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The traditional Jewish liturgy seems particularly distant from us: in culture, in language, in theology. Indeed, our alienation from the meaning of the tefillot has been seen as the root of a larger Jewish religious crisis:
Yet for all our interest in what the prayers may mean, there has not been much concern with how they mean. That is, what exactly is supposed to be going on in the encounter between the “pray-er” and the prayer. This is not just an abstract theoretical question, but a vital point for anyone who has any contact with the liturgy, and it needs to precede attempts to interpret, evaluate, or debate specific passages.
Take, for example, the apparently never-ending debate about Musaf. The claim against the traditional formula has been as follows: “We do not want the restoration of sacrifices, we do not believe in the restoration of sacrifices, and therefore we should not pray for the restoration of sacrifices.” The ensuing debate has been the halakhic one: whether or not it is permissible to change the received text. See most recently David Golinkin, “Siddur Sim Shalom: A Halakhic Analysis,” Conservative Judaism, XLI:1 (Fall 1988), pp. 38-55. Once the answer to this is established, one either does or does not want to see the renewal of the Temple cult, and so prays accordingly.
Without for a moment belittling the importance of the halakhic question, I would like to suggest that an affirmative answer to that question Which is assumed for the sake of argument. See ibid, pp. 45-46. should mark the beginning, not the end of the discussion, for there are two assumptions which underly the complaint. The complaint assumes that we should agree with what our prayers say, taking for granted that the prayers themselves mean what they say. Common sense? Indeed. Not even worthy of discussion? Hardly. I hope to show that not only are we not required (or even expected) to believe in the content of the liturgy, but that the very word “content” is ill-chosen. For although the siddur may be read as a kind of theological curriculum, prayer is anything but a vehicle for the elaboration of beliefs and ideas.
The Problem of Belief
It would be an interesting experiment if we were to subject every statement in our prayer-book (whichever one we use) to a vote of approval based on whether or not we believed it. I am not referring to the “obvious metaphors,” such as the anthropomorphic representations of God (obviously metaphorical to us, that is), but to other more “serious” claims. Would we all subscribe to “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land?” “Blessed are You… who revives the dead” (Harlow’s translation notwithstanding)? Would the second paragraph of the Sh’ma be retained? And surely if we really longed to be returned to our land, we would be there.
There is much we say which we do not believe. Since the Conservative movement has, through a process of self-selection, excluded those Jews who respond to this fact with a call for radical revision of the siddur, most of us have learned to live with the disjunction between prayer and pray-er. For many, the breach is a painful but inevitable fact of modernity. We are not our ancestors and cannot believe as they did, but we maintain their words as homage to their piety. In fact, the breach is nothing new.
Past generations have intoned many prayers which defied literal acceptance…. Even today, for example, we would be painfully mistaken to assure that the nominal Orthodox Jew—that is, the Jew who says he is Orthodox because he attends an Orthodox synagogue, even though he may not subscribe to the totality of Orthodox Jewish law—really subscribes to the literal meaning of the entire Siddur…. He believes in angels, bodily resurrection, and the like no more than does the average Reform Jew. Lawrence Hoffman, “The Liturgical Message,” Sha’are Binah: Gates of Understanding, L. Hoffman, ed. (New York: UAHG, 197), pp. 139-140.
This is a phenomenon of neither reform nor modernity. It is not even a phenomenon of belatedness, the response of those who are born to a siddur they did not write. Rather, the possibility of a disjunction between pray-er and prayer was not only accepted, but even at times courted by Ḥazal. The most famous example of this is almost a cliché, but I think we need to take it seriously:
The force of this injunction is in the word evil, ra’ah. Evil is frequently a subjective term, but even those things which are subjectively bad must first be recognized as such if a person is to say the appropriate blessing. By referring to something as evil, the mishnah specifically points to an event which is not recognized as being a product of God’s justice; else it would not he called “evil,” but rather “just,” or “hard,” or “painful.” This mishnah could be rephrased as, “Precisely when you feel least like saying a blessing, you must say a blessing.” An even more interesting, and less well-known, example found in the Tosefta. Keep in mind the rabbinic attitude towards ’avodah zarah:
Myself, I doubt that when one of the Tannaim saw idolatry being practiced he experienced it as an expression of God’s great good nature, or expected his fellows to do likewise. Yet there was a tradition that would have required him to say words to just that effect.
