The Language of Prayer

It was with great excitement that I heard about the new theme for the Thursday editions of the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah: T’filah, prayer. My wishfully thinking little mind conjured up a picture of totally engaging discssions of the progressive apporach to liturgy. Unfortunately, these Thursday posts will not be entirely about litrugy, but often about the little English readings that so often accompany the liturgy in our progressive sidurim. See today’s, a discussion of one of the alternative readings for Mah Tovu, here. Keep reading this to find out why I don’t think that these readings are actually litrugy!

My gut response to this development was to berate the folks who throw Ten Minutes of Torah together and go on an extended anti-Mishkan T’filah rampage acorss the blogosphere. Then I though better of myself. I will, however explain something that I have been asked about on a couple of occasions by readers of my blog: If I am so obsessed with litrugy and prayer, why do I so rarely (if ever) comment on the vernacular readings?

Well, dear readers, the answer is this: The vernacular readings are totally transient. For example, everyone open up to page 130 of our 1896 edition of ye olde David Einhorn’s classic Reform sidur, Olat Tamid. (Come on. I know you all have one.) Those of you playing along at home will see on page 130 an English replacement for Yotzer Or. The first paragraph of it reads,

We praise Thee, O Lord our God, King of the universe. At Thy word the light shineth forth, and by Thy command darkness spreadeth its folds. Peace Thou establisheth for all that Thou hast called into being. In Thy mercy Thou sendest light to the earth and to them that dewll thereon, and renewest daily and without ceasing the face of Thy creation. Thy handiwork prolcaimeth etc etc etc blah blah blah yadda yadda and so on.

So here’s the question: Do any you, save the oddballs amongst you that have studied Olat Tamid recognize this paragraph? I would venture to guess that, no, you do not recognize it because you have never seen it in a sidur. In fact, though I’m just guessing here, this paragraph has probably never appeared anywhere else other than in Olat Tamid.

What about this selection, from page 160 of the original 1892 edition of the Union Prayer Book?

We praise Thee, O Lord, our God, Ruler of the universe, that in Thy mercy Thou causest light to shin over the earth and its inhabitants, and renewest daily in kindness the wonders of creation. How manifold are Thy works, O Eternal; in wisdom hast Thou made all them etc etc etc blah blah blah yadda yadda and so on.

Recognize that? You actually might. Many people still in the Reform movement today grew up on the Union Prayer Book. If you’re a regular attendee of Reform worship today you probaby recognize this, from page 17 of the 1994 Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays (you know, Gates of Grey or Gates of Gender depending on your ironic naming persuasion):

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe. Your mercy makes light shine over the earth and all its inhabitants, and Your goodness renews day by day the work of creation etc etc etc blah blah blah yadda yadda and so on.

If you’ve been lucky enough to daven with Mishkan T’filah yet, you’ll recognize this:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of light and darkness, who makes peace and fashions all things. In mercy, You illuminate the world and those who live upon it. In Your goodness You daily renew creation etc etc etc blah blah blah yadda yadda and so on.

My point is this: These translations, to say nothing of the “interperative readings” offered up to us by the editors of Gates of Prayer and Mishkan T’filah, are totally fleeting. Between the Gates of Prayer version of Yotzer Or I quote here and the Mishkan T’filah version, there is less than 15 years! Yet, they are vastly different in construction and diction. They may be prayer for those that are moved by them, but they are not litrugy, in the sense of potentially lasting additions to the structure, rythym and meaning of the service.

Is that to say that prayer in other languages is wrong? No. Though I do prefer to pray in Hebrew, I won’t go so far as to say that doing otherwise is wrong. The reason these things don’t last is because they don’t fill a need, not because they’re in English. They take up space already occupied by a Hebrew version that’s been doing its job quite well for quite some years now.

