There is a parable that speaks of a village that once had a renowned orchestra that played beautiful music at set times in the presence of the king, bringing delight both to the musicians and their ruler, who rewarded the musicians generously for their artistry and commitment. As time passed, the original musicians grew old and their place was taken by others who were not quite so gifted, drawn perhaps by the exalted audience and generous reward.
After several generations, the structure remained in place, but the orchestral instruments were passed into the hands of descendants of the original
Are words important? This is a question that bedevils us as human beings. It is largely the ability to speak that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world. By speech, I do not mean the mere ability to communicate information; we know that other animals are capable of this feat, each in its own way. I mean the ability to speak of past and future, the ability to imagine and conceptualize, and the capacity to employ words as, using a term coined by philosopher J. L. Austin,performative utterances.
There is an exquisite irony that the same element of our liturgy—the traditional poems (piyyutim) within the siddur that are used in many of our services—is identified with both the greatest tedium and the most profound spiritual depths. We encounter Adon Olam and Yigdal every day and Lekha Dodi and El Adon every Shabbat. In the cycle of the year, there are the piyyutim for rain and dew (Geshem and Tal) associated with Shemini Atzeret and Pesah; Akdamut for Shavu’ot; and of course numerous poetic compositions adorn the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays).
Much of our liturgy and liturgical experience is verbal and analytic, based upon precisely what words we say and the meaning(s) found and embedded in those words. In these essays, we have also looked extensively at the way in which music, melody, and vocal quality add levels of meaning and experience. However, we are not disembodied minds and souls, and there are more than a few occasions when the disposition of the body is engaged to greater or lesser extent in the experience of liturgy.
Ask almost any group of Jews to identify the most important Jewish “prayer” of all, and at the top of the list will almost certainly be the Shema’. Technically, it is not a prayer, for it is not addressed to God, but to the community of Israel. But that is a technical quibble, so (for now) let it pass. Traditionally, we say the Shema’ twice each day within the formal liturgy, and also just before going to sleep. The first sentence also appears in the kedushah of Musaf (perhaps for the benefit of latecomers to shul), and at the end of the final (Ne‘ilah) service of Yom Kippur.
I remember well a warning from one of my teachers in rabbinical school (for me, the Leo Baeck College in London). We were discussing Shabbat morning services, and the warning was to young(ish) rabbis and rabbinical students that if we “indulge ourselves too greatly in liturgy, the result will be that the ovens of our congregants will come to be the homes of a new generation of burnt offerings.” The message was quite clear that these burnt offerings would be desirable neither to our congregants nor to God.
I would like to reflect a little this week on the length of Shabbat morning services,
In the preliminary section of the morning service, the siddur guides us through some of the most basic concepts of our existence. We ask each day, “Mah anu? Meh chayeinu?” (Who are we? What are our lives?), and I confess that I always wonder if the questions are rhetorical or if they demand from us, each day, an answer. Each day, we also turn to two paragraphs that address the core nature of every human being: the siddur invites us to affirm that we are more than “a body with vessels and glands, organs, and systems of wondrous design” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), and presents the
Parashat Terumah opens dramatically with a building campaign. God commands Moses to solicit an array of colorful materials and gifts with an eye toward building a Tabernacle. It is this space that will contain the Presence of God in the midst of the people as they journey through the desert and on to the Promised Land of Israel. Most notably, far from being the work of one or two talented Israelites, the Tabernacle is a communal project demanding communal participation. Only through such involvement will God’s Presence ultimately rest among the people.
Dan Savage offers a reflection on prayer that is both humorous and poignant, noting that, as a self-identified “lapsed Catholic,” he prays only when he feels his life is in danger (in planes and when driving with his partner), and then never follows up, making him “not only an ingrate, but also a hypocrite” (see full video). Perhaps this is an updated version of the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Many of our synagogues fill up on Shabbat morning (and festivals) for the readings from the Torah and Prophets, and for the derash or discussion.
There are many texts found in the siddur that are not easily planted in our mouths, minds, hearts, and souls. For example, how might a person say with integrity, “My God, the soul You have given me is pure” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), while intellectually struggling with the existence of soul, and beset by uncertainty about the presence of God in the world?
The siddur is certainly not an organized textbook of theology, but through the course of the week, and the calendar year, we are guided by the texts of our liturgy (prayers, psalms, excerpts from rabbinic literature) to encounter