If our sages, of blessed memory, had no difficulty in legislating blessings which may have run contrary to an individual’s experience, how much less of a problem there would have been with tefillah, the regular ordained prayer. Prayer, after all, is ’avodah, service.
Indeed, the issue of belief does not even seem to arise, Kavvanah is of crucial importance, not ‘emunah; that is, it seems to matter less what one thinks than how one thinks. We might even think of translating ’avodah not as service, but as discipline—and we shall come back to that term presently. Nevertheless, discipline or service or what-have-you, it was still no little thing for Ḥazal to require one to say something which he (or she; women were obligated as well Berakhot 20b. ) might not believe, and indeed to invoke God’s name in doing so. Are they not forcing the individual into a condition of bad faith, or cynicism, or even transgression? After all, if it is not a brakhah l’vatalah to say a blessing you believe to be false, what is?
The Siddur as Textbook
Would it be a false blessing if the “reality” expressed by the blessing were, in fact, true? In the eyes of a True Believer it is no more an act of bad faith to insist that a doubter bless the God who revives the dead than it is to insist that a child learn to recite the “times table” correctly. In many ways, the divergence between the individual and the text can be seen as the divergence between the real and ideal worshipper.
We can imagine the liturgy as a corrective device, a way of refocusing our attention and redirecting our energies. Yet while this approach acknowledges the problem, its “solution” (“Liturgy isn’t what you believe, it’s what you’re supposed to believe”) merely begs the question. For one thing, it still leaves the validity of the prayer open to criticism: just because this doctrine was appropriate for our ancestors does not mean it is appropriate for us. It is not justification enough to say that liturgical prayer is an educational experience and that the siddur is a theological textbook if what is being taught is wrong.
Oddly enough, even if we were to agree with the content of the siddur we would still have to question the idea of prayer as doctrinal education. Is the siddur really a textbook of theology? If so, it is a poorly designed one. It contains neither narrative nor developed argument, and resembles less a curriculum, a vehicle for learning, than it does, say, television:
Nor is that all. Even were the prayerbook written in a way to instruct, the liturgical experience is so designed as to undermine any serious learning encounter. Study is characterized by reviewing, repeating, making connections. Liturgy is just the opposite. You may not say things out of order, you may not repeat. Mishnah Berakhot 5:3. The traditional assumption that the one who said “modim modim” was silenced because it might appear that he was acknowledging two divinities is perhaps deserving of reconsideration. It appears as an explanation neither here nor in the parallel in Megillah 4:9 (in which some other prohibited formulations are explained, however), It is not raised as an issue in any of the attributed discussion in the Bavli (Berakhot 33b-34a and Megillah 25a); R. Zeira compares it to saying “Sh’ma sh’ma,” and Rav Papa suggests that it was the result of a momentary lapse of kavvanah. It is not mentioned at all in the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:3: Megillah 4:10); while R. Shmuel bar R. Yitzhak does apply the verse “the mouth of the liars is stopped” (Psalms 63:12) to the three cases in M. Berakhot, the Yerushalmi adds that the prohibition only applies (to the leader?) in public prayer, and in Megillah it continues by comparing the repetition to saying “amen amen” and “sh’ma sh’ma.” Indeed, the only appearance of the issue is in an apparently late layer of the sugya, where it is mentioned by the stam by way of introducing an argument concerning an earlier part of the mishnah. That even that part of the mishnah may not have been concerned with heresy is suggested by Halivni in his commentary on the Megillah parallel (Mekorot Umesorot: Mo‘ed: M’yoma ‘ad Ḥagigah (Jerusalem: JTSA with the Gustav Wurzweiler Foundation, 1975) pp. 508ff). You may even pray in a language you don’t understand (Hebrew). To put the most extreme face on it, it is better to not understand the experience than it is to interrupt it. The only exception is when there is a possibility that something has been left out. Imagine trying to learn philosophy, or law, or science, through this kind of process.
