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Creating Liturgy: Some Questions
Emanuel Feldman (Sh'ma, 2/28, March 10, 1972)
I have been studying your two recent works, Shalom, A Contemporary Supplementary Service for Rosh Hashanah, and Haggadah For Today. I find your material among the best that has been done in contemporary Jewish liturgy. One senses in it a positive Jewish commitment and a genuine desire to reach outward and inward during worship. At the same time, your work is a kind of metaphor for all that is legitimate and all that is problematic in this genre, and I'd like to discuss it with you.
On this fact we can agree: we are faced in our time and in our place with grievous problems of prayer.
For one thing - and this is everything - few Jews are praying, much less davening. The awful and awesome neglect of prayer, the almost universal conviction that traditional Jewish prayer is without meaning, the gap between the Jew desiring to talk with God and the prayers on the printed page: these have given creative liturgy its impetus. We need to find some means by which to teach a neophyte davener that he need not be afraid of reaching up to God; some way to give him security and confidence as he stands at the threshold of a new experience. For those who do not, can not, will not, or know not how to daven, we seek a bridge, a road back. Certainly these are some of the considerations which have motivated the writers of innovative liturgy.
Is it prayer?
But these new services make promises they cannot keep. The very names which have been given this genre -"creative," "affirmations," "relevant," "contemporary," "celebrations" (rather pretentious names, incidentally-and names which unfortunately reinforce the gullible impression that the Siddur is uncreative, stilted, irrelevant, and somehow unworthy) - offer visions of new horizons of religious experience, of encounters with the One of the universe and with one's own mighty soul. But these soaring hopes are dashed when the innocent worshipper opens the colorful creative booklet and discovers, amid dismembered traditional prayers, an anthology of readings by a melange of poets, philosophers, and "famous men" which are often moving and genuine but which speak not to - or of - the melech malche hamlachim Who is hiding and Whom we desperately seek. For example - and here I am citing not only your work - Walt Whitman on the miracle of being alive is beautiful-but is it prayer, and is it uniquely Jewish? Moshe Dayan on Jewish faith is mildly interesting-but how does a definition of faith which entirely omits God fit into a book of worship? Is it prayer, and is Dayan on faith authentically Jewish? Aphorisms on life by Henry Ward Beecher are harmless-but are they prayer and are they uniquely Jewish? Is there anything here that could not be equally shared by a Buddhist or, for that matter, an atheist?
Even more disquieting are those readings in which a conscious attempt is made to be Jewish and contemporary. Concerned news bulletins about Southeast Asia, Ecology, and California Lettuce serve to keep heaven informed and remind one and all that we are Relevant, but, in all frankness, some of these readings smother us with so palpable a Sincerity and Honesty that they get in our way.
Is it creative?
Another roadblock: the creativists, ironically, leave nothing to the imagination of the worshipper. The essence of prayer is avodah sheb'lev (service of the heart) - the thousands of sparks which a single word may kindle within us. "Is not my word, like fire, like the hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces." (Jer. 23:29) The Shma, the Amida, Borchu, Kedusha may touch the soul in a hundred unarticulated and unverbalized ways. But the creativists insist, with their lengthy and ubiquitous meditations, on telling us how to feel and what to think at every opportunity. They destroy the implicit with their explicit.
To make matters even more difficult, these home-made readings reveal serious deficiencies of grace and style. Even in the better examples-even in your work -- these problems are endemic. A few concrete examples taken from Shalom:
a) Its commentary on the Akedah states:
"Singing unifies the soul, the mind, the body, and the spirit of the human being. It truly gives voice to the totality of man's feelings and aspirations. This very thought is expressed by the phrase, 'and the two walked on together'."
The congregation is then exhorted to "sing together and ... walk together to a greater and a greater responsibility to other human beings and a greater feeling of serenity-" (p. 4) This is Noble Sentiment, but if a man has no ear or voice for singing, shall he go home? And, really now, is this what is meant by vayelkhu shnehem yahdav (and both of them walked together)?
b) The innovative introduction to the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah:
"Rebel O Jews/Against the rubble of the ghetto/Against the gaberdine (sic) of the mind/Which substitutes linguistic rapidity/For ethical concern./The Siddur is not a book/ To mumble as a charlatan/spouts some abracadabra...."
To which one is tempted to reply: A creative service is not the place/to polemicize/against traditional Jews /who do not write/innovative services. I really wonder, Baruch, how pejoratives like "mumble," "spout," and "charlatan" fit in with calls for peace and justice and ethics. And would you say that slow Hebrew readers have more "ethical concern" than those who read fluently?
Isn't it overdone?
c) The majestic nishmat prayer is introduced by an attempt to depict the Creator's greatness:
"Lord, how can there be ... /so many color combinations ... /We cannot comprehend/Your creative spirit/Your endless imagination/Your sense of beauty ... " And then we find: "God is the conductor of creation and the whole universe is orchestrated in a great symphony of splendor." It is this attempt to gild the lily which is so characteristic of innovative liturgy. Why not let nishmat stand on its own merits? In every way- religious, stylistic, emotional, theological -- what it says is "right." Talk of His "endless imagination and creative spirit" is embarrassing.
Now if petulance, affectation, and sheer overwriting can creep into one of the better examples of contemporary innovative liturgy, how much more so for others less committed, less genuine, less knowledgeable.
Certainly I do not deny that within the tradition there is place for personal and spontaneous prayer. Doesn't Maimonides say that any prayer to God - formal or spontaneous - fulfills the mitzvah of tefillah (prayer)? But today's creative liturgy is not a spontaneous burst of prayer. It is spontaneity codified: printed, bound, formalized, given a pretty and attractive wrapping, and not at all a match for the traditional formality it seeks to replace.
