Responding to the felt religious needs of the different Jewish groups in the United States, numerous revisions and retranslations of the traditional Prayerbook have been made in recent years. But, as might be expected, none has proved completely satisfactory, if one listens to the congregants. Theodor H. Gaster here examines some of the most widely used modern versions of the Prayerbook, with a view to discovering what may be wrong, both in style and substance, and how we may hope to better the situation.
Throughout the ages, the Prayerbook has occupied a central position in Jewish life. More than a mere manual of devotion, it is—in a sense—Israel’s personal diary, catching, as in a series of exquisite vignettes, the scenes and moments of her entire life, and recording, in a diversity of moods and styles, her deepest and most intimate emotions. Here, for those who have eyes and ears, is Sinai on the one hand, and Belsen on the other; the gleaming courts of the Temple, and the peeling walls of a Polish klaus; the blare of the silver trumpets, and the singsong of the Talmud student; the colonnaded walks of a Spanish town, and the narrow, winding lanes of Safed. Here is a Gabirol effortlessly bringing down the immortal to earth, and a Rhineland cantor scribbling his earthiness into immortality. Here is Luria panting desperately after the Celestial Chariot, and Kalir pinning the glories of God to an acrostic.
Yet the remarkable thing about the Prayerbook is that, for all its gradual growth, its diversity of expression, and its infinite variety of atmospheres and modes, its basic outlook and philosophy have remained always the same. Back of the elaborate rituals of the Temple, the tortuous virtuosity of the medieval hymnographers, the quirks and conceits of the Cabalists and mystics, there has lain a common adherence to certain fundamental tenets and concepts: the divine direction of nature and event; the immutability of the Torah, or divine dispensation; the Covenant and the special commitment of Israel; the eternity rather than transience of life; the ultimate, inevitable triumph of righteousness. Through exile, crusade, Inquisition, and pogrom, Israel has consistently found in these ideas the frame for her identity and her experience.
In recent years, however, the feeling has grown up in this country that the traditional Prayerbook is no longer adequate to the needs and outlooks of modern worshipers, and a number of revised or “revamped” versions have made their appearance. Some of these are the official products of denominational organizations and have been formally adopted in the service of the synagogue1; others are the private efforts of individual rabbis.2 Some, again, are ambitious attempts covering major portions of the liturgy; while others take the more modest form of vademecums for such special occasions as mourning and memorial services,3 or Sabbath devotions in summer camps.4 All of them, however, are distinguished by the fact that they are essentially doctrinal in character, aiming not so much at interpretation as at modification of such traditional concepts as, for example, the election of Israel, the restoration to Zion, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead; or at the introduction of new concepts and new prayers deemed more representative of the outlook of the average American Jew.
Thus far—apart from a few vituperative outbursts and one notorious “burning of the books”—there has been little attempt to evaluate these efforts and even less discussion of their basic premises and principles. Unhappily so, for in this unredeemed day and age the average American Jew acquires his conception of Judaism mainly from what he hears in synagogue and reads in prayerbook, rather than—as did his ancestors—from direct study of the Bible and rabbinic literature.
All of the new productions proceed from the assumption (either overtly stated or tacitly implied) that a prayerbook must be exclusively contemporary—that is, must voice nothing that is not consistent with the sentiments of those who use it. At first blush, this assumption seems reasonable enough. On closer scrutiny, however, it is seen to rest on a profound misconception of what the Jewish Prayerbook really is. For the fact is that the Prayerbook is the expression of Israel throughout the ages, not in any one single generation. Accordingly, its forms of expression can never be entirely or exclusively contemporary; they are also historic. To reduce them to the temper of the immediate here and now, to confine the idiom of thought to that of a particular age, is therefore like lopping off the spires of Chartres Cathedral because they are not in accord with modern styles of architecture. Moreover, the Prayerbook is an expression—at once a synthesis and an epitome—of all Israel everywhere. Accordingly, to restrict it to the attitude of a particular community or environment is to destroy its essential catholicity.
