Previous month:
October 2003
Next month:
December 2003

With hearts and minds and voices

Two summers ago, I spent a week at Elat Chayyim studying tikkun olam with Arthur Waskow. The class was small and our discussions far-ranging. Fortunately, I kept some notes: jottings, really, not connected enough to capture everything we said, but enough to spark excitement when I look back over what I transcribed.

One of the gems I scribbled was the quote "Prayer is useless unless it shatters pyramids and loosens the calluses on the heart." Arthur attributed it to Abraham Joshua Heschel, although he couldn't remember what book or essay it comes from. (If any of you can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.)

I return to that phrase often. I love the idea of prayer being able to do these things: to shatter pyramids, mighty monuments to the false deities of worldly power and hoped-for permanence. To loosen the tough skin that our hearts grow, thereby rendering us newly-vulnerable to the wonders and terrors of the world. At its best prayer can do these things, and that is wondrous and terrible indeed.

It seems to me that Heschel is arguing here for radical prayer, surprising prayer. Perhaps he is aligned with the philosophy which encourages us to constantly vary the terms we use for God, in order that we not become too accustomed to any one term or way of praying (because therein lies the risk of confusing the term, imperfect as it must be, with Ultimate Reality, which cannot be linguistically expressed).

Then again, maybe I'm reading his meaning wrong. Maybe he's not arguing for prayer-in-constant-flux -- maybe he'd argue for the person praying (the pray-er, as 'twere) to approach familiar words with unfamiliar, or constantly-renewed, kavvanah (focus/intent). Aha: we're back to my constant question, the tension which seems to inform so many of my musings here. Should prayer change, or should we?

Regardless, I think Heschel's words point toward a goal that's worth keeping in mind when we approach prayer, whether our prayer practices consist of davvening the morning blessings alone, benching the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) with family, or engaging with synagogue services in a communal context. If one purpose of prayer is to connect us with our Source, then it is both wise and worthy to aim for liberated minds and open hearts, both as a tool for reaching (toward) God, and as a consequence of having found Her or Him.

I sing in a community chorus. This fall we've been learning a Pachelbel double-chorus based on the words to a Protestant hymn. We're singing it in German, but the opening line translates to "Now thank we all our God, with hearts and minds and voices." As we Americans approach the secular holiday of Thanksgiving, as we pause in our lives to gather with family and friends and be thankful for abundance of food and community, may our hearts and minds and voices come together in a way that sustains feelings of gratitude, and in a way that aligns us with our Source, toward whom all prayers reach and from whom all blessings flow.

Negotiations and love songs

We're currently in the lunar month of Heshvan, the only month in the Hebrew calendar which contains no holidays except Shabbat. (A rabbi-friend of mine jokes that this is his reward for making it through the exhausting month of Tishri which features Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Hoshanah Rabbah, and Simchat Torah.) In the absence of holidays to muse on, I'll talk about synagogue some more.

Ever wondered why we repeat the kaddish half a dozen times during the average synagogue service? If your answer is "no," don't feel sheepish; that was my answer for a long time, too. I was twenty-seven before I learned that the repetitions of the kaddish serve a purpose. We say kaddish every time we reach the end of one section of the liturgy and prepare to enter another. It's a marker, a pause, a time to catch our breath and reflect on where we are.

Now that I know that, I enjoy the repetitions...but until I heard that teaching, the repetitions held no special meaning for me. They just felt...well, repetitious, and a little dull. (On a related note, I haven't heard anything that sufficiently explains the repetitions of the Amidah. Anyone out there have a good, or at least historical, reason for repeating the Amidah?)

It amazes me sometimes how much difference a few well-placed pieces of information, a few good teachings, can make in my enjoyment of synagogue -- indeed, in my whole approach to the experience. When I was a kid and my family was affiliated Conservative, we always showed up late to shul. Services started at 8:30 with the p'sukei d'zimrah (poems/psalms of praise), and we showed up at 9:30, maybe at 10 for the Torah service. It seemed normal to me then; lots of people did it. Many people do it still.

