A Meditation on Theology and Liturgical Language
The essence of Jewishness lies between–between the text and the commentary, between the English (or French or German or whatever) and the Hebrew, between what we do and why we do it, between what we do and what those before us did, between the body (and what we, as embodied people in a physical world, do) and the spirit. Jewishness is to be found in at least two dimensions, as the most significant distance between two points. Those who fixate on a single point or dimension are not missing out on half of Jewishness, but on all of it. It is no more possible to make a Jewish life out of a single dimension than to hang a hammock from a single nail.
Liturgical language has all sorts of betweennesses of its own. All language about God is metaphor, so there is by definition a gap between the words used by the original writer(s) and the reality he/they were trying to convey. Over time, a further gap develops between the reality perceived by the original writers and the reality experienced by those who use that liturgy one or more generations later, and between the everyday language used by the original writers and that used by later readers. If the original liturgy is translated into another language, this creates a new set of gaps, especially since later generations are usually more willing to revise translations than original texts, so that a single original liturgical text may generate multiple translations.
There is, of course, a difference between interpretation, translation, and revision, and a wide variety of purposes for doing each of them. Serious scholars may be seeking a better understanding of the reality experienced by the original writers; other interpreters are looking for a way to fit liturgy to the reality they experience today, which may pertain to the divine, the holy community, or both.
The Jewish liturgical tradition has been under ongoing revision and interpretation, as well as innumerable translations into every language the world’s Jews have ever used. The liturgy has been revised to reflect changes in theology and in the place of the Jewish people in the world, since biblical times. Until fairly recently, this process worked mainly by accretion. The Tradition added–and added, and added; it did not subtract. As a result, until fairly recently, the various accretions, like the rings on a tree, enabled anyone interested enough to do even a minimal amount of study to read the whole history of the Tradition merely by examining the Siddur.
But more recent revisions by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have subtracted while they added (sometimes more than they added,) cutting off the reader’s access to certain elements of the Jewish past. And, especially in the English-speaking world, translations have often departed radically from the Hebrew text in the same siddur; many sections of the text have either been very loosely paraphrased, or have simply not been translated at all. Generally, these alterations have had two sets of motivation: to reflect a new theological agenda, or to accommodate “modern” needs for a shorter and less repetitive service (at roughly the same time the college football game gets longer, interestingly enough.)
In the context of this perennial process of change, the work of Chavurah and pro-feminist Jews over the last twenty-odd years is less radical than either they or the rest of the Jewish community tend to think. It has generally pursued two separate but closely linked agendas: making the feminine visible in what has generally been a highly androcentric tradition, and shifting from a theology of hierarchy and transcendance to one of immanence and partnership.
The intricate relationship between these two agendas is sometimes obscured by those who pursue them simultaneously. Opening the Tradition to the experience and consciousness of women does not necessarily require eliminating hierarchy or transcendance from its theology. On the other hand, a strong case can be made that the shift to a theology of immanence and partnership does necessarily imply a greater emphasis on the experience and consciousness of women.
The pro-feminist agenda has a historical/sociological and a theological side. The historical is generally less jarring to most Jews who have previously given little thought to feminist issues. No historically or biblically literate Jew can deny the crucial place of women in Jewish history and literature. A case can be made that the book of Genesis is mostly about, and moved by, women. The place of women in Eastern European Jewish history and literature, and in the history of the Marranos, is also notable. And the Jewish people who engage in the liturgical enterprise today are 53% female. An increasing number of today’s Jewish women are uncomfortable with a place in the traditional liturgy ranging from “the wives of this congregation” to outright invisibility. Jews have always been male and female, and even the most hard-line traditionalists are increasingly comfortable with public liturgical recognition of that fact.
But it takes the community longer to get comfortable with the fact that–like Moliere’s character who has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it–we have been attributing gender to the Holy One for all of our collective life. That recognition is the first step to recognizing that–by virtue of operating in an androcentric culture in which the norm is male and the exception female, and an androcentric language in which the root forms of most words have masculine grammatical gender and most feminine-gender words are derivative forms–we have in the process been affirming male human beings as made in the divine image, and consigning female human beings to some unclear but definitely lower status.
Philosophically, the solution ought to be developing a non-gendered language to talk about the Holy One. In English, this would be intricate but just barely possible within the limits of current grammar–Arthur Waskow has taken some shots at it, with varying degrees of success. In Hebrew, it would require creating a whole new grammar. Most literate Jews have trouble enough with Hebrew grammar in its present state.
Aside from that, if we accept the traditional Jewish belief in a personal God, the philosophical neuter doesn’t quite work anyway. We are gendered persons. If we relate to God as a person because of the limits of our personal consciousness, we have to accept the fact that one of those limits is gender. Personhood, in our experience of God, is a metaphor. It may be a necessary one. The same holds for gender. As Rita Gross says in “Why Jews Need the Goddess,” “I wish those who use traditional god-language were as sure that God is not male as I am that God is not female.” Quite aside from the equity issues, as Marcia Falk points out, the use of female God-language is no more metaphorical than that of male God-language, and has the advantage of jarring us into realizing that it is metaphorical.
