A New approach to Jewish Prayer

This is a summary of my High Holyday sermons for 5774 suggesting a new approach to religious services suggesting the use of liturgy as a form of remembering.
 

I

 

A new year is supposed to be a time of change. The change I want to introduce in the coming year is this: I want to change the way that we pray as Jews.

 

Not much of a challenge. After all, since the destruction of the Temple almost two thousand years ago, this is how it’s been. Prayerbooks containing words. Some we sing, some we read. Some are in Hebrew, others – the ones we want to understand – are in English (though that doesn’t always help). In all the different places where Jews gather on this New Year, the words might be read aloud, or chanted or whispered softly, or even contemplated in silence. But whatever we choose to do with them, the fact remains: all we have is words.

 

Of course before we had only words, we also had animal sacrifice to go with them. So perhaps we should be grateful that we got rid of that part, and replaced that apparently barbaric behaviour with the words. But it’s all we have. Lots and lots of words.

 

The truth is that of the thousands and thousands of words in this book, not many will really leave a mark on us, few, if any, of them will reach into our souls and bring about in us the changes that these holy days demand. How can they? They are written by others, some in recent years, others centuries ago, mainly in a language we do not understand, expressing hopes to which we cannot aspire, proclaiming beliefs with which we cannot identify, constructing theological frameworks that belong to a different time, a different awareness, a different understanding of our world, its creator and the forces that sustain it.

 

Most of the words in this book that we shall read, recite and repeat in the coming days are prayers. That might seem a little obvious, but some are not. Some are passages that are intended to educate and inspire us, make us reflect on and respond to them. These, perhaps, are the most important and challenging parts of our High Holyday liturgy;  the most valuable elements of our Liberal prayerbooks: the sections that force us to think, rather than just to read, recite and repeat.

 

But most of what we will do in the coming days is read, recite and repeat – the 3Rs as I shall refer to them. Many of the words with which we will fill this space embody ancient understandings of God, ideas about the divine with which we can no longer identify, concepts that have little or no meaning for us. Why are we doing this? When our ancient ancestors prayed, they knew exactly what they were doing and, more significantly perhaps, why they were doing it. They believed they were communicating with an invisible power that dwelt beyond the skies and beyond the horizons of their comprehension. Perhaps they directed burnt offerings towards it, watching the smoke of their sacrifices climb to it in the sky. Perhaps they constructed figures, statues which they believed embodied that power, imagining that it rested upon them or was actually within them. There would be certain individuals, wearing elaborate costumes, performing rites and rituals on the people’s behalf. What they did was enshrined in mystery, imbued with reverence and awe, tinged with uncertainty and fear.

 

These activities had a four-fold purpose. They were designed to ask that invisible power for certain gifts that they, the people offering this worship, needed to keep them alive. They also wanted to inform the source of those gifts that they were grateful for and appreciative of what they had been given. And finally, when they learned that they didn’t always get what they asked for, they introduced the idea of apologising to that power for anything they might have done to upset or offend it. Those are the four types of prayer: petition, gratitude, appreciation (the technical word for this is doxology) and penitential. Or, to put it a little more simply: please, thanks, wow and oops.

 

That’s it. That’s what prayer is all about. Please can we have whatever we need to ensure that we survive? Thank you for providing us with what we need to survive.  This world, this creation, that supports and sustains us, and enables us to survive, is truly wonderful, remarkable and beautiful, as are you, its creator. Oh and in case we did something to upset you that might make you think of not giving us what we need to survive, we’re sorry. If you grow weary of the reading, reciting and repeating in the prayerbook, you could amuse yourself by working out which of those four categories of prayer the various things we read, recite and repeat fall under: please, thanks, wow or oops. Trust me, it will work.

 

A more important question to ask is why we are still engaging in this process. It may have worked for our ancient and not-so-ancient ancestors in millennia and centuries gone by. We no longer have animal sacrifices, nor priests to oversee them. But surely we do not believe that whatever or wherever God is, he she or it really needs the words of gratitude and appreciation we hurl at the skies? Can there really be a divine recipient of our apologies, an invisible power listening to our petitions and requests and choosing whether or not to grant them? The belief in that sort of god exists perhaps in the minds of children and those whose theology got stuck with the idea of God being a rather grumpy old man with a long beard sitting on a cloud, lightning bolt in hand, ready to smite whoever annoyed him.

