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Engaging the Siddur - 02/17/2023

Finding our way into the prayer book is challenging. The language is layered and confusing, the translations occasionally abstruse, and the theology seemingly antiquated. Also, it has grown far too large over the years. It’s easy to add something, hard to remove it.

A quick example: I have a number of issues with Unatanetokef, the prayer in the Musaf Kedushah at Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. This prayer describes the world passing before God in judgment, as God determines who will live and who will die. I find the visual image so powerful that it overwhelms the central theme of God’s compassion. I also don’t find the theology compelling. I believe that we are judged, but more by ourselves and the others around us than God. So I decided to cut the prayer.

It was written in the Middle Ages and we have removed lots of such sections. Why not this one? Well, my wife thought it was a terrible idea as did Rabbi Graff. Several others I spoke to were outraged in part because it does have a good congregational singing component. Result: we still do it.

For me, I see the prayer book as a guide and framework for my prayers rather than a straightjacket. I also notice many theologies at play upon careful examination. For example, a poem recited on Shabbat morning praises God for brightening the Eastern sky and causing the sunrise, and then proceeds to identify that God continually renews all of Creation. I like to think the author saw a gorgeous sunrise and then tried to capture the experience. I also imagine that the author intentionally confused the theology. If you want to believe God literally caused the sunrise, go ahead. But on closer read, the prayer is saying that God continually renews the Universe. God is the ultimate cause of things, not the proximate or immediate cause.

Further, I am also grateful for the Biblical verses in the Siddur. For example, when we praise “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” we are quoting from Exodus 3. In the same moment, we recall the patriarchs, we also recall Moses standing at the burning bush. We become as it were like Moses, standing before God with our histories and self of this moment.

And even as we find the Biblical narrative in the words, we are invited to find our own words. We praise our ancestors, matriarchs, and patriarchs. What then are the gifts of my own parents and grandparents? What is the legacy I want to leave for my own children and the community around me? What responsibilities emerge for me as I stand in Moses’ footsteps before the Divine?

And finally, the mystical level. For Kabbalah, Abraham is the embodiment of Hesed, of acts of love. Isaac embodies Gevurah, judgment or strength, Jacob wholeness or peace. As I pray, I imagine God’s love encompassing me. I notice what it means to hold onto strength and how double edged it can be. I hope for finding a place of balance between love and strength, to enter into wholeness.

The Jewish prayer book demands effort. Without study, its words are impenetrable and antiquated. Yet with learning and engagement, with bringing our own heartfelt prayers to its beautiful words, a structure emerges that can frame and strengthen a spiritual experience. The prayer book means to help us make sense out of our lives. It means to give our spirit a vocabulary and an articulation. Yet that means we first need to find for ourselves those moments of transcendence. It also requires a willingness to bring the wholeness and brokenness of our hearts into prayer.

I have had times in my life when the words themselves strengthened and rooted me. I have had other times when they seemed a burden or even a barrier to my spiritual yearnings. Yet I come back to it again and again and discover there new richness and meaning. (Even though I would like to cut Alenyu out…). I find a structure that keeps me connected to prayer and to my own spiritual self, without which I suspect I would wander and be lost. I struggle, but I am grateful to be found.


Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784