Thursday, June 17, 2010

Voice of Prayer

The first prayer book that I ever seriously considered was not a Jewish siddur, but the Book of Common Prayer. By the time Charles I was King of England in the mid seventeenth century, it was not only the prayer book of choice, it was the prayer book of the English nation. But John Milton rejects all organized prayer: prayer must be 'voluntary' and 'he who prays must consult first with his heart.' Like many Jews in graduate school, I knew much more about Christianity than Judaism: I sometimes would wonder to myself: what if there were a religion which combined the individualism and worldly engagement of Protestantism and the tradition and rituals of Catholicism. Even after years of Sunday school, a Bar Mitzva, I did not realize that religion was Judaism. So when a new Jew prayer book came out - the Reform Movement's Mishkan Tefilla - claiming to be both traditional and innovative I was interested.

The first reform prayer book - definitely not a siddur - but the Union Prayer Book was published in 1895. Those who put it together saw Judaism as representing a 'spirit of broad humanity,'a 'progressive religion ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.' This is not what Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, calls the “scandal of Jewish particularity,” but the embarrassment of Jewish particularity. In this new rational and respectable religion, there were 'ministers,' not rabbis, and a prayer service which removed any vestige of Jewish particularity. No Temple worship, no redemption, no messianic age, no return to the land of Israel. The prayer book was designed to take the Jews out of the ghetto, but doing away with any special claims for Judaism at the same time. In a swing in the opposite direction - away from universalism to the new particularism as diversity of the post-sixties generation, Gates of Prayer of 1975 shows an openness to all voices, or rather movement and ideologies. The new prayer book had ten separate Sabbath evening services - including one humanistic service without any mention of God.

The Union Prayer Book, as Elliot Stevens, a contemporary Reform rabbi observes, was conceived to repress the “cacophony” of the prayer or “davening” of Eastern European Jews; Gates of Prayerre-instated that cacophony in social terms, though in the process threatening the integrity of the Movement. As professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, Lawrence Hoffman, remarks, “if we are all things, we are nothing.” After an over two-decade long process—grants, a blind competition for editorial direction, discussions groups, field studies and countless committees—the new prayer book of the Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah appears. What Hoffman terms “the people’s prayer book” attempts to balance the excesses of its predecessors: the Union Prayer Book's emphasis on the universal and Gates of Prayer's emphasis on a diversity that is seen as a challenge to the unity of Reform.

Not only the Hebrew title, translated as “the dwelling place of prayer,” but the subtitle—a Reform Siddur—shows the aspirations of this new volume. This siddur, despite its evident gestures towards tradition is unmistakably Reform, continuing what Rabbi Elyse Frishman, the volume editor, describes as the 'Reform movement’s tradition of liturgical innovation' - making it more radical and more traditional than either of its predecessors. Not only the left to right orientation, but the preponderance of Hebrew texts makes it feel more like a traditional siddur. Yet, in the history of Reform liturgy, the new prayer book represents what Frishman calls “a paradigm shift,” embodying the ideal of an “integrated theology”—advertising itself as providing a multiplicity of text and experience within the framework of a unified prayer book.

Rather than dispense with the particular as in Union Prayer Book or risk the a multiplicity out of control of Gates of Prayer, the graphic conception of the text allows for the expression of difference while trying to frame and contain it. While the right-facing pages provide Hebrew text, transliteration and conventional English translation, the left-facing page gives often creative translations, meditations and literary texts—including poems by authors ranging from the medieval Ibn Gavril to Adrienne Rich to Delmore Schwartz. Talk about what Dr. Johnson says of the poetry of John Donne - the most heterogenous ideas yoked by violence together! And there's more: these texts are flanked on the bottom by “spiritual commentaries.” So, for example, after a shortened extract from the recitation of the Sh’mah - but not the second paragraph please, because the Reform Movement finds the traditional texts on divine reward and retribution “too challenging” - is a meditative translation, flanked beneath by commentaries from the sages of the Talmud and Martin Buber. While the former commentary shows the connection between study of Torah and ethical behavior, Buber is cited as advocating an ethics “as if there were no God.” To further multiply the available perspectives, the “stage directions” elaborate the option, “for those who choose” to add the word “emet (truth) as an affirmation of the Biblical passage which came before. So I either affirm the belief in God, and that God took the people out of Egypt, or... not?

The ever-present “for those who choose” in Mishkan T’filah shows its emphasis on performance and choice. “Performance of prayer matters more than fixed words,” Frishman asserts, and thus prayer leaders are instructed to choose only one prayer per “page spread,” thus making spontaneous service, with the stress on integrated theology, the central principles informingMishkan T’filah. But one wonders in practice what such a service would look like.

