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?email print