Factors affecting a decision about what language to include in a prayer bookmay include theology, fidelity to historical practice, and how specific words ortexts function as identity markers. In 1998, the Central Conference of AmericanRabbis authorized the creation of a new Reform prayer book for the twenty-firstcentury. This essay examines a controversial question for the editors of this newprayer book in which issues of language, theology, and identity converge: shouldReform Jews restore the phrase “m’haiyei hametim, who revives the dead,” inthe second blessing of the Amidah? As you read and discuss this essay, you may
wish to refer to comparative translations.
The second paragraph of the Amidah is one of my favorite passages. Thetranslation is: Eternal is Your might, O God, all life is Your gift, great is Your power to save.With love You sustain the living, with great compassion You give life to all.You send help to the falling and healing to the sick; You bring freedom to thecaptive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You,Master of Might? Who is Your equal O Source of life and death, Source ofSalvation? Blessed is the Eternal, the Source of life. Truth be told, at services I am barely conscious of the text. In my synagogue,we always chant this paragraph in Hebrew: “Atah gibur l’olam Adonai. . . .” Atthis point in the service, my experience of the liturgy has nothing to do withthe words or thoughts about God; for me, its about leaning into the music—the pleasure of anticipation of the notes, and the satisfaction of having themarrive just when I expect them. While I know quite well the meaning of the Hebrew, I can honestly say that neither last Shabbat—nor on most any other—was I thinking for a moment during this prayer about how God sustains the living and with great compassion gives life to all; I was not focused on how I can be like God who sends help to the falling and healing to the sick; I was not even reflecting upon what it might mean to be bring freedom to the captive and keepfaith with those who sleep in the dust. I consider this to be a most moving and inspirational prayer—but I hardlypay attention to its manifest content when I chant it. I carry it around withme; if someone asked about Jewish ideas, I might quote the lines of this prayer.But in the actual hour of prayer, the theology is as much contained for me inthe comfort and joy I derive from participating in the familiar, communalworship, losing myself in the rhythm of the service, as much as it is found in the actual words of the prayer. Our theological reflection about prayer typicallytakes place outside of the context of the service itself; on the other hand,any discomfort I discover when I am outside of the actual praying of theliturgy creates “static” that will return and interfere with the flow of my prayerwhen I seek to pray the text. God’s Power or Our Power?If asked to summarize what the Gevurot prayer is about, I would look to theEnglish rubric printed in Gates of Prayer above every passage: in this case,God’s Power. If pressed, I would say that this is a pr ayer about God’s qualitieswhich we, in turn, are supposed to emulate: thus, my favorite translation ofthe Gevurot is found in Shabbat Service II of Gates of Prayer: “Your might O God is everlasting;Help us to use our strength for good and not for evil.” In this English version, the opening words of the Hebrew are translated intoEnglish; however, the literal meaning of the Hebrew words—along with thetheological force of the original—is promptly reversed. While the name of theprayer, “Gevurot,” is accurately rendered as “God’s Power,” this translation draws our attention to human power and human responsibility: “Help us to use our strength for good and not for evil.” God is not “my Rock,and my Redeemer” in this version, so much as our “Head Coach in the heavens above.” You are the Source of life and blessing; Help us to choose life for ourselves and our children. You are the support of the falling; Help us to lift up the fallen.You are the Author of freedom; Help us to set free the captive. You are our hope in death as in life; Help us to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. This passage has a lovely rhetorical pattern. In each couplet, the first lineinvokes an image from the Hebrew original, describing one of God’s qualities:Source of life; support of the falling; Author of freedom. These qualitiesexist in the abstract; they are all nouns. The verbs are reserved for the responses, the action belongs to us: we choose life, we are to lift up the fallen,set free the captive, keep faith with those who sleep in the dust; we are to “useour strength for good.” This is Reform Judaism at its best: tikkun olam, globallyand personally, as the essence of living out the gift of being created inthe divine image. “Keep Faith with Those Who Sleep in the Dust”If we look closely at the text, we will see one line which does not quite fit withthe rest:You are our hope in death as in life;Help us to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. The first line of each couplet is about a quality of God; we had “Author offreedom,” “support of the falling.” But this line is different; God’s quality is stilla noun, but now it refers back to us, “You are our hope in death as in life.”What exactly does that mean? Until now, God’s leadership was clearly stated:“You are the Author of freedom, the support of the falling.” Here, though, things are a little less definitive: “You are our hope”— but is this really true? If, as in all the other pairings, the first line tells us about God and the second what we should do, how do we “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust?” I