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Creating Liturgy: A Response
Baruch S. Raskas (Sh'ma, 2/28, March 10, 1972)
Many thanks for your very thoughtful letter in response to two of our experiments in Jewish liturgy. I particularly appreciate the friendliness of your approach, its genuine sincerity and the love that you have for the tradition and your colleagues. No matter how we disagree, if we do so agreeably as rabbis (as indeed you have done), we can only bring healing and help to the Jewish community.
To begin, you state the essential issue with accuracy and with clarity: "We are faced in our time and in our place with the grievous problems of prayer." However, I would like to add to this that in every generation rabbis and Jews and, if you please, all human beings have faced these problems. Job did so in the Bible; the rabbis of the early centuries had to hammer out their decisions when they created the form for the arnidah and other prayers. And just the two issues of immortality and attitude toward malshinim (slanderers, those who malign us) points up the agonizing problem of worship among our founding fathers. As one reads responsa, one finds the problem restated in many forms and I cite only the instance of the rabbis of the 13th century in France who complained that the Jews were no longer donning tefilin. The Berdichever rebbe, reflecting the mood of a generation, had a problem with praying. What about Tevya, Elie Wiesel and so many of the contemporary and sincere Jews who have gone through the searing experience of the concentration camps, the threats to Israel (and its establishment), as well as the new challenges and fads (sic!) of contemporary life? All I am really saying is that the problem of prayer is like the olive tree of Israel: forever old; forever young.
Supplementing the siddur
While you are perfectly right in indicating that one should handle words like "relevant" and "contemporary" cautiously, I would like to make a very interesting observation. You use the word "davening." Now, this is not an authentic Hebrew term but rather one that finds its origin, insofar as we know, from the French l'office divin, "divine service." It is very much like the word orren, which was used by Western European Jews for prayer and finds its origin in the FrenchLatin word orare, "to pray," "speak," or "plead." Clearly, there is indication that these are words which have the influence of the culture of their times.
Having said this, I would like to indicate that the reason in our supplementary services that we use the words "contemporary," "supplementary" and "today" is that they are only supplementary material. I see the siddur (prayer book) as an anthology of the greatest prayers of our people. I find it most difficult as an individual rabbi to even attempt a change in the matbea shel tefilah, the stated formula of prayer. However, is it not time to add to this anthology in one form or another?
I call to your attention the fact that in the siddur as it now exists there is no reference to the Holocaust, to the establishment of the State of Israel, to the problem of Soviet Jewry and to many of the concerns of contemporary man. There was a time when lecha dodi did not exist and somebody included it and it enhances the Prayer Book. There was a time when the piyutim were not written and then somebody wrote them and they were incorporated into the machzor and we were all the better for it. Where then shall we find the movement to create the contemporary liturgy necessary for us today?
Relating the eternal to the contemporary
You raise the question of what is authentically Jewish. How right you are! However, I point out that in the whole Book of Esther the name of God is not mentioned and yet it is included in the Torah as a religious book. You raise the question as to whether we should include prayers by non-Jews. May I respectfully point out that the prayer of mah tovu, which traditionally one recites upon entering the synagogue, was written by Baalam, a non-Jew.
However, I do not agree that we should not in some way and on some occasions insert concerns for ecology, Southeast Asia, social justice and other contemporary issues. What then is the value of the Prayer Book if it cannot relate the eternal truths to our lives today? The Prayer Book is not just to comfort the afflicted; it is also to afflict the comfortable.
I agree with you essentially that we can drown ourselves in a sea of commentary. But, what can we do if people do not know the depth and meaning of the prayers? Ideally, children should be given a thorough knowledge of the siddur and adults should attend adult education classes to truly understand the lofty nature of the heritage of our Prayer Book. However, how many Hebrew Schools do even a competent job in this area and how many adults in their maturity study the tefilot? At least when they do come, let us try to make the services interesting from their point of view and their sociology.
You raise questions as to whether these "home-made readings" do not contain "serious deficiencies of grace and style." Were not the prayers of the early Hasidim and the words of our women in Yiddish home-made? What is a home-made prayer and what is an institution-made prayer? Moreover, is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? What to one is meaningless is to the other marvelous. As a congregational rabbi, I would like to adopt the principle of the Talmud: ehlu v'ehlu devray elohim hayim, "Both are the words of the living God" (Eruvin 13b).