Frishman imagines Reform congregations becoming like those “vital congregations” of the past who knew “their order of worship and moved through it with deep familiarity.” Generations of Jews have integrated the cadences and rhythms of the Psalms into their lives; it is less likely, however, that congregants commit to memory David Meltzer’s “Tell them I’m struggling to sing with angels… Tell them I sit here invisible in space; nose running, coffee cold & bitter….” Even if worshippers were to find Meltzer’s poem engaging, it's hard to imagine it remaining so. Any, as Reform leaders admit, Reform synagogue attendance seems unlikely to nurture such mastery. Frishman herself concedes that on any given Saturday her own congregation may be comprised of a majority of non-Jews, and that “regulars” (as opposed to “occasional worshippers”) attend services only twelve times annually. Congregants who attend services so infrequently, and who need to be reminded to “vary vocal expression in prayer” with “quieter or more exuberant tones” will not likely spontaneously perform Mishkan T’filah.

How worshippers will navigate the manifold choices present in the siddur is another question. Four versions, for example, of Aleinu, the traditional prayer that ends services are included, showing different attitudes towards the nations and the privileged place of Israel among them, as well as versions of prayers which either do or do not mention the resurrection of the dead. When prayer involves “real time” decisions about such enormous theological questions (not to mention a bewildering array of page-turning alternatives), it may be more akin to what Lawrence Hoffmann describes as the “entertainment” of an “experience economy” than informed choice and deliberate spiritual engagement. How does one make a split-second evaluation of belief in the eternality of body and soul? As it turns out, on the very theological issues for which the siddur offers so many options, Frishman herself admits that laity “seem not to care significantly,” while “clergy care a great deal.”

The irony of Mishkan T’filah is that for all of the distance traveled from the Union Prayer Book, the current prayer book remains centered on the elite. The left-hand page texts have the effect of providing pre-digested reactions to traditional texts, rather than bringing out creative responses. Thus Yehuda Amichai’s youthful memories of donning his prayer shawl, “wrapped in a tallit,” resonate with his own experience of traditional ritual and show his participation in practices of his ancestors. There maybe similarities, but there is a difference between literature and prayer and liturgical engagement: Mishkan T’filah with its multiplying texts and commentaries, resembles the Talmud more than a conventional prayer book in layout, and as a result elicits a form of attention more suitable to study than prayer. Confronting Amichai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb” as a meditation on the traditional entreaty for peace may lead to admiration of Amichai’s verse, and perhaps Frishman’s editorial ingenuity, but is less likely to result in the cultivation of a personal voice in prayer. That's the question I kept asking when reading: where's the me in all this?

Frishman explains to worshippers that “prayer must move us beyond ourselves.” To be sure, self-transcendence is a feature of many liturgies, but in Frishman’s words, “prayer should not reflect ‘me,” but rather should “reflect our values and ideals.” For all of the emphasis in the volume on the ideal that “many voices” be spontaneously heard, diversity seems staged, with all of the voices already supplied, the “me” lost. Mishkan T’filah emphasizes the Reform ideal of social diversity; but it's only an ideal. One should not, Frishman warns, look to pages of the siddur to “find one’s particular voice.” The prayer book instead is the voice of the movement - and it's if the editor is scolding: don't you forget it! But in reality, it's a siddur without a center, the poly-vocal Mishkan T’filah splinters into a post-modern bricolage of disparate beliefs, unified only by a top-down imposition of “values” of “Reform Judaism and Life”—described by Frishman as “social justice, feminism, Zionism, distinctiveness, human challenges.” Even when in Johnson's dismissal of Donne, he hinted at the possibility of a real discordia concors - a discordant harmony of ideals - of things 'only apparently unlike.' But the many voices of this siddur don't gel; and Mishkan T’filahbecomes an artifact to the Movement’s conviction that no matter how diversemay be, they can be contained through an appeal to the Movement’s own social conscious, reason or whatever.