 

Reading the annals of Jewish history and theology, it would seem that such a view of God was indeed the norm in Judaism for most of its existence. And it wasn’t just limited to the Jewish community – until the Enlightenment just over two centuries ago, the Church, and most organised religion the world over, seemed to believe that the purpose of religious worship and activity was to bombard this cloud-dwelling deity with words of gratitude and praise, apologies and requests, accompanied by whatever customs and rituals had been developed by a particular religious group.

 

Then, two centuries ago, came those who sought to modernise religious belief and practice, and suggested that this might not be the best way to establish a relationship with whatever might be the power that created and sustained the universe, or seek to implement its will.  Religious practice was reformed, its theology adjusted to fit more comfortably with the new nineteenth century understanding of the world. Judaism too tried to adapt, and the way its words were read, recited and repeated sought to mirror the civilised manner in which other modern religions read, recited and repeated their words.

 

But there was a bigger problem confronting these reformers of Judaism. In the eyes of their emancipated fellow western citizens, Judaism was an irrelevant superstitious relic from a distant past that had no place in a modern world, the focus of which was changing from religious faith built on uncertainty to facts based on knowledge.  Those who sought to give Judaism a place in this modern world it had to wrest it from the carefully constructed bubble in which it had lived for centuries, based on the indisputable belief that the chain of tradition and practice could be traced back to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Jews of the Enlightenment could not merely update Judaism and try to make it fit in their world. Its basic principles and premises were so deeply ingrained, so resistant to modern ideas, that if it wanted to fit into the nineteenth century, Judaism needed to make some significant breaks with its past. In order to do this, the nineteenth century German reformers decided to ‘…examine Judaism historically… because they were no longer sure of what Judaism was, or whether, whatever it was, it could still be viable for them.’

 

That last sentence was a quote from Jewish author and historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who believes, as do I, that our relationship with our Jewish past is an essential element of our religious experience. In the ghetto, there was no distinction between past and present; there was a seamless link joining prayers uttered and practices observed in, say, the fifteenth century, with those of centuries, even millennia, earlier.  But our understanding of the religious venture has faded, and our relationship with our past has become fractured and broken. Our religious memory has become clouded.

 

As our own machzor tells us (page 196): ‘…the Divine presence recedes; the vision fades; the voice grows silent; the faith falters. In the end, we cease to search for God. We are left with a deep unease, but we no longer understand its source.’ Incidentally, that’s not one of the four types of prayer; it’s not petition, gratitude, doxology or penitence. It’s a passage that’s meant to make us think, to make us realise the extent to which we have become separated from the faith and certainty that inspired our ancestors. And all we have to help us recapture whatever it is that we have lost is words that we read, recite and repeat. Admittedly our Liberal liturgists have removed from them some of the more unacceptable theological concepts, but we are still left with improbable, unbelievable words of request, thanksgiving, praise and atonement to a God whose presence we can no longer sense or believe.

 

But something calls us at certain times of year, brings us to our community every year. Like those reformers of Judaism two hundred years ago, many of us are, perhaps, ‘no longer sure of what Judaism is or whether, whatever it is, it could still be viable for us.’ We no longer have the certainty of belief in Jewish tradition. We are not able to relate to a God who demands of us that we gather to say please and thank you, wow and oops. We cannot be content with or inspired by reading, reciting and repeating words whose significance is lost for us in the mists of time.

 

We need a new understanding of God, a new relationship with our Judaism. We need a new way to pray; a way that will offer us an opportunity to find a new and meaningful way to express our Jewish faith, establish our relationship with our Jewish God, connect us with our Jewish past and guide us to fulfil our role in developing our Jewish future. I do not think that the answer lies in continuing to read, recite and repeat the words of our ancestors. We need to find a new way to engage with our Jewish past, our Jewish belief, our Jewish God.

 

II

 

As I have already suggested, the liturgists of our Liberal movement have developed new and thoughtful passages, words that are directed towards us and seek to challenge us, taking us out of the routine of asking, thanking, appreciating and apologising. In so doing, perhaps, we can become aware of a different approach to prayer, and find new, more compelling reasons for gathering together on certain occasions with those with whom we share a heritage.