But, as my buddy Jeff (the rabbi at the shul I now attend) points out, the p'sukei d'zimrah are there for a reason; they're a spiritual warm-up, to get us in the right mindset to approach the service. Like stretching before starting a workout. So showing up an hour late means missing the warm-up, missing the opening exercises, and being plunged into an experience that's already going on.

Now that I'm looking at it that way, the first blessings of the morning service have become one of my favorite parts of the liturgy. I like being there at the very beginning, to center myself and get ready for the spiritual work I want the synagogue experience to do for/with/in me. And as the morning wears on and the sanctuary slowly fills, I find myself thinking that it's a bummer that the latecomers are missing out on the start-to-finish experience. If more people saw the service as a journey with a beginning and middle and end, maybe sanctuaries wouldn't be so empty at the beginning of the morning service.

To me, that's an argument for education: more, and better. But it's also possible that teaching people about the liturgy won't suffice; once people learn how things work and why, there may be things they want to add or change or modify. And I think we need to be open to that.

The standard, long-form, Hebrew-intensive service is an excellent practice for people who know it well, but for people who don't, it can be daunting. I suspect that many twice-a-year-Jews (who only come to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) find the liturgy confusing or alienating or simply uninteresting, and that's part of why they don't come back until some vague feeling of obligation brings them back in the doors the following High Holidays. We need to give people the tools they need to find their way in...but we may also need to create a clearer, and more direct, path.

I'd love to see synagogue services take a few more risks. I recognize that meditation and chanting (however much I may love them) won't work for every community. But I suspect most shuls could benefit from a little judicious shaking-up. Surely getting people excited about, and invested in, the liturgy can only be to Judaism's benefit.

What if more shuls moved away from the tradition of homily-type sermon, and offered a Torah discussion instead which involved everyone in an active way? What if, as I've suggested elsewhere, more shuls provided sheet music so strangers or first-time attendees could join in the singing with gusto? What if we offered periodic teaching services, designed to teach people how to navigate the world of prayer? Or services which distill each prayer down to an essence, a line, to focus on (which might enable us thereafter to pray the longer versions with clearer kavvanah, focus/intent)?

I'm not saying that the traditional service should be scrapped -- just that it's not necessarily the easiest way in. If you want someone to come to appreciate the exquisite subtleties of mathematics, you don't drop them unprepared into a graduate-level seminar: you start by making sure they have the fundamentals of algebra. Why would we expect spiritual practice to require any less careful and loving instruction than math?

Granted, abbreviating or changing the liturgy may frustrate more people than it helps. On a recent visit to my birthplace, I attended a Reform Shabbat morning service which was so shortened (and apparently arbitrarily so: why cut "Yigdal" to six lines?) that I had trouble sinking my teeth into it. That service was almost entirely different from the Reform service I attend now, and the changes were not what I would have chosen. I did like that the rabbi translated the Torah portion line by line, on the fly; and instead of delivering a d'var torah (sermon-style exegesis), she came down off the bimah (pulpit) to lead us in a conversation about the portion and its commentaries. That part was cool. But the rest...? Not my cup of tea. (Then again, because the Reform movement places such a high premium on making one's own choices about the tradition, every Reform shul may be different, and in fact the other rabbi at my parents' shul leads a far more traditional service than the one I visited. Makes it hard to generalize.) Anyway: I recognize that while cutting or changing the service may facilitate newcomers' entry, it may also alienate the people who already know their way around a siddur (prayerbook). This is not an easy line to tread.

A friend tells me that, in a recent lecture, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsalz cited the proverb that the ignorant man of 250 years ago could be a rabbi today. His intention, he explained, was not to impugn today's rabbis, but rather to bemoan the state of Jewish education. I think his point is valid: I'll bet that, 250 years ago, the average Jew was more familiar with the liturgy than he or she is today. And without a basic familiarity, services are bound to seem impenetrable. Most of us don't grow up with that kind of familiarity anymore: our synagogues and Jewish instutions need to be aware of that, and need to teach more.

Of course, changes on the institutional end can only be half of the solution: the other half has to be individual. We each have to invest some time and energy into learning how the liturgy works, both so that we can connect with it and so that we can figure out what changes we might want to suggest. It means nothing for our synagogues and community centers to offer courses if they languish empty. We have to want to learn.

