The Siddur Is the Tool, We Are the Voice: A Roundtable

April 1, 2011
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Metaphor helps us understand one thing in terms of something else because we can’t exactly name it. Everything that we say liturgically is approximate, whether it is about God or about us. And yet, how we choose to approximate something is a critical decision. The prayer book should present challenges to us and not simply comfort us or smooth life’s rough edges. And, there are consequences to the prayer books’ use; one shouldn’t close the book and walk away without a sense that having had that time with the book has had an impact. Sh’ma asked the editors of recently published prayer books to share their decisions about the use of metaphor: How does metaphor impact one’s prayer life? How is it used in religious language? What changes in the language of contemporary siddurim and machzorim?

Richard Hirsh: Most early as well as recent ‘modern’ siddurim assumed that a siddur was primarily a statement of beliefs, that the interpretive lens was philosophy or theology. Today, is a siddur or machzor a work of philosophy, theology, poetry, art, or something else?

Elyse Frishman: The siddur affirms a person’s role and worth in relationship with community and God. Relationship requires action; the siddur reinforces how we should behave.

Edward Feld: Building on what Elyse said, I’d add that the moment of prayer, at its best, is transformative: It moves us to the fullness of our humanity and to an appreciation of our relationship to the world. The traditional prayer book contains theological ideas, but they are expressed as a kind of prose poetry and so they are experienced more emotionally than rationally.

Camille Shira Angel: Most people who use a siddur to pray look to see themselves reflected in its words, divrei tefillah. And yet, as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) Jews, many of us have never before seen ourselves or our lived experiences mirrored in these texts. In fact, quite the contrary; some of the images and descriptions in traditional prayer books harm our place as Jews as part of humanity. So, we’ve tried to recreate the intention of holding a mirror that more accurately reflects the diversity of our community.

Elyse Frishman: Jewish prayer is not simply a matter of personal transformation or reflection; it is absolutely meant to move us toward something greater. The siddur is not just to reflect who we are, but who we might become.

Camille Shira Angel: We’ve tried to create an opportunity for people to translate their lives into words and aspirations that other people might recognize. The bookends of our siddur — its first chapter, Brachot, or blessings, and its concluding Chesed V’emet section, kindness and truth — create a spiritual memoir and include the poetry, writings, cover notes, and photography of 140 of our members.

Richard Hirsh: We’ve been talking with an implicit assumption that the subject or the object of the siddur is the person using it — which might be different than in an earlier time, when the focus was on what we should say to God.

Camille Shira Angel: We are still definitely speaking to God and to any witnesses for God.

Elyse Frishman: The siddur was always a functional tool to experience theology. I’m so struck by what Camille said — if you’re invisible then it won’t speak to you and it’s no longer an accessible tool. If you still value and revere the siddur when you’re invisible, you’ve written yourself outside of it and you’re no longer a meaningful part of the community. The emergence of new siddurim reflects the great need to include those who felt invisible. The siddur is a tool, but we are the voice.

Edward Feld: Richard, you might be overstating the tradition. On the High Holidays, when we recite, “U’netaneh tokef kedushat hayom,” “Let us declare the holiness of this day,” we are directing the explanation of the meaning of the day as much to ourselves as we are to God. The language of that prayer has the power to awaken us as to our task on the High Holidays and make us ask ourselves: What does my life add up to?

Richard Hirsh: That’s a helpful clarification. Many people, especially if they are occasional attendees at synagogue, use English as their language of prayer. Does Hebrew serve a different function? That is, what governed your choice to present the English translation as opposed to a poetic rendering?

Edward Feld: We included a certain amount of Hebrew embedded within the English. For example, we did not translate the opening part of the blessing, “Barukh atah Adonai,” but kept the Hebrew, transliterated, because it functions in such a variety of ways that to translate is to mistranslate it. In part, the word barukh functions as a greeting; it acknowledges God’s presence. It also signals that this moment is a formal and normative prayer. Also, in offering a more literal translation than previous Conservative translations, we gave people a greater impression in English of what the Hebrew feels like.

Richard Hirsh: I remember reading that you planned to give readers a sense of what was happening rather than smoothing over some passages that might sound a bit discordant.

Edward Feld: We discovered that the literal translation became more poetic and therefore the English reader might be as moved as one reading the Hebrew. Equally, some of our translations are meant to startle, to wake people up.