Toward Experience and Empathy
All of this is not to belittle the siddur, or deny the possibility of a rich and powerful spiritual experience through its use! Quite the contrary. The emphasis, though, is on the word “experience.” For while a directed, repeated, recital of a series of texts structured neither by propositional nor narrative logic may be of no help to the intellect and understanding, it is very good for the emotions and empathy. Consider this parallel from classical Athens:
Now we are getting somewhere. An approach which is better suited to empathizing with a person than to understanding (let alone believing) an idea is an apt one for prayer, because prayer implies personality. We might say, for example, that Torah remains Torah even if no one studies it, or that halakhah is still halakhah even if it is not followed, but liturgy does not become prayer until it is prayed. Prayer must be spoken, This is not just a philosophic observation, but a halakhic requirement: it is not sufficient for person to think or read a prayer silently, it must actually be voiced. and that means there must be a speaker. Prayer is called a cry by the Talmud Berakhot 31a. —and a cry must at least be someone’s, if not our own.
Which leads us to some alternate possibilities. The liturgy as prayed is not an argument but a series of cries, that is, personal exclamations which are more indicative of a state of soul than of external reality. Moreover, the point is not to understand the cry, but to empathize with the crier. This means that we must approach each cry from the inside out, as it were: we must find, or imagine, what the cries meant to the person who uttered them, and what gave rise to their utterance. Liturgy seen this way resembles play-acting, where the characters we are playing are the true ba’alei tefillah, the masters of prayer.
As in play-acting, we need to leam the truth that stands behind the lines by gaining insight into the person we portray. We must envision the kind of person who might say these things, and the kind of circumstances which would prompt them. Liturgical prayer then becomes not just a portrayal of, but an encounter with, the ones who uttered the prayers. No brief encounter either: in order to be able to speak the cries truly (that is, believing not the cry but the crier), we must come to know the characters deeply, intimately, learning the way they saw the world.
Religious traditions are filled with examples of discipleship, a learning relationship in which the student adopts a pattern of behavior observed of or directed by the master in order to develop the otherwise unteachable insight or wisdom desired. Liturgical prayer is like a discipleship. We say words we did not write, and the very otherness of those words causes us to look for the person who could say them and the experiences which could prompt them. And so through the service we encounter, experience, and at length—if we choose— appropriate a variety of religious personalities.
If our experience of a liturgical text is really an experience of a personality, then our evaluation should also be of the personality. The question about a prayer is not if we believe it, but if we want to learn from the person who said it. Does it represent a valid model of a religious person?
Consider the blessing, she-lo ‘asani ‘ishah, the traditional formula by which the male worshipper thanks God for not having made him a woman, as well as its companion blessing for women, she-‘asani kirtsono (“who made me according to His [sic] will”). They do not appear in Siddur Sim Shalom. Instead, there is a single blessing in which the (male or female) worshipper thanks God for having created him or her in God’s own image. Now, it would seem to be a desideratum for people to delight in being who and what they are, and in not being otherwise. I should, in theory, be able to recite the original formula in good faith, just as I am able to thank my Creator that I am not taller or better looking or more talented than I am. Similarly, I would have no hesitation about rejoicing for being made according to the designs of God’s very will. Yet while the blessings are in no way dishonest, they are both inappropriate. Certainly in an egalitarian community it makes no sense to have a different kind of blessing for men and women. The issue is not equality, though. Even a non-egalitarian can hear the arrogance in she-lo ‘asani ‘ishah, and the resignation in she-‘asani kirtsono, when the two are paired together. We reject the blessings because we reject the religious personalities who say them.
In this light, we can return to our discussion of Musaf. For the sake of clarification, we compare the Harlow version of the middle berakhah with a traditional (pre-1927) one.