Effort in the wrong direction
My point is that the creativists, having recognized that there is a prayer problem, have approached it from a side door. They are apparently working from the unfortunate premise that prayer/davening is essentially a matter of words, phrases, sentences. And since the words of the traditional Siddur are apparently irrelevant/non-contemporary/out of tune, new formulations have to be devised.
But this is precisely the problem: davening is not merely a matter of speech, of outward expression. It is primarily a matter of using words to create a mood of inwardness and of openness to God. And a mood of listening. To what God has said and is saying; to what some great spirits like King David said and are saying; to others; and to our own soul which also tries to speak to us. Davening is an attempt to attune our selves and to open our selves in order to be able to participate in this eternal colloquy of God, man, Israel, past, present, and future.
The essence is encounter Our bubbes and zeides didn't affirm, innovate, or celebrate: maybe that's why they occasionally wept when they davened. Authentic Jewish worship, I submit, is more than a verbalization of vague, private feelings, no matter how touching and solemn and genuine. Sincerity and good will are fine qualities, but it takes more than these to become a Shakespeare or a Beethoven or a Chagall - or a composer of prayers. Jewish worship involves an encounter with the Lord of Israel, with the Jewish past, with our historic destiny as a people. Love, peace, celebration, universality, community, meaning, mankind, fellowship - these are lovely words. But using them in reverent categories and printing them in "poetic" form do not necessarily constitute a search for the Lord of Israel Who is the ultimate object and subject of tefillah (prayer). An innovative service is here today and, by a click of the loose-leaf spiral, gone tomorrow. This is eternity?
Teaching prayer appreciation
Perhaps it is time to reevaluate and seek a different way. Perhaps we ought to take seriously Psalm 65: "To thee, silence is praise." In place of the frenetic search for newness, it might be well for the creativists to be silent in the face of the traditional matbea (form) of prayer, and to look at it anew. Instead of emasculating the Siddur it would be well to innovate by lovingly exploring the subtlety and beauty of the traditional liturgy. Before updating cavalierly the tradition, it might be intellectually honest to accept the challenge of teaching Jews how to appreciate and respond to the awesome grandeur of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy; the delicately precisioned daily Amidah; the subtly woven Psalms; the carefully wrought themes and rhythms of pesuke d'zgmra; the glow and the elegance of the Shabbos evening service; the grace and vigor of the festival davening; the power and majesty of the Yom Kippur liturgy. We teach music appreciation; let there be prayer appreciation.
Of course there is a difficulty in this: the celebrants want an "experience" without preparation, without knowledge, without a heart attuned to the idea of praise or humility or worship, and they want it now. So we give them loose-leafed current events scrapbooks, complete with psychedelic covers and lots of sincerity, under the rubric of "creative service." The truer way is to begin to teach what prayer was and is.
Beyond immediacy towards eternity
We are confusing the road with the destination. By accenting new prayer forms when the old have not been tried, we are blocking the very bridge we want to open. The way to God does not lie in an emphasis on techniques; the strolling cantors and the electric guitars will not lead us to Kavannah. The way to tefillah is tefillah. The way to klal yisrael is tefillah. Why not emphasize the idea that davening joins a Jew with a hundred generations of Jews who have davened before him, and joins him to his fellow Jews today in Russia, Israel, Syria, Mexico, Turkey, Australia, who may also be davening at that very moment. Davening thus transforms the individual into an integral part of a mystical faith community. Why not utilize the traditional liturgy as an aid in teaching us a) how to approach God, and b) what to pray for.
The chances are that an exposure to the depth of meaning and suggestion and association - intellectual, emotional, historical, psychological - of the traditional davening, davened in the traditional way, will make it clear why even sincere attempts at prayer writing seem inevitably to result in hollow echoes.
Such an approach, led by people who have the courage to sacrifice a touch of immediacy for a touch of eternity-and who are themselves daveners - has not been widely attempted. But where it has, it has elicited a surprising response: witness the response of young people of all kinds to Lubavitch.
Restoring tradition: a success story
A personal note: As a practicing rabbi, I too have been troubled by a congregation who knew not tefillah. For years on end we followed the tried (and untrue) pattern of late Friday services, "creative" English readings, Birthday Shabbat, Youth Services. People came sporadically, but remained essentially unmoved. Then we began to innovate. The Friday night late show was eliminated (cries of anguish from the "traditionalists" who had never heard of not having it) and the Shabbos morning davening was reinstated as the focal point of the week. We eliminated all tricks and gimmicks. We even eliminated English other than in the sermon-and even the sermon is not a regular aspect of the service. We began, in many different ways, to teach our people to daven. They responded to what they recognized as an honest attempt to restore the tradition without gadgetry. It took a number of years, but now, in this young (and Orthodox) congregation of 400 families, well over one hundred people are in Shul every Shabbos - davening. And we are rather proud of our youngsters who go off to school or get married and cannot find themselves in any other type of service - even in "creative" ones - because they long for the authentic tradition of davening which they felt here.
In summary: we must re-think innovative prayer because: we have no poets to equal the poets of the Siddur and our sincerest efforts often result in counterfeit; temporary substitutes tend to become permanent fixtures and the original matbea of prayer is denigrated and ultimately eliminated in favor of the counterfeit; we are being unfair to the kids who will soon tire of the inauthentic and, having confused it with the genuine, will reject both. We have stressed techniques over content and have achieved a vacuous newness which lacks unique Jewishness; we have not demonstrated an understanding of the role, purpose, and function of Jewish worship.
We should reevaluate, and call a moratorium on our new words which we take so seriously. Let us create a stillness in which we can listen to what others, wiser and holier than we and more attuned to Him than we, have to say to us. Perhaps then we will find Him. Which will be creative. And an innovation.
Let us pray.
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