So with urgency, Frishman enjoins, it is “critical that Reform Jews know what’s expected of them.” Though it’s not clear whether a disengaged laity, immersed in the consumerist culture of reverent multi-culturalism, will heed their clergy enjoining them to pursue what’s expected—to restrain the energies of difference (and assimilation) and to pursue the “higher value of community.” For both the Reform Movement and the siddur that bears its name, it is the abstract and ill-defined conception of “our values and ideals” that take precedence over the individual. But if, as Podhoretz writes, the universal is reached only through the particular, then Mishkan T’filah may finally fail to generate its own social and communal version of the universal because it expends little effort eliciting what King Solomon calls “prayer from the depths”—the stirrings of the particular soul striving towards the divine.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Isaac's Bad Rap

During a six month stint at LA - I was on sabbatical at UCLA - there was a Saturday morningbar mitzva in the local synagogue. Before the 'hot kiddush' - cholent, kugel and herring, more than I would ever eat for lunch at home - there was the anticipated 'speech' by the rabbi (another good reason to live in Israel, I reminded myself, no Saturday morning speeches). First words on the weekly Torah reading, then about the family - I was already shifting in my seat - and then the inevitable: the praise for the bar mitzva boy. David is a 'special boy' the rabbi began - uh-oh, I thought, this does not sound promising - because 'he is a good listener, and able to take advice.' That's it? Nebach, pathetic: is that really the best the rabbi could come up with? True, it's a Jewish school, so the boy is not going to be captain of the lacrosse team or head of the student council, but a good listener? able to take advice? Poor kid - and what about the father, I thought, as I tried to get a glance of him sitting a few rows in front of me: the rabbi must have been really fishing for something to say. What could be praiseworthy about knowing how to take advice?

But then I though of Maimonides and his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, and the description of the avot or patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and how, in that account, Isaac gets only scant mention. In the telling, like in the Genesis story upon which Maimonides relies, the patriarch Abraham takes center stage: the forefather's youth in his hometown, Ur Kasdim; his rebellion against the idolatrous culture of his family; the trials which he suffered; and the journey to the Land of Canaan, what will become later his inheritance, the Land of Israel. In the course of his travels, Maimonides writes, Abraham attends to the questions of skeptics and doubters, and gathers first thousands, and then myriads of thousands into what becomes the 'House of Abraham.' Abraham 'gathered first cities and then kingdoms' teaching - monotheism, remember, is an innovation, not a given - the principle of 'the One Everlasting God.' Maimonides devotes 266 words to Abraham's story, but then, in continuing the story of the patriarchs, a just eight words to Abraham's son Isaac, before becoming expansive again, and devoting almost a hundred words to Jacob and his establishing of Jewish people through his children, the tribes of Israel, and the eventual descent to Egypt. True, Maimonides is known for his brevity: but Isaac - just eight words? Much like the bar mitzva boy about whom the rabbi seemed to have so little to say: is he also just skipped over? the middle and ignored patriarch?

'And Isaac sat' - Maimonides few words about the patriarch emphasize his passivity. Isaac, Maimonides continues, 'taught, and was careful - the word 'm'hazir' also means 'was cautious or circumspect,' - and then, and this is the extent of the description, Isaac instructs his son Jacob to pass on the tradition that began with his father Abraham. That's it: for Maimonides Isaac is who he is not for what he does, but by his inactivity, what he doesn't do. Abraham for Maimonides, as in Genesis, is overflowing with hesed - the man of 'excess,' writing books, travelling, and teaching. But Isaac, does not write books, he does not even leave the Land of Canaan. Abraham turns outwards - Isaac is passive and prudent. Isaac is the chosen son of Abraham, the first in the tradition that begins with his father. But in that tradition he seems just a passive agent, not a man who goes out into the world, but who withholds.

In his essay, 'What is a Classic?' when T.S. Eliot chooses the model for the 'classic,' it is not the Greek poet Homer - that would have been the obvious choice, the first and original classic - but to his Roman follower Virgil. Does Eliot really prefer the Latin imitation - Virgil seems to 'copy' Homer in so many ways - to the Greek original? Maybe - but it's not Eliot's poetic preferences which matter. Eliot's essay is about classicism. For him, a classic is not what begins a literary tradition, but what allows for its continuity. To be sure, Homer is the (astonishing) beginning; but Virgil brings the Homeric inheritance into the Roman present and future. True, Virgil's story seems to borrow a lot - almost everything it sometimes seems - from his Homeric predecessor. A university academic committee might charge him as guilty of plagiarism. But in Eliot's tradition, the act of taking the past into the future is what makes a classic, an activity that falls to the latter poet. The 'most individual parts' of a poet's work, writes Eliot, 'may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.' Eliot's is a counter-intuitive notion for this generation: a poet is at his most original when most traditional, when the past speaks through him.

