Monday, March 10, 2008

Words Clever and Clear

I spend a lot of my time praying. It is an occupational hazard, as I speak in churches and synagogues around the United States on a regular basis. And what I notice as I worship in these various settings is that they make me profoundly uncomfortable. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there are too many words in most prayer services. The second is that most of these words don't make sense.

I crave silence in my worship. I don't want to have to speed read through hundreds of pages of print as I am forced to do in most Jewish services, nor do I want to read prayers in iambic pentameter projected on a wall as I am forced to do in most Protestant services. I don't mind words, per se, but they should be few and far between. I want the words we do speak or chant in a worship service to arise out of and slip back into a greater silence that invites self-inquiry. Quaker services are good for me, especially when the Quakers themselves are silent. Buddhist meditation is good, also, though I now prefer theater seats with good back support to my well used zafu (meditation cushion). I can get talk anywhere. I want silence in my worship.

And there is the problem of meaning. If we are going to use words, let's at least use them carefully. When we fill a service with words we get addicted to the cleverness of our poems, and don’t bother to see if what we say makes sense or is even true. This drives me crazy. When the prayer asks God to bring us into the Light by sheltering us under the shadow of His Wings, I want to scream: "Which is it? Light or shadow? If you want the Light don't step into the shadow of His Wings, or if you want the shadow beware the Light."

My most recent example of vapid comes from page 157 of the new Reform Judaism siddur (prayer book). The text says that we worshippers are “eternally in Egypt.” What does that mean? Clearly, unless you are currently being held hostage in Cairo, the text is meant to be taken metaphorically. In Hebrew Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “from the narrow places,” so we can surmise that the authors of this prayer expect us to understand “Egypt” as places of bondage and entrapment. OK, I’m fine with that. But what does it mean to say that we are “eternally in Egypt”?

If we are eternally in Egypt we are doomed. There is no hope. No matter what we do, where we go with our lives, we are in Egypt. Egypt—slavery, bondage, addiction, etc.— is forever. Well, if that is so, why am I wasting time praying in the synagogue?

I have tried to make sense out of this three-word atrocity, but I can’t. If we replace “eternally” with “perpetually” or “continually” or “continuously” we are still left bereft of hope.

I doubt very much that this is what the authors of this prayer meant to say, but “eternally in Egypt” sounded so good, so moving, so clever that they just couldn’t question its meaning and implication.

My suggestion is that the next time you attend a worship service you should pay particular attention to what you are saying, and ask yourself if what you are reading makes sense, let alone if you personally believe it. If it does make sense, great. But if it doesn’t, take notes and send an email to the publisher and complain.

I want to be moved in a worship service, but I don’t want to be tricked. Clear words are preferable to clever ones. At least then I can decide if I believe what I am reading, rather than have to spend time trying to figure out what the prayer actually means.

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