Take Me Out To The Ball Game?

Rabbi Deborah Silver
October 12, 2012
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Okay, I know I wrote about prayer last time as well. But it has long been my contention that one of the key challenges our involved Jews face, and our uninvolved Jews complain about (with my thanks to Rabbi Rami Shapiro for the wording of this distinction) is the opacity of our communal prayerbooks.

That blue (or red, or black) Siddur is intimidating. It’s chock-full of words, half of them in a difficult language, many of which we might not believe, or if we do, we don’t believe them all the time, or expressed in that particular way. We might not like the order of the prayers. If we have Hebrew, we very likely won’t like the translations. But all of this fades into insignificance in light of the main problem, which is that the Siddur often doesn’t stir our personal spirituality – with the result that our communal prayer experiences place us somewhere on a spectrum from mildly irritated (‘what IS this stuff?’) to frustrated (‘I can’t say that!’) to enraged (‘to hell with all of this!’). Not an ideal framework for a conversation with God – or whatever we want to call God.

I want to suggest, however, that the Siddur isn’t intended to be personal in that way.

When the Rabbis walked away into exile, leaving Jerusalem in burning ruins behind them, they were faced with the problem of how to replace a lost center of worship. The core of the Siddur – the blessings before and after the Shema, the Shema itself and the Amidah, in all its various forms – are the result of that endeavor. While in due course our services acquired an element of personal warming-up beforehand by using poetry – resulting in the pesukei d’zimra – the fact remains that our main prayers were never intended to be personal. The Shema is lifted from contexts in which Moses is speaking to the whole community. The Amidah recalls cycles of communal time, communal history and the experiences of Temple worship. The ‘I’ is subsumed by the ‘us.’

Sometimes I think of it as being like ‘Take Me Out To the Ball Game’ – we sing, lustily, but how many of us truly love peanuts and crackerjack? How many of us are allergic to them? Yet, we sing – because we are really making a statement about belonging to something much bigger than ourselves.

I think we can deal with this. I really do. I’ve seen communal spirituality being reclaimed with chanting, with silence, with yoga, even – but I think we should also study our communal prayers. It’s easier to forgive them when we know what their authors were trying to achieve.

It’s time to stop blaming the Siddur for not speaking to us personally. Rather, we each need to seek out our own, personal practice, one that’s meaningful to us. (Rabbi Akiva had one. When he was praying in public, he’d keep his prayers short and to the point; but when alone, he’d start in one corner and end up in another through the force of his prayers.)

And then, perhaps, a new dynamic might begin to emerge. I wonder how our communities might change if we came to our communal prayers already spiritually engaged, open to listen to what they are trying to say?

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  1. As someone who does find the language of the siddur meaningful, I have two thoughts.

    First (not my original thought) – Anything worthwhile requires time and practice. If this is the first time you have read a siddur in 20 years or you only come once a year, then it is not going to be meaningful. Just like my daughter hated Shakespeare and found it dull until she studied it at school, spent time with it and learned the vocabulary- now she finds the plays beautiful and also funny.

    People take time to deal with difficult translations or imagery to find the beauty in Rumi- the siddur has many accessible parts if you view it as poetry and not catechism.

    Second- Why must you say things which you find deeply offensive? I don’t. I suggest trying another siddur. There are many options..

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  2. Thanks, rainbowtallitbaby. I agree with your first thought absolutely – its implementation remains a constant challenge for me. I find that during services (I am a congregational rabbi) a bit of running commentary helps: this year I will also be teaching two prayer courses and I hope that by the end of the year I’ll be in a better position to opine.

    And I agree that the Siddur is a text: a thoroughly complicated one.

    Re your second thought: I’m thinking more of objections to central parts of the service, like the Shema (that second paragraph is an extremely challenging theology, for example) and the Amidah. As a translator in a previous life, I don’t believe that providing a ‘version’ is a fair response to either the text or the reader. I’d rather have a conversation about the authors’ intention, in those circumstances – if the person hadn’t already run out of the door.

    Thanks for commenting!

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