Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Amidah tensions

Friday night, Jeff invited us to reflect on the tension between personal prayer and communal prayer before praying the amidah. The Talmud, he told us, presents two conflicting ways of looking at the amidah. (Yeah. Disagreement in the Talmud. What a shocker, eh?) On the one hand, the amidah is regarded as the replacement for Temple sacrifice, intended to strengthen our communal connection with our source; on the proverbial other hand, it's also regarded as the time to stand before God and speak the personal words of our hearts.

I'm familiar with the tension; I relate to the amidah differently at different times. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and wrap my tallit tighter around me and talk silently to God, and don't want to use any set words at all. Sometimes I use the set sequence of blessings as a springboard for my own prayers on those same themes, kind of like this. (Still haven't tried these, though.) Sometimes I want to read familiar words along with everybody else, and let the words wash over me without thinking too hard about their relevance or resonance. Fortunately, Judaism assumes that one's experience of a prayer will change over time, and that different interpretations of a prayer can coexist. In The Synagogue Survival Kit, author Jordan Lee Wagner writes,

"There are as many personal ways of understanding a prayer as there are people. For each phrase of a prayer, there are many midrashim (homiletical textual studies) with new insights, many even conflicting with one another. By reading collections of other people's insights you get to pick and resynthesize, or create your own. And your own perceptions will not be stable over time. The only thing that remains stable is the outward form of the prayer. This is true of the entire service and every prayer in it. Judaism does not require or expect adherence to any particular insight or interpretation. In fact, the tradition desires the opposite."

Wagner's point that the outward form of the prayer remains constant while internal interpretations of it change is an interesting one to me, because there's actually a line in the amidah which hasn't remained constant across the denominations, and it's one that's tricky for me. It's the line that expresses hope for restoration of Temple service in Jerusalem -- a goal I can't begin to imagine desiring.

The literal translation of the traditional blessing looks something like this:

Adonai our God, favor Your people Israel and their prayers. Restore the sacrificial cult to Your sanctuary and lovingly accept the fire offerings and their prayers with graciousness. May the worship of Your people Israel be ever acceptable to You. May our eyes witness Your compassionate return to Zion. Praised are You, Adonai, who brings back Your presence to Zion.

When I'm using the amidah as a door into meditation, or into praying in my own words on the set themes the amidah offers (which some scholars argue is the original way the amidah was used), I can sidestep these thorny sentiments. (It also helps that the prayerbooks I use don't generally include this line. More on that in a moment.) But when I'm davvening the words of the traditional prayer, I have three choices. I can say the words but not mean them, I can excise the troublesome lines altogether,  or I can try to co-opt them to take on an alternate meaning.

Saying words without meaning them frustrates me, which is why I tend to self-censor in most houses of worship. When I find myself in church, I speak the words which resonate for me and sit silent through the words which don't fit my Jewishness. I respect the words too much to say them without meaning. I do this sometimes in synagogues, too, though most of the places I attend conveniently omit the bits that trouble me most.

I have mixed feelings about excising words or lines from communal liturgy. Communal prayers need to be reasonably standard in order for the whole community to be able to pray them together, and making changes risks that unity. Also, sometimes I think liturgy (and the theology it represents) shouldn't necessarily be comfortable. Much as I admire the principles behind Unitarian Universalism, for instance, the UU services I've attended have felt hollow to me, as though in excising what was problematic they lost religion's oomph, somehow.

Then again, "because it's always been that way" isn't a sufficient reason to keep outdated liturgy intact. If we're more attached to maintaining unchanged tradition than to creating vibrant prayers that express the needs of our time then we're in danger of making the words themselves into idols. I'm firmly in favor of adding the matriarchs to the first blessing in the amidah (which names our God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in the denominations I frequent, the blessing also names our God as the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) even though that change makes my version of the prayer different from the standard Orthodox one. And I'm firmly not comfortable with the notion of restoring sacrifices to the Temple Mount. Which means that, despite my occasional qualms about truncating liturgy, I'm happy that the removal of the "fire offerings" line makes the siddurim I use different from the Artscroll.

Large segments of contemporary Judaism seem to agree with me on this. The Reform movement has modified the amidah in a variety of ways. Ditto the Conservative/Masorti movement. And the Reconstructionists regard liturgy as an evolving thing, too. (None of their sidddurim include the “fire offerings” line.) The Renewal siddur Kol Koreh replaces the reference to animal sacrifice with a reference to songs and prayers. They suggest that the Temple was also home to a levitical choir and orchestra, so their translation reads "Restore worship to your sanctuary. May you receive Israel's songs and prayers willingly and lovingly." It's a liturgical change that fits the spirit of the original, but suits many contemporary sensibilities better than the old text did.

It's also worth noting that in Jewish tradition, every text has at least four layers or levels. So while the request for the restoration of sacrifices in the Temple troubles me on the p'shat/surface level, on the remez/allegorical level I can read it as a yearning for solid, unquestioned connection with our Source as (we believe) we had in the old days before our lives, and our worship, got so complicated. Does that sound like a stretch? It may be, but I'm not alone in wanting to make it; even Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of (Conservative rabbinic school) JTS  has argued that the old words can be reclaimed with new and nuanced meanings.

I’m still personally inclined to let the line go. Our liturgies need to be able to grow and change, and to me this change is a good one. But next time I find myself in a shul where the "fire offerings" line is included, maybe I'll see if I can imbue the old words with my own new meaning and intent. Which would make the amidah, as the Talmud suggests, both communal and personal: something we say together, words we all know, but capable of changing in the hearts and minds of we who davven it.