I received and read with great anticipation the recent issue of The Reconstructionist, the house organ of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement with which I was affiliated for over twenty years. The issue’s theme, liturgy, is dear to me. I have written several prayerbooks and have had liturgical poems published in dozens of others.
The magazine was filled with interesting historical information, and I enjoyed reading it, but in the end I was disappointed. What I got out of it, and I am certain this is my fault and not what was intended, was this: liturgical language is so vague that we can read whatever we want into it, and hence need not go out of our way to change it.
I am all for metaphorical reading. I am all for twisting words so that they say things that the authors of those words not only didn’t mean to say, but could not even imagine saying. And yet I want something more. I don’t want to sit in synagogue and rewrite the liturgy in my head in order to feel at home. I want to read something that moves me without me having to move it first. I want something honest, clear, clean, and true.
On the other hand if Jesus (to take but one well known example) had taught us to pray thusly: “Our Father Who art a projection of our patriarchal mindset, hallowed by Thy Name. Your biases are my biases, Your prejudices are my prejudices, on earth as I pretend them to be in heaven…” I doubt people would have listened to him, despite (or rather because of) the honesty of his prayer.
I understand why rabbis want us to keep the old language. Saying what the ancients said maintains our connection to them. It is a tribal thing, and I am all for tribe. I am honored to belong to the Hebrew tribe, the Habiru, the boundary crossers. And I maintain my connection to my tribe through language, diet, myth, and legend. But when it comes to prayer I want something more. I want something that takes me out of my tribe, that allows me to stop the argument over meaning, and to see something new. I doubt words can do that. At least not for me.
I want a liturgy composed of few words, gentle rhythms, and deep silence. I want a liturgy that open me up to something greater than words. I want a liturgy that can be breathed rather than breathlessly raced through. God speaks to us in the small voice of stillness, and the chattering mind and its ever–gabbing tongue are the problem not the solution. A prayer book that runs into the hundreds of pages is a testament to a people seeking to drown out the Voice of God, not quiet the mind in order to hear it.
So I was disappointed. Perhaps I will have to publish a siddur of my own once again, and that is short, simple, and, I would hope, sweet. We’ll see.