The use of female God-language, then, need not make any theological statement at variance with the most traditional views. But many of those most actively engaged in its use want to take much more radical positions, undermining the traditional Jewish structure of holiness equated with separateness. That may scare off some people who might have no problems seeing androcentrism as historically inaccurate and theologically idolatrous. While moving back and forth between transcendance and immanence, hierarchy and partnership, doesn’t bother me, the people who are bothered by it should know that inclusiveness in our language (whether about the community or the divinity) does not require scrapping the notion of a transcendant or personal God.
Regardless of the theological presuppositions we choose to include in our liturgy, we have the same intellectual/emotional/spiritual problems in confronting that liturgy. There is a spectrum of ways we can respond to liturgy. At one extreme are the rare moments when the liturgical communication is so utterly and intensely on-target with the individual’s mind and heart and soul as to literally make the hair stand on end. I have had perhaps four such experiences in a lifetime, and that is probably more than average. At the other end of the spectrum are experiences in which the individual is so utterly repelled by a particular liturgical statement as to give up its use, or the religious tradition in which it occurs, or even spirituality itself, altogether. For obvious reasons, this sort of thing is unlikely to happen more than once in a single person’s lifetime, but it seems to happen to a lot of people.
In between is the whole scale, from hearty assent (“yes, that’s exactly how it is”) to mild affirmation (“that sounds right”) to indifference (saying the words without attending to their meaning) to mild dislike (usually manifested by reading the words without saying them, or reciting them in a foreign language) to strong dislike (usually manifested by omitting the offending passage altogether.) Jewish tradition allows for some other midway alternatives, such as skipping to the final brachah of a section. A prayer that grates on the sensibilities and is traditionally considered optional anyway is likely to disappear from liturgical practice (which is what seems to have happened in the Chavurah movement to “Yekum Purkan” with its references to “this congregation and their wives.”) And the Tradition itself has had a lot to say over the ages about the relationship between liturgical practice and kavannah, ranging from Aryeh Kaplan’s intriguing view of the Amidah as an overgrown mantra for guided meditation, to the Yiddish tehinnot written for (and sometimes by) women who were expected to use them in synchrony with the Hebrew liturgy they were not expected to understand, to Scholem Aleichem’s marvellous paraphrase of the weekday Amidah in the Tevyeh stories. In short, the Jewish tradition has never required the individual to assent to the theology implicit in any particular liturgical communication in order to take part in that communication. There have always been alternatives. This has made life easier for the individual worshipper, of course. But it has also made fewer demands on the liturgy than some other traditions do. The distance between the average worshipper’s theology and the theological presuppositions of the liturgy can stretch pretty far before the liturgy is forced to change.
Just as there is a spectrum of possible responses by the individual to the theology of a liturgical statement, there is also a spectrum of responses a particular individual will tolerate before either changing the liturgy, changing congregations, or dropping out altogether. Some people may be perfectly comfortable paying absolutely no attention to theological meaning, while others may demand absolute consonance between the liturgy and their own current theological position. Those most nearly indifferent to theological meaning will feel virtually no need to change the liturgy to conform to their own beliefs, and may strongly object to any change because the non-verbal subtext of the liturgy, for them, works. Others may feel they have no choice but to change or leave. Most of us in the Chavurah movement, I suspect, are somewhere in between–attracted by change, but not necessarily compelled to it except in a few egregious cases. Similarly, some of us like being jarred by liturgy into examining its theological presuppositions, and our own (which is perfectly consistent with the traditional view of study as a valid form of worship) while others find it excessively cerebral.
A few fragmentary thoughts: (a) one of the ways I particuarly like using to examine the theological subtext of liturgy is what I call “triangulation”–using two or more versions or translations of a section simultaneously, as a way to get at what original reality could possibly have generated both or all of them. (b) the use of a non-vernacular language in liturgy may be a useful safety valve, enabling people to remain comfortable with a set of liturgical statements long after they might find them abhorrent in the vernacular. A case could be made that the fall-off in numbers of active Roman Catholic parishioners in the two decades after the demise of the Latin Mass was no accident. In the more decentralized Jewish community, the process is less clear and may be more self-reinforcing. Individuals may move to a level of observance requiring less Hebrew because it also requires less commitment. Once there, however ,they may find themselves turned off by statements in the English liturgy that they had been more or less comfortably ignoring in the Hebrew. This may kick them onto an even lower level of observance, with even more English liturgy, and so on.
Anyway, getting down to the concretenesses implied in the title of this essay, our congregation has recently been experimenting with a version of Nishmat which undertakes to change into the feminine gender such descriptions of the Holy One as “ozer”–the one who helps us. Feminine: ”ozeret.” Which happens to be the modern Israeli Hebrew word for “cleaning lady.” It drew a couple of giggles from a congregant who had formerly lived in Israel. I found it mildly amusing. But then–as was probably intended by the authors–I was also jarred into thinking about it. These days, I reflected, it would take an act of divine intervention to get somebody else to help me clean my house–possibly rising to the level of a miracle. Or, looking at it another way, when we make ourselves available to help each other with the drudgework of everyday life, are we not doing the work of the Holy One? And isn’t this precisely the kind of reflection a good liturgical communication should evoke, at least occasionally?