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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775
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Prayer--Meaning and Context and Changes


  1. Feb 2005 Digest 029

    Worship, liturgy, and liturgical music are important for me, and I read iWorship avidly. But I most of the time we discuss mechanics: times of services, the nature of aliyot, dress, the appeal of seasonal and specialty services. Rarely do we talk about the texts of our prayers, our concepts of God, or what we expect a worship service and prayer to accomplish.

    …I urge us to discuss such topics--not to resolve them or convince one another of our rightness, but rather to recognize our diversity and the depths of our differing commitments. Torah, Tanach, the siddur, and the machzor talk about God, as do our Christian neighbors. Surprisingly, we don't!

    As Reform Jews we face difficult problems. If God is not a personal Being, Whom do we address in worship--ourselves? And if God is a personal Force, how do we explain childhood leukemia, the Shoah, and the tsunami? How do we interpret difficult texts such as the Aleinu? How can we affirm honestly in Modim anachnu Lach that "You are the Merciful One, for your loving kindness never ends." Please do not misunderstand: I do not mock these texts. I take them seriously and struggle with them. And yet for every text with which I struggle, there are many others which resonate deeply.

    We are blessed with a lovely liturgy, but rarely do we discuss the meanings of those texts. For me, the Unetanheh tokef prayer is the climax of the Morning Service. I envision a personal loving God--and I struggle with all the difficulties such a belief entails. Some phrases in that prayer hold little meaning for me, but most do. The prayer focuses our attention on our mortality--we die of disease, drowning, fires, and accidents--in old age and, alas, in youth. One Yom Kippur will indeed be our last. We are flesh and blood; we return to the dust--that is our end. But the text is not morbid--it exhorts us to live fully. I will not plead with God for my life, trying to wheedle an extra year, for I think HaShem is much smarter than I am. But I am moved profoundly by God's small, quiet voice. And the words that God does not seek our death but waits with welcoming hand for us to turn deeply comfort me; so deeply did they move me that I set those words to music in memory of my beloved father.

    I don't write this to parade piety or erudition; there is much of which I am ignorant. But I try to practice what I advocate. I relish discovering how others understand our texts--the difficult ones and the ones that move them deeply, for I learn from such encounters. Our texts have many meanings, and we understand them in different ways, just as we envision God in different ways. Seldom do we talk about the meanings of our prayers, our struggles with our texts and traditions, our struggles trying to envision or understand God.

    If we cannot we discuss such topics on iWorship among friends and thoughtful fellow searchers, where, if anywhere, can we? And if not now, when Mishkan T’filah is in process, when?

    275 families

  2. Feb 2005 Digest 029

    I [agree that] we…discuss the mechanics of religious service rather than belief, and I suggest that we do so because we feel uncomfortable discussing belief. We feel uncomfortable because we have concluded that we are incompetent to do so. We have consequently handed the responsibility of belief and ritual to the rabbi, who then tells us what the Jewish Tradition is and therefore what we should believe. In my opinion, this is an error, in fact a grave error. We modern liberal Jews are correctly worried about population studies that demonstrate either that the number of Jews is diminishing or is not growing. I suggest that one reason for our failure to thrive is that the religious terms we use and the beliefs we hold are being identified as irrelevant by many Jews, especially young Jews, who then opt out of Judaism. For this reason alone, I believe a discussion as suggested by John is extremely important. Is there such a forum on the net?
    600 family units

  3. Nov 2006 Digest 174

    The prayers in our religious service were patched together by men from various portions of the Tanach. Initially, many of these prayers were spontaneous, but they were eventually written and codified by the Babylonian rabbis, men, who created the Talmud. The rabbis created them because of contemporary needs, and the rabbis who codified them because of their contemporary needs. We Reform Jews of the twenty-first century have our own contemporary needs, which may differ from those who preceded us. I strongly believe a thorough discussion of the form and content of the prayers would lead us to make some changes in them, but they would largely be unchanged. I would hope changes in the prayers would facilitate people to pray. In other words, the changes would help people pray so that they would recognize their praying as beneficial and therefore wish to pray again…

  4. Nov 2006 Digest 175

    At my shul, changing the melody to a prayer is enough to cause consternation amongst those who rarely attend. I can only imagine what text-modifications would bring!

    Did anyone stop to think that the reason why the prayers were codified by the rabbis of old was to ensure the unity of our people? That wherever they were, we were all linked by prayer.

    Changing prayers breaks the links in the chain. Adding the matriarchs to the Avot is pure appeasement to women. Based on URJ's position, will there now same-sex stressing prayers, because that is the political climate of the day?

    RJ should be concerned first with maintaining its current members, because if the unaffiliated see an exodus based on changes to attract them, they may be turned off as well.


  5. Nov 2006 Digest 175

    Since women didn't have a voice when the original text was codified by men, I am thrilled that their voice is being heard now and that the matriarchs have been included. I don't see how it breaks the link in the chain; if anything to me it makes it stronger. Even the Conservative Day school that I tutor at and the Conservative synagogue that houses it, have added the matriarchs to the Avot prayer.
    250 Families

  6. Jan 2007 Digest 004

    …Last week, for the first time in a Saturday morning Shabbat service, the congregation was led by one of the rabbis, the cantor and a group of terrific musicians who ROCKED OUT with some pulsating, compelling musical accompaniment that elevated the worship experience (for me, at least) about 10 fold. The rabbi brought us more deeply into the words of the service, briefly explaining some of the songs and blessings and the importance of the community coming together, and practically commanding us to participate--singing, standing, clapping, swaying…

    I understand that this kind of service may not be everyone's cup of tea. Some like more meditation and contemplative experiences, some more "traditional" (although the tunes we sung were the familiar ones that we knew). My understanding is that we will be offering this once a month on a trial basis and I'm sure it will evolve. But I'll tell you one thing—a lot more people than usual showed up for this that were not part of the Bat Mitzvah celebration and were glad they did. (It had been advertised to the congregation via email a couple of weeks prior.)

    By the way, we have had a once a month "Musical Shabbat" Friday night service for a few years now that is still very popular. It is led by our amazing cantor with piano, percussion, flute, guitar, bass and whatever else shows up. Most "regulars" attend the Friday night service more frequently than the Sat. Am, which is more centered on the B'nei Mitzvah. Since we have such a large congregation, almost every Sat. am service includes a double Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I think the clergy want to turn it around so that the congregants feel that the Sat. Am service is "theirs", too.

    So we keep at it--wrestling, striving and pursuing, living up to our namesake--Israel.

    1200+ families


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