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When we look for ways to renew and deepen our experience of liturgy, modern poetry in English is a rich source of readings, interpretations, and midrashim that can expand our appreciation of the liturgy’s received texts or “canon.” Poets have wrestled with the texts of our tradition from the very beginning, in tones ranging from praise and devotion to doubt and rebellion.* Many other poems, even if they were not consciously written in connection with any Biblical or liturgical text, explore themes that are found in our liturgy and therefore can find a useful and provocative place in our worship.

But good poetry—like the poetry of the Hebrew prophets—does not necessarily fit easily into its surroundings. Because it deals in ambiguities and layers of meaning, poetry is often challenging, troubling, even subversive. It will rarely fit a narrow devotional agenda. Even when it is uplifting—and liturgical writers are often asked to supply “something uplifting” for this or that portion of the service—a poem will often contain passages that yield more than one interpretation. It may enter areas of distress and darkness even when talking about joy.

 

And yet this very “trouble” is a major reason why many of us need and want poetry in our lives again and again: not necessarily for words of celebration, affirmation or comfort—though all of these can be found in poems—but for a reflection of the startling ambiguities within ourselves. Here are three examples of poems that have been used in connection with the Ge’ulah portion of the Shabbat liturgy. The traditional text in our prayer books  praises God as the Redeemer of Israel who led us from bondage in Egypt to freedom, and introduces the song Mi chamokha, whose words are taken from Moses’ “Song of the Sea” in the book of Exodus.

 

Any of the poems might be read as settings or introductions to the Ge’ulah prayer before Mi chamokha, or could replace the prayer altogether. When using one of them—or any other poem—a service leader should consider whether the poem itself needs a brief introduction in order to help the congregation listen with more appreciation. He or she should also consider whether there are specific occasions during the year when any of the poems might be especially appropriate. Also, will the congregation get tired of any of the poems if they are used often or all the time? Finally—since poetry is an art form that is meant to be heard—it is particularly important to present any poem in a service with a strong, clear tone of voice. The reader or service leader should become familiar with the poem in advance, in case any passages are confusing or difficult.

 

The Jewish American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s poem in the voice of Miriam is a fine instance of poetry’s usefulness in introducing new shades of meaning into a service. As with midrash, it teases out and explores the ambiguities in the traditional text. It can be seen as a feminist commentary on the traditionally male activities of migration, conquest and war: one woman standing aside and offering a kind of wry commentary on what it means to triumph over others and become free. We can read in it a lament for the brothers who have in some sense “crossed over” and departed from her, as well as for the purported enemies whose chariots lie at the bottom of the sea. She sings so that the lands can “sing to each other”—a wish for reconciliation and peace that actually contradicts the warlike tone of triumphalism in the “Song of the Sea.” And yet it is also a song of praise and joy that leads very well into the joy of singing Mi chamokha. It is all of these things at once.

 

The African American poet Lucille Clifton wrote “won’t you celebrate with me…” at the time of her sixtieth birthday. Although she has written widely about the themes found in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, she was probably not thinking specifically about the liberation from Egypt when she wrote these lines. Yet her own experience as a Black woman in America does call to her mind the exile in Babylon—and in doing so, it invites us to look at the themes of exile and liberation in Jewish history from another perspective, and to celebrate more broadly with all people who have become free. In its own way, it is a very Jewish poem, not only in its exultat ion that she has survived all attempts to destroy her, but also in affirming her own responsibility in making freedom happen. We have to shape our own lives; we have to lead ourselves by the hand; we may even have to “make it up,” with help from others or not.

I wrote “The Crossing (Ge’ulah)” for the Friday evening siddur of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco synagogue with a special outreach to gay and lesbian Jews. Using a traditional verse form called the villanelle, the poem begins with a close English rendering of Exodus 13: 17-18—in which God leads the people out of Egypt, but not “by the nearer way”—and then takes these words in an unusual direction. On behalf of Jews who have often been excluded from a full participation in synagogue life—and have often had to go well out of our way, through various kinds of wilderness, to live as who we are—the poem recasts the Exodus as a kind of “coming out” story. It suggests that freedom is not simply given to us by God: like coming out about one’s sexuality, it requires choice, courage and commitment. Yet even as it affirms this experience, the poem admits our oneness with the Jewish people, who, even in their season of liberation, complained at times about the circuitous route, half yearning for the old familiar exp erience of remaining unfree. The “outstretched arm” of God must also be our own. The miracle does not happen unless we step forward, and stand fast.

 

 

 

1] Miriam: The Red Sea

High above shores and times,

I on the shore

forever and ever.

Moses my brother

has crossed over

to milk, honey,

that holy land.