Elyse Frishman: Hebrew feels more authentic than English. When we include Hebrew words transliterated in English it helps the English feel more authentic. What Ed calls literal translations, we call faithful translations, and these strengthen the authenticity of the work — especially when there are additional creative readings. Non-Orthodox Jews try to ascertain what is legitimate, what is permissible to change in the siddur. For the average person, not necessarily the siddur’s editorial team, this helps make it feel more Jewish. Music also plays a significant role in this regard.

Richard Hirsh: When we teach tefillah (as opposed to leading it), we point out three separate sections: shevach, bakashah and hoda’ah (praise, petition, and gratitude), which are classical frameworks for much of what appears in the siddur. Are these still viable as contemporary forms of Jewish prayer, or are we really speaking metaphorically?

Edward Feld: I know that these are classical ways of structuring prayer, but the prayer book encompasses so much more than these categories — midrash, passages for study, and creedal affirmations. This is an anthology of 2,000 years of a living Judaism and there’s something reductionist when we teach prayer as essentially containing only three categories. Nevertheless, these three are important categories of religious psychology. Hoda-ah, or gratitude, is a primary religious stance — and it is both eye-opening and ethically uplifting to enter the world with such an attitude. As we pray, we also express our neediness; we’re human beings and we are imperfect, finite, and vulnerable. And in praising God as Creator, we affirm our relatedness to all of creation. To be in touch with these understandings is to be in touch with a primary sensibility of what it means to be human. I think these categories don’t describe the totality of the moment of prayer, but they help understand what it means to be a religious person.

Camille Shira Angel: While these classical prayer types are ever viable and compelling, and we could fit almost everything inside of them, our siddur also has prayers that don’t fit. For example, we have a prayer called, “upon being moved by unusual people”: “Praised are you, Adonai, our God, who wills the universe by diversifying creation.” This prayer is more an act of theological repair. And our prayer, “The mystery of pink and blue,” begins: “Blessed is God, whose creativity pushes the limits of human understanding and blessed are You who bravely shows the richness of that very pallet. May…we all be blessed with the courage to confront our own fear and prejudice and in doing so truly witness creation.” I don’t know what category to put that into.

Elyse Frishman: These three are classical prayer types and they’re critical. Shevach is a reminder that there’s something greater than me; it helps me when I offer petition to do so in the context of humility rather than entitlement.

Richard Hirsh: In what ways can, should, does a prayer book acknowledge the difficulties that some people articulate with the idea of God as personal — as a “You,” rather than, say, as “the mystery of existence,” or “the source of all life”? We live in an era when people experience these tensions. In a negative sense, one might say, “I can’t go to shul because the siddur says ‘You,’ and I don’t believe in that type of God. Or, in a positive way, someone might cultivate their spirituality and prayer becomes something other than a relationship with an external You-God. In what ways does a siddur acknowledge these difficulties?

Elyse Frishman: The left-hand page of Mishkan T’filah provides alternatives that help the reader not be engulfed by a personal God, if that’s not where the person’s sense of God is. Moreover, we must look at the siddur as a tool in the system of worship, to quote my beloved mentor Larry Hoffman. The role of the teacher is essential, the role of the spiritual guide is essential. Any time we engage in worship, we create a covenant, an environment, and the role of the spiritual guide is to establish a gateway for everyone in that sanctuary. The leader must be able to see the siddur through the eyes of those who are open to the variety of expressions within it and not bound by it. If the siddur is limited in its expression and does not offer alternatives, then it makes leading prayer much harder.

Edward Feld: We have incorporated alternative readings, including poems by Yehudah Amichai and others that query God, fight with God, and, in Amichai’s case, deny God. We did this consciously, knowing that we were trying to reach a variety of people whose experiences of prayer are different. Also, because we are in touch with our ambivalences, our doubts, our self-questioning, the alternatives we include are a part of our own souls. And yet, there is a danger in trying to rewrite the prayer book to accommodate a contemporary, more humanistic consciousness. Judaism has something important to say when it asks us to direct our prayers to “You.”

Elyse Frishman: Ed, do you mean that the value of the “You” is that it directs the person praying outside of him or herself, to the “Other” in the strongest possible way?

Edward Feld: Absolutely.

Elyse Frishman: I totally agree with you, and so even though I do not have a personal sense of God — my sense of God is far more transcendent — nonetheless, when I pray, I am very comfortable with the “You,” because I recognize and have evolved to understand how it draws me outside of myself.