If we accept the liturgy as it's handed to us, without studying it or questioning it, then we're passive recipients of tradition. If we engage with the liturgy, learn what makes it tick and what makes us tick, then we're active participants in the tradition. And that's what will keep Judaism vibrant and alive.

There are arguments against making the tradition too open. One goes, "if we open the tradition up and let people know it's malleable, then we run the risk of changing something important."

My response is this: if we don't open the tradition up and let people feel they have a share in it, then we run the risk of losing them through attrition. We have to trust that as people learn the tradition, learn how it works and why, learn to negotiate with it, they'll find themselves in love with it, as I have...and that the changes they'll want to make will be good ones. We have to trust that the tradition is strong enough to survive being opened. That the negotiations will become love songs, and Judaism will be stronger for it.

Flyers and falsehoods

Recently I received an e-mail containing an anti-Semitic flyer for a Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference at Rutgers. The logo of the sponsoring organization, New Jersey Solidarity, featured the tagline "Activists for the Destruction of Israel." The flyer included a reference to supporting the work of "homicide bombers," along with the line "At Rutgers, you can't kill Jews, but you can help people who do."

I was horrified, and saddened, and furious. And then I got skeptical. The longer I looked at the flyer, the fishier it seemed. The phrase "homicide bombers" seemed off to me -- I suspect someone who genuinely supports that kind of terrorism would call the people who do it "martyrs." And what savvy pro-Palestinian activist would actually print the words "you can't kill Jews, but you can help people who do"? I knew there was a chance that I was being naïve, but I just couldn't bring myself to believe the flyer was real.

So I did some research. New Jersey Solidarity does exist, and it is true that they were involved with planning a Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference at Rutgers (which most sources indicate happened at Ohio State University, instead) -- but the flyer I was sent was a hoax.

New Jersey Solidarity has an online archive all of the flyers they've made for their events, and the flyer I was sent is not among them. Nowhere on the NJS website does the phrase "homicide bombers" (or the language about helping those who kill Jews) appear. Further, the logo on the flyer I was sent had been tampered with. The real logo of the NJS says "New Jersey Solidarity: Activists for the Liberation of Palestine," and the logo on the flyer I was sent says "New Jersey Solidarity: Activists for the Destruction of Israel." Not the same thing at all.

The flyer I was sent was faked in order to incite anger: the very anger it initially stirred in me before I took the time to research its veracity. And I have to assume, much as it saddens me, that it was faked by someone who considers him- or herself a supporter of Israel.

Generating false anti-Israel propaganda is no way to support Israel. Hoaxes like this flyer do nothing but fan the flames of hatred between those who support Israel and those who support Palestinian liberation.

The NJS holds views that many Jews may find reprehensible. I personally have issues with "We are opposed to the existence of the apartheid colonial settler state of Israel, as it is based on the racist ideology of Zionism and is an expression of colonialism and imperialism," and "We unconditionally support Palestinians' human right to resist occupation and oppression by any means necessary." [Both statements come from the NJS website's main page.] That latter line, in particular, sounds to me like support for suicide bombings. I must strongly disagree with these viewpoints.

But if we're going to argue against anti-Israel views, we need to argue against what they actually are...not against an inflated and hyperbolic rendition of what they might be. The flyer I was sent is a distortion of reality, and as such it reduces the chance of reasonable dialogue. I don't see any way out of the current Middle Eastern quagmire without reasonable dialogue, so to my mind, whoever falsified this flyer is acting against the best interests of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.

I am distressed by the NJS's opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. But I am doubly distressed by the faked flyer I was sent, because I suspect most of the people who received it believed it was real, and therefore it furthers misunderstanding and hatred unnecessarily. Israel should be defended with facts, not with falsehoods.

I continue to believe that it is possible to support the existence of the state of Israel while condemning some of its policies and actions. I continue to believe that it is possible to empathize with the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians while condemning suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. I continue to believe that it is possible to desire a fair and just two-state solution.

And I continue to be angry with whoever faked this flyer, for perpetuating stereotypes, spreading hatred, and placing honest dialogue -- and the chance of peace -- further out of reach.