Building Jerusalem.

I sing forever

on the seashore.

I do remember

horseman and horses,

waves of passage

poured into war,

all poured into journey.

My unseen brothers

have gone over;

chariots

deep seas under.

I alone stand here

ankle-deep

and I sing, I sing,

until the lands

sing to each other.

—Muriel Rukeyser, from “Searching/

Not Searching,” in Breaking

Open (New York: Random House,

1973).

 

 

 

2] won’t

you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

—Lucille Clifton, from The Book of

Light (Port Townsend, WA: Copper

Canyon, 1993).

 

 

3] The Crossing (Ge’ulah)

God did not lead us by the nearer way

when Pharaoh let the people go at last,

but round-about, by way of the wilderness—

pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day—

to the edge of the flood-tide—uncrossable and vast.

If God had led us by the nearer way,

we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress

us as it will; let us return to the past.

But we have come out, by way of the wilderness,

in fear, on faith—free now, because we say

we are free—no longer the unchosen, the outcast.

God did not lead us by the nearer way,

but into rising waters, which do not part unless

with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast.

Roundabout, by way of the wilderness

we have come here, blessed with love, lesbian, gay,

or sanctified in ways of our own, to bless

our God, who did not lead us by the nearer way,

but roundabout, by way of the wilderness.

—Dan Bellm, from Siddur Le’erev Shabbat (San Francisco:

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, third edition, 2000).

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Jewish law permits prayer in any language. Prayer in public worship, with few exceptions, was almost exclusively in Hebrew until the nineteenth century. During the first mil lennium of the Common Era, texts such as the beginning of the Mourner’s Kaddish and Kol Nidrei were conceived and written in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Middle East. These may not have originally been composed as synagogue prayers. In pre-modern Europe, a number of prayer books, usually intended for women, were written in Yiddish, Judeo- Spanish, or Italian.

 

At the beginning of the 1800s, most significantly in Germany, reformers initiated a movement to modernize Jewish practice. These leaders felt that many Jews were leaving Judaism because they found what they described as “Judaism’s medievalisms” inappropriate and unmeaningful to their modern life. Many of these reformers thought that praying in Hebrew was such a “medievalism,” and for them, praying in the vernacular became a defining sign of their modern Jewish identity.

 

Hebrew: Necessity or Just Desirable?

Just which language should be used in prayer emerged as a central issue during a series of rabbinical synods held in Germany, beginning in 1844. The compromise resolution that eventually was passed termed the use of Hebrew to be “desirable,” and mandated that prayer be divided between Hebrew and German. This disappointed both the more radical reformers for whom Hebrew was no longer desirable at all, and the traditionalists who believed that Hebrew was a “necessity” and should remain the sole language of prayer. In response to the compromise, Zecharias Frankel, then Chief Rabbi of Saxony, walked out of the meeting in protest.

 

Conservative Prayer Books

Conservative Judaism traces its ideological lineage back to Frankel, while Reform Judaism’s heritage is rooted in the majority opinion Frankel rejected. Over the years, Conservative worship has increasingly become more Hebraic, not less. The first official Conservative siddur is known as the Silverman Prayer Book of 1946. It was patterned after a private prayer book edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman of Hartford, Connecticut. Rabbi Silverman’s original book featured transliterations for most of the congregational responses, but these were omitted from the official prayer book that the movement published. Forty years later, Siddur Sim Shalom (1985) was planned with Hebrew clearly in mind as the language of Jewish prayer. It not only continued to omit transliteration but failed to address the sexist languag e that results from a strict English translation of the Hebrew text. (The English translation was modified in the updated edition.)

 

Samson Raphael Hirsch and Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy traces its roots to Samson Raphael Hirsch, another nineteenth century German rabbi. Hirsch strove to combine traditional ideas and practice with a modern identity. Above all, he focused on the importance of a rigorous, sophisticated Jewish education. Hirsch’s students compiled a siddur, annotated with commentary learned from their teacher, which follows all the traditional rubrics but is also leavened with occasional surprises. The book omits Kol Nidrei, for example, because Hirsch believed that it might give the appearance that Jews did not take responsibility for their vows. Although the original Aramaic t ext of Kol Nidrei does not really imply the notion that its declaration of annulment absolves Jews from personal responsibility, Hirsch feared that people who read the German translation might get the wrong idea. Although Hirsch insisted on praying in Hebrew, he did favor including vernacular translations on facing pages along with commentaries. Of the many Orthodox prayer books in use today, the Artscroll series has become increasingly popular, perhaps because, like Hirsch’s prayer book, it includes a thorough vernacular translation and commentary.

