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Excerpt From Synagogue 2000

Excerpt From Synagogue 2000
By Lawrence A. Hoffman

The first lesson of English prayer texts is that people perceive poetry differently than they do prose. Prose is assumed to be either "fiction" or "non-fiction." Since prayer is by definition not "fiction," they assume it is "non-fiction." But essay-like paragraphs in prose remind people of scientific writing, magazine essays, newspaper editorials and the like — things that are argumentative, intended to be judged as true or false, and composed to be taken literally. That is why we tend to accept what the prayer book says as literal, even though (as we saw in our theology study) there is no reason to believe that classical Jewish authors intended their work on God to be seen that way. They knew better than to take prayer literally; we do not.

By contrast, when we are given a passage that appears to be poetic, we tend to linger over it imagining that there is some message implicit in it, as long as we do not take it literally. Poetry evokes our gift for broad interpretation. We look for hidden meaning, poetic devices, the use of metaphor, and so forth.

And that is why English prayers should at least appear as poetry. Sometimes, they can actually be poetry. If you compose a service and can use a poem or a prose piece, choose the poetry; if you are writing it yourself and can adapt the language to poetic style, do so — make it scan, even at the cost of literal accuracy; if you are translating a Hebrew prayer, compose the translation in poetic form.*

Whether or not the reading actually passes a poet's litmus test for what poetry is, if it is composed in poetic lines rather than in prose form running from margin to margin, the odds are that the reader will not enforce a narrow literalist perspective on it. It will be treated as poetry, and will more likely be seen as something that should be quickly dismissed for saying the impossible about God, or proving to be unscientific in its claims about the world.

Compare the following, for instance, again, the standard English version of the Avot (the first blessing of the Amidah) from the Conservative prayer book.

Praised are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, great, mighty, awesome, exalted God, bestowing lovingkindness and creating all things. You remember the pious deeds of the fathers, and will send a redeemer to their children's children because of your love and for the sake of Your glory. You are the King who helps and saves and shields. Praised are You [Barukh atah Adonai], Lord, Shield of Abraham.


Praised are You,
Lord our God and God of our fathers,
God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob,
     great, mighty, awesome,
     exalted God,
     bestowing lovingkindness
     and creating all things.
You remember the pious deeds of the fathers,
And will send a redeemer to their children's children
     because of your love
     and for the sake of Your glory.
You are the King who helps and saves and shields.
Praised are You Lord,
Shield of Abraham.

(As an exercise, you might try reorganizing a prayer yourself. Find a relatively short paragraph from the book you use and recast it as poetry.)


We can level this critique of most existing English-language prayer books: they pay little or no attention to how the prayers appear on the page. Since the pages look like crowded philosophy or science texts, people treat the claims in the prayers as if they are scientific or philosophical statements that are not provable as true, so must be false. They refuse to consider them as poetic possibilities that ought to evoke less troublesome God-concepts.

We have seen so far that prayer should be in an atmosphere that evokes symbolic warmth.

We now add that whenever possible it should be presented in poetic format:

     - broken up into lines,
     - made to scan, if possible,
     - lots of white space.

What you say matters: so too does how you present it.

A related issue arises out of the first reading ("The Script of Prayer: Words Spoken"). Partly because of the prose-layout of the words, people come to expect that prayers must everywhere and always describe reality, the way a scientific treatise does. Actually, prayers do more than describe. Review some of the things that words of prayer actually do:

  1. They make things happen in the present (they perform):
         - as in wedding ceremonies, when someone says, Harei at mekushet li...
         ("Behold you are sanctified by me...according to the laws of Moses and
  2. They constitute a sacred story of the past
         - as in the Mi khamokha, which "remembers" how God saved us at the Red
  3. They look to the future, by hoping, committing us, inspiring us
         - as in the Alenu — "On that day, God will be one; God's name will be one."

What all of these have in common is that they present a virtual universe, and alternative universe of reality. Good drama does that everywhere. Deeply engrossed in a great play, the audience forgets for a moment what life is really like. Vacationers staying in expensive hotels and scheduled for lavish restaurant dinners attend London's performance of Les Miserables and cry uncontrollably at the poverty of France's peasantry and the horror of war; for just a moment, in the final scenes, they believe also in life after death where virtue is rewarded, heroism is not in vain, and it all works out in the end. So too with prayer. If the "drama" works, we believe in it, even if we harbor doubt about some of the literal meaning.


Liturgy (worship as drama, that is) is even more powerful than ordinary theater, because the people in the congregation are not just observers of someone else's play. They are the players! That is why they have to be engaged, not distant and passive.

Consider the continuum of literature. On one side of the continuum is the novel. Novels are read privately and quietly according to your personal taste. Libraries make all sorts of books available, and it is considered bad form to ask too closely after the kind of book that someone else is reading. If a friend does ask you, and if you are reading a "junk novel," you may even apologize by saying. "It's just for quick light reading, after all." It is, in other words, your choice; it is a private matter.

As you take one step to the right on the chart below, you get to poetry. You may read poetry privately also, but unlike novels, poems are composed to be read aloud. You go to poetry readings, for instance; if you steal silently into a room and hear a solitary reader there reading a poem aloud, you may pause to listen and even enjoy it; whereas hearing a novel read aloud is apt to make you think the reader is just not very good at reading.