Equally assailable is the failure of the modern revisers to realize fully the implications of the fact that the bulk of the traditional Prayerbook happens to have been designed not for private devotions but for public services. A public service is essentially a ceremony and, like all ceremonies, necessarily dramatic, its purpose being not only to express but also to impress. The criterion for judging the validity and efficacy of the traditional forms must therefore lie not so much in the degree to which they reflect the private aspirations of worshipers as in that to which they stimulate sensations of awe, attune the heart and mind to an apprehension of awe or the numinous, and promote a feeling of participation in a continuous, and not merely immediate, experience. It speaks not merely for the moment, but for tradition, which links the present and future with the past. To this end, a certain amount of exotic archaism—a detachment from the usual and familiar, and a sustained reminiscence of the past—is not only useful but virtually imperative; to discard it is not only to forego forms but also to sacrifice emotions. Indeed, it is strange that those sensitive to the value of archaism in ritual—to the use, for instance, of the ram’s horn rather than the cornet, or of the manuscript scroll of the Law rather than the printed book—should be so oblivious of its effectiveness in the spoken accompaniment.
Even more serious is the failure of the modern revisers to realize that the idiom of ideas is necessarily fluid and dynamic, and transcends the language of a particular generation.
The basic concepts of the traditional Prayerbook are expressed, to be sure, in an antique idiom—in a series of figures and images (e.g., Zion or the Messiah) which stem originally from the circumstances of particular times. Idioms being—like all language—necessarily progressive, dynamic, not static, the various figures and images have long since outgrown their original sense and setting. Zion, for example, has today the same sort of extended, symbolic meaning as have Parnassus and Olympus, neither of which any longer denotes, in common speech, a particular mountain in Greece. Similarly, the figure of the Messiah—originally the anointed Davidic king whose advent was so fervently awaited by the Jewish exiles in Babylon—is today but the personified epitome of a future Golden Age when the Kingdom of God will be firmly established on earth.
More than that, these wider meanings were really inherent in the concepts from the beginning. What the ancient Hebrew saw in Zion was not simply the local shrine of Israel’s particular god, but by that very token the spiritual center of the globe; and when the exile in Babylon spoke of the Messiah, he was thinking not merely of a Davidic king, but of one who, in that particular capacity, would symbolize and realize among men the law and dispensation of God.
To discard these figures merely because they have outgrown their original setting is, therefore, as undiscerning as it would be to expunge from the English vocabulary such words as “jovial,” “martial,” “trivial,” “tawdry,” “melancholy,” and the like, which have undergone precisely the same development; or to eliminate from popular lore all reference to Cupid or Santa Claus because the former is no longer a Roman god, and the latter no longer Saint Nicholas. This whole procedure, with its total disregard of the factor of transference, dehydrates the imagination, thereby making all poetry impossible and freezing into an artificial rigidity what is naturally and inherently plastic.
Undoubtedly, the modern American Jew is capable of expressing the same fundamental concepts in a less archaic and more contemporary idiom; but to discard the traditional terms for that reason—to speak of “the future Golden Age” instead of “the days of the Messiah,” or to substitute “the brotherhood of Man” for “the kingdom of God”—is to ignore the function of distinctive language as an expression of distinctive culture, and that of folklore and poetry as a practical instrument of continuity and social cohesion. Moreover, in this particular instance the conservation of time-honored forms solves the specific purpose of providing a common frame for a group which is geographically scattered, and a method of safeguarding a culture which has long lacked the protection of its natural matrix.
Nowhere, perhaps, has this basic error of literalism found more unequivocal expression than in the introduction of the Sabbath Prayer Book of the Reconstructionist Foundation.
Some [say the editors] have attempted to obviate the need for change in the traditional prayers by reading into them meanings completely at variance with what they meant to those who framed them. The practice is fraught with danger. To read those new meanings into the traditional text by way of translation is to violate the principle of forthrightness. To assume that the average worshiper will arrive at them of his own accord is to expect the unattainable. Our prayers must meet the needs of simple and literal-minded people, even of the young and immature. . . . Unless we eliminate from the traditional text statements of beliefs that are untenable and of desires which we do not or should not cherish, we mislead the simple and alienate the sophisticated. . . . Rather than leaving [sic] such questionable passages to reinterpretation, we should omit or revise them.
What is wrong with this statement—quite apart from its assumption that prayers are something that should be composed for people rather than issue out of them—is that it completely misunderstands the meaning of meaning, failing to distinguish between denotation and connotation and between sense and significance. All literature acquires its meaning by a process of collaboration—a junction of minds and experiences—between author and reader. To restrict the meaning to the author’s original conception is therefore a fundamental error; and in this case, that error is all the more crucial because it blithely overlooks the fact that the written words happen to have been designed expressly to receive their meanings from the emotions, passions, and aspirations of those who repeated them. To put it another way, the position taken by the Reconstructionist revisers rests on a confusion between the text of a prayer and the prayer itself; the truth is that the text of a prayer is but a mold to be filled with the contents of individual spirits.