 

Passages like this one, for example: ‘…we, descendants of a desert tribe, carry in our hearts and minds the fading memories of a thousand generations who have turned to You, searched for You in their joys and sorrows, in their yearnings of everyday, in their fears and in their dreams, in their children and in their hearts.'

 

‘May we be worthy to carry the memories of our people: in words of prayer penned in distant lands and foreign tongues, chanted in synagogues and uttered in homes; sometimes in joy, sometimes in sorrow, always with reverence and hope.  We recall their devotion and their dedication to our ancient faith, lovingly preserved and handed down that we might celebrate it on this Day of Remembrance.  They searched - as do we - for glimpses of Your presence, understanding - as must we - the connection with their past and the duty to our future.’

 

That reading introduces a section of the Rosh ha-Shanah service entitled Zichronot – remembering. Author and historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, author of a book called ‘Zakhor’, which means ‘remember’, believes that when we gather together on occasions like this, the purpose is not to hurl other people’s words at the sky, making requests, expressing gratitude and praise or offering apology. It is to remember. And the Jewish New Year, which is often referred to as Yom ha-Zikkaron, the Day of Remembrance, is a good opportunity to explore the assertion that the focus of Jewish worship should be about remembering.

 

Consider this passage from the book of Deuteronomy. ‘When you have entered the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the Eternal One your God will choose as a dwelling for the divine Name and say to the priest in office at the time, ‘I declare today to the Eternal One your God that I have come to the land the Eternal One swore to our ancestors to give us.’  The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Eternal One your God.  Then you shall declare before the Eternal One your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour.  Then we cried out to the Eternal One, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal One heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.  So the Eternal One brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.  God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Eternal One, have given me.’’

 

You may recognise this passage from the Haggadah, where it forms the central part of the story we tell at the Seder. In its context here in the Torah, it offers an extraordinary insight into how our biblical ancestors viewed prayer. Based on our understanding and experience of prayer, we might expect our biblical farmer to bring his produce and offer thanks and appreciation for what he has been given, request that he might be similarly blessed in future, and maybe throw in a quick apology for anything he might have done wrong. But he doesn’t. He recites a piece of history. Moreover it is a piece of history that tells of his ancestors. He is remembering. His words are not aimed at God, since God presumably knows the story. They are connecting him with his ancestors’ experiences and reminding him of his identity. His prayer is not what our prayer seems to have become – thousands of words making impossible requests and setting out improbable concepts of what God is and does. It is a recital of his history, his and his people’s memory. And perhaps, when we gather together as Jews, we should spend less time reading, reciting and repeating other people’s words. Perhaps we should seek to do what our biblical ancestor did when he brought his offering to his ancient place of worship. We should remember.

 

Indeed our tradition is full of the requirement to remember. At the very end of Deuteronomy, a few chapters after the one from which I’ve just quoted, we are told ‘remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.’ (Deut 32:7)’. How often do we hear in the Torah ‘remember that you were slaves in Egypt…’? And it’s not just our literature that requires us to remember; our religious practice and ritual does likewise. The Passover Seder is, perhaps, the most obvious example of this. Of course it is, just like this book, filled with readings that, all too often, we simply read, recite and repeat. But it is actually a retelling of a history, Indeed it is more than a retelling: it is a reliving. ‘In every generation each of us should imagine that we ourselves are being brought out of Egypt.’ These are not words to an invisible God, asking, thanking, appreciating or apologising. This is history, reminding us of our connection with our past and our duty to the future. This is remembering.

 

Consider what is, for many, the highlight of the High Holydays – the sounding of the shofar. It is a bizarre act – blowing a ram’s horn and making sounds that once were heard in ancient Israel, summoning the people to Jerusalem to gather for their annual harvest celebrations. Generations of rabbis and sags have decreed the number of times it should be blown, the length of the notes, the blessings that should precede its being blown, the ritual requirements for the making of the ram’s horn, and so on – believing that it would not be acceptable to God if any of these elements were lacking or inaccurate. But like so much of what we read, recite and repeat, so much of what we do on this Yom ha-Zikkaron, this Day of Remembering, the blowing of the shofar isn’t for God. It is for us. Its ancient sound calls to us across the centuries, inviting us to remember who we are, who we have been, and help us to formulate an idea of who we can become. The purpose of our Judaism, our heritage, our prayers, our words is to connect us with our past, to help us remember. The blasts of the shofar should speak to each of us from the depths of our collective memory and, as Jewish prayer should do, remind us who we are, what we share with our ancestors and one another, and of our duty to remember and retell, preserve and pass on that memory.

