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Balancing liturgy with poetry

I am working on a series of poems based on the liturgy of morning blessings and prayers. The "Elohai Neshama" (blessing thanking God for placing a pure soul in me) poem came first, and sparked the idea for the series; the "Asher Yatzar" (blessing for embodiment, as blogged tangentially here) poem is in revision; the "Baruch She'amar" (blessing for God Who speaks the world into being) poem is brand-new and won't be "done" for a while.

(I put "done" in quotes because it's arguable that no poem is ever really finished. I had a grad school advisor once who said there are no old poems or new poems, just poems which are more-or-less complete. And noted poet Donald Hall is known for revising his poems years after publication, and presenting the revised versions to his audiences when reading his work aloud.)

Anyway. I find myself thinking, as I write these, that writing liturgical poems differs both from writing liturgy and from writing poems in general. It's not so much that the writing process differs: in both cases I rely on some combination of craft, revision, reading, and study. In both cases, the more I learn of what's come before me, the richer my writing has the capability to be. In both cases, I want to fulfill Stephen Dobyns's dictate of "best words, best order."

Where the two processes differ is in the nebulous region of aim. In designing and assembling liturgy, I must consider the community who will be using what I put together: are they all Jews? Do they have Hebrew? What words and prayers and songs will make them most able to connect with each other, with the tradition, and with God? At all times, I keep audience in mind; I want my liturgies to be new enough to spark new insights for people, but also familiar enough to resonate the way the familiar liturgy does at its best. When writing poems, in contrast, I have to forget the audience entirely: ultimately the poem has to be true to itself, not to me, and certainly not to some mythical reader.

In writing liturgical poetry, I'm trying to do both of these things at once. I want these to be usable as prayers, which means they need to be universal enough that other people will find them resonant enough to pray with. But at the same time, I want them to be my own poems, true to themselves. I have to simultaneously keep the reader in mind (because these are prayers) and keep the reader far from my mind (because there's no surer way to derail a poem than to worry too soon about whether it would "work" for anyone else).

It will take a long time to determine the success of this liturgical poetry experiment: maybe years, as I finish these enough to pray with them, and share them with other like-minded folks, and find out how they work in the field.  One way or another, this deepens my admiration of the authors of the liturgical poems and prayers we use every day. It isn't easy to write something with such staying power.


Talmud Torah

The birchot ha'shachar ("blessings of morning") include a bracha for Torah. In a shining example of Jewish liturgical logic, we assume that if we're blessing God's teaching, then we need to study in order to justify the blessing. So we pause and read a few texts of ritual study, in order that the blessing not be an empty one.

One of the traditional passages that's read in this context is an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud which lists duties which have no limit, such as leaving crops for the poor, acts of lovingkindness, honoring one's parents, and bringing peace between people. "And the study of Torah," the quotation ends, "is equal to them all." (Well, that's how I know it. More on that in a moment.)

The reasoning is that the study of Torah will lead to righteous acts; therefore, study is the highest mitzvah, equal to all the rest. Being an inveterate geek, I'm delighted that the standard morning ritual involves some studying (however cursory it might be), and doubly delighted that studying Torah is considered to be the highest thing we can do. I like the implication that study will necessarily lead to righteousness. As the Babylonian Talmud also records (in Tractate Kiddushin 40b), the rabbis are said to have debated, "Which is greater, study or action?" Rabbi Akiba said, and the sages agreed, "Study -- if it leads to action."

Here's an interesting detail, though. That last phrase in the ritual-study passage, v'talmud Torah k'neged kulam, is translated differently in each standard denominational siddur. Gates of Prayer reads "and the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all." Sim Shalom reads "and the study of Torah is the most basic of them all," and The Complete Artscroll Siddur reads "and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all."

That tricky word, k'neged, seems to inevitably be a sticking-point in translation. In Bereshit (Genesis) 2:18, God muses that it is not good for the earth-creature (whose name is a derivative of adamah, "earth") to be alone, and therefore God resolves to make an ezer k'negdo: "an help-meet for him," or "a suitable helper-for-him," or "a partner equal-to-him." Clearly, how one translates k'negdo has some impact on how the Biblical story of woman's origin reads.

Personally, I favor the "partner equal-to-him" translation. I also favor translating the end of that morning Talmud passage as "the study of the Torah is equal to them all." (I'm not fluent in Hebrew, but at least I'm internally consistent.) One way or another, I'm with the tradition on this: study is righteous stuff. Here's to it.