Innovations teach our ancient heritage
For whatever reason, I want to see people coming to the synagogue and I want them to tell it like they see it and feel it. The real test of all this is, does it result in more interest in the synagogue, in more attendance in the synagogue, in more commitment to Judaism and in more responsibility as a Jew. I do not know all the answers to these questions in terms of the creative services and it would indeed be hard to have an accurate measure of them. AII I can tell you is what I know. In our Synagogue, because we have a supplementary service on the second day Rosh Hashanah, our attendance has increased considerably on that day. When we introduce new material on a Sabbath in terms of music, new prayers, new ways of socio-drama, the comments are sharp both pro and con but, at least, people come to comment. On those occasions when they are announced in advance, people attend with a sense of excitement. There have also been many instances where we have re-introduced older traditions and this has had a beneficial result. Here I am specific about the use of Yiddish, about teaching people the practicality of tying tzizit, about group singing of the brachot before and after the haftorah, about distribution in the service of Talmudic texts, laws of kashrut, laws of tefilin, etc. through the photo offset technique and having the entire congregation become a study group during the service. The use of tapes and films to bring the voices of our great Jewish leaders and the pictures of Jewish events into the synagogue (although not necessarily on the Sabbath or a holy day but on a Sunday morning as an example) is now called creative but really is already rather ordinary. We are learning many new ways to teach our ancient heritage so why not apply them to the synagogue, for they are indeed successful.
The necessity for being au courant
You state that the nishmat prayer is introduced with an attempt of explanatory inspiration. This was done because we wanted to call to the attention of the congregant the sublime grandeur of the prayer. My experience from years of Sabbath worship has been to see the nishmat prayer burbled through quickly. This has hurt me terribly because I love this prayer and I love what it says. This was an attempt to let our congregants see it in a new way. It was one experiment to open eyes anew to the wonders of the world.
Perhaps, I could draw the problem into clearer focus in this way. We have to be aware of the new media and the new technology as it shapes our lives. Perhaps it is a passing phase (and I doubt this) but yet it is here and it has to be dealt with as a form of expression. That Judaism is traditionally aware and au courant is corroborated by the Hasidic stories where whistling, humming, dancing and just recitation of the Hebrew alphabet are considered legitimate forms of worship. Were these just stories told or were they serious in their intent? If so, why cannot modern forms of these things on occasion be introduced?
There is something else that must be considered. Quite clearly, Moses, Akiba, Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon are our masters. Who are we compared to them? And, yet, I cannot help remembering these historical facts as well. Moses never saw a man land on the moon and we did. Akiba never knew what an automobile was and we have all ridden in them. Maimonides never even envisioned a heart transplant and we know all about that. The Vilna Gaon had not the slightest inkling of the reestablishment of the State of Israel and we have all experienced that. If all of us know about this and have experienced this, are we not obligated in some way to express it? Rather than losing faith, should this not enable us to deepen faith and proclaim with the Psalmist: 'How great are Your works, o Lord. In wisdom You have created them all."
Anyway that I can
One last comment. You end your important letter with the phrase: "Let us pray." How fascinating! That is a Christian phrase and is never used in synagogue except as imitation of others. The word really is tefillah which is an entirely different concept and it is for tefillah the prayer heritage of the Jew, for which I am reaching. I love my siddur so much that I want to try everything I can (and I will) to bring Jews back to it. For, ultimately, to paraphrase a well-known Jewish legend, some day I will have to face the following. I will not be asked, "Why were you not Moses?" Nor will I be asked, "Why were you not Akiba?" But I will be asked, "Why were you not Baruch?" And so now, as I prepare my answer with my work in the rabbinate, I remember the Talmudic teaching: "A place has been set aside by our forefathers for us to increase our religious experience" (Hulin 7a). Now is my time and this is the place for me in anyway that I can to inspire Jews to say the traditional formula of prayer: baruch atah ... "Blessed are You ... " in as many ways as possible. This leads me to say parenthetically but publicly that I am happy that my parents named me Baruch because I identify so deeply with my heritage. Moreover, I feel blessed that I have a colleague such as you who approaches the problem of prayer with such sincerity and such utter devotion and yet is not a fanatic and approaches others with warm friendship.
Rabotaynu higiah z'man shel kriat shma shel shaharit, "Rabbis, it is time to pray for the new dawn."
A reply to the response
There are two points which I would like to make about Raskas' response. I closed my piece with the words, "Let us pray," in a deliberate irony, fully aware that this is what Christian clergymen use. I was trying to give it a double entendre; that is, let us pray, not in the non-authentic way of "creative services" (the "let us pray" way), but in the authentic Jewish way, in the true meaning of let us pray. I obviously failed in my efforts at irony.
Another point which disturbs me (but weakens his own argument) is his reference to Balaam's mah tovu as a defense for using non-Jews as prayer models. The argument goes: Harriet Beecher Stowe (or other non-Jews) was a goy, true, but so was Balaam, and if Balaam is used in tefillah, why not Stowe. My reply would be that a) the Bible itself ascribes ruah hakodesh (the holy spirit) to Balaam at that point, and gives him power of nevuah (prophecy). He is uttering, as the text itself makes clear, not his own words but those of God himself. Do the creativists make the same claim for their goyim?
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