 

III

 

There is a problem we are bound to encounter when we try to engage in this act of collective remembrance. In earlier times, when Judaism lived in a self-contained bubble, a sealed environment that was separated from the wider world beyond it, it was easy to take part in this timeless encounter with our heritage. Indeed, there are those who still dwell within such a bubble, deliberately isolating themselves from a modern world that would challenge and defy the very basis of their preciously held beliefs should they but allow it to do so. That is their choice.

 

For those of us outside that bubble, who have made different choices, the influence of the modern world has separated us from that unchallenged attachment to our heritage and our past, exposing it to rational analysis, questioning the certainties on which it once was based, searching for explanation and justification where faith once sufficed.

 

To quote Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, ‘…the collective memories of the Jewish people were a function of the shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the group itself, transmitting and recreating its past through an entire complex of religious and social institutions that functioned organically to achieve this.’ A perfect description of the self-contained Jewish communities of yesteryear, a nostalgic image from the past for most Jews today.  Yerushalmi sees in our modern age, which effectively began with the Enlightenment and Emancipation two centuries ago what he calls ‘… the decline of collective Jewish memory.’ What was once certain has now been subjected to analysis and questioning, and we each have different attitudes to our Judaism and our Jewish past.

 

This raises an essential question. If we participate in communal worship to engage in an act of collective memory, what happens if we can no longer recall that memory? In its earliest days, our Liberal Judaism, like its German Reform predecessor, sought to explain and offer a rational basis for our religious beliefs and principles from a modern perspective. But as Yerushalmi points out, ‘...Those who are alienated from the past cannot be drawn to it by explanation alone; they require evocation as well.’ But how can we evoke a memory of something we never knew, how establish contact with a belief system that is alien to us, how find meaning in rituals when, from our rational perspective, we doubt that they have any worth?

 

There is a Chasidic story, told by Elie Wiesel, which comes from the days when it was believed that the Rebbes of Eastern Europe had miraculous powers which they could call upon to ward off threats to their people:

 

‘When the great Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

 

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezrich, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go into the same place in the forest and say.’ Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer’, and again the miracle would be accomplished.

 

Still later, Rabbi Moshe Lieb or Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

 

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God. ‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer. I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.’

 

Now we are not Chasidic Rebbes seeking a miracle to save our people from misfortune. But we gather together as a community on certain occasions and try, as did each of those Rabbis in the story, to make a connection with our past, poorly equipped and without so many of the tools with which our ancestors approached the same task on these special days in years gone by. We cannot light the fire, we do not have the prayer, we do not know the place. And we can barely remember the story.

 

Indeed, not only do we have difficulty remembering the story; we are presented with numerous different versions of it and ways of approaching it that have emerged in the last two centuries. Before the ghetto walls came down exposing insular Jewish life and culture to the demands and challenges of our western world, there was only one story, one set of memories shared by all Jews. Now, as Yerushalmi says, ‘Hardly any Jew today is without some Jewish past. The choice… is not whether or not to have a past but rather – what kind of past shall we have…’ ‘As a result of emancipation in the diaspora, and national sovereignty in Israel, Jews have fully re-entered the mainstream of history, and yet their perception of how they got there and where they are, is most often more mythical than real.’

 

So how did we get here? And where are we? And – no less important – why are we here? Perhaps we feel that if we cannot answer those questions, then our occasional attempts to have an encounter with our God and our Jewish heritage will be, as may well have been the case in previous years, a struggle to get through the apologies and requests, the statements of gratitude and appreciation that make up most of our prayerbooks.

 

But perhaps there is a way to add depth to our experience of such days, to our involvement in our prayers and to our attempt to connect with the Jewish God. Perhaps the way we should approach these special moments in our calendar is to acknowledge that because of our understanding, the critical age in which we live, or our own experiences, we do not have the kind of faith in God as it is described in most of the words in the prayerbook. The faith of those who wrote them was kindled by insights and beliefs that we can no longer grasp, understand or appreciate.  We cannot light the fire.

 

Let us then accept that our ancestors who lived in different times found different ways of searching for God in their world, and that the words we read are records of that search, not definitive statements of what they discovered, or truths that we can believe. They were conversant with the language in this book. We do not know the prayer.

 

Let us not become dismayed because we cannot identify with the concepts of God with which our ancestors were comfortable, or find comfort and guidance in their words of praise. Their prayer came from a different relationship with and awareness of the world. We do not know the place.

 

But we can still try to remember the story, and then seek to tell it. It is story not of great moments and movements in history that changed and shaped the world, but of individual Jews in other times and other places who sat, as do we, on special days set aside as religious occasions, and reflected, as do we, on their relationship with their Jewish heritage. When we gather for such observances, let our collective memory carry us to Spain in the early sixteenth century, where Jews lit candles and whispered prayers in secret locations, in terror lest the Inquisition discover them and forcibly convert them to Christianity, or to the Ukraine where little children watched as their fathers prayed earnestly, concentrating not on the meaning of the words they chanted, but on the urgent hope that Messiah would come soon to redeem them from poverty and persecution.

 

Let us seek to sense around us in this sacred space we create on such occasions, the awe and the wonder with which it has been filled in ages past, wherever Jews have gathered to observe their sacred observances: in the forecourt of Solomon’s Temple, under the watchful eye of Roman centurions, in magnificent Moorish synagogues in medieval Spain and tiny shtiebls in Poland, crowded into freezing wooden huts in Theresienstadt, this very moment in purpose-built houses of prayer or borrowed halls in cities, towns and villages in the most improbable corners of our world.  Let us add the place where we are to those where ordinary Jews have come together for centuries to recreate sacred space once occupied by Priests and Levites. Into those sacred spaces went words of prayer perhaps no better understood than they are in our day, the same words that we too utter with little understanding of their meaning, still less of their ultimate purpose or destination. Chanted or mumbled, read silently, declared aloud or simply ignored in favour of whatever local distraction might have seemed more appealing, those words of petition and gratitude, of appreciation and apology are ours as they once were theirs, and will be the possession of who knows what future generations.

 

What matters is that those people, Jews in hundreds of places across thousands of years, gathered together as do we on this day, responding to an inaudible call that spoke to them across the ages as it speaks to us. We also hear it, though perhaps it grows weaker, less audible, less distinct. But hear it we must, and if we cannot fully understand what means for us, then we must strive to understand what it has meant for others. We must try to remember. However distant the memory, however faint the call, however confused and confusing its message may seem. We cannot light the fire. We do not know the prayer. We can try to recreate the place. And we must try to tell the story. Let us not be the ones who forget. Let us remember. And let us hope and pray that it will be sufficient.

 

IV

 

Nevertheless, the attempt to remember, to connect with our past is surely hindered, rather than aided, by much of what we read, recite and repeat. Here are a few examples of what we read aloud on Yom Kippur, for example, either in Hebrew or English. ‘We praise You Eternal One our God…In Your mercy You give light to the earth and all who live on it.’ ‘May we be inscribed on the Book of Life and Blessing for a life of goodness and peace.’ ‘Our Creator and Sovereign, pardon and forgive all our wrongdoings.’ ‘We thank and praise You for our lives which are in Your hands…’ I’ll leave it to you to work out which of the four categories of please, thanks, wow and oops those readings belong to. More important than that, perhaps, is the question of how many of us, as thoughtful twenty-first century western Liberal Jews, actually believe that there is a Book of Life in which we are asking that God to inscribe us, or that requests for forgiveness to a heavenly ruler are being heard by someone who sends light to the earth and holds our lives in their hands?

 

Even if we accept the explanation and justification that such words are meant metaphorically, the question of what we are doing uttering them in the year 2013 still demands to be asked – and hopefully answered. And if we can’t find a satisfactory answer, then perhaps we should give up this praying thing that we gather together to do.  We might, of course, spend the time devoting our efforts to worthy causes for the betterment of our society and our world, which is, after all, what our ancient prophets saw as the purpose of worship: inspiration and encouragement to bring justice and harmony into our world.

 

But still it leaves the question: why do we need to go through all this stuff, proclaiming words of praise and gratitude, making requests and offering apologies to the skies to arrive at that outcome? We must think that it has some purpose. Otherwise we wouldn’t come to special religious occasions to be with our fellow Liberal Jews to take part in this annual reading of whatever book exists to accompany us through those particular festivals.

 

On one level, of course, we are actually talking to ourselves – and there are many thoughtful passages that ought to reach into our souls and encourage us to learn something about ourselves that we might resolve to improve our lives. But probably more than ninety per cent of what we read, recite and repeat doesn’t fall into that category. To be honest, we probably regard it in the same was as does American Reform Rabbi Larry Hoffman, one of the most prominent Jewish liturgists of our day. He highlights the fact that there are one or two deeply meaningful and evocative themes in our High Holyday worship, but suggests (and I’m quoting here) that ‘…we should drop great gobs of the standard material that we now drone through.’ Wouldn’t that be nice? But we can’t – or won’t – do that.  So what are we doing, what are we trying to achieve by being here on particular days, engaging in the chore of reading, reciting and repeating other people’s words?

 

I think that the answer is actually very simple. We aren’t being asked to believe in the theological improbabilities we are declaring. We are remembering. Th prayerbooks we use are not books of praise, petition, gratitude and apology to some invisible deity who has been looking down on human beings since we learned to communicate and waiting for us to look up and acknowledge its presence and role, and respond to it. They are books of our history. It is who we are as Jews, and how we became who we are. It is a record of our journey, our growth in understanding. It is a statement of our belief that human beings have a responsibility to one another and our world. And it’s a compendium of the wisdom and insight, the faith and the hope expressed by those of our ancestors who, through the ages, have sought to encourage us to recognise that responsibility. A Jewish prayerbook is not a book of improbable beliefs and impossible requests. It is a history book.

 

And our purpose in reading this history book is to remind ourselves who we are and of our connection to those whose words are contained within it. More than that: it is also a connection to those who in centuries past, in places and situations that we cannot even begin to imagine, have read, recited and repeated those words, perhaps with as much doubt and uncertainty as do we. And while there may be, for each of us, certain moments of awareness when we might gain a glimpse of our relationship with whatever mysterious force supports and sustains our individual lives on this fragile planet, the main function of these religious gatherings is to allow and encourage us to remember. When we read, recite and repeat these words, we are engaging in an act of collective memory. Or at least we should be…

 

The most significant moments in our Jewish calendar encourage us to remember. The most obvious is the Pesach Seder, which is a retelling of history and a reminder of our place in it. The reason we observe Shabbat every week is summed up in the Kiddush we recite: it is ‘zikkaron l’ma’aseih v’reishit - in memory of the work of creation’ and to ‘zeicher l’tziyyat mitzrayim - to remember the Exodus from Egypt’. This is not a request, or thanks, or praise or apology. It is an act of remembering. Rituals like candlelighting are intended to evoke that memory, the drinking of wine to celebrate it. 

 

And just take a look at some of the words of our Yom Kippur additional service. It’s the one that was brought forward last year so that it could be experienced by the whole congregation, not just the twenty or so who usually stay after the morning service. It does nothing less than tell the story of our place as Jews in the unfolding of the story of humankind. Rabbi Larry Hoffman – he who would like us to drop all the boring stuff that we drone through – describes this service as a ‘…script that engages the entire congregation in the experience of moving through Jewish history, encountering its voices of the past, and reliving the highs and lows that have brought us to where we are.’ But we aren’t just ‘moving through Jewish history’. What we are doing is encapsulated in the line halfway down page 298: ‘Long ago, but well we remember it…’ This is not just liturgy or a recital of history; it is an invitation and an encouragement to remember. Communal prayer becomes an act of collective memory.

 

But we are in danger of losing our memory. The changes in perspective that are a result of the Enlightenment two centuries ago mean that we have many different versions of that memory. There’s the ultra-orthodox version, obsessed with ritual for its own sake, believing that all God wants us to do is to continue to read, recite, repeat, and perform rituals. That one is trapped in a permanent present, paying no attention to our history and our memory. Then there’s the Zionist version, with its exclusively political agenda. And then there’s the Liberal version, the United Synagogue version, the, the secular humanist version and so on. No wonder we are confused. No wonder we are losing our memory. No wonder we come here once a year and just read, recite and repeat.

 

Ritual and prayer have always been intended to help us remember. But that can only work if we know what it is that we are supposed to remember, and if our ritual and our prayer encourage us to do so. As I have already mentiond, the Seder achieves this. I believe our Yom Kippur additional service does this, though most of us do not experience it. These are not just words of praise, gratitude, petition and atonement being hurled at an empty sky. They are full on encounters with our history, telling us who we are, what is our connection to our past, and our responsibility to remember it. Can we achieve this on a weekly basis in our religious services? Can our worship and ritual encourage us to learn how to remember?

 

Of course, religious services cannot solely be concerned with remembering our history.  There will always be times when we need to say please, thanks, wow and oops. There will be occasions in our lives when we need religion to comfort and console us, to open for us spiritual possibilities and show us new horizons. But if that is not connected with our past, our heritage, our people, it will become selfish and self-indulgent. We need to maintain that link, we need those reminders of our heritage, we need to remember.

 

We need more history in our liturgy. We need more awareness of the lives and experiences, the beliefs, the fears and the hopes of those who wrote the words that we read, recite and repeat. Our prayerbook condenses time to the extent that we might find a prayer written in medieval Spain alongside words from a biblical prophet and a modern Israeli. These are facts that tell us more about our heritage than a mere reading, reciting and repetition of the words that were written by those different people in those different times and places can ever do. We need to know who they were, how they lived, what they believed – and about the hopes and fears, the beliefs and experiences of the communities to which they belonged. We need to understand where we came from in order to know why we are here. We need to know who our ancestors were, how they lived and what they believed in order to understand who we are, hoe we might live and what we should believe. We need to rediscover our past, connect with it and learn to remember it.

 

I believe it is time to change the way that we pray. Of course we will still do the reading, the reciting and the repetition. It’s what we’ve done for centuries. But our religious services need to be more than a seemingly futile attempt to recapture the devotion that we believe lies behind words written in different times and different places by Jews whose experiences, thoughts and beliefs were so different to ours.  When we gather as a community, we need to learn about who we were, where we came from, how our heritage evolved and grew. And once we have learned that, then we will begin to be able to remember. And when we are better able to remember, then we can, with sincerity and love, with faith and hope, make our own contribution to our heritage to ensure that future generations will also be able to remember.  We must learn to remember.  And then we will be in a position to bring our own contribution to our Jewish heritage, add to Judaism’s collective memory and make what we do achieve worthy of remembering.

 

V

 

There has to be significance in the fact that perhaps the best attended part of Yom Kippur, perhaps the most important day in our Jewish tradition is entitled Yizkor, a noun from the word zachar, which means ‘to remember’.

 

The ideas in this document, based on the thoughts of Jewish author and historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, propose that the meanings of the words we use ostensibly to address God, whether they be biblical, rabbinic, medieval or modern, Hebrew or English, read or sung, are less important than the connection with our past that they evoke. We are not being asked to believe them in a philosophical, theological or literal sense. We are being asked to identify with them, to experience them and to connect with the feelings that inspired them. When we read words detailing the visions of an ancient prophet in the Temple, we are not being asked to believe in the angels he saw but to recognise the awe and wonder with which he was filled at that moment. When we recite words of praise that list God’s attributes and powers as perceived by the rabbis of two thousand years ago, we are not affirming them as our understanding, but trying to identify with the devotion and awe that caused them to be written and become enshrined in our tradition for two millennia. When we repeat thoughtful passages by modern Liberal Jewish thinkers, we are not expected to agree with everything they say, but to recognise that those words are a result of an attempt to connect our past to our present, and we endeavour to feel that connection as we try to formulate our own relationship with our Jewish heritage. These are not attempts to utter prayers that make requests, offer thanks, bestow praise or offer apology. They are an encounter with our past. They are an act of identifying and remembering.

 

Most modern historians would, I suspect, agree that history isn’t about dates and events of apparently global importance in the distant past. It’s about gaining an understanding of our identity. And it is our more recent past that really gives us that identity. I think it is significant that a current popular TV programme that focuses on well-known individuals exploring their recent family roots is entitled ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ This suggests that the answer to this question about their identity rests in them exploring, uncovering and establishing a connection with their most recent historical connections. It’s about remembering.

 

Our human psyche, the very essence of our lives depend a great deal on our ability to remember. Remembering tells us who we are, it gives us our identity. As Jews, we have a particularly long memory. It stretches back over centuries. With each passing generation, it seems, we have more and more difficulty remembering it. The distractions of our modern age are too great to allow us to spend more than a fraction of our time focusing on remembering. The questioning, scientific approach to our world and its current political reality mean that we’re not even entirely sure what it is that we are supposed to remember. The responses to those developments mean that we are not sure how we are supposed to remember it. Our collective Jewish memory is fading.

 

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we join together in a service that is called ‘remembering’.  Many of us have prepared for this by calling to mind memories of those loved ones whom we wish to remember. Those memories and recollections, unique to each of us as individuals, will accompany us we read, recite and repeat the words on the pages of this prayerbook which make up this Yizkor service. These are not words of petition, gratitude, praise or apology. They are an attempt to remember, to reflect on memories evoked by words and readings. They are memories personal to us, but we call upon those memories here as a community because even though our individual experiences are unique, our collective history is a shared one, human and Jewish. Finding a meaningful way for us to pray as Jews depends, I believe, on finding ways to turn our communal worship, our reading, reciting and repeating of ancient words, into communal memories as evocative of our history, our identity as part of the Jewish people, as the reading, reciting and repeating of ancient words that take place in our Yizkor service evoke personal memories of who we are as individuals, part of a family.

 

That challenge, set out in this document, is to make Jewish prayer an encounter with our Jewish history and identity, that genuinely speaks to us and with which we can connect. It is a task that will seek not just to remind us of our past, but to encourage us to engage with it, recognise our own roots, our own origins in it, re-establish a connection with it and the people who shaped it and to be motivated and uplifted by the words and the rituals, the ideas and the ideals that motivated and uplifted them. This surely should be the aim of prayer that is Jewish: to create a rich tapestry of ritual and story to evoke a collective memory of historical experience and mystical encounter to guide and inspire us in the way that it once guided and inspired our ancestors.

 

Rabbi Pete Tobias

September 2013/Tishri 5774

 

A POST HIGH-HOLYDAY POSTSCRIPT

 

The words above are an edited compilation of my High Holyday sermons for the New Year 5774. They set out my intention to create a new style of liturgy for regular synagogue services that will, I hope, facilitate a reawakening of the Jewish memories of those who take part in them by placing elements of the traditional Jewish liturgy in a historical context, by creating vignettes of the lives of individual Jews in different times and places, and by offering a series of themes that run through a particular service to relate a story of a moment of time seen through Jewish eyes. These elements will be woven into a liturgical structure which will follow the thread of the traditional order of service but in an abbreviated or adapted fashion.

 

Lest it be imagined that I regard the purpose of Jewish liturgy to be solely an encounter with Jewish history and memory let me emphasise that Jewish history is of no value and can teach us nothing unless we recognise that Judaism’s focus is simultaneously on the future. ‘To affirm God is to affirm that history has a purpose.’ (GoR p.105) The purpose of these encounters with history, the intention of these attempts to remember our past and re-establish a connection with it is to remind us of the hopes of the people with whom we are making that connection, the visions of those we are remembering. The new liturgy will not be a mere retelling of history, or a nostalgic journey to a particular point of our Jewish past. It will also seek to emphasise the religious values to which our ancestors adhered, the celebration of the traditions they practised and cherished, the God to whom they offered their prayers with a view to (re-)awakening in us an emotional connection with those values and traditions and thereby (re-)kindle an awareness and appreciation of the God they worshipped and glimpses of how we might also seek to approach that God. By remembering who we were, we will hopefully gain a greater sense of who we are and, in turn, acquire an understanding of and a commitment to what we can become.

 

 
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