If the broad premises of the new prayerbooks are thus open to question, even more assailable is their failure, or hesitation, to come to grips with the real problem of worship as it presents itself to many modern minds. The nub of this problem lies in the fact that the traditional services—like most forms of worship everywhere—are based on the concept of a transcendent, external God who works upon nature, man, and event, and who must be approached and addressed. Today, however, there is a growing apprehension of the idea that, in His relations with man—and that is all with which prayer can be effectively concerned—God operates within and through, rather than without and upon, and that He is realized by the effort of man, and not by extrinsic supernal intervention. On this view, the emphasis shifts from inspiration to aspiration, from the bestowal of heavenly favors to the fulfillment of human potentiality. In other words, it is the divinity working in man, not in heaven, that becomes important. Without canvassing the question of what He may be absolutely and to Himself, the God of many modern worshipers is the indwelling and inworking Spirit rather than the Lord of Hosts.
This, it should be emphasized, is, au fond, in no way a revolt against Jewish tradition; it represents only a change of perspective or angle of vision—a stress on the receiving rather than transmitting end of a relation which Judaism has always affirmed. On the basis of this emphasis on immanence, the essence of the Atonement services will now consist not in invocation but in evocation; not, that is, in supplication for pardon before a heavenly judge, but in a process of self-regeneration through intensive stimulation of the Divine within one. Similarly, the emphasis of the Passover liturgy would lie not on any external, preternatural intervention by a transcendent God—not on the “outstretched arm” or the “signs and wonders”—but on the in-working of an immanent Spirit—a figurative pillar of fire—which led the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and which likewise leads all men inevitably from bondage to freedom. In short, the direction of prayer would be outward rather than upward—a movement of communion and absorption rather than of adoration and subservience.
Then, too, any serious adaptation of the traditional liturgy for modern worshipers ought to take account of modern thought on the question of whether God can indeed respond to individual petitions, or whether He is not rather an impersonal cosmic entity. If the latter is the case, prayer becomes essentially a subjective gesture, and the only possible form of address to God one of ecstatic apostrophization.
The new prayerbooks, however, show no awareness of these issues. There is a great deal of tinkering and toying with particular ideas and phrases, but no serious attempt to think through the basic problem of prayer itself, or to exploit the plasticity of the ancient forms in order to fit them to a more modern theology.
Weak as they are in general premise and approach, the inadequacy of the revised prayerbooks becomes most clear in their handling of specific themes.
Take, for example, the treatment of death and immortality in burial and memorial services. Jewish tradition is wisely vague and undogmatic about the ultimate destiny of the living. It has been content to speak, without undue precision, of a “keeping-alive of the dead” (tehiyath ha-methim) or of the soul’s being “bound up in the bond of the living.” If mythology and popular lore have elaborated these clouded insights into pictures of celestial and infernal realms, such elaborations have had no doctrinal sanction. All that is really basic is the affirmation that earthly existence is part of a larger, infinite continuity, so that death is neither absolute nor final, but amounts to a recession of the immediate into the continuous; in this sense, indeed, only a moment, and not a being, can die.
Our modern revisers, however, have almost invariably represented eternity not as the wider orbit within which all lives and moments are embraced, but as a sequel or aftermath to earthly existence. The Union Prayerbook, for example, describes “our life” as “but a fleeting gleam between two eternities”—a high-sounding phrase without any intelligible significance whatsoever, since, if eternity means anything, it means a single unbroken continuity. The same prayerbook speaks also, on two different occasions, of death’s being the gateway (or, more grandiosely, the “portal”) to eternal life. This, too, makes no sense, and for the same reason: a gateway or portal is where you come in, whereas eternity necessarily includes the present; therefore you are already in it.
The debasement of eternity into mere after-life has tended also to turn it into a kind of spatial Elysium. It is, once again, the Union Prayerbook which is (characteristically) most definite on this point. Says the Neilah service of the Day of Atonement:
Still another dwelling Thou has destined for us, O Source of Life; an eternal abode to which we shall go after our brief day on earth has closed. Open to us the gate of Thy grace; unlock for us the portal of eternal peace, when the gates of our earthly home shall have closed behind us.