 

Hebrew and English in Reform Worship

The balance between Hebrew and English in Reform worship has var ied over the years. Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform movement in America, edited a prayer book which he hoped would be used widely by all American Jews, and so it was named Minhag America. Wise’s prayer book was roughly half Hebrew and half English, with some German. He designed his book with Hebrew pages on the right and matching translations on the left. The other major forerunner for the American Reform movement, the more radical Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, published a prayer book with almost no Hebrew at all. Einhorn’s book, Olat Tamid, served as the model for the first edition of the Union Prayer Book, published in 1894. The UPB opened from left to right, and had significantly more English than Hebrew. Although later revisions of the Union Prayer Book significantly increased the amount of Hebrew included, a 1906 survey of Reform congregations reported that over one hundred had entirely eliminated Hebrew in favor of a completely English service.

 

At the present time, Reform congregations are committed to bilingual worship, but remain divided over how much of each to demand, whether to make changes in the normative Hebrew text, and whether to include transliterations in the prayer book. Recent studies have shown that including transliteration in the prayer book, next to the Hebrew, increases participation and encourages the learning of Hebrew.

 

Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionism

American Judaism’s youngest movement, Reconstructionism, arose out of the thought of Mordecai Kaplan, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first half of the twentieth century. Kaplan was convinced that Judaism had to be reconceptualized as a civilization, not simply a religion. Reconstructionist liturgy goes back to Kaplan himself. The original Reconstructionist liturgies retained the traditional structure, but amended the contents to make room for Kaplan’s theology. The translations emphasized Kaplan’s ideas, including conceiving God as an impersonal, indwelling force in the natural world, the “force that makes for salvation,” and his rejection of the notion of the Jews as the chosen people. Kaplan also provided prayers for the American civic calendar, composing readings for Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Contemporary Reconstructionism has moved away somewhat from Kaplan’s original thinking, and has integrated the  ideas pioneered by the chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The most recent Reconstructionist prayer books strive to be faithful to the received structure of Jewish prayer, and to respond creatively to contemporary sensibilities and values, through newly composed prayers in Hebrew and English.

 

Hebrew and English As Symbols

The quantity and use of a given language in the liturgy have profound symbolic significance and practical consequences. Beyond the fact that many distinguish between Conservative and Reform worship on the basis of how much Hebrew or English is used during services, the use of language affects our ability to relate to the entire experience of prayer. For example, the increasing use of Hebrew in Reform synagogues in recent years may disconcert those who love the elevated English of the old Union Prayer Book, and can make congregants who are accustomed to praying in English feel ignorant or displaced.

 

Our challenge, now and in the future, is to move away from absolute positions favoring or opposing prayer in one language or another, and to move instead towards collaboratively creating a set of liturgical practices that are meaningful, rich and authentic.

 

1.       What do you like about praying in Hebrew? What do you dislike? 

2. What do you like about praying in English? What do you dislike? 

3. What balance between Hebrew and English in the service do you prefer? 

4. Has your relationship to prayer in Hebrew and English changed over time? 

5. Do you ever use the transliterations? 

6. Are there identifiable groups or populations within the congregation whom you associate with different responses to these questions?

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Sometimes we confuse the prayer book with the experience and reality of worship. The words of prayer do not become fully alive until they are recited, sung, proclaimed, or whispered. The text of the prayer book is to the act of prayer as the script of a play is to a play’s performance on stage. The script is essential, but there is a big difference between reading the script and watching its performance. Liturgy is a unique type of drama—it is sacred drama. Just as in theater, we go to a special place, at special times, and, when the performance begins, we agree to suspend our customary ways of imagining and speaking about the world in favor of a different language and a different perspective.

 

The sacred drama of worship is different from the drama of the stage in three essential ways. Most importantly, in sacred drama, there is ideally no audience— instead, everyone is involved in creating the performance. Obviously, some will have larger roles, but sacred drama succeeds when the congregation participates as celebrants and not as observers. Second, a play on stage is rehearsed again and again until the performers “get it right,” and then it can be performed repeatedly. Our liturgy is not rehearsed, and every Shabbat and each service is an entirely new creation. Third, whereas in theater, we return to the world we left when the play is over, the goal of sacred drama is to enable us to take away, and try out, the alternative world-view that the sacred drama has created. When liturgy engages us, we discover that its narrative is “our” play, our contemporary enactment of the Jewish story which resonates across the centuries.

 

1. Do you agree with the comparison between conventional and sacred drama? 

2. Have you personally experienced a sense of transformation in worship? 

3. Have you ever attended a service which was more like a reading out of the script than a sacred performance? What kept the service from rising to the level of “sacred drama”? 

4. How can the sense of “sacred drama” be increased in your congregation’s services?

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