Common prayers, common ground
Thinking ahead

Witnessing my first smicha

Several of you have asked me to post about the Aleph smicha (ordination) ceremony I was fortunate enough to attend a week ago. It moved me deeply, which makes me want to chronicle it both for myself and for you. I feel some trepidation in so doing, though; I'm new to the program and I know I can't do the ceremony justice. I offer here some impressions and memories, and hope this post will be received in the respectful spirit in which it was written.

A congregation made up of colleagues, teachers, family, fellow students, and friends rose and sang as the processional came in: first Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, then the four directors of the Aleph ordination programs (Reb Marcia Prager, the dean; Reb Daniel Siegel, director of spiritual resources; Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, director of the rabbinic pastor program; and Hazzan Jack Kessler, director of the cantorial program), followed by the six musmachim (students/apprentices) who would receive smicha that day. The six of them sat on a raised platform at the front of the room.

First we prayed mincha, the short afternoon prayer service. Reb Zalman was the prayer-leader, draped in his beautiful rainbow tallit, and he did something wonderful with the amidah: we chanted the first three blessings together in Hebrew, and then for each of the latter blessings he spoke extemporaneously on the blessing's theme. We sang the final blessing for peace to the familiar tune of "Dona Nobis Pacem," in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and English.

After an invocation offered by Reb Marcia, the musmachim themselves provided the heart of the ceremony. They introduced themselves in the aggregate: "We are the smicha class of Tevet, 5766. Our average age is..." They told us about their relationships, the professions they have held between them (among them therapist, lawyer, waitress, activist), how many children they have, how many family members they have mourned, their range of positions on Israel, how many kippot and tallitot they collectively own (that got a laugh).

After the introduction, each offered a d'var Torah, an exploratory and explicative commentary, on the week's Torah portion. (Those were tremendous, and if they are ever published I will surely link to them.) As the musmachim passed one another en route to and from the microphone, they stopped and clasped hands, whispering blessings meant only for each others' ears. Reb Zalman responded to their teachings with a teaching of his own.

A chuppah was brought forth -- the same striped tallit on beribboned poles we had used in the morning's celebration of liminality -- and each group of ordinands (three rabbis, two rabbinic pastors, and one cantor) was called forth to stand beneath it. Their teachers and mentors surrounded them and together spoke the words of the smicha in Hebrew and in English. The word "smicha" comes from the root meaning "to lean," and smicha is conferred with a laying-on of hands -- though I didn't see that myself, since the musmachim were so closely surrounded by the teachers who had brought them to that point. I think there's something very powerful about the sense in which smicha is a leaning-on. When we lean on one another, we draw support and express trust. As the students had heretofore leaned on their teachers, now their teachers can lean on them.

My love of transformative language is rooted both in my Jewishness and my love of poetry. One of the things I love most about weddings is how the words spoken beneath the chuppah transform the lives of the people who speak them (and, to a lesser extent, the people who hear them). The smicha was like that, too.

After Reb Daniel offered a closing benediction, Reb Jack Gabriel sang a blessing-song written for the occasion. As we sang along, and moved from swaying in our seats to dancing in the aisles, Reb Zalman took out a handkerchief and drew each new rabbi, rabbinic pastor, and cantor down from the stage to dance with him as at a wedding, with the kerchief between them, a joyful twinkle in his eye.

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