Abraham is also a beginning: but his hesed - the excess of giving - does not make, though it is indispensable, for tradition. Isaac represents the limitation, the restraint or withholding, without which tradition would be impossible. So in Genesis, Abraham's servants dig wells; they are filled by Plishtim, people of another nations. Isaac returns to the wells and digs them again. Isaac may not be an originator, but the traits which he embodies - going back to the past and the wellsprings of Abraham - preserves the tradition. So he gives the wells the same name that his father gave them. But Abraham needs Isaac as much as Isaac needs his father, for there can be no tradition of Abraham without the conservative and disciplined efforts of Isaac. This discipline means, in T.S. Eliot's terms, nurturing an 'historical sense' - of going back to the past not just to blindly follow it, but to find new resources for the the self. For Eliot, 'Tradition' and the 'Individual Talent' are not opposed; they come together. In the Jewish tradition, the excess and restraint of the two first patriarchs which allows for the Torah of Israel to be realized fully in the House of Jacob, the people of Israel. Jacob brings together the characteristics of Abraham and Isaac - both the outpouring of creativity, and the restraint that allows such creativity to be possible.

The tension born out of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac shows itself in the life of Rabbi Eliezer who became one of the greatest sages of Israel. Eliezer was a field hand on his father's estate, and, until the age of twenty-eight, had never studied Torah. His father found him crying in the fields: 'if plowing on the hard ground is too difficult then maybe you would prefer to plow on softer ground?' 'No,' cried Eliezer, 'I want to learn Torah.' His father was unsympathetic - 'marry and raise children of your own; you can take them to the house of study. Get back to work.' But Eliezer went to Jerusalem on his own and sat at the feet of the sages in the academy of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. During the years of his study, he sat quietly, and said nothing, like the kid in class - but Eliezer was an adult - who the professor does not notice. The day came when Eliezer's father came to Jerusalem to disinherit his son - 'enough, the party is over.' Upon his arrival he found all the sages gathered; Rabbi Yochanan places Hycarnus, Eliezer's father at the head table, and asks his student - so long silent - to say some words of Torah. Eliezer is reluctant: 'I am like a cistern from which you cannot draw more water,' he says pointedly to his teacher, 'than has been put into it.' So, Eliezer continues, 'I cannot say more than I have received from you, my teacher.' Rabbi Yochanan responds: 'you are not a cistern, but a spring: and as a spring produces more than flows into it, so your Torah will exceed that which you have have received from Sinai.' 'Open' - commands Rabbi Yochanan - and expound for us! I cannot 'open' - Rabbi Eliezer replies. 'Perhaps you are embarrassed in my presence,' says Rabbi Yochanan, as he moves to stand behind him. Finally the student accedes: Rabbi Eliezer utters of Torah that had never before been heard, nor ever imagined. As Rabbi Eliezer expounds verses of the Bible, his face glows like the sun; the splendor of his face, the sages say, is like that of Moses' upon his descent from Mount Sinai. And so Rabbi Eliezer, the one who receives and listens, and seems to embody the passivity of Isaac - the vessel that does not lose a drop - becomes like the greatest of prophets, Moses, rays emanating from him like the sun. Though Rabbi Eliezer is insistently modest and conservative he himself becomes a great original, am'chadash, an innovator. Rabbi Yochanan understands his student's modesty so he stands behind him, but it's because the teacher is behind the student, not just literally, that allows the latter to be an original. Rabbi Eliezer becomes what the poet John Donne calls a 'potent receiver' - passive an active at once. Even what looks like passivity - just receiving - is part of the creative act.

In the first of the psalms, the sages see King David thinking on Torah and creativity act. David writes, 'You shall desire God's Torah, and in his Torah you shall meditate day and night.' Of this the sages say, first the Torah is attributed to God - it is God's Torah - and then after, in the second clause, there is no mention of God - it is 'his Torah,' the one who desires it, and studies. You express desire for God's Torah - like Rabbi Eliezer who sat for years in an academy - and then, as Rashi explains, become capable of answering questions on your own, even those which your teachers never asked. Part of the independence of creativity is the desire to receive, to be a cistern like Rabbi Eliezer, to acknowledge I don't (yet) know, and to nurture both the passivity and discipline that allows for creation. 'Open up your mouth wide, and I will fill it,' God says to King David - in the translation of the nineteenth century rabbi, Samson Rafael Hirsch, God says, 'open up your desire.' Opening myself to the past - to the tradition to which I want to connect - is surely an act disciplined attention, but also reveals my desire to be part of it. Eliezer's tears of desire - 'I want to learn Torah' - turn into the words of Torah that flow from him, transforming him from a cistern into a spring. So Isaac returns and attends to the wells of his father and opens them, so that future wells of Torah may flow: and in the next verse in Genesis: the servants of Isaac dig new wells, and find mayim chaim, living waters. So the receptivity of desire, of wanting to connect with the past, as the bar mitzva boy who is good at taking advice, is also part of the creative act, letting the 'living waters' of the past nourish the present and the future.