As wildfires burned in California, hundreds of missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. Fire on the ground and fire from the air, with people I know and love in both places. Just a week before, 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. A week before that, the largest-ever U.S. antisemitic massacre was perpetrated at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh. All this occurred against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism world-wide and contentious U.S. mid-term elections.
My pen has been grieving, the ink pouring out prayers with titles like these: “Missiles from Gaza,” “As Fires Rage” and “Taharot in Pittsburgh.” In those 2.5 weeks, I wrote a baker’s dozen of ‘responsa prayers,’ dealing with immediate concerns in the wake of news events. Writing ‘responsa prayer’ is one of the roles of a modern liturgist, to give our shared experiences a voice of prayer.
There’s a reason why these pieces resonate. Our prayer book, the siddur, has tuned our ears to the many voices of prayer. We know the voice of grief and the voice of yearning. We know the voice of joy and the voice of hope. We have been praying some of these prayers for more than 1,000 years. The prayers call out to us, as they did to our fathers and mothers.
There can also be a disconnect. While the siddur gives us the spiritual foundation to connect to our inner hearts of blessing, at times the language doesn’t fit. Another role of a modern Jewish liturgist is to bridge that gap, opening doorways back into the prayer book. The goal is to capture the familiar cadences and themes – and at times the familiar idiom – in a way that is true our current sensibilities and language.
The Reform siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, addresses these opposite forces with a faithful, contemporary translation of Hebrew texts, as well as a broad set of alternative readings on the left-hand page of two-page spreads.
This is the goal of my new book, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings. Structured to reflect the morning service found in Mishkan T’filah, this collection provides a new set of ‘left-hand pages’ to enliven our worship. The prayers in This Joyous Soul invite a deeply personal prayer experience that strengthens our connection to Jewish tradition. It’s written to inspire each of us to make the traditional daily liturgy our own. So, my hope is that it will be used both by individuals as part of their personal prayers and will be adopted for use in congregations throughout the Movement.
For generations, the siddur has given voice to our deepest desires. Every generation has left a mark on this great book that spans centuries, continents and cultures. This Joyous Soul is one contribution to that great endeavor: keeping the prayers of our ancestors vital and alive, with a new voice for these ancient yearnings.
Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press and available by Thanksgiving 2018!