How the Reconstructionist Rabbis of My Youth Ruined (Other) Shuls for Me. Part 1: Liturgy

This series of posts is dedicated to the Reconstructionist rabbis who served or visited the then small, now large, Congregation Darchei Noam of Toronto of my youth (Rabbis Joy Levitt, Allan Lehmann, Richard Hirsh, David Teucsh, Barry Blum, Deborah Brin, Larry Pinsker and several more  student rabbis). With a special shout out to Rabbi Richard Hirsh who inspired the whole series with his dvar Torah on Shabbat Shuvah in memory of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein z”l . It is about how my deep and long exposure to a “traditional” Reconstuctionist service has made it hard for me to feel at home in other styles of worship. See Part 2: Dvar Torah/Sermon and Part 3: The Style. (This is Part 1: Liturgy).

Part 1: Liturgy

In my living memory I have never added the Emahot (matriarchs)  to the Amidah or several other parts of the service where the Avot (patriarchs) generally appear . From early childhood, before I knew how to read or write English, let alone Hebrew, they were just right there and part of the scared words etched deeply into my consciousness. As an older child I went to other shuls (and when I actually stayed in for the services and paid attention) I heard these other shuls taking the Emahot out of their rightful place. (The Emahot were not actually in the 1945 Reconstuctionist prayerbook that I grew up with- but they were always said- and later, following the long tradition of shuls interacting with siddurim, they were photocopied and pasted in).

Despite years of exposure to Orthodox, many Conservative, “Traditional”, and even some Reform and  Renewal shuls that have only the Avot (patriarchs), this feeling of having something important removed has not fundamentally changed. Adding female language to the male-cenrtic prayers may seem like a nice, meaningful, inclusive addition to those who grew up with the traditional text. To me female ancestors are the traditional text and it jars me to hear them left out. I am not free to just daven and forget about that aspect.

Don’t confuse this jarring feeling of omission with a reluctance to change or try new liturgies (which is a source of reluctance or discomfort  I hear from a lot of people about adding Emhot, feminine God language, more inclusive prayers or even revival of older prayers that were tossed by previous generations that make sense now etc.). I embrace these changes that bring us forward. It is going backwards that I find difficult.

Moreover, I was taught by osmosis that prayers shouldn’t  assert what you really deeply disagree with (with great leeway for poetic language, references to the past and for metaphor). So I grew up without references to the Jews being the Chosen people, without the idea that the Torah text as we have it today was literally placed by Moses in front of the People of Israel, directly dictated by God

(as in V-zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe, lifnei B’nai Yisrael al-pi Adonai, b-yad Moshe. This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the People of Israel, by God’s word in the hand of Moses.

וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל על פי ה׳ ביד משה

and without the idea of an embodied Messiah who will come and save us, and revive the dead, and without the expressed desire to return to Temple sacrifices and the priesthood. Most Jews today do not believe those ideas either. But they feel comfortable in saying them because that is the liturgy they grew up with and because their rabbis didn’t point out these changes often and speak about prayer aligning, at least to some degree with belief. (Thanks, rabbis).

To me the parts of traditional prayers trumpeting these ideas were intrusions. As a young adult in traditional services, and as a vegetarian, I found it increasingly difficult to pray the Amidah on Musaf Shabbat, which focuses on exactly which animals are to be sacrificed and how. I can now do it, by skipping those parts, which makes me a fast davener. But since the Musaf Amidah is not in the Reconstructionist prayerbook, coming to a traditional shul, from my background it seemed like a whole service added for the express purpose of delineating list of sacrifices (which it kind of historically is), and that is just hard to buy into after the fact. (I know it is great for people who are late and missed the Shacharit Amidah).

The services I grew up with were full of liturgical readings: intentionally liturgical Jewish  poetry (like Ruth Brin, Marge Peircy), all manner of poetry (in Hebrew and English and even Yiddish),excerpts of philosophical essays, novels,  folk songs, popular songs, rock songs, and carefully selected and edited prayers from other religious traditions. Sometimes these liturgical readings replaced traditional prayers that they were thematically related to and sometimes they accompanied them. These modern prayers became sacred as well. And I experienced great joy in finding connections between modern works that moved me and the traditional texts.

There was something very universalist about knowing that some of the ideas in our prayers, in very ancient texts, are shared by people of other backgrounds and faiths and  that their experiences can add to the depth and understanding of our own prayers.

For many reasons: social, geographic, communal etc. I pray at many services that lack some or often all of these liturgical elements.  But I feel their omission.

So this is the trade-off:  I am very grateful for the immersion I got into a liturgical tradition I value highly, but  since the movement is small it means there are few places I  can go and pray and feel at home.

Part 2 of this series  will be about the Dvar Torah or sermon

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One Response to How the Reconstructionist Rabbis of My Youth Ruined (Other) Shuls for Me. Part 1: Liturgy

  1. Pingback: How the Reconstructionist Rabbis of My Youth Ruined (Other) Shuls for Me. Part 3: Style | Rainbow Tallit Baby

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