Masking the Liturgy: a pedagogy for learning the Siddur, by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Gutoff (2003)

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What those of us who teach prayer tend to forget is that the prayer book is not a “book”, not in the normal sense.

When I read almost any passage in almost any text, I am being addressed by an external voice. “Yes,” you will say, “but, well, duh.” In fact, though, it is worth saying, because the knowledge that I’m being addressed, and my understanding of who is addressing me, govern the way I will try to understand the text. True, the interpretive strategies I will use will differ if I’m listening for the unified commanding voice of God, or the multiple voices of codifiers and redactors, or even for something as amorphous as the “text itself”. At least I am comfortable with the goal of interpreting what someone is trying to say to me.

For all, though, that liturgy may look like any number of other kinds of classical Jewish texts it is fundamentally different in this, that a liturgical text does not address the reader. Quite the opposite – the very definition of a prayer is that it is something the reader uses to address someone else, specifically God. This small and obvious point has far-reaching consequences especially for the educator, because it insists that the “reader” is really the “speaker”. But of course the student is not really the speaker; not yet. And so in addition to all of the questions normally invoked in learning to read a document (what do the words mean, what are the references, what are the ideas being expressed, etc.), the student is faced with a new and unfamiliar task. Understanding liturgy means finding that speaker, finding that voice, and discovering what it feels like to adopt it as one’s own.

I wanted my students to start thinking of prayers as expressions of an interior world, rather than as descriptions of the exterior one. I suggested to them that they think of a prayer as a kind of mask, much like the ones worn in religious rituals by many peoples. The job of the mask-wearer is to discover the reality on the “inside” of the mask and bring it to life.

In our class work, we had seen that classical blessings always begin with a phenomenon in the world – eating a piece of bread, say, or lighting a candle. While the blessing itself would not make reference to this piece of bread, or this candle, it did re-cast the phenomenon as a synecdoche of an attribute of God: this piece of challah is an example of God’s nature as bread-giver. In other words, a blessing expresses a different way of seeing.

With this in mind, I could ask my students to take a passage that caught their fancy and ask, “How is the author of this prayer seeing the world?” It was then a short step for them to try to imagine what kind of person it might be that would see the world (or a small part of it” in that kind of way. Thus far, the work was very similar to what might be done in a poetry class, or even a class in script analysis. But because in a Jewish religious school liturgy is a practice, not just a text, I took it a step further. “Now that you’ve imagined what the ‘inside’ of the person saying this prayer is like,” I said, “envision that person’s face.” I passed out blank white masks, which I’d picked up at a party supply store, markers, glue sticks, colored paper, various odds and ends. “You’ve picked the Sh’ma? Make a mask of ‘Sh’ma Man’. The Keddusha? Show me the face of the one who sees angels.”

Did it work? I think so. They made masks: some quite striking, some even moving., and they discovered that they were thinking about the texts in ways they never had before, hearing as though for the first time phrases they’d known since childhood. Did it transform the way they felt about prayer or the prayer book? Probably not. Maybe if we I had given them more time to work with those masks, maybe even to davven with them in a closed, safe environment. But perhaps that is asking too much of students in a high school class – too much trust, too much vulnerability. Maybe that wants to be tried with a self-selecting group, or on a retreat. Maybe mask-work should be introduced first to younger children, or maybe saved for adults. What the project did, though, was to give the students another set of tools, another set of questions, to bring to the prayer book. It helped them see, I hope, that whatever prayer is, it isn’t a book.

Originally published in Gleanings: A digest of Jewish educational thought and practice, (Davidson School/Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2003). The image illustrating this post was chosen by Aharon Varady from the Bird’s Head Haggadah (ca. 1300, Ashkenaz) following Dr. Marc Epstein’s interpretation of the chimerical representations of the Jews to be that of griffins, in honor of the inner quality of the martyrs of the Rhineland massacres of those Jews during the first Crusades (1096 CE.), as explained in this lecture.

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