Call to Prayer

I have been inside a mosque twice in my life. In 1998, I walked through the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, after visiting the Dome of the Rock; in 2002, I toured King Abdullah mosque in Amman, Jordan. I remember both as being beautiful places. To visit the King Abdullah, I rented a gown for two dinar, like a black chorus gown with a hood. I have a photo of myself standing, barefoot and cloaked and smiling, in the middle of the carpeted floor. Both visits were at a time of day when prayer services weren’t happening, so the mosques were either mostly or entirely empty.

Lately I've been thinking that I'd like to attend prayers at a mosque, for at least three reasons.

One reason is pure curiosity. I'm a religion geek; this is my idea of a good time. I know a bit about Islam in theory, but nothing about it in practice. Since ritual and liturgy and prayer are an abiding interest of mine, I would like to experience Muslim prayer. Judaism and Islam both teach that our faiths share a root in Abraham, and (to extend the metaphor) I would like to know more about my siblings on that side of the family tree.

Another reason is the desire to reach out, to connect. Over the last few years there have been countless stories of Arab-Americans, and American Muslims, being ill-treated by other Americans. Visiting a mosque, respectfully and with the desire to learn, seems like a small and personal way of counteracting those stories. I want to walk the walk of religious openness. (Tangent: halakhah, the word for Jewish Law, has its root in the verb 'to walk'...)

And my third reason is that I want to know what it's like to attend a prayer service where I do not know the customs, and neither speak nor understand the language. I suspect that visiting a mosque for prayer is as close as I can come to the experience my non-Jewish husband has when he accompanies me to shul. (Going with him to church isn't comparable: church services are in my mother tongue, and besides, Christianity is sufficiently culturally-dominant in America that snippets of standard Protestant liturgy permeate our movies and television. Muslim liturgy, in contrast, is pretty non-represented in pop culture, which means I'm totally unfamiliar with it...making me a complete outsider. I want to know what it's like to try to gain access to a liturgy from that kind of outsider position.)

I have long been impressed with the story of Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron. The way Reb Zalman has opened his heart and his understanding of God never fails to move and amaze me. I want to grow up to be like Reb Zalman someday. This seems like a first step on that path.

I would like to find a mosque which admits visitors, but I have no idea how to go about that. (Any suggestions?) I live in rural western Massachusetts; I'd be open to a mosque in either Boston or New York, since both are cities I am likely to visit in the coming year.

I know there's a danger of being perceived as someone merely interested in exoticising what I don't understand, and I neither want to commit that error nor to be viewed as someone taking her cultural privilege lightly. Of course, neither do I want to look like (or to be) an ignoramus who doesn’t know how to be respectful. So if anyone has tips on what to expect and how to behave, I welcome those too.

The only Arabic words I know are ones which mirror their Hebrew counterparts: the greeting which means "peace be unto you," and the words (often descriptors for God) which mean "merciful" and "compassionate." I'd like to speak more Arabic someday, but peace and mercy and compassion seem like good places to start.

A Brief Liturgical History

It never seems to occur to most people that the Jewish liturgy is changeable. The prayers  are always the same; they are familiar and solid, use the same language and expressions.

But there's no reason for these prayers to be carved in stone. They're not the way Jews have "always" prayed; indeed, in our earliest history, Jews interacted with God through making sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the rabbis created new forms of worship that didn't depend on Temple sacrifice: synagogue prayer services, and home-based rituals.

The rabbis interpreted the words of Ezekiel, "I have removed them from among the nations and scattered them; I have become a small sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have gone," to mean that the home table would become a new altar for offerings to God; the home itself would become a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary, for the worship of God.

Blessing fire and wine and the foods that we eat, and offering "the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts," together become a substitute for Temple sacrifice. Our words are our offering to God. Nifty, eh? This interpretation helped to transform Judaism into a text-based religion, which enabled it to survive in a post-sacrificial age.

I don't think this is a post-textual age, no matter what the postmodernists say, but I do think the texts we've been using may be ripe for revision and/or revisioning. And that's why I'm interested in the art of ritualcraft: writing my own prayers, blessings, and rituals.

