Upon three things, our tradition says, the world stands: upon Torah, upon worship, and upon acts of loving-kindness. Of the three, worship is often the most challenging, least accessible component of Judaism today.
Worship is all about our yearning for transcendence: it attempts to both express and address the inexpressible—to commune with the Ultimate—through poetic speech, music and gesture. It is about giving voice to our human-all-too-human needs, fears, and hopes; about reaching in, reaching out, and reaching up from the depths of our beings; about enacting community and, through collective ritual performance, energizing our commitments to our ideals and to bettering our world.
Prayer as a form of address can be difficult if we have doubts about the addressee of our prayers (God? To whom it may concern?), but prayer as a deep and even spontaneous response to our human situation—to its needs and vulnerabilities—may be easier to access since, when we are honest with ourselves, we are all needy and vulnerable. Those same concerns and human realities are expressed in our historical Jewish liturgy, although it may sometimes be difficult to connect the private stirrings of our hearts with the public words on the page. This book attempts to make that connection easier, at least cognitively, by showing how the words on the page did not come down to us full-blown in every minute detail from Sinai, but were composed by human beings and elaborated in response to the changing needs and situations of Jewish communities over time. This observation pertains both to the traditional prayers and to their modern, Reform adaptations and paraphrases, for in this sense, all liturgy is creative liturgy.
In every generation, in every place, we struggle with both universal human questions and particular issues rooted in our specific cultural and physical space. Our prayers have always been adapted to unique human moments and hold the tension between the authenticity of tradition rooted in our history and the our changing situations.
Ten years ago, Mishkan T’filah was published as the most recent contribution of the North American Reform movement to this ongoing dialectical process. A survey of Reform congregants indicated, among other things, that, when it came to role of a prayer book in communal worship, they wanted to understand what they were saying in Hebrew – particularly now that so much of the traditional Hebrew text has been restored in Reform worship. They also wanted to understand the logic of the liturgy itself: the structure, historical-contextual background, and meanings of the various services and the individual prayers. How can the prayers on the page become the prayers of the heart? How can the historical prayers of the community become also my personal prayers?
A first step in that process is iyun t’filah – contemplation, study, and learning about those prayers of the community – and how they might be personally internalized, even when that requires some interpretation. To supplement and provide some context to these Jewish prayers, the Reform Movement’s Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living, on which I sit, generated a series of essays about the prayers that were distributed once a week between May, 2008 and January 2013 in the URJ’s daily “Ten Minutes of Torah” e-mail blasts. I wrote the pieces that dealt with the development, structure, and historical meanings of the prayers, including their various Reform adaptations. Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is an updated, revised, and enlarged compilation of those pieces.
Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is not a spiritual-religious meditation and commentary on the prayers. Some of that kind of reflection can be found at the bottom of each page of Mishkan T’filah and in a number of other contemporary books on Jewish prayer and worship. Instead, this book is an accessible account of the historical development of the prayers and the ideas behind them, in both their traditional and Reform contexts (including the variety of ways they have been adapted and paraphrased in major Reform prayer books over the past two centuries). Understanding how our prayers originated and have been adapted over time in different contexts gives us a deeper appreciation of where we have been as a people. My hope is that this understanding will also contribute to readers’ greater personal connection and eventually to a sense of ownership, as we bring our own experiences to the mix.
My own connection to Jewish liturgy, ritual and music was sparked early, though my experiences at Temple Emanu-El in suburban Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s, singing in children’s and adolescent choirs at Shabbat and festival services and learning Hebrew liturgy through the variety of its musical expressions. This continued throughout my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, during which I also studied in Israel for the first time, and then in rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, where I studied Jewish liturgy with Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski, who had a deep appreciation for liturgical aesthetics. The expressiveness and emotional quality of Jewish prayer—both Hebrew text and music—were impressed upon me through all of those experiences, and remain essential to both my teaching and worship leadership today. Compiling Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, and writing the individual pieces that it brings together, was a labor of love for me. I hope that love and enthusiasm are conveyed in the book itself and will inspire readers to connect—to delve yet deeper into the Siddur and to explore what the many facets of Jewish worship might mean to them.
Rabbi Richard S. Sarason is Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought, and The Deutsch Family Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, OH, where he has been a faculty member since 1979. He is also the author of Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, a commentary on Mishkan T’filah from CCAR Press.