Who are the people behind these two prayers? What drives them? As I hear the voice on the left [in Sim Shalom], as I take it on, the stance is one of nostalgia. The strongest connection seems to be with the ancestors—it is their prior presence which seems to sanctify the land—yet their world, and their tasks, and their way belongs to an un-reachable past. There is no crisis; “I” have my own tasks, my own way, and it is primarily this nostalgia which informs and encourages me in them. To my ear, this prayer authentically captures the voice of many modern Jews.
In contrast to this nostalgia, I am struck by the “connectedness” of the vision behind the traditional version. As I hear it, there is a sense of the eternality of the divine voice (God spoke once, and all of us are commanded), an experience of continuity with our ancestors, and at the same time a feeling of loss and frustration, all of which are missing from the newer prayer. Is this a vision I share? No. Is this the vision of someone I’d like to learn from? Ahh.
Nor am I entirely put off by the “S”-word (or, rather, the Quf-word). For one thing, the Hebrew suggests the possibility of reciprocity with God: “I prayed before that you bring us near (v’ḳeiravtanu). Now I pray that you let us bring near (v’sham na‘aseh v’naḳriv).
More than that: just what did the sacrifices mean to those who brought them, or to those who felt their loss? A controlled barbarity? Or a closeness, a physical intimacy with the Divine Presence? And if only the former, and not the latter, why do we even bother with the Avodah service? Or Tisha b’Av? Again: to pray the traditional liturgy, yes, to pray it honestly, does not require me to actually desire the restoration of the blood cult. It requires that I authenticate, and attempt to share, the religious experience of someone who used that language.
Redeeming the Liturgy
Is it really worth all this work, all this convoluted reinterpretation just to redeem particular text? Yes, for two reasons:
1) First, a “political” reason, and here a sweeping generalization is in order. Real Jewish religious authority lies not in the power to write the text, but in the power to interpret the text. To abandon a text—any text—as unredeemable is to say, “Yes, you are right, the text means what you say it means, and so we opt out.” As we have seen, there may be times when it is unredeemable, when a prayer does not present a desirable model of spirituality, but to realize and act on that awareness always involves loss.
2) We have no choice. Every use of liturgy—even liturgy we write ourselves—is an encounter with an Other by the very fact that it is not spontaneous. We need an approach that does not pretend that we mean what the book says.
In closing, I would like to mention a few programmatic implications of this kind of approach to the siddur.
We must acknowledge the foreignness of the liturgy, the “otherness” of it. We must teach an approach to prayer that is not afraid of that othemess, but appreciates it as an opportunity to learn a new way of seeing. It follows that addition to the literary skills taught as the key to understanding the text of the prayer, we must actively pursue kavvanah as a stance of listening to the prayer even as we speak it, to listen to what is behind it.
A friend of mine at a liberal Protestant church was telling me about her efforts to help her students learn to pray. My first impulse was to think, “There’s no Hebrew, there’s no nusaḥ. What’s to lean?” I had forgotten, as perhaps many of us have forgotten, that learning to pray may have nothing to do with learning the prayerbook. We must—even in the most time-constrained settings—teach and nurture a prayer life independent of the liturgy. The liturgy was never intended to be the entirety of a person’s conversation with God; only when we stop talking to God on our own do we feel a need for the liturgy to be in congruence with our own thoughts.
If we do our job well, there does not have to be a conflict between spontaneous and established prayer. Indeed, the result of our apprenticeship to the voices in the liturgy should help us find our own voice that much better. We are like the writing student, who, an educator prescribed,
When we ponder ’avodah, service, we ponder God and God’s needs (kviakhol) because that is what service means. To ask what is ’avodah she ba-lev, is to ask what God needs of our hearts. Maimonides wrote:
That is, the purpose of religious deeds is to train the religious soul. I would humbly suggest that God needs our hearts to be more aware of the Divine presence, more open to wonder, more eager to respond. God needs our hearts to be more religious, in the best sense of the word. We serve God with our hearts when we remake our hearts along those lines. In order to do that we need examples of hearts already remade. We need models of souls who know in Whose presence they stand. It is this we find in the liturgy when it is functioning as ’avodah she ba-lev: not doctrines, not theology, but soul.