Nor, indeed, is the standard Reform revision by any means the only culprit. In the memorial service designed by Rabbi Max D. Davidson, God is invoked to fulfill His promise of “immortal life and reunion with our dear ones in that place of fadeless light and perfect peace for which our existence on earth is but a preparation.” Quite apart from the fact that such a promise is probably news to the Jewish God, here again the tremendous concept of an eternity in which all temporality is embraced is reduced to the pedestrian level of “pie in the sky when you die.”
Similarly, when Rabbi Morris Silverman’s Memorial Service poses the question:
Shall God who made life out of nothing
Be unable to turn what had life into higher
we have, once more, the same false identification of continuance in the larger life with translation to a higher one. Besides, the statement contradicts itself; for it can refer only to the soul, and if the soul is immortal—which is what it seems to be saying—then obviously it always has life and cannot be described as something that once had it.
The traditional view on immortality is set forth in an ancient and famous morning prayer5 which may be rendered as follows:
My God, the soul which Thou has set within me is incorruptible. Thou it was created it; Thou it was fashioned it; Thou it was breathed it into me; and Thou it is maintaineth it within me. Thou, too, it is will lift it out of me, yet bring it back, still linked with me,6 for all time to come. . . . Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Who grantest to them whose bodies be dead that their souls come back.
It requires but a little imagination to see that what is here proclaimed is not—as the Hebrew wording might at first suggest—a doctrine of resurrection or of the return of the soul to the body, but rather the assurance that, after it has been severed from the body, it nonetheless returns, in a sense, to the world of men and continues eternally in it. This continuance, it is affirmed, does not take the form of mere immergence in an impersonal timelessness—of mere absorption, along with all other souls, in one amorphous and anonymous whole. By the grace of God, the soul returns and continues with its own distinctive identity, in the personality and character which survive bodily dissolution and live on in posterity, in memory, and in the impact of individual lives and works upon the future. In this sense, says the writer, the soul may be said indeed to come back “within me,” that is, endued with my essential self; and God to bestow upon the bodies of men the final mercy that the souls or spirits which they encased do not perish with them, but return in this form to the world of men, corruption thereby putting on incorruption.
But what have the modern revisers done with this magnificent affirmation? Like so many earlier translators, they have read into it a doctrine of the restoration of souls to bodies, and have then proceeded to obviate the embarrassment of so naive a concept by various palliative devices, speaking instead of some vague reclamation of souls by God or of their indefinite continuance in a beclouded never-never land. The Union Prayerbook, for example, substitutes for the reference to the soul’s return “within me” (or “still linked with me”) the loose paraphrase: “Thou wilt take it from this earth that it may enter upon life everlasting”—gratuitously assuming, into the bargain, that eternity is necessarily extraterrestrial; while Rabbi Max D. Klein’s Seder Avodah (following the older Reformers) alters the Hebrew text to read, somewhat similarly: “Thou wilt take it from this world and endow it with immortal life in the time to come”—a change which is meaningless, since the whole point of the prayer is to declare that, despite its temporary association with the body, the soul is all along immortal in any case. In similar vein, Rabbi Morris Silverman’s prayerbook speaks of a reclamation of the soul, and tones down the final words of the prayer to a blessing on God as “the Source of Life Eternal.”
In all of this, it would seem, a cold breath has once again extinguished a living flame.
Consider also the doctrine of the Messiah and the Messianic Age. Several of the revisers seem still to be preoccupied by a revolt against the concept of a personal Deliverer. Both the Union and the Reconstructionist prayerbooks, for example, prefer to speak neutrally of “redemption” where the traditional text speaks of a Redeemer. One might not unreasonably expect, however, that by this time of day the “extended” and symbolic character of the Messiah would have become apparent and that the revisers would have elected to develop the potentialities of this traditional figure of folklore rather than to suppress him altogether (as they likewise suppress Elijah) in the interests of an unperceptive literalism. Moreover, they might have realized that some of the more familiar allusions to the Goël, or Redeemer, in the traditional liturgy—as, for instance, in the first paragraph of the statutory Standing Prayer (Amidah)7—really refer not to a Deliverer “at the end of days,” but to the fact that constantly and in all ages God rewards the piety and loyalty of the fathers by providing their descendants with men who serve them, as it were, in the capacity of the Goël, or “next-of-kin,” who was required in ancient Hebrew law (Leviticus 25:25 ff.) to “redeem” and avenge his enslaved or distressed relatives. (Thus far—in the wake of Abudraham—only Rabbi Max Klein has seen this point.)
