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.