have always read this line as being a poetic reference to the homeless, or the people in refugee camps, or whoever is in greatest need. But how does that fit in with “our hope in death as in life?” Maybe this is not a prayer about tikkun olam at all. Each of the first lines in these couplets corresponds to a phrase in the Hebreworiginal of this prayer. So how does knowing God as “our hope in deathas in life” inspire us to “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”? It stilldoesn’t make much sense! Let us consider an older version of the Hebrew text. In the first line, we findthat the Hebrew word “hakol, everything,” is replaced by “metim, the dead,”giving us now: “Eternal is your might, O God; giving life to the dead, you area mighty savior.” This expression, “who gives life to the dead,” is repeatedfour times in the course of the blessing. Gates of Prayer replaces the earlier“hametim, the dead” with “hakol, everything” throughout—keeping the samenumber of syllables, so that the rhythm of the prayer is not disturbed. Here we have a major theological dispute hinging on a single word: shouldour new Reform prayer book retain our traditional Reform reading of “giveslife to everything,” or shall we revert to the prior traditional reading of “giveslife to (or: revives) the dead?” Is one more authentic? More intellectually orspiritually honest? More inclusive in its symbolism? More meaningful? Moretrue? A Statement about What the Rabbis Believed What a prayer has meant in the past does not encompass all the richness anddepth of meaning that it can hold for us today. All the same, an honest consideration of what we might mean when we invoke the historical liturgy properly should include an understanding of what this text once meant. There is no question that, in its origin, this prayer was a theological statement by theRabbis about their confident belief in the resurrection of the dead. This wasnot a universally held belief in the time of the Mishnah, during the secondcentury of the Common Era. Its inclusion in the central section of the liturgymay have been intended to make clear how much importance the Rabbisplaced on this doctrine and to remind everyone in the community of thisfact. In its entirety, the Gevurot blessing can be understood as a series of imagesabout how God sustains life and saves us from death. Seasonal Insertions for Rain and Dew The prayer begins with an opening statement: Your might, God, is “l’olam,forever,” or “everlasting”—even past the time when we personally can knowit, for You are the One “m’haiyei metim, who gives life to the dead—great isyour power to save.” It is at this point that the traditional liturgy, during thewinter time, inserts an additional line: “meishiv haruach v’morid hagashem—You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall,” while from Passover untilthe end of the Fall Holidays, one recites, “who causes the dew to fall.” Theseinsertions create their own problems! They correspond to the agriculturalseasons of the Land of Israel, identifying God as the source of nature, andlinking Jews everywhere to the land of Israel. Contemporary Reform prayerbooks in Israel include these lines. They were removed from early Reformprayer books, both because of a dezionization of the early Reform liturgy,and, I suspect, because early Reform Jews didn’t want to create confusion inthe liturgy by having different readings for different times of the year. Allsuch special substitutions or seasonal changes were removed from the earlyReform liturgy. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, removedthese lines from his prayer book because, a recent commentary explains, he rejected the idea of a God who “micromanages nature;” others solved the problem of changing the liturgy seasonally by inserting one of these lines into the fixed liturgy for use year round. One of the proposals made for the new Reform prayer book is that the historicalpractice of including these blessings for rain and dew be restored.This is in line with a general Reform tendency to restore pre-modern traditionalpractices, and to conform to what other Jewish communities do. Theologically,their inclusion expresses a closeness to nature and God’s presencetherein. But what are these lines about God’s actions in nature doing in themiddle of this prayer, which we had just decided is supposed to be aboutresurrection? Rain and dew are both life-giving; the renewal of life which comes throughrain points to the promise of renewal after death. We learn in the PalestinianTalmud, “For just as rainfall restores life, so does resurrection restore life tothe world.” As for dew, it is the instrument of the resurrection, as we learn inthe Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah 12b: “In the highest level of heavenare kept… the souls of the righteous and the dew with which the Holy One, Blessed Be, will hereafter revive the dead.” In the rabbinic imagination, the soul’s connection to the body is not all that firm; it can be broken, and it also can be restored. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 57b, teaches: “Honey is one-sixtieth of the taste of manna, Shabbat one-sixtieth of the world to come, sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and dreams one-sixtieth of prophecy.” During the hours of sleep, in the rabbinic imagination, the soul leaves the body and wanders in otherworlds, only to be restored by God in the morning. Thus, in the rabbinicworld-view, the daily waking from sleep is a rehearsal of the future resurrection,and the sight of the dew on the ground in the morning is a promise thatone day those who “sleep in the dust” will one day arise again. The images ofthe Gevurot prayer are about how God’s sustains life now and the futurerevival of the dead: “You sustain life with kindness/ Giving life to the dead withgreat mercy.” The actions ascribed to God are all “mini-resurrections”:You raise up the fallenHeal the sickAnd free the captive. The Gevurot prayer, as we have received it, does not make explicit mention ofbodily resurrection, leaving unclear exactly what is intended by “mechaiyaimetim.” Some modern scholars propose that this point was left deliberatelyvague by the ancient Rabbis to allow for a variety of beliefs. While this pointis debatable, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has been a feature ofJewish faith for much of the last two thousand years. Immortality, Yes; Resurrection, No! Although bodily resurrection was emphatically rejected, German and classicalAmerican Reform Judaism never gave up on the idea of the eternality ofthe soul. The old Union Prayer Book, in its 1895 edition, promises, “Thou wiltfulfill Thy promise of immortal life unto those who sleep in the dust,” and concludesthe Gevurot prayer with a phrase adapted from the blessings for readingthe Torah: “Praised are You Adonai who plants within us eternal life.”Our founders’ discomfort with the idea of bodily resurrection originates intwo values which were very important to them, but which are not as centralto us. On the one hand, they were universalists, and did not like Jewish andZion-centered particularism. Firmly convinced that European or Americansoil was the new Zion and their cities, whether Hamburg or Charleston, the new Jerusalem—and not wanting anyone else to question their loyalties—the idea of a physical return to the old Jerusalem and Zion did not interestthem one bit. Many were actively hostile, whether the return was proposedin this life, by political Zionism, or in the future, as in the religious doctrineof bodily resurrection. So it was not bodily resurrection per se that these earlyReform Jews found so objectionable but rather the idea that once the resurrection occurred, they would be physically returned and living for eternity inthe earthly Zion. Their secondary discomfort, and this point is not as widely acknowledged asthe first, was their general uncomfortableness with their own bodies and allthings physical. In order to succeed as citizens in modern societies, Jews hadto drop the outward signs of difference which had, by edict and custom, setthem apart. Central to the claims for the legitimacy of modern Judaism wasthe oft-repeated teaching that it was an exemplary ethical system, a spirituallyelevated set of doctrines. Jewish teaching about the purity and eternalityof the soul—a doctrine, some suggest, which was explicitly anti-Christian—was celebrated while references to the body, whether in this life or some futureone, were systematically removed. Our generation has witnessed a recovery of the Jewish body—ethnicity anddiversity are fashionable, we need no longer make our differences disappearin order to fit in, and as a people we have returned to Zion. None the less, formany of us, the idea of bodily resurrection is incompatible with our understandingof science and how creation works. The classical doctrine of tehiat ha-metim, resurrection of the dead, suggests a break with history, the end of the world aswe know it—while most contemporary Reform Jewish teachers speak, as Maimonides does, of the messianic age as being continuous with the existing natural order and history as we now participate in them. But now we must resolve a very specific question: should we replace the currentlanguage of our prayer book, m’haiyei hakol, gives life to all, with m’haiyeimetim, gives life to the dead? Framed in this oppositional fashion, the questionpromptly becomes a lightening rod for accusations of “imitators of neo-Orthodoxy,” on the one hand, against “defenders of atrophied, emotionallydry classical Reform” on the other. Such polarization is obviously not helpful.In order to resolve this matter, Reform Jews, individually, congregationally,and as a Movement, need to explore the questions raised below. QuestionsThe Significance of a Word: Theology, Language,and Identity in the New Reform Prayer BookThis reading examines an issue where questions of language, theology,and identity converge. Your team may wish to focus on just one of thefollowing questions. Question #1 below is specifically about the theme ofthis unit; the following questions relate somewhat more to topics first discussedin Units Three and Four. 1. Is our existing language, m’haiyei hakol, a boundary marker for whatdistinguishes Reform Judaism, and, therefore, itself a symbol of our ReformJewish liturgical identity? Is it deserving of privileged status and “preservation,”even if it we don’t mean by its words exactly what its first exponentsdid? 2. Can we reclaim the metaphor of techiat hametim, the resurrection ofthe dead? In the Talmud, we are taught: “A person who sees a friend aftera year’s absence should bless: ‘Barukh atah Adonai. . . m’haiyei hametim,Praised are You God . . . who revives the dead.’” Can we invoke themetaphor even if we don’t believe in its literal message? 3. Does the expression m’haiyai hametim have to be understood as “bodilyresurrection”? Consider this passage from the old Union Prayer Book:The departed whom we now remember have entered into the peaceof life eternal. They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performedand in the hearts of those who cherish their memory. May thebeauty of their life abide among us as a loving benediction.4. How do the metaphor and language of these competing expressions
reflect our Reform Judaism’s theological teachings?