“Meaning What We Pray, Praying What We Mean: The Otherness of the Liturgy” by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Gutoff was first published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 42(2), Winter 1989-90, pp. 12-20. At the time, Joshua Gutoff was serving as rabbi of Congregation Agudat Achim in Leominster, Massachusetts.
|1||Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer” in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, Vol. 15 (1953), p. 172.|
|2||See most recently David Golinkin, “Siddur Sim Shalom: A Halakhic Analysis,” Conservative Judaism, XLI:1 (Fall 1988), pp. 38-55.|
|3||Which is assumed for the sake of argument. See ibid, pp. 45-46.|
|4||Lawrence Hoffman, “The Liturgical Message,” Sha’are Binah: Gates of Understanding, L. Hoffman, ed. (New York: UAHG, 197), pp. 139-140.|
|5||Mishnah Berakhot 9:5 (= Berakhot 60b).|
|6||Tosefta Berakhot 7:2 (cf. Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:2).|
|7||Joseph Heinemann, “Yaḥid v’Zibur b’Tfllah” in Heinemann, Studies in Jewish Liturgy (Hebrew) ed. Shinan, 2nd edition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), p. 171.|
|9||Jakob Petuchowski, Understanding Jewish Prayer (New York: Ktav, 1977), p. 37.|
|10||Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Dell, 1979), p. 75).|
|11||Mishnah Berakhot 5:3. The traditional assumption that the one who said “modim modim” was silenced because it might appear that he was acknowledging two divinities is perhaps deserving of reconsideration. It appears as an explanation neither here nor in the parallel in Megillah 4:9 (in which some other prohibited formulations are explained, however), It is not raised as an issue in any of the attributed discussion in the Bavli (Berakhot 33b-34a and Megillah 25a); R. Zeira compares it to saying “Sh’ma sh’ma,” and Rav Papa suggests that it was the result of a momentary lapse of kavvanah. It is not mentioned at all in the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:3: Megillah 4:10); while R. Shmuel bar R. Yitzhak does apply the verse “the mouth of the liars is stopped” (Psalms 63:12) to the three cases in M. Berakhot, the Yerushalmi adds that the prohibition only applies (to the leader?) in public prayer, and in Megillah it continues by comparing the repetition to saying “amen amen” and “sh’ma sh’ma.” Indeed, the only appearance of the issue is in an apparently late layer of the sugya, where it is mentioned by the stam by way of introducing an argument concerning an earlier part of the mishnah. That even that part of the mishnah may not have been concerned with heresy is suggested by Halivni in his commentary on the Megillah parallel (Mekorot Umesorot: Mo‘ed: M’yoma ‘ad Ḥagigah (Jerusalem: JTSA with the Gustav Wurzweiler Foundation, 1975) pp. 508ff).|
|12||Postman, p. 34.|
|13||This is not just a philosophic observation, but a halakhic requirement: it is not sufficient for person to think or read a prayer silently, it must actually be voiced.|
|15||Jules Harlow, editor, Siddur Sim Shalom (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly of America and the United Synagogue of America, 1985) p. 435.|
|16||Richard A. Lanham, Style: An Anti-Textbook (New Haven and London: Yale, 1974), p. 116.|
|17||Maimonides, Guide of the Perplered, trans. S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963), III:51 (= p. 622).|
“Meaning What We Pray, Praying What We Mean: The Otherness of the Liturgy, by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Gutoff (1989)” is shared through the Open Siddur Project with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.
Works of related interest:
על השואה ועל התפלתה | Prayer in the Shoah, an essay and a prayer by Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni (2000)
Blessings and Ethics: The Spiritual Life of Justice, a dvar tefillah on berakhot by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Gutoff (1997)