I can even cite a one example of non-Hebrew litrugy that has made a lasting impact on the prayer service and one that I predict will do the same within my lifetime. Kadish, in all five of it’s forms (funeral, Yatom, Shalem, Chatzi, and D’Rabanan), is a mostly Aramaic construction, though it ends usually with a couple of lines of Hebrew. Prior to the introduction of Kadish, there was no piece of liturgy tasked with punctuating the service. Kadish Shalem punctuates the end of the Amidah, acting as a colon. Chatzi Kadish acts as a semicolon, marking the ends of minor liturgical sections. Kadish Yatom punctuates periods of mourning, while also behaving as a period at the end of the whole service. And the funeral Kadish marks the end of a life. They have stuck, despite their extra-Hebraic origin, because they fill a purpose.

Similarly, I believe we will see a standardized Prayer for America, in English, crop up at the end of most synagogue services in America and that prayer will last as long as there are Jews living in the Unites States of America. Why will it survive? Because it serves a new purpose. I don’t personally like it, but many people are greatly in favor of such a thing. So it will stick.

On the other hand, no English whatsoever made the transition from Union Prayer Book to Gates of Prayer and very little of it survived the move from Gates of Prayer to Mishkan T’filah. This is becaue, as I’ve already said in this post, these alternative vernacular prayers are essentially fleeting and transient.

10 Responses to The Language of Prayer

  1. Glenda June 12, 2008 at 2:22 pm #

    I think the paragraph after the second version of Aleynu in Gates of Blue is pretty much a straight lift from the Union Prayer Book–slightly de-King James’ed.

    English tends to annoy me during services, although I can remember a time in my life when it was necessary. I generally fail to join in with the congregation while they are reading English bits, especially if it’s redundant, like translating ve:ahavta after we’ve chanted it.

    But before I knew enough Hebrew to know that the English was sometimes only distantly related, the interpretations were like a life raft in a sea of gibberish. So you’re out there swimming around in the sea of Hebrew, I’m dog-paddling a bit, the folks who need transliterations are wearing life jackets, and some people are content to be relaxing on the boat. At least they aren’t back on the shore….

  2. Elf's DH June 12, 2008 at 7:13 pm #

    I believe we will see a standardized Prayer for America, in English, crop up at the end of most synagogue services in America and that prayer will last as long as there are Jews living in the Unites States of America.

    Within a certain segment of communities, the English Sim Shalom version of the Prayer for the Country has become the de-facto standard prayer for America. (It’s usually inserted following the haftarah blessings on Shabbat, where such prayers have historically been placed). What’s even more interesting is that this is true even in places that don’t identify as Conservative and in places that don’t use the Sim Shalom.

    One thing to remember is that a lot of our current Hebrew prayers have gone through something of a selection process. This is especially true of the more common piyuttim. Hundreds were written, of varying quality, and they’ve been whittled down to the few that we have in our prayer books. Part of the “problem” (if it is a problem) is that there just isn’t very much good English liturgy that’s worth copying. Part of it might be that the process of copying new liturgy from prayer book to prayer book has become more difficult (effectively infinite copyrights). And, part of it is that trends in English prayer have changed considerably. King James-ified English used to be considered dignified, now it’s just looked at as archaic. We tend not to have the same reactions to Hebrew prayers, which are in all different styles and grammatical forms.

  3. davidamwilensky June 12, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    Elf’s DH – You’re still my favorite commenter :)

    I don’t deny that our Hebrew prayers have gone through a selection process. You’ll even notice that much of what I write about here at The Shuckle is the selection process the hebrew is being put through all the time by progressive Jews. Changes to the hebrew, however, are much more likely to stay. The notion, for instnace, that Avot should become Avot V’imahot has became basically universal outside of Orthodoxy, leaking all the way in to the Conservative movement.

    Post-Olat Tamid in my discussion in this post, copyright becomes irrelevant. The CCAR holds the copyright for Union, Gates and Mishkan.

