I first encountered the Avodah service at age 7, and I kept the memory secret for years. I was visiting my Orthodox paternal grandmother in the women’s section of her shul. My Reform mother stayed outside with my sister. I looked down from the balcony and experienced the ineffable. To the accompaniment of a haunting melody, the men below prostrated themselves in flurries of black and white tallitot. A concentrated golden light suffused the scene. Later, when my mother asked why I had stayed inside so long, I could only stammer: “It was so beautiful. They all knelt down.” “Oh no,” my mother said positively, “Jews don’t kneel.” For years I wondered if I had just imagined the event. Prudently, I decided not even to mention the golden light.
As a young adult ba’alat teshuva (newly Orthodox), I re-encountered the Avodah, minus the extraordinary golden light. (Its explanation had to wait until I read American philosopher William James and discovered that other people had also experienced golden lights.) At this second encounter, I sadly became aware that most Orthodox women do not prostrate themselves.
My childhood memory suggests that ritual can be compelling even to someone who does not understand its cognitive content. In fact, cognitive content can trouble ritual; it often serves as a powerful impetus for ritual change. According to the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, ritual is a return, a reenactment of an original event. Yet ritual is not static. As anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff has emphasized, ritual constantly changes, but it must feel to the participant as if it has always been this way. Perhaps ritual change is a way of facilitating that return to origins when it has become difficult. In the process, the archetypal event itself is re-envisioned and re-understood.
The Avodah service is itself a product of ritual change. It was apparently constructed by the Palestinian liturgical poet Yose ben Yose, circa the fifth or sixth century CE, and then, throughout the Middle Ages, liturgical poets wrote and augmented the Avodah liturgies and piyyutim. One of the best known of these, “Amitz Koach,” written by Meshullam ben Kalonymus, is the main Avodah piyyut for the Ashkenazic machzor. Sephardic liturgies use an ancient, anonymous piyyut beginning “Atah Konanta Me’Olam.” The liturgies draw on the Mishnah’s re-envisioning of the Temple Yom Kippur service described in Leviticus 16. In that text, the goal of Yom Kippur ritual is to cleanse the sanctuary from impurities. In Mishnah Yoma, it is the community itself that is to be purified. Since, according to the Mishnah, atonement involves confession, the Yoma text provides the High Priest with confessions over the various offerings. It is the High Priest’s pronunciation of YHWH, the ineffable divine name, during these confessions and the witnesses’ responses to hearing it that take center stage in Avodah liturgies, not the sacrifices.
Classically, the Avodah is not just narrated. It is enacted. The worshipers themselves become the witnesses to the High Priest’s confessions, prostrate themselves, and respond, “Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed,” as if they had just heard the lost divine name. Communal enactments are powerfully convincing ways of encountering God, as my childhood memory attests. Ritual enactments rely on reframings and reinterpretation to persuade worshipers to act, because if they find the content irrelevant, irrational, or incomprehensible, some worshippers will simply refuse to participate.
All Avodah liturgies begin by framing the significance of the priestly ritual, because they must establish why it remains important and relevant. The classical poems recount the creation and early biblical history, setting the High Priest’s service into the very fabric of the universe. The Avodah in the Reform movement’s machzor, Gates of Repentance, reworks the creation prologue, emphasizing the distinctive powers and moral obligations of human beings and the special mission and redemptive role of the people Israel. Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist Avodah services begin with a Hasidic teaching from S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk (see pages 12-13). It asserts that wherever a person looks toward heaven is the Holy of Holies, that every day is a Day of Atonement, and that everyone is a High Priest. These prologues individualize and universalize the meaning of the Avodah and offer it for ordinary people to appropriate.
To make the Avodah accessible, non-Orthodox prayer books often also shorten and excerpt the difficult liturgies of the past, although all retain the High Priest’s confessions. Interpretive translations are an important feature. The Reconstructionist Avodah is not even a separate service; instead, pieces of it are woven into a restructured Musaf that progresses from concern with self, to family, to the Jewish people, and to all humanity — a contemporary liberal ethic of relationships.
The conclusion of the classical Avodah describes the joy and relief of a world renewed and set right, a world we do not inhabit. Nevertheless, in multiple contemporary versions, we are drawn to reenact this story in which sin can be acknowledged and purged and the slate wiped clean, and to re-envision repeatedly a process of contrition and renewal over which the ineffable name of God echoes. And if we are lucky enough to be part of a solid communal reenactment, it will feel as if it has always been this way.email print