Orthodoxy and Innovation

By Aryeh Tepper
Monday, September 13, 2010

For many religiously observant Jews, the traditional siddur, or prayer book, constitutes a problem. One such Jew was the great hasidic rebbe, Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810), who articulated the problem in terms appropriate to his time: the fixed prayers, with their praises and petitions, are like a well-traveled highway, and well-traveled highways attract robbers. By which he meant that excessive routine makes it difficult to concentrate the mind.

Things haven't changed in the intervening centuries. In fact, they've gotten worse as the traditional siddur has grown in size and the highway has been extended. It's a rare soul who actually reads the two millennia's worth of accumulated prayers that, for example, are supposed to be recited each weekday morning. Today, the traditional prayer service resembles,  paradoxically, the spirit of contemporary life: it leaves no time to reflect.

But if the prayer book presents a problem, the ease with which traditional forms have been destroyed in the modern period presents another problem, and arguably the greater one. The traditional text is, after all, a reservoir of elevated thought and sentiment—potential energy waiting to be harnessed—while no serious person believes that simply dismantling the tradition will serve to revive the hearts of the Jewish masses. 

The tension between the need to breathe new life into Jewish prayer and the danger of recklessly undermining traditional forms lies at the heart of a new book, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations. Its author, Daniel Sperber, is a scholar and an Orthodox communal rabbi in Jerusalem who has outspokenly advocated expanding the role of women in synagogue worship; his specific intention in On Changes in Jewish Liturgy is to demonstrate that the classical Jewish tradition leaves room for new modes of prayer, including by altering time-honored formulas that many Orthodox women consider to be offensive. That said, however, he is also aware of the dangers involved in innovation for the sake of innovation, "for it is easy to destroy but difficult to build constructively."

Why do traditionalist circles resist modifications to existing prayers or the addition of new prayers? Because, Sperber explains, certain talmudic texts seem to suggest that it is forbidden to change the standard liturgy, "the coin our sages minted." But, he claims, these texts have been misunderstood. The issue is complex, but Sperber's bottom line is that the rabbinic authorities intended to establish an unchanging framework for the mandatory and fixed prayers, not precise or immutable formulations. To the contrary, within the fixed framework, the sages wanted the heart of prayer to remain free and flexible. Illustrating his point, Sperber adduces much evidence to show how "[i]n all periods, additions, changes, alterations, and updatings were made" to the prayers.

An obvious objection to Sperber's claims lies in the rabbinic sources that do explicitly prohibit changing the liturgy. Sperber is of course aware of these sources, but he traces their position to a super-conservative attitude that first appeared among the classical scholars of Babylon. As against them, he appeals to their contemporaries in the land of Israel, who "allowed and practiced greater flexibility." In this sense, Sperber's position is restorative, an effort to revive the freer spirit of the Judaism of the land of Israel.

Toward the end of his book, Sperber lays out the two ways in which liturgical changes have occurred in history: either a great authority has introduced the change or a community as a whole has moved in a certain direction, leaving rabbis no choice but to give their blessing after the fact. This brings us to our current situation. Expecting little from today's religious leadership, Sperber hopes that change will come from the bottom up—so long as "numerous congregations are willing to be creative."

What sorts of changes might eventuate? When it comes to incorporating feminist sensibilities, some are already happening. To cite one well-known example: at a number of Orthodox synagogues, including one in Jerusalem, women are being called to the Torah and, for parts of the service, leading the prayers. But it's no coincidence that this is the only realm in which significant adjustments are taking place. Equality is the dominant value in modern society, and it has proved to be a potent weapon for those advocating equal roles for men and women.

But what about other sorts of change, for instance when it comes to the length and routinization of prayer? Here what is needed are rugged individualists ready to speak their minds even if doing so means giving offense; but in a world increasingly obsessed with tolerance and the virtue of not giving offense, few such types are likely to appear. As for the ultra-Orthodox, tolerance is admittedly not a supreme virtue with them; but neither is innovation.

What, then, remains for those dissatisfied with the present state of the traditional liturgy but hesitant to say anything lest they undermine larger traditional understandings? Rabbi Nahman, for one, cultivated an innovative solution that he was also careful to attribute to a number of biblical heroes: he found a secluded spot where he could pour out his heart to God, alone. 

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/ortho

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