At first glance, this might look like a radical activity. I think there's historical basis for regarding Jewish rituals as changeable, though. So fasten your seatbelts: we're about to go on a whirlwind tour of Jewish liturgical history.

Over the last 200 years, scholars have posited a variety of ideas about how the Jewish liturgy developed into what it is today. What all branches of liturgical scholarship agree on is this: Jewish liturgy has undergone changes and revisions, in response to Jews' changing needs.

First there was the major shift from sacrifice-oriented Judaism to text-oriented Judaism. But even once Judaism became a primarily textual tradition, the liturgy took a while to become standardized.  Today's standard Jewish liturgies came into being through a historical process of argument and interpretation. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the liturgy consisted only of set themes and set opening and closing phrases.  Individuals were free to innovate their own words of prayer around these structures.

"Collections of prayers are a relatively late phenomenon in Judaism; originally the dominant view was that it is forbidden to reduce the prayers to writing," according to eighteenth-century liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogen. "Only after the close of the Talmud, when necessity compelled that the other parts of the Oral Law be written down, were the prayers also reduced to writing, and only after the sixth century were collections of prayers compiled."*

In those days, orally-transmitted prayers and practices were interpreted, and argued, by the tannaim (sages) whose conversations form what we know today as Talmud. When and where to pray; in what language one should pray; with whom, and how long, one should pray; all of these questions "elicited a host of responses from the Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis."** (That's according to Stefan Reif.) The fact that these questions legitimately had a host of responses suggests to me that the liturgy at that time was fluid. What's more, the rabbis were comfortable with a plurality of interpretations, and it was understood that different interpretations and customs held sway in different regions.

The Passover haggadah and the birkat ha-mazon (Grace After Meals) may be our oldest liturgy. As far as synagogue worship goes, recitation of the Shema (the declaration of God's unity) and the Bar'chu (Call to Prayer) seem to be among the oldest practices; communal blessings were gradually shaped into the Tefilah or Amidah ("The Prayer" or "The Standing Prayer,") today a central element of synagogue worship.

Somewhere between the sixth and tenth centuries C.E., liturgical poems called piyyutim entered the nascent siddur (prayerbook). Many folk-based home blessings were conscripted into the synagogue liturgy, too. Around this same time -- known as the geonic period (the post-Talmudic period beginning in about 600 C.E. when the Jewish Diaspora community in Babylon was led by a series of religious leaders known as gaonim) -- rabbinic authorities began to frown on changing the siddur.*** But even the most staid tannaim and gaonim acknowledged either that new changes were possible, or that what they were codifying had itself once evolved.

Over time, the liturgy came to seem unchangeable. But our liturgy is not unchangeable. It developed over time, through a process of argument and interpretation, to suit the needs of a particular, historical Jewish people. The Jews of today are linked to that people, but we are not the same people, and our needs may have shifted.

Judaism has always, in the words of liturgical scholar Naphtali Wieder, had "an excellent digestive system," proven by its ability to absorb all manner of content at different periods. Because our liturgy has changed over time, I think it can and should continue to be adapted to suit the needs of new generations. Writing one's own blessings, prayers, and rituals is a way of following in the footsteps of the Talmudic rabbis and gaonim who originally codified our prayers and practices. A long as it's done with understanding of, and respect for, the tradition, it's a quintessentially Jewish practice.

It's my strong opinion that rituals exist to connect us with ourselves, our community, and/or our (sense of) God. If they don't resonate, we can reshape them. Indeed, I believe that we must reshape them, must invest ourselves in finding and creating meaning in them. The survival of Judaism depends on the personal engagement of new generations, and this is one way for us to engage with the tradition: to wrestle with the proverbial angel.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to balance innovation with tradition, the impulse to update with the imperative to preserve. My short answer there is, "it's complicated, and requires both respectful attention to tradition and the willingness to learn." For my longer answer, stay tuned...

* Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: a Comprehensive History, transl. Raymond P. Scheindlin; Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1993.

** Stefan Reif, "Early History of Jewish Worship,"  in The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship, ed. Bradshaw & Hoffman, University of Notre Dame Press, London, 2000.

*** Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service, University of Notre Dame Press: London, 1979.