Edward Feld: The “You” in Judaism is an ethical you. For example, in the Amidah’s second blessing, the “You” of God is the “You” who cares for the fallen, who cares for the most vulnerable in society, who helps all those who are weak. That is the “You” that we address.

Elyse Frishman: Relationship matters even as a metaphor. The trouble I have with non-dualistic theology that applies to Judaism is that it presupposes a oneness that isn’t real — or is so fleeting. The experience of our liturgy is cumulative and so it has to begin where we really are.

Earlier liturgical work was more about theology. Today, it includes theology and ethics. As civil rights have evolved, as our awareness of the human condition has matured beyond even the imagination of previous sages, certain language and prayers are now experienced as inappropriately exclusive or cruel. We have an obligation to respond and edit such material.

Camille Shira Angel: I like God as the ethical You. How we act politically depends on how we read and look and experience metaphor. There are a plurality of ways to have gendered and non-gendered naming in our relationship to God, which is why our siddur decided to use several options; it is the best way to honor the diversity of who we are as praying people.

Richard Hirsh: Can you each speak to the specific challenges of the gendered nature of God language? And, how does the lens of metaphor affect that approach?

Edward Feld: We aimed at a gender-neutral translation. We included some prayers that were written with new metaphors in mind — for example, one prayer is composed of bird metaphors found in the book of Psalms and invokes the protection and comforting embrace of the wings of the Shekhinah. Interestingly, we found and used an Avodah poem for Yom Kippur, written in the fifth century, which speaks of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as the three leaders of the Jewish people. In this case, it turned out that the fifth century had a kind of gender equality that the later tradition had suppressed.

Elyse Frishman: It is not possible to be gender neutral, and yet we didn’t want to refer to God as he or as she; both of those pronouns are distracting. Sometimes, we spoke more about God through attributes. I personally think we are in a transitional place that mirrors our sense of change. We are confused about what it means to be in the image of God, and since Hebrew and English tend to be somewhat limiting, we have wrestled to finesse the concept.

Camille Shira Angel: Our congregation is dealing with a young population who are claiming new ground around being transgendered activists. They are not referring to themselves as men or women; they are looking to be activists and to stand in the “in-between.”

Here is a prayer by Rabbi Reuben Zellman, the first transgendered rabbi: “As the sun sinks and the color of the day turns, we offer a blessing for the twilight; for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between. We are all twilight people; we can never be fully labeled or defined; we are many identities and love many genders and none. We are in-between roles at the intersection of histories or between place and place; we are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination; streaks of light swirl together; we are neither day nor night; we are both neither and all.” We recite this: “May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend our certainties, soften our judgment, and widen our vision. May this in-between light illuminate our way to the God who transcends all categories and definitions; may the in-between people who have come to pray be lifted up into this twilight. We cannot always define; we can always say a blessing. Blessed are you, God of all, who brings on the twilight.”

Richard Hirsh: Was there any discussion about the fact that Adonai is a gendered term? Or, is Adonai viewed as a symbolic term that has transcended gender at this point from your

Edward Feld: Most people, when they say “Adonai,” think “God” and don’t think “Lord,” since we no longer live in a feudal society with lords and ladies. But aside from issues of gender, it is important to remember the association of this name with adnoot; that one is not master of one’s own fate, that one is obligated to higher purpose. The designation of God by this name is an important ethical consideration reminding us how religious belief ought to function in our lives.

Elyse Frishman: We use “Adonai,” without translation, because it feels more personal, like a name.

Richard Hirsh: Is prayer essentially metaphoric language and, if so, how; and if not, why?

Elyse Frishman: Prayer uses metaphor to release us from the ordinary. Spiritual imagination is inspired by such language. But not all prayer is metaphor.

Edward Feld: For the most part, the prayer book is written as prose poetry. As such, it is evocative but not rationally discursive and philosophically deductive in its presentation. Metaphor is one aspect of poetic technique and at times the poets of the prayer book employ metaphors, sometimes for whole poems, but it would be overreaching to say that all prayer is metaphoric; to do so would remove reality from the moment of prayer.

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Rabbi Camille Shira Angel is an editor of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, and spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

Rabbi Edward Feld is senior editor of Mahzor Lev Shalem, a new Conservative prayer book for the High Holidays, and director of the Rabbinic Companionship Program.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is editor of the Reform movement’s Mishkan T’filah, and spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.Y. They spoke with Rabbi Richard Hirsh, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Committee. Hirsch directs the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He edited The Reconstructionist Journal for ten years.

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