On Moses and MLK

In this week's Torah portion, we read about Moses seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave; looking both ways as if at a crosswalk; and, seeing no one around, striking down the Egyptian and effectively burying the body. (We also read about a lot of other things, but I'm going to stick with this brief snippet from the start of chapter 2, because I think there's a lot in it.)

So what's with this looking both ways? (In the translation we used in shul today, adapted from the JPS translation, it says "He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.") On the surface, it looks to me like he knew the killing was a dicey proposition, so he was checking for witnesses.

Unsurprisingly, the Talmudic rabbis had a lot to say about this verse. They were writing, remember, in the years following the Bar Kochba revolt, when Rabbi Akiva had led his students against the Romans and they had all died in excruciatingly painful ways. The Talmudic rabbis had a vested interest in de-emphasizing the militarism of the source text, and in finding other ways to interpret what was going on. (See my post about Chanukah: it was these same Talmudic rabbis who opted to de-emphasize that military story and focus instead on the nonviolent miracle of the faith and the oil.)

In the section of Talmud called Midrash Rabbah, the rabbis argue that what Moses saw wasn't merely the absence of witnesses. Rabbi Yehudah said, "[Moses] saw there was no one who would be zealous for the Holy Blessed One [ie, no one else who would do God's work] and so he [Moses] killed him [the overseer]." Later in that same passage, we read that the Sages said, "[Moses] saw that there was no hope that righteous persons would arise from him [the overseer] or his descendents until the end of generations." The Sages then go on to explain that Moses had a chat with the angels, who agreed with him, and gave him license to kill the overseer.

On the one hand, that's a patently ridiculous interpretation. What: could Moses, like Charles Xavier, magically stop time for everyone else in a room? How could he see that none of the overseer's descendants, down until the end of time, would ever be righteous? How could he, in the span of an instant, have a whole drawn-out conversation with the heavenly hosts in order to gain their blessing? Silly Rabbis; tricks are for kids! Stick with the obvious explanation: the guy wanted to avoid witnesses.

On the other hand, there's actually something beautiful in their interpretation. It's a very elegant argument against using lethal force even against one's oppressors. "Sure," the Rabbis are saying, "You can kill your oppressors...as long as you're sure that none of their descendants would ever become righteous, and as long as you've gotten the angels' 'okay' on it. What? You say you can't do that? Well, then, better find another way of resisting oppression!"

Like, say, nonviolent struggle. Like civil disobedience. And hey, look at that, Monday's Martin Luther King Day.

When this connection came up in this morning's Torah discussion, our rabbi smiled (methinks he was hoping we'd make that leap) and recounted something he'd heard on NPR this week: a story about how the Reverend Doctor King had doubts about joining in the bus boycott. Apparently he wasn't positive it was the right thing to do, but did it anyway; and once he'd been arrested, and had seen how the police behaved, he realized that in the wake of his action had come a powerful personal sense of faith.

That ordering -- action, then faith -- is actually very Jewish, my rabbi observed. Our tradition teaches that action comes first, and if you're lucky faith will come later...but you mustn't wait until faith blooms in you to act. If you know there's an injustice, as Dr. King did, as Moses did, you may have to take a leap even if you still have doubts. Since most of us can't rely on counsel from the heavenly hosts, all we can do is hope for the wisdom to see when injustices are being perpetrated, and the courage to do something about the system which enables the injustices to arise. So that we, too, may take part in making our world a better place, and may find (and make) a kind of redemption.


On the Ashrei

When I was eight, I attended a Jewish Day School, where we did "secular studies" (math, language arts, social studies) in the mornings and "Jewish studies" (Hebrew, prayer) in the afternoons. I came away from my two years there with a pretty solid grounding in the standard Conservative liturgy, which continues to stand me in good stead. My current shul is technically Reform, but was Conservative for many decades, and our liturgical practices reflect that. We use a homegrown prayerbook which is somewhere between and beyond either denomination's standard siddur.

One of the practices we follow which I remember from my Conservative childhood is that of praying Psalm 145, popularly known (by its first word) as the ashrei, on Shabbat mornings. This psalm is an acrostic; the first letters of each line spell out the Hebrew aleph-bet. It's usually recited in a kind of call-and-response fashion, where the hazzan (prayer leader) chants the odd lines and the congregation replies with the even lines. As a kid, I could rattle it off at lightning speed.