Moving further to the right in the chart, you finally come to drama, which you can read privately if you want to (you can buy "the works of Shakespeare" for instance) but which actually presuppose you will go to see it performed. Unlike with poetry, you are expected to participate publicly in drama; public performance is its whole point.

And one step further, you get to liturgy. Liturgy is like the script of a play, but the lines become the property of everyone in attendance. We do not just watch other people recite the drama of liturgy. When we go home, we are supposed to be moved by this drama; our lives are supposed to change, as we internalize the promise or hope of the liturgical service, integrating its message into the people we strive to become.

Fiction Real Life/Ourselves
private novel poetry drama liturgy public
quiet         aloud


We return to this theme of prayer as drama again and again here. Most Jews will say that when they daven the Hebrew, for instance, they do not even know what the words mean. Even those who do may admit that when they race through the lengthy paragraphs, they are at best only vaguely aware of what they are saying. They do not have time to translate every word as they come to it, and in any event, the poetry and style often make it hard to grasp the word-for-word meaning anyway. But even if nothing else, the Hebrew ambience of the service establishes a mood of otherness, a Jewish otherness where other rules of reality exist. Music does the same thing: you can sing a lot of things that you would probably choke on, if you were just to speak them. And poetry too permits us to dream, not just to report.

  • Prayer is about dreaming.
  • Hebrew, music and poetry are the language of dreams
  • Prayer does not discover reality so much as it manufactures it.

You sit with friends, say words that go back centuries, dress in special clothes, and go through motions that you would never perform on the street. Your Torah reading and the sermon or discussion afterward link your life to a tale about people you never knew (and in whose historical reality you may not even believe). And out of it all, life is reshaped: or should be. For that is what words of prayer can do.

  1. Words establish an alternative present:
         - when you walked down the aisle, you weren't married;
         fifteen minutes later, you are "sanctified ... by the laws of
         Moses and of Israel."
  2. Words establish sacred models from the past
         - when you entered the sanctuary, you were just you, an individual with an
         unremarkable past; now you "remember" that you were in
         Egypt, saved by God from slavery so that you could save
  3. Words establish a future, by hoping, committing us, inspiring us
         - when services began, you were alone with your problems; now, in the
         comfort of the community and the surety of a God who cares, you dare to
         hope in the future.

The problem with rote worship where no one is seriously involved is that none of these things tend to happen. How to make them happen is your challenge, and at this point in the Itinerary, you may well wonder if the whole things is beyond you. You cannot change the prayer book after all; the prayers are what they are; especially if you have to get through it all (and in Hebrew, if you are a Conservative congregation!) you have precious little leeway to imagine dramatic changes.

But the drama of worship is dependent on the entire ambience of the service, not just this prayer or that one. Even in crowded services, much can be altered. We still have a lot to talk about. Community and music are critical; so too are warmth and welcome. Have patience; we are just getting started. These early sessions are meant to get you thinking differently, not solving problems yet. Problem-solving will come — in due time.

Followup Reading (Optional)
Lawrence A. Hoffman, "Siddur and Mahzor" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 13 (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1987), pp. 308-314.

Not easy reading, but an encyclopedia-style summary of the history behind our primary prayer books. Also contains an extensive bibliographic essay, for people who want more.

Excerpt from Synagogue 2000, pp. 13-14, 43-49.

* A side issue is whether we have the right to tamper with a translation so as to make it come out poetic, even if it does not say exactly what the Hebrew does. What is better? Literal accuracy, or poetic appeal? The answer follows from our earlier insight regarding the multiplicity of prayers that were once common in the service for any given rubric. We saw, for instance, that a prayer for peace was always part of the service, and always in the same spot. We called that keva, structural fixity. The thematic progression did not vary from place to place or day to day. But until the printing press, the actual words with which the prayer leader chose to express the prayer varied greatly. That means that the specific choice of words that we are now used to is more a matter of historical accident than anything else. Originally, more than one way of expressing our hopes for peace would have been the norm. It was not thought necessary — indeed, it would have been frowned upon — for a given prayer leader to use the same prayer over and over again.

Given our own prayer books which are printed, and the desire for familiarity, we may decide that we can no longer just freely compose whatever expression of our prayers that we want. The codes, moreover, have by now mandated certain prayers over others, so that Halakhah does not give us the same leeway our ancestors once had, and we may prefer standard Hebrew prayers as continuous with out past, since they build familiarity with the service and allow us to feel at home in a synagogue service anywhere in the world.

But the English varies from prayer book to prayer book anyway; and it changes with every new edition. Why should we feel bound by English the way we do by ancient Hebrew?

We therefore have every right to make our translation "prayable" by making it into poetry as much as possible. In fact, if we take as our model what the Rabbis did when they began the liturgy some 2000 years ago, we may even want to do what they did: not worry about literal translations altogether. The Hebrew prayers we are translating are not sacrosanct, after all; they are just the accidental result of centuries worth of trial and error; they are really just what happened to get saved as opposed to many other prayers on the required themes, some of them nicer than what we have, that were once common but got lost in the sands of time. Retaining them in English is hardly as necessary as providing new expressions of old themes that speak to the spiritual condition of the Jewish People in our time.


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