As for the Messianic Age, the general tendency of the revisers is to identify it with a golden era of universal brotherhood. Thus, in the great prayer Al ken nekavveh—which Schechter described as a Jewish Marseillaise—the traditional references to “the ordering of the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty,” and to the common acceptance of “the yoke of Thy Kingdom,” are transmogrified in the Union Prayerbook to a polite yearning for the day when “all, created in Thine image, [may] recognize that they are brethren, so that, one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Thee”—significantly leaving out all mention of the yoke, that is, of the crucial element of sacrifice, burden, and self-denial in the furtherance of the divine dispensation. Similarly, Rabbi Klein waters down the same phrases to a desire for the time “when the world . . . shall have been perfected under Thy reign in the hearts of men,” and to a petition that “all [may] accept Thy rule of justice and peace”—where the element of militant, selfless campaigning for God is reduced to the comfortable enjoyment of untroubled ease.
The revised versions are open to objection also on the score that they leave out of account the crucial question of what is actually envisaged: whether a mass conversion of all peoples to Judaism, or a merging of Judaism in some general, universal religion. The Re-constructionists, to be sure, have tried to clarify this point by adding an “interpretative version” in which they declare themselves to be hoping for the day when men will “recognize, in the soul of every nation, race and religion, a manifestation of Thy divine spirit and will accord to every human society the equal right to serve Thee with whatever gifts Thou hast bestowed upon it.” It is difficult, however, to reconcile this with what is surely the raison d’être of the Jewish people and the essence of its Covenantal obligation—namely, the propagation to the whole world, not merely of a general acknowledgment of God, but of a specific code of Law (Torah) in which His will and dispensation are believed to be revealed.
In the Union Prayerbook, this polyannaish utopianism is combined, in turn, with what has been described as “theological meliorism”—that is, a belief that God manifests Himself only in progress and in the improvement of human life. Says a passage in the Afternoon Service from Yom Kippur: “No law emanating from Thy will can be invoked to justify any conditions that deny men opportunities and cause them sorrow and suffering.” One is left wondering, however, whether this summary settlement of the problem so laboriously threshed out in the Book of Job, this cavalier rejection of the theory that suffering is a divinely appointed discipline and that God reveals Himself in shadows as well as lights, does not in fact amount to a misconstrual of history and to a failure to interpret Jewish experience. As W. F. Albright has put it, in his From the Stone Age to Christianity, “Nothing could be farther from the truth than the facile belief that God only manifests Himself in progress, in the improvements of standards of living, in the spread of medicine and the reform of abuses. . . . Real spiritual progress can only be achieved through catastrophe and suffering, teaching new levels after the profound catharsis which accompanies major upheavals.”
Another questionable divergence from the . traditional attitude is the romantic idealization of the past. Rabbi Klein, for example, in translating Israel Najara’s famous Aramaic hymn Yah Ribbon Alam (chanted in the home on Friday night) substitutes for the reference to “Thy people whom Thou chosest from all nations” the words, “Thy folk . . . who served Thee, Lord, in every age”; while the Union Prayerbook declares, in its Sabbath morning service, that “through the ages Israel hath been faithful to Thee,” and speaks, in another place, of “the steadfastness with which the passing generations of our people have clung to our heritage” and of “their undying determination to struggle for the triumph of reason, justice and love among men.”
To be sure, Jewish tradition has always been supremely proud of its heritage, and it has always emphasized the “merit of the fathers” (zechuth aboth) as capable of tipping the scales of divine justice in favor of their descendants. But it has never claimed any over-all virtue for the men of old, or held them up collectively as paragons of piety and fidelity. On the contrary, its attitude has always been that, by and large, Israel has been throughout the generations a stiff-necked and refractory people—”both we and our fathers have sinned”—and that its survival is probably due more to divine mercy than to its own efforts. The change represented in the revised prayerbooks is unsatisfactory because it bypasses the age-old debate on whether the present plight of Israel—its exile and detachment from spiritual moorings—is due more to God’s impatient wrath or to its own persistent betrayal of the Covenant. More-over, it fails to draw an adequate moral from the vicissitudes of Israel’s experience or from the fact that the movement of history includes regress as well as progress.
