Commentary Magazine


Contemporary Prayer

To the Editor:

Edward Graham’s review of two new High Holiday prayer books [Books in Review, July] reaches a new low in accuracy and scope. This is particularly true of the Media Judaica publication, A Contemporary High Holiday Service, which has been known to me since it was used, as one of several texts, at our High Holiday services.

Although originally published as a service for college youth, it has achieved wide acclaim among hundreds of congregations and rabbis across the country for creativity and exciting format, including the use of graphics to illustrate prayers and readings. It is undoubtedly one of the most innovative contributions to Jewish liturgy in many years.

Edward Graham, instead of recognizing the nature of this creativity, aesthetic beauty, and substantive content, focuses on a few insignificant paragraphs and presumed mistransliterations and becomes completely lost in trivia. Alas, Mr. Graham’s vision and breadth are simply no match for the depth, sensitivity, and understanding required, his language and grammatical precision notwithstanding. . . .

Eli M. Black
New York City

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To the Editor:

Edward Graham’s review of A Contemporary High Holiday Service, which I edited with S. Allan Sugarman, contains a number of errors and distortions.

Mr. Graham writes that “The Avot prayer, which recurs often in the service, is translated only once. . . .” This is not true. In our prayer book, it is found three times and translated twice (cf. pp. 86-87 and p. 137).

Mr. Graham has an intriguing accusation concerning the Alenu. He charges that because this is “a text emphasizing the differences between the Jewish people and other peoples, and underscoring the unique Jewish destiny, [it] is not translated at all.” The passage is in fact translated on page 160! This reveals both the bias and the carelessness with which the reviewer examined the volume.

Mr. Graham alleges that “Whenever the suspicion enters the editors’ minds that a traditional prayer or Torah reading is saying something young people may not be interested in or might not like, they simply introduce some ‘relevant and meaningful’ material or—worse—deliberately mistranslate or altogether fail to translate the Hebrew text in question. Perhaps the prime casualty of this practice is that jewel of the liturgy, the Kaddish, a series of praises to God’s greatness, goodness, and exaltedness, which appears a number of times in various forms throughout the service—all untranslated.” The clear implication is that we shied away from prayers of praise to God because such prayers might not appeal to young people. This is utter nonsense. The mood of joyous exaltation and thanksgiving to God is felt on virtually every page. It is the dominant mood of our service, and to imply anything else is to raise the question of whether the critic actually read the volume.

There was nothing devious in our failure to translate the Kaddish. Our decision was influenced by the readily observable fact that at no public worship service is the Kaddish ever read in translation. (In several modern prayer books, the Kaddish is the only prayer found in transliteration.) In the 187 pages of our service we translated only those passages which we felt might be read publicly in translation. Thus we also did not translate Yigdal or Adon Olam, Ayn Kelohaynu or Yishtabach, the Torah or Haftarah blessings, etc. In each of these instances we were guided by our intimate familiarity with what actually happens at a synagogue service.

Mr. Graham further misrepresents the character of our prayer book when he sarcastically suggests that our use of “relevant and meaningful” (the quotation marks are his) material serves as a decoy to distract from our failure to translate uninteresting or unappealing prayers. The fact is that we have introduced supplementary material, pictorial and verbal, throughout the volume. It is this above all which justifies our use of “contemporary” in the book’s title.

Mr. Graham takes us to task because we “choose deliberately to ignore the last line [of Eil Adon] with its specific reference to the supernatural seraphim and ophanim.” Since Mr. Graham himself admits that we did not translate Eil Adon but only paraphrased it (twelve Hebrew lines were rendered in five English lines), one wonders why he becomes so exercised over the omission of the seraphim and ophanim. Is that really what Mr. Graham thinks ought to be preserved in a modern paraphrase of this hymn? Moreover, even a cursory examination of our volume would have revealed that we are not at all intimidated by the “supernatural.” On page 28, in a free poetic translation of the Kedushah, our first paragraph reads:

On earth, as in the
    heavens above,
We sing praises to
    Your Name.
And join the angels
    on high
Your holiness to
    proclaim
.

Mr. Graham alleges that in the Avot prayer “the statement . . . that God revives the dead is fudged in favor of a more digestible’ idea (i.e., one whose meaning is obscure enough to pass): ‘You lovingly remember all Your creatures to life.’” It would appear that Mr. Graham’s indignation interfered with his observation. Had he looked with any care at all he would have noticed that the sentence, “You lovingly remember all Your creatures to life” follows immediately after, “Who is like You, Father of Mercy?” Together, these two sentences are a translation of the Hebrew: “Mee chamocha Av harachamim zochayr y’tsurov l’chayim b’rachamim.” They have nothing whatever to do with the idea “that God revives the dead.” We translate the phrase “m’chayay hamaytim” as “You grant everlasting life to the dead.”

What is true about our prayer book is that every time we encounter the Alenu we emphasize a different aspect of it and highlight another of the several themes contained in or suggested by the traditional prayer. Thus we hope to avoid monotony while revealing the multifaceted character of the prayer.