I haven't prayed it regularly in about twenty years, though, (and arguably I wasn't really praying it back then: I was reciting it, but had little attachment to the meaning of the lines). Since I'm pinch-hitting for our rabbi in about a month, I've renewed my Shabbat morning attendance, and I've discovered that I'm a tad...rusty on the ashrei.

That should be easy enough to fix; if I practice it a few times a day all month, I should be golden. Of course, now I'm curious about the psalm; I want to pray it not only fluently but also with intent.  Rav Kook, of blessed memory, had some excellent things to say about psalm 145, among them the observation that the psalm contains all the letters of the alphabet, which according to midrash are the building-blocks of our world. This article is another interesting exploration of ways to approach it (I especially like that the author begins with a quote from CS Lewis), and includes a link to a slightly more esoteric exploration which uses frames to good effect in aligning text with commentary.

One of my strongest personal associations with the psalm comes from a contemplative morning service led by Phyllis Berman two summers ago. We chanted the first line of each morning prayer, focusing on them as we repeated them, trying to get inside them and get them inside us. Before we chanted the first line of the ashrei, she reminded us of its translation (Happy are they who dwell in Your house; may they always praise You), and gave a brief drash (exegesis) about it. She talked about the houses we carry with us -- our bodies -- and about how fortunate we are when we can come to be happy with, and in, our embodiment.

If we are created in the image of God, she reasoned, and if we accept that we ultimately belong to God -- that God is ultimate reality -- then there is a sense in which our bodies are the houses of the Holy. Happy are we who can be conscious of dwelling in holy embodiment. If our bodies are vessels for God, then it is a kind of blasphemy to dislike our bodies; then we are called to sanctify our physical existence by rejoicing and offering praise.

It echoes one of my favorite morning blessings, the asher yatzar (lit. "Who Formed," the blessing for our bodies). The interpretive translation I use goes like this: "Blessed are You, YHVH our God, Source of all being, who formed the human body with wisdom and who placed within us a miraculous combination of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews. Clearly, we would not be able to praise Your miracles were it not for the miracle within us. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles." I say it silently sometimes while jogging on the treadmill, because -- like Phyllis' drash on the ashrei -- it reminds me that although I spend a lot of my life in my brain, my body is my interface with the wonders of the world. 


Edited to add: if you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy a post from a few years later -- A new way of relating to the ashrei, 2007.


Expanding (musical) horizons

At this year's latke-and-tree-trimming party, we flipped through our collection of old LPs and wound up listening to the Young Israelians' Recorded Live at a Jewish Party. We didn't last long; the music was so schmaltzy that we gave up after a track or two. Sounded like a pretty weak party to me, honestly. Ours was much more fun.

But despair not: I'm pleased to report that Jewish music has advanced far past the Young Israelians in the last thirty years. The past month, in fact, brought me two marvelous new slices of Jewish music. The first came as a Chanukah gift: a copy of Abayudaya, a Smithsonian Folkways recording of music from the Jewish people of Uganda. I was initially a little bit skeptical (who knew there were native Jews in Uganda?) but as soon as I put the disc into my cd player, the skepticism transmuted to delight.

The Abayudaya are a community of about 600 people living in villages surrounding Mbale; their ancestors converted to Judaism in 1919, and their first contact with mainstream Judaism came in 1926. (The cd booklet chronicles the community's history, a surprisingly compelling read.) The disc features tracks in several native languages as well as in a beautifully-inflected, gently-Africanized Hebrew.(You can read an excellent review of it at All Music Guide, though I can't figure out how to link directly to the review, so you'll have to hit the site and type in the album name yourself.) My favorite track is the exquisite rendition of "Adon Olam." Too bad the rhythms and harmonies are too complicated to try to teach in shul next Shabbat.

Then, to make my life even sweeter, Ethan introduced me to the music of Judeo-Latin ensemble the Hip Hop Hoodios. Specifically, to the track Havana Nagilah (which I plugged here). The bravado of hip-hop and the ebullience of Latin instrumentation are a tried-and-true combination, but I'd never heard them infused with Jewish flavor in quite this way.

My repertoire of cool Jewish music has doubled; a month ago it was limited to a Hasidic New Wave cd and two copies of Steve Reich's Tehillim (great stuff, if you happen to like avant-garde music, but they're not everyone's cup of tea). In fairness, these artists may not be everyone's cuppa, either, but they make me smile. Now if only I could get my hands on a copy of Knitting on the Roof...