  4. Randi June 13, 2008 at 11:45 am #

    I don’t think that it’s just progressive Jews who’ve tweaked the Hebrew in prayers…..let’s use your Yotzer Or example: the introductory part of this prayer is largely from Isaiah 45.7 “oseh Shalom uvorai ra”…which becomes “hakol” in the siddur.

    All translation is, of course, commentary. But we really can’t be without it….

    More to say, but I gotta get back to work.

  5. David A.M. Wilensky June 14, 2008 at 3:03 pm #

    Randi- Yes, of course there a variety of tweaks on the Hebrew made my a variety of people over time. My point, however, is that only those tweaks that ARE in Hebrew stick around. English, German, French: Yes, Jews speak these languages now, but they may not in the future. Jews will always be connected to Hebrew though, which is why meaningful changes have to happen in Hebrew.

  6. Jenny July 28, 2008 at 3:51 pm #

    I don’t agree that the English or other vernacular prayers that we use can’t be considered liturgy. Part of what the movement has done is continually re- examined what the words mean. Perhaps in a traditional setting I would be more apt to agree with you. But our Reform tradition guides us to search for the way to keep things meaningful and relevant. Part of that is updating or vernacular so that we can better understand or connect. Is a true translation the best way to go? Perhaps. So is knowing the Hebrew well enough to not need the translation. But a changing and evolving language doesn’t negate its liturgical nature. U think that if you consider the ideas expressed in all of the texts you quote above you will see that they are all getting at the heart of the prayer, just in language that our ever evolving people will better connect to.

  7. David A.M. Wilensky July 29, 2008 at 12:22 am #

    Thanks for the comment, Jenny.

    Our tradition (the entire Jewish tradition, not just our Reform one) teaches us to grapple with troubling texts. Is the way to srtuggle with our texts to vastly and poetically re-interpret them into the vernacular? If a Reform Torah commentary did that, we’d all have aneurysms. Yet when Christian Bible translations do that, we often criticize them. With the Bible, we tend to want people to struggle with the content. Why is the liturgy different?

  8. Jenny (aka d'varim) July 29, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    Liturgy is different because it is one of the ways we as Jews communicate with God. If one of the major points of prayer is to have a conversation on some level with God then I believe it only makes sense that we use the language we are comfortable with, and I don’t just mean the vernacular. But, tell me, would you be comfortable talking to God in Shakespeare’s English?

    While I wouldn’t recommend reinterpreting the text of the Torah itself there are obviously thousands of commentaries on it, including Reform commentaries, that show our varied interpretations and understandings. Most notably in regards to this subject is the recent Women’s Torah Commentary published by the WRJ/URJ. In it there are not only modern commentaries, but also poetic interpretations and responses to the texts. The original is still there, but here are these are gateways into understanding what we are reading and learning.

    And I don’t believe that by bringing new interpretations or updating the language causes people to NOT struggle with the liturgy. In fact, I think many people probably struggle more once the new words are introduced. If you are used to one way of saying a prayer and suddenly there are new and different options I believe it forces you to take another look at what you were praying before and why. Too many times we can get into a rut and go through the motions of saying the prayers without really letting the words sink in because we are TOO familiar with the text. Obviously this can happen with the Hebrew text as well, but while I can say most of the prayers without looking down at my siddur I need to really concentrate to think through the meaning of the words as I say them so that I’m not just making sounds that don’t mean anything. With the English translations/interpretations I know what I’m saying but I can easily know what I’m saying and not engage in what I’m saying at the same time.

    So, that was long and ramble-y and I’m not sure it really explained my position, but there you go.

  9. davidamwilensky July 29, 2008 at 9:08 am #

    Makes sense. Thanks, Jenny.


  1. Praying as a Jew - July 30, 2008

    […] got me thinking. Over at The Reform Shuckle the other day I commented on a post on liturgy (The Language of Prayer). The original post discusses the transience of the vernacular prayers, the ever changing English […]