Learning from Political Compromise

userpic=tallitFor the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.

This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.

So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.

So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.

So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.

[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]


2 Replies to “Learning from Political Compromise”

  1. It would be at least as interesting to see the political compromises that went on back in the Middle Ages, when the “traditional” Mahzor was frozen in its perfected state. Some eminent medieval sages made the decision that a particular medieval piyyut was sufficiently holy to add to the litergy, while consigning other less holy piyyutim to the ash heap. I wouldn’t doubt that politics, ideology, and simple favoritism figured heavily into the decision process.

    Also, I had an interesting experience last night watching the live stream of Nashuva’s Kol Nidre service. I suspect Orthodox viewers would have found it highly offensive. Instead of the proper standing up and sitting down as the cantor recited the authorized anthology of medieval poetry, this service had a “worship band” (a term borrowed from mega-churches) playing modern folk/rock settings of selected prayers. Had I been physically rather than virtually present, I don’t think I would have felt a need for “additional reading.”

    Even though I was only watching at home, I must admit that I found it a more “spiritual” experience than any of the normal High Holiday services I’ve experienced (and indeed, it was one such normal High Holiday service that made me realize I could no longer believe in the deity portrayed in the medieval poetry). The service somewhat reminded me of the “contemporary” services at Camp Hess Kramer (and I still have a fondness for Chuck Feldman’s settings– if Burt Bacharach ever decided to write liturgical music, that’s how it might sound).

    The service used a very abbreviated prayer booklet prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy. It’s not a literal translation, but Rabbi Levy’s own “meditations” on the Hebrew. I found it accessible and compelling. And she provided whatever additional explanation was needed before she and the band sang each prayer.

    Quite far indeed from the standard medieval anthology. But it may be that it conveys the message the eminent medieval sages intended more effectively for that audience than the usual Mumbling of the Sanctified Syllables. There’s room for both ways.

    1. Speaking of Chuck’s music, what always made the closing service for me at WBT was Chuck’s version of “The Sun Goes Down”:

      The sun goes does / The shadows rise
      The day of God is near it’s close
      The glowing orb of light now homeward flies
      A gentle breeze fortells repose

      Lord crown our work before the night
      And in the eve, let there be light.

      The sun goes does / The shadows rise
      The day of God is near it’s close
      The glowing orb of light now homeward flies
      A gentle breeze fortells repose

      We shall behold a glorious sight
      And in the eve, there shall be light.

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