Mr. Graham charges that “whatever in the prayers is particularistic . . . is softpedaled, mistranslated, or omitted entirely.” I leave it to your readers to judge whether our prayer book can be accused of softpedaling the “particularistic” themes of the prayer book when, in a 187-page volume which is, by design, selective, we include such passages as:

  1. Merciful Father, deal kindly with Zion and Jerusalem.
  2. Grant glory to Your people Israel, joy to its land, gladness to Your city Jerusalem.
  3. He brought forth our ancestors from Egypt.
  4. As You saved our people from the tyrant’s hands.
  5. We praise You, O God, Redeemer of Israel.
  6. Remember the virtuous deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Remember the covenant made with our ancestors. . . .

Can a prayer book be accused of “softpedaling” the particularistic in the Mahzor when it adds pictures of: bearded Jews at study, Jews of all ages at the Western Wall, Golda Meir weeping at the grave of an Israeli soldier, shelves of Hebrew books, arba hanfot hanging from a line, etc.? The traditional prayer, “May a new light shine upon Zion” is accompanied in our book by the poem “Israel” by Karl Shapiro and by the following passage written by me:

For the Jew, Israel
    is a state of mind
It is not only a piece
    of geography.
It is history.
It is theology.
It is memory.
It is Jewish tears and
    Jewish triumphs.
It is Jewish anguish
    and Jewish ecstasy.
It is childhood legends
    and Biblical verses.
It is the direction that
    we pray and the subject
      of our prayers.
It is exile and homecoming.
It is a burning Temple
    and a new flag at the
       United Nations.
It is Tisha B’Av and Yom
    Ha-Atzmaut,
It is a people restored
    and hope reborn
.

Do these lines reveal a mentality allergic to the “particularistic” in Judaism?

Another dimension of the prayer book which we have allegedly “softpedaled, mistranslated, or omitted entirely” is “whatever emphasizes . . . God’s holiness.” When the theme of God’s holiness is encountered for the first time in the Shacharit service we have added four pages . . . illustrating this concept!

Mr. Graham, trying to establish “a pattern” of allergy to the particularistic element in Judaism, cites only one illustration from among the dozens of supplementary sources used in our prayer book. He chooses a passage by the Beatles. One would not suspect from his review that we also included material from Bialik, Abraham J. Heschel, Mordecai M. Kaplan, Rabbi Tarphon, the Kotzker Rebbe, Aaron Zeitlin, and many other Jewish sources. . . . Nor does Mr. Graham give the slightest intimation that we have added pages of Holocaust material which underscores the uniqueness of Jewish history and destiny as no ancient prayer could.

Mr. Graham issues the severe verdict that “the high-minded young people for whom this prayer book has been created . . . are getting something less than the truth” from its editors. I leave it to the readers of this letter to place a copy of our prayer book alongside his review and then determine which of us gave our readers “something less than the truth.”

(Rabbi) Sidney Greenberg
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Edward Graham’s review . . . was so commendably out of step with trendy thinking that I had to let you know how much I liked it. Ironically, the political religion Sidney Greenberg and S. Allan Sugarman profess is itself falling out of style (and to be unstylish is to be dead for the trendy set!). Having gotten nowhere on the crest of a thousand secular movements, the people to whom the book is directed may yet discover the God of Israel, who judges them for their sins and does not just commend them for their liberalism. Mr. Graham’s insistence that the doctrine of t’chiyat ha-maytim. (resurrection of the dead) not be evaded is all the more courageous in light of the rarity of rabbis who will enunciate and defend this most illiberal point of Jewish faith. . . .

Jon Levenson
Somerville, Massachusetts

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Edward Graham writes:

Eli Black implies that “wide acclaim among hundreds of congregations and rabbis” is proof of the virtues of A Contemporary High Holiday Service; a visit to the remainder bookshops might remind him of countless other books that have been similarly “acclaimed.” Mr. Black uses the words “innovative” and “creativity” as if they were variations of the ineffable Name. Some innovations and creations—let it often be said—ought never to leave the drawing board. As for the “insignificant paragraphs” to which Mr. Black refers, what are they doing in so innovative and. creative a prayer book?

Rabbi Greenberg has caught me out in two points of fact. I plead guilty—though these particular factual errors do little or nothing to weaken my central objections.

Rabbi Greenberg argues that the failure to translate the Kaddish and certain other passages results from a decision to render “only those passages which we felt might be read publicly in translation.” But surely a contemporary Jewish worshiper, reciting a Kaddish or listening to a Mimkomcha, must be helped to understand what he is saying or hearing. Or is Rabbi Greenberg recommending incantation as a substitute for understanding? Besides, the list of untranslated or mistranslated pieces is very suspiciously weighted with texts that emphasize holiness, particularism, supernaturalism, and sacrifices.

I believe that Rabbi Greenberg’s argