Come Let Us Reason Together
Rabbi Seymour Prystowsky, Ph.D
Shabbat Shalom everybody.
All of us as rabbis take the Torah narrative seriously, but very few of us take it literally. We recognize that the five books of Moses are evolutionary documents, representing the Jewish People's ongoing search for the Divine Presence. The texts, therefore, tell us more about our quest for God than about God's demands of us. When we explore the text of the Pentateuch, we see history, mythos, poetry, allegory, laws, customs, and folklore - hardly an objective description of what actually occurred.
In this week's Torah portion, we read that, in the middle of the night, God strikes down all the non-Hebrew first-born in the land of Egypt – a major intervention of God on behalf of the Israelites, initiating their Exodus from Egypt.
And in this week's Haftarah portion, the omnipotent, good God says to the children of Israel, "Have no fear my servant Jacob, for I am with you. I will make an end to all the nations among whom I have banished you."
One can see in these chapters the special, personal, covenantal relationship between God and God's people. God is the God of Israel, and acts on its behalf. Biblical scholarship tells us, however, that the texts represent the views of our ancestors, i.e., they tell us more about what could happen and ideally should happen, than about what did happen. In other words, the Torah and Haftarah portions tell us more about our ancestors' idea of what God's role in history was, than about God's actual historical factually accurate intervention in the lives of our people and their enemies.
Keeping this in mind, my goal for this Shabbat morning is to face the fact that our ancestors' beliefs about God and prayer were very different from ours. And since that is obviously true for many of us, we should be expressing ourselves via our prayer book very differently. I have shared my concern - some would say my obsession - with this issue, on our rabbinic internet and at a NAORR forum last year. Simply stated: I want change, major change, rational change, in our view of God, which should be reflected in our Reform siddurim and machzorim. Unfortunately, as I just pointed out, our current liturgy is not very different from the concepts of God in this week's Torah and Haftarah portions. And I find that troublesome! I am seeking a rational approach to our theology and am especially concerned with how it manifests itself in our liturgy. I truly believe that a rational approach would better elicit from us a sense of awe and even a sense of the divine.
Let me provide a framework for my thoughts. Many modern Jewish creative thinkers, like Martin Suber, Arthur Cohen, Yeshaiyahu Leibovitch, Richard Rubenstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Yitz Greenberg, Harold Schulweis, and Arthur Green, have suggested that humankind, through its cruelty and indifference, is itself responsible for the evils of the world; that men and women, if they are to be held accountable, must have freedom of will - that we are not puppets whose strings are pulled by an outside force, nor is our life predestined by a supernatural deity.
This emphasis on the freedom of will of each individual means that God's intercession is limited. We are governed by natural law and it cannot be suspended by God or humans, regardless of the wishes of either. God is not a cosmic bellhop and cannot be made into one; not by ritual and not by prayer. And Maimonides, almost 1000 years ago expressed the same idea.
As my teacher Dr. Henry Sionimsky, z”l, often said, [in Yiddish]
"Udder villen, vill er yah, obber kenen ken er nisht; udder kenen ken er yah, obber villen vill er nisht."
(Either God wants to intervene but God is not able to; or God is able to intervene, but God does not want to).
Many of us believe the former - God is not able to. Regardless of what view we have of God - Creator, Power, Idea, or Ideal - the Shoah has pushed us up against the wall more than any other issue of innocent suffering.
I cannot bring myself to say what Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, an Orthodox rabbi said: ... " during the Holocaust God chose in His mystery to hide himself. We do not summon God to the bar of history ... it is our task to believe that a God who is omnipotent and benevolent must have a good reason."
I'm sorry Rabbi Wurzburger, but our prophets and sages often brought God before the bar of history and justice. And when I hear that over a million children were gassed and burned by the Nazis, the answer that God must have had a good reason for not having intervened is unacceptable. Besides; the fact remains, that whatever the reason with prayer or without prayer - God did not intervene.
After the Sho'ah, Arthur Cohen wrote, "The question ... is not how can God abide evil in the world, but how can God be affirmed meaningfully in a world where evil enjoys such dominion (The Tremendum p. 34)." So, he concludes that the God who emerges is not the God of traditional theology, which strongly suggests that God cannot any longer be the God of traditional liturgy - the God of our traditional prayer book. And I daresay, that this God cannot be the God of our Reform Prayer books, either.
Many of us, rabbis and congregants alike, like Arthur Cohen, cannot any longer affirm that God intervenes in our lives to alter the course of human events. That has serious implications for our liturgy.
That means that all the prayers that petition God to intercede in our lives, and all the prayers that express our gratitude to God for God's active participation in our lives, and that all the prayers that refer to God as אל רחום וחנון, (a God of compassion and mercy) - all of these prayers in our siddur and machzor which are the views of our Traditionall Orthodox ancestors whose ideas of God were different from ours, expressed many of our ancestors' beliefs. The problem is that those prayers, for many of us, do not express our beliefs.
Today we have a situation where the Reform movement's official siddur- Mishkan T'filah - reflects some changes from the traditional siddur, by providing alternative poetic readings that are quite humanistic, but the main thrust has been to preserve the prayers that address a personal God who responds - an approach that I believe is inconsistent with Reform and Reconstructionist theology. Instead of reading and chanting prayers that address our God (Eloheinu), the one we have come to affirm; in our current services, we continue also to address the God of our ancestors (Elohei Avoteinu).
On the High Holy Days, when the cantor chanted, "Who shall live and who shall die?", our great grandparents and certainly those before them, shook in their seats, fearful of God's decree. Their prayers were directed not to themselves for greater awareness,( which is the way many of us view prayer,} but to a God in heaven, in the hope that God will intervene and grant them good health and length of days. And when our traditional ancestors prayed the words מחיה המתים, " who revives the dead," they meant just that.
It was not some ambiguous or metaphoric phrase suggesting something like the rebirth of the flowers after a cold and stormy winter.
Our prayers, like our rituals, should reflect our belief in the reality of the world's orderliness, which is the greatest miracle. But this is not the religious service that many of us have created.
Today's worship service is structurally and textually geared toward worshipping a God who is an omnipotent, compassionate, intervening deity who listens and hears our petitions, our praises, and our thanks, and responds to them. This encourages the belief in miracles, not as the incredible reality we experience, but as God's supernatural acts of intervention.
How can a young widow who just lost her husband in an automobile accident say with integrity the words of the 23rd psalm - "my cup runneth over" and "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." That is not what she feels as she mourns the death of her spouse. And please don't tell me that this is just poetry. The tragedy in her life makes it almost impossible for her to accept "my cup runneth over" as poetry, and even more so to accept "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It is not reasonable to expect her to utter those words, and it is not right to ask her to say them.
The Jewish journey, to behold the Divine presence, began with the sacrificial system, which at the time was considered authentic Judaism. After the destruction of the second Temple, as all of us know, the rabbis introduced the second stage in our religious development - communal prayer addressed to a supernatural intervening deity - what we have had for the past 2000 years. I am suggesting that this current practice give way to stage 3 - a gathering of Jewish people on weekdays, Shabbat, Festivals, and High Holy Days to study, sing, reflect, meditate, chant and recite prayers and mantras, that give hope, a sense of community and especially a sense of the Divine. This service should, inspire, educate, comfort and unite us as a people - a service that does not seek intervention from a personal God but rather emphasizes the responsibilities and potential of humankind. Arthur Cohen stated it eloquently (p. 98): "Man - not God - renders the filament of the Divine incandescent or burns it out."
Our service, therefore, should consist of praying words and singing songs that do not compromise our integrity, so that, to paraphrase Rabbi Naomi Levy in her book, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith, a power can be ignited within us -- a force, an energy that can provide courage and especially hope that will strengthen us as we attend our new services.
I stress hope, because living without hope is living in despair. And despair is a cardinal sin in Judaism. It is to succumb to the darkness that threatens us. Our belief is that tomorrow can be better than today, and that we can bring it about, not by petitioning God to intervene, but by energizing ourselves to work together to achieve our goal. For it is our belief that God needs us to act; that God wants us to act; that God depends upon us to act. We are the agents of the Divine. God works through us.
The new service to which I have alluded; of what would it consist? Certainly prayers like the 'Sh'ma' and the 'Kaddish', which would be mantras; not literal expressions of what we desire, but a bond with the traditional and the familiar. They provide a linkage with the past.
But a linkage with the past does no mean that we need 1 ½ to 2 hours of repetitious, petitionary prayers. We could have a few prayers in Hebrew and English that could, would and should be taken literally, while some, could, would and should be taken poetically. To give a few examples of the type of prayers that our services might include, I cite two, in English, that focus on our potential as humankind leading us to an awareness of the Divine.
The first one, with which most of you are probably familiar, is by Rabbi Jack Reimer
WE CANNOT MERELY PRAY TO YOU
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end war;
For we know that You have made the world in such a way That we must find our own path to peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end starvation;
For You have already given us the resources With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all,
If we would only use them rightly.
Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.
For Your sake and for ours, Speedily and soon,
That our land may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
- Jack Reimer
This second prayer by Rabbi Morris Adler is absolutely inspiring!
Prayer is not an escape from duty. It is no substitute for the deed. Prayer seeks the power to do wisely, to act generously, to live helpfully. It helps to reinforce the act, rather than to replace it.
Prayer is the search for silence amidst the noise of life ...
Prayer takes us beyond the self.
Joining our little self to the selfhood of humanity, it gives our wishes the freedom to grow large and broad and inclusive.
Our prayers are answered, not when we are given what we ask, But when we are challenged to be what we can be.
(National Jewish Monthly, July 1958 pg. 7)
Interspersed among the prose and poetry, songs and niggunim will be sung almost continuously, since music soothes the heart and uplifts our spirits.
I would certainly recommend that in every service, there be a rabbinic message that involves congregational participation. Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam - the study of Torah - takes precedence over all.
I don't have the exact formula for this new construct, but I believe it is imperative that all of us participate in the dialogue that will attempt to create these new services. This can be a uniquely spiritual adventure during which we can truly "Sing unto the Lord a new song".
I want to remind all of my colleagues that Mordecai Kaplan expressed it beautifully when he wrote that for the Siddur to evoke religious meaning for the modern Jew the liturgy had to be intellectually honest. " .... even if that meant changing the ideals of ancient doctrine". He and his co-editors of his 1945 prayer book pointed out the following in the introduction: " ... unless we eliminate from the traditional text statements of belief that are untenable, and of desires which we do not or should not cherish, we mislead the simple and alienate the sophisticated".
Our new and revised prayers can inspire the best within all of us. I don't know if this new approach will attract more of our people into the synagogue, it mayor it may not. But, at least, in the process of creating a service which expresses our true beliefs, we will have been faithful to our conscience, to our intellect, to our history and to the integrity still alive in our movement and in Judaism at large.
Let me conclude with a quote of my beloved teacher Dr. Henry Slonimsky, who, in his essay Prayer, summed it all up:
"To act out of love and to be willing to bear the suffering which the good and true man must inevitably bear in a world like ours, in a world which is only partly divine and which must be won for God through the efforts of man - that is the deepest utterance of the rabbis and the culminating idea of Jewish religiosity and of Jewish prayer".