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.

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