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Liturgy, free verse, and form

All liturgical worship runs the risk of making prayer a fixed but sterile task. On the other hand, a certain amount of structure is desirable. All ritual depends on it... As Judaism has a word for spontaneity, kavanah, so too it has one for fixity: keva. Jewish prayer balances spontaneity with fixity.

In preparation for week two of DLTI, which begins the day after tomorrow (!), we've been asked to reread several texts, among them an excerpt from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman's The Way Into Prayer (quoted above.)

Before there were prayer books, Hoffman tells us, people made up the words anew every time they prayed. Though the structure of the service became set, for a time the specific words remained fluid. For instance, in the amidah, the central standing prayer, there came to be a "certain thematic order, each theme being allotted a separate benediction," but the particular words expressing each petition were up to the worshipper.

Worship, in antiquity, was like jazz improvisation around a known set of chords and themes. Rabbis were expected to know the liturgy well enough to be able to lead that musical improv seamlessly, with  rhetorical flourishes and beautiful turns of phrase.

Today we are accustomed to praying from siddurim, not improvising. Keva, for us, means following the right notes in the right order...and we aim to balance it with kavanah, the interpretive choices and the heart which make music powerful. Kavanah is what makes the young Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg variations different from the mature Glenn Gould's recording, even though the same man played the same notes both times.

The musical metaphor works, but here's one I like even better: the matbeah, the structure of Jewish liturgy, is like formal poetry. A sonnet is a sonnet because it follows particular rules. Within those rules, of course, sonnets differ wildly (compare Marilyn Hacker's Migraine Sonnets [audio] with John Donne's Holy Sonnets, Gwendolyn Brooks' the sonnet-ballad with Robert Frost's Putting In the Seed), but without the rules the term "sonnet" would have no meaning.

Just so, our siddurim offer us structures within which creativity can flourish. Those who choose the liturgical equivalent of free verse should still know the standard forms, and understand how form shapes free verse and the existence of free verse in turn shapes our sense of form.

Deep down, of course, I think prayer inevitably both has form and goes beyond it. In Hoffman's words:

Prayer allows us to appreciate the universe, to express our hopes of what a better universe might be, even to shout defiance when we see injustice occurring. Prayer is a way to elevate our thoughts to speech, and even to formulate better thoughts because of the power that speech has over the way we think. Because it draws on traditional language, it roots us in the history of a hallowed past, and because it is primarily communal, it overcomes loneliness by binding us to a worldwide community that dares to [in Heschel's words] "dream in league with God."

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