I was rash enough to write in Shalom New North London on Friday that ‘I love every word of the liturgy (or almost every word)’. I’m not about to retract: I do love the vastly greater part of it. But I was fairly challenged, with a courageous, honest and well intended series of questions: How can you say that, when so much of it the liturgy on the High Holydays is repetitive, a great deal is theologically difficult, if not offensive, much of it is destructive and some of it is silly!
Evidently the question, which exacts from us a lifetime of prayer and analysis, is: what is liturgy? Is liturgy words often sung or chanted to music or nusach? Or does that impose a false primacy on the words? Is it legitimate to say that one loves prayers because the melody signifies far more profoundly than the words? Or is that the theological equivalent of cheating? In a key discussion of kavvanah, the Shulchan Aruch does after all teach us that we should focus on the literal meaning of the words we are saying as we say them, something which I not only frequently don’t do, but experience many of my deepest moments of prayer when I’m not doing.
One of the charges often made is that the words do not convey what we actually feel and believe about God and fail to express our contemporary sense either of the world, our ethical ideas or our spirituality. Actually, I would argue, text by text, that this is far less the case than many people might initially suppose. But I’m also reluctant to become a fundamentalist of the twenty-first century and insist that liturgy confirm specifically and overwhelmingly to our current concepts. On the contrary, an essential manner in which prayer functions, at least for me, is that ancient texts carry generations of voices and spirits, who said or sung them, and for whom the words signified in hundreds of different, yet heartfelt ways. This constitutes, in my view, a very strong case for preserving prayers even when we find them difficult.
Interestingly, the latter argument was brought vehemently, and disingenuously, to bear against the reformers who introduced prayers in translation into the Hamburg Temple in 1815. The polemical pamphlet Eleh Divrei Habrit with which orthodoxy damned these changes used the argument not that halakhah forbids saying key prayers in translation (it doesn’t) but that we cannot translate the many mysteries locked in the specific Hebrew words. I take this to be a similar argument about the spirit carried,between the ancient letters and amidst the melodies, which would be lost if we disposed of them.
The issues here are extensive and deserve full debate (after Yom Kippur!!!). But the key point I felt myself wanting to make when I received that reply is that what liturgy offers us is not a reflection of our own world view, but a means of engagement, a way of awakening our soul, heart and mind, of encountering spiritual and ethical challenge. Prayer is not always there for our comfort. It asks us questions. It provokes us into debate. It summons forth not only our acquiescence but sometimes also our outrage. It constantly demands reinterpretation, not only from generation to generation but sometimes from day to day. We have not only to allow it to function at a metaphorical level, but to delight in the fact that it does so. And we have to feel free to disagree with the Machzor, and be grateful for the provocation.