(3/4): 78–94.

Marx, Dalia 2013 A Female Rabbi Is Like an Orange on the Passover Plate. Women and the Rabbinate: Challenges and Horizons. In D. Marx, Rabbi-Pastor-Priest, 219–40. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Empowerment, Not Police: What Are We to Do with Problematic Liturgical Passages? Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary e-Journal 12(2). https://wjudaism.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/article/view/27172

Mauss, Marcel 2003 [1968] Oeuvres: Présentation de Victor Karady. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

Mauss, Marcel, William S. F. Pickering and Howard Morphy 2003 On Prayer. New York: Berghahn Books.

Meszler, Joseph B. 2006 Witnesses to the One: The Spiritual History of the Sh’ma. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Meyer, Birgit 2012 Mediation and the Genesis of Presence: Towards a Material Approach to Religion. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.

Meyer, Michael A. 1995 Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Milligan, Amy K. 2013 Colours of the Jewish Rainbow: A Study of Homosexual Jewish Men and Yarmulkes. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12(1): 71–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2013.

Jewish Bodylore: Feminist and Queer Ethnographies of Folk Practices. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Misgav, Chen 2016 Gay-riatrics: Spatial Politics and Activism of Gay Seniors in Tel-Aviv’s Gay Community Center. Gender, Place & Culture 23(11): 1519–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2016.1219320

Mitchell, Don 2003 The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press.

Mitchell, Jon P. 1997 A Moment with Christ: The Importance of Feelings in the Analysis of Belief. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3(1): 79–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3034366

Norman, Jon R. 2011 Congregational Culture and Identity Politics in a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Synagogue: Making Inclusiveness and Religious Practice One and the Same. Journal of Religion & Society 13: 1–19.

Phelan, Peggy 2003 Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/

Plaskow, Judith 1991 Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. New York: HarperCollins.

Prell, Riv-Ellen 1981 The Dilemma of Women’s Equality in the History of Reform Judaism. Judaism 30(4): 418–26.

Reiner, Elchanan 2000 Destruction, Temple and Sacred Place: On a Medieval Concept of Time and Place. Qatedrah le-tôldôt Eres Yísra’el el we-yîššûbah 97: 47–64.

Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist 1984 Toward an Anthropology of Self and Feeling. In Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion, edited by R. Shweder and R. LeVine, 137–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenberg, Arnold 2000 Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System: A Prayer-by-Prayer Explanation of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship. Oxford: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Sachs-Shmueli, Leore 2019 Shekhinah and the Revival of Feminine God Language. Modern Judaism 39(3): 347–69. https://doi.org/10.1093/mj/kjz016

Sarason, Rabbi Richard S. 2018 Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur. New York: CCAR Press.

Schechner, Richard 2017 Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/

Scheff, Thomas J. 2000 Shame and the Social Bond: A Sociological Theory. Sociological Theory 18(1): 84–99. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735-2751.00089

Schofer, Jonathan Wyn 2015 The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. New York: CCAR Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky 1995 Shame and Performativity: Henry James’s New York Edition Prefaces. Henry James’s New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shokeid, Moshe 2002 A Gay Synagogue in New York. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shott, Susan 1979 Emotion and Social Life: A Symbolic Interactionist Analysis. American Journal of Sociology 84(6): 1317–34. https://doi.org/10.1086/226936

Targoff, Ramie 1997 The Performance of Prayer: Sincerity and Theatricality in Early Modern England. Representations 60: 49–69. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928805

Tucker, Katheryn L., Denise M. Martz, Lisa A. Curtin and Doris G. Bazzini 2007 Examining “Fat Talk” Experimentally in a Female Dyad: How Are Women Influenced by Another Woman’s Body Presentation Style? Body Image 4(2): 157–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2006.12.005

Tompkins, K. Brooke, Denise M. Martz, Courtney A. Rocheleau and Doris G. Bazzini 2009 Social Likeability, Conformity, and Body Talk: Does Fat Talk Have a Normative Rival in Female Body Image Conversations? Body Image 6(4): 292–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2009.07.005

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner 1982 Performing Ethnography. The Drama Review: TDR 26(2): 33–50. https://doi.org/10.2307/1145429

Usunier, Jean-Claude, and Jörg Stolz (eds) 2016 Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality. New York: Routledge.

Washofsky, Mark 2010 Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice. New York: UAHC Press.

Werczberger, Rachel 2016 Jews in the Age of Authenticity: Jewish Spiritual Renewal in Israel. New York: Peter Lang. https://doi.org/10.3726/b10527

Published

2021-12-09

How to Cite

Ben-Lulu, E. (2021). Ethnography of the Sh’ma Yisrael Prayer: A Jewish Performance of Gender and Queer Introspection. Fieldwork in Religion, 16(2), 147–171. https://doi.org/10.1558/firn.20949

Issue

Section

Articles