Hope: A Challenge to Be Cultivated

March 1, 2014
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Before the liturgical revisions that accompanied the rise of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism, traditional Jewish prayer addressed hope with an assurance coordinate with a continuity of faith in a covenantal God and a pre-modern embrace of classical Jewish myths of the future, both personal and collective.

Rabbi Neil Gillman suggests that in a postmodern era, the myths of Jewish tradition are “broken,” leaving contemporary Jews with three options: reject the broken myth (which might mean that Jewish teachings about hope are hopeless), reaffirm the broken myth as if it were intact (which might mean reaffirming Jewish teachings about hope even more tenaciously), or embrace the broken myth (which might mean preserving the insights and imperatives in Jewish teachings about hope while self-consciously reading them metaphorically). To the degree that prayer books can be taken as collective statements of ideology and theology, outside of Orthodoxy embracing the broken myth has been the consistent strategy even as various siddurim differ on how to reframe, restate, or reject classical teachings on hope.

A classical liberal liturgical move of Jewish modernity was to affirm a category while updating the imagery: so Reform and Reconstructionist liturgies replaced the hope for a go’el, “redeemer,” with hope of g’eula, “redemption.” Curiously, some formerly assumed liberal revisions have themselves become contested in the most recent editions of Jewish prayer books. For example, in the second blessing of the Amida, the current Reform siddur Mishkan T’filah offers “mehayeh hakol (metim),” “You give life to all (revive the dead).” (p. 246) This wording resurrects a discarded belief in rebirth while simultaneously privileging the long-standing Reform rendering through the use of parentheses around the more traditional formulation.

Another popular liberal approach was to use the siddur to convey a modern acceptance of scientific insight while sustaining spiritual succor: so both the 1945 and 1994 Reconstructionist prayer books include a Misheberach for healing, but rather than asking God for recovery from illness, the liturgy asks that physicians and caregivers be wise and strong. Healing may be godly, but God no longer heals the sick.

The current Conservative Mahzor Lev Shalem hews to the Conservative default of preserving the traditional Hebrew while reframing conceptual difficulties through commentary. So, alongside “and with great mercy give life to the dead,” we read, “One way to think of life and death…is to contemplate our own continuous spiritual death and rebirth.” (p. 82) Here, hope of resurrection has been internalized, personalized, and spiritualized, not coincidentally along lines inspired by contemporary neo-Hasidism.

If there is any commonality to how contemporary Jewish liturgies address the idea of hope, it is by the subtle but significant replacement of prayers that “hope for” with alternatives that urge “optimism about.” While not exactly the equivalent of hope, optimism seems to stand in against the presumably unacceptable alternative — the endorsement of despair.

Mishkan T’filah offers: “The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. Our hearts beat with certainty that there is a day and an hour…” (p. 241) And the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah Shabbat Vehagim suggests an alternative to the Aleinu: Judy Chicago’s “The Merger Poem,” which promises, “And then all will live in harmony with each other and with the earth. And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.” (p. 127)

The popular paradox of “partnership” with God splits the difference between knowing it is “all on us” and nodding in the direction of some vestigial hope of intervention by God. Here is a Mishkan T’filah overture to the Amida: “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” (p. 165) Many of the people in the proverbial pews may welcome liturgy that more honestly reflects the reality they intuit: that we ought to act and to pray as if everything depends on us, because it does.

Nearly 50 years ago, Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein stated, “[R]eligion…is the  way in which we share, both consciously and unconsciously, through the inherited myths, rituals, and traditions of our communities, the dilemmas and the crises of life and death, good and evil. Religion is the way in which we share our predicament; it is never the way in which we overcome our condition.” (After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism, p. 263) Jewish liturgy has yet to catch up with this insight that rabbis may dispute but davenners easily understand.

Hope is not a bromide to be asserted but a challenge to be cultivated. Optimism that is declarative rather than inquisitive will be transparent in its insistence that “the good in us will win…and everywhere will be Eden.”  Our people know better. They know intuitively, and our liturgy ought to articulate explicitly, that the opposite of despair is not hope; the opposite of despair is possibility.


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Rabbi Richard Hirsh, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Board, is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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