From the ideological standpoint, then, the conclusion would seem to be abundantly justified that the new prayerbooks are weak alike in premise, approach, and performance, and that they contribute little, if anything, to the serious advancement of religious thought. Well-meaning as they undoubtedly are, there is about them a pronounced air of triviality, a tendency to attenuate rather than accentuate the distinctive values of Jewish tradition, to simplify rather than clarify, to reduce the profound to the shallow, the rarefied to the commonplace, poetry to prose, and to substitute for the restless Jewish urge for intellectual satisfaction the present-day itch for comfort and ease. They are, in short, symbols of spiritual attrition, of a frame of mind and a temper of feeling in which prayer has dwindled from an outburst to an exercise.
All of these defects are perhaps, in the final analysis, but symptoms of a basic mediocrity—a mediocrity which is not only ideological but also literary.
One of the essential things about prayers is that one cannot write them without praying them, any more than one can write a convincing love song without being in love. For prayer is primarily a spiritual outpouring, and only secondarily a verbal form. The new prayerbooks, however, convey an irresistible impression of being artificial and contrived, mere literary ersatz, issuing out of formal piety rather than out of rapture, agony, or despair. They are so patently written for worshipers rather than by them, substituting grandiloquence for intensity, virtuosity for poetry, religiosity for religion. Where the traditional prayers seem always to feel more than they say, relying for their power upon imaginative suggestion and pregnancy of phrase,8 the new ones seem, on the contrary, to say always more than they feel and to depend for their effect upon clichés and verbal baubles. Can anyone believe, for example, that when the Union Prayerbook beseeches God to “calm our troubled spirits that athwart our tears may arch the rainbow of Thine eternal promise,” this is really the authentic voice of an overburdened heart? Or is it possible to credit to a genuine artlessness such a cliché-ridden statement as “bleak winter has fled, and gladsome spring has come; the earth has clothed herself in her garment of green” ? Again, was there ever a woman on earth who spontaneously poured out her soul to God by declaring, as that prayerbook would have her declare, that “our domestic relations move in a circle of affection and responsibility”? Or did anyone ever naturally pray over newly-weds, as Rabbi Klein requires them to pray, that they might be rendered “instrumental in conceiving and in transmitting those domestic virtues which have ever been the joy and inheritance of the congregation of Jacob”?
Even the classic simplicity of the Psalms falls victim to this grandiloquence. Rabbi Klein, for instance, will not have the mountains skip like rams (Ps. 114:4); they have perforce to be “disturbed like rams.” Nor will he allow it to be said of the heavens which declare the glory of God that “their voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:3); instead, we are informed that “no vocal sound from them is heard.” Similarly, in the famous quotation from Ecclesiasticus, the Union Prayerbook will not “let us now praise famous men,” but insists that we are to “call to remembrance the great and good”!
Sometimes, too, the temptation of high-sounding language leads to curious results, as when Rabbi Silverman has us “trembling with trepidation” at New Year—how else can one tremble?—or when the Union Prayerbook (once again) yearns for the day when “all Thy children shall be gathered under the banner of truth and stand united as one common brotherhood”—forgetting that this image logically implies the idea of rallying under a banner to go to war, whereas, if everyone stands united in a common brotherhood, there is no one against whom to fight.
Along with grandiloquence goes garrulousness. Especially irksome is the tendency of the new prayerbooks to ghost-write people’s emotions, as if the average worshiper could not be trusted to feel them for himself. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman’s Mourners’ Service, which provides a kind of prompt-book for the sentiments both of the bereaved and of their condolers during the week of mourning. What is offered may best be evaluated by direct quotation. On the second evening, the mourners are informed that “our presence, perchance, brings momentary forgetfulness, some slight measure of surcease. But the lonely hours through the night and day have brought a sharper realization of bereavement. The dazing effect of the blow may have begun to wear off, as does the numbing effect of some drugs, and there is now a painful consciousness of an aching emptiness.”
This is neither prayer nor religion, but an intrusion upon the privacy of the heart. Nor is it palliated by more of the same platitudinous banality on the following evening, as when the bereaved are solemnly apprised that all stages of life “have their difficulties. At each stage, there are heartaches, trials, troubles. . . . Suffering is the common lot of man. None is immune. . . .” Or when they are told—with appalling distortion—that the Kaddish “is a memorial prayer,” and are invited to recite it “in honor of our departed ones” so that it may “be a public acknowledgment of the benefits we have derived from those who have returned to their eternal home.”
The point of these examples, be it noted, lies not so much in their literary tastelessness, as in the indication they afford that the new prayerbooks were written in a study, not in a passion. One is tempted, indeed, to exclaim with Vaughan:
Oh! ’tis an easy thing
To write and sing;
But to write true, unfeignèd verse
Is very hard! O God, disperse
These weights. . . .
It is a Jewish tradition that prophecies of doom end with words of comfort. In line with this tradition, it is perhaps only fair and proper to draw attention in this place to some other, far more satisfactory attempts to reinterpret the traditional liturgy for modern worshipers. The distinguishing feature of these is that they are not doctrinal revisions, but straight translations, seeking rather to bring out in a contemporary idiom the underlying content of the ancient forms. One may mention, for instance, Maurice Samuel’s deservedly popular Haggadah, or the spirited and suggestive renderings by Jacob Sloan and Olga Marx in The Language of Faith9 Especially noteworthy, however, among such attempts are Dr. Philip Birnbaum’s translations of the Ashkenazic prayerbook10 and Rabbi David de Sola Pool’s of the Sephardic.11 Both of these worps succeed triumphantly in bringing out the less obvious nuances and suggestions of the original; both are characterized—especially in the translation of Scriptural passages—by phrasing which is not only happy but also luminous (as, for instance, when Dr. Pool substitutes, for the traditional “He Who maketh peace in His high places,” the excellent “He who creates the harmony of the spheres”; or when Psalm 94:20 comes out as, “Shall one in the seat of depravity, framing ruin by law, have fellowship with Thee?”). Almost every line of these renderings is stamped with the impress of men who are sensitive to the larger possibilities of the Hebrew text and responsive to the deeper values of Jewish tradition—who can read the Prayerbook in the light of the ages and not only of a contemporary outlook, and who have seen in a refined scholarship an enlightenment of the eyes and not merely an exercise in academic pedantry.
Nevertheless, there is still need of a translation of the Prayerbook which will reproduce more clearly the various literary genres of its contents, which will find a medium, for example, for conveying the peculiar tone and complexion of the piyyutim, the allusive poetry of the Spanish school, the involutions of the Mishnaic passages, without reducing them to a misleading uniformity or disguising their true character behind Zangwillian ingenuity. This, it may be suggested, should be accomplished by collective effort, after the manner of the standard translations of the Bible—that is, by the collaboration of scholars, men of letters, and poets. Such a creative presentation of the ancient heritage might serve, indeed, as a welcome reassurance that, in its translation from the anxieties of the Old World to the security of the New, Judaism has nonetheless not forgotten the rock from which it was hewn.
1 E.g., the revised edition of The Union Prayerbook (2 vols., Cincinnati, 1951-52), which represents the Reform liturgy of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and the Sabbath Prayer Book of the Reconstructionist Foundation (New York, 1945).
2 E.g., Rabbi Max D. Klein’s Seder Avodah (New York, 1951), and Rabbi Morris Silverman’s High Holyday Prayerbook (Hartford, 1983), both of which represent what is known conventionally, though somewhat loosely, as a “Conservative” standpoint.
3 E.g., the memorial services designed by Rabbis Max Davidson (New York, 1940) and Morris Silverman (Hartford, 1949); or Rabbi Abraham A. Feldman’s The Mourners’ Service (New York, 1941).
4 E.g., Summer Camp Services for Jewish Children, by Rabbi Edward E. Klein and Mabel H. Meyer (New York, 1952).
5 The prayer is taken substantially from the Talmud (Berachot 60b) and was originally designed to be recited on waking.
6 Literally, within me. Possibly this statement was intended as a subtle protest against the doctrine of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls.
7 “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God and the God of our fathers . . . Who rememberest the loyalties of fathers, and bringest a goël unto their children’s children. . . .”
8 This does not overlook the tortuous artificiality of many of the piyyutim; but these were designed as poetic embellishments of public services rather than as actual prayers or devotions.
9 The Language of Faith: Selected Jewish Prayers. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken Books, 1947).
10 Daily Prayer Book: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem (New York, 1949); High Holyday Prayer Book (New York, 1951).
11 Book of Prayer according to the Custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews: (i) Daily and Sabbath; (ii) New Year; (iii) Atonement (New York, 1947-49).