The August 28, 2009 edition of the Forward, one of the great Jewish newspapers, had two articles on new siddurim (prayer books) being published by both Jewish denominations and individual synagogues.
The lead article opens with the question, “What can a new Hebrew-English Siddur do to solve the problems of prayer for modern Jews?” I have read the article several times, and I am not sure it ever answers the question, though the editor’s headline suggests one: “Even a New Siddur Can’t Close ‘God Gap.’” If the headline means that the answer to the lead question is “no,” then I agree. But agreeing or disagreeing is irrelevant unless and until someone defines what the problem is Jews have with prayer.
The answer, I suppose, is the God Gap, but that presupposes we know what God is, and I doubt that is true. So let’s try this again:
Can a new siddur solve the problem of prayer for modern Jews? No. Why not? Because the “problem of prayer” is that most Jews don’t pray. Why not? Because most Jews don’t believe in a God that merits prayer.
There are only two reasons to pray to God. Either you are praising (and thanking) Him for something He did or didn’t do, or asking Him to do something you are afraid He doesn’t want to do. In either case you are assuming God is male, self-conscious, and volitional; a being who knows you and your situation, and who actually gives a damn about it. Most Jews just don’t think this way.
How do I know what most Jews think? Just look at the statistics of synagogue attendance. One statistic I read recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) claimed that only 11% of American Jews attend synagogue on any given Shabbat. We can assume that some of these attendees aren’t there to pray, but are simply meeting a communal or cultural obligation, but even if all them were God–fearing men and women, that still leaves 89% of American Jews in the non–praying category.
I am one of the 89%. I find Shabbat services tedious, lifeless, emotionally and intellectually vapid, and, not surprisingly, boring. And it doesn’t matter what siddur is being used.
What would bring me to shul?
First, high quality music—not cantorial pomp or silly schlock rock from some long outgrown Jewish camp experience, but deeply moving Hebrew chanting and evocative even ecstatic Hasidic music ala Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. If you have never gone to services at the Carlebach shul in Manhattan, I suggest you do. Very moving.
Second, and this where even the Carlebach shul fails me, a liturgy that is brief and theologically compelling. No reading of the same prayers over and over. No warlord God who chooses the Jews and whacks our enemies. No ass–kissing, no thanking God for making the sunshine and keeping the stars to their orbits. No God who guarantees me success if I follow His rules. The universe is so much more grand, terrible, and awe–inspiring than Iron Age cosmology or medieval poetry can imagine. I want a liturgy that helps me feel the awesomeness of creation, and that can’t happen when we are sitting in a brick box reading out of a book. I want to pray outdoors at night under the stars, or, because I love to stay dry and avoid extremes of heat and cold, I would revamp every sanctuary to function as a planetarium. There is only one liturgy worth praying, and that is "Holy shit! This world is awesome!" Or, in the interest of the kids, I would settle for a full-bodied "Wow!"
Third, I want Torah study that is intellectually rigorous, historically accurate, and radically iconoclastic. I don’t want to discuss how Noah got all those animals on the ark; I want to discuss what kind of God drowns 99.999999999% of life on earth? I want to study the Akeida, the near–sacrifice of Isaac, in the context of child sacrifice among Jews and nonJews in biblical times. I want to read Torah as an educated adult.
Fourth, I want to experience something during services other than the urge to scream and run from the room. I want to feel awe and wonder. I want to sense my connectedness to Something Greater (call it God, Universe, Nature) that includes all beings and the cosmos as a whole. I don’t want to talk about God; I want to experience God.
And fifth, I want silence. Not a faux silent prayer that is mumbled aloud; not a half–moment of silence; not a silence filled with someone's guided meditation—actual silence. Just me and you breathing together.
No new prayer book is going to do this. And I say this as one whose liturgical poems appear in siddurim across the country and around the world. I have written several siddurim in my lifetime. I even toy with the idea of writing another, but what stops me is the knowledge that words are not our only problem. The setting is wrong. The tone is wrong. The theology is wrong. The politics are wrong. The expectation is wrong. We don't demand anything from our liturgy or our services. We expect to be bored and we are. It isn't just our rabbis and cantors fault, it is ours, the 89% of us who fail to go to shul regularly.
Yes, it is my fault that synagogue is vapid and boring. But it is too hard to change things. The people who do go like it the way it is, and I don't want to fight them. The people who lead services are proud of what they do, and I don't want to insult them. It is easier to simply stay home.
So this Shabbat I will do what I do on most Saturdays: walk in the woods, chant aloud, and allow myself to be surrendered to the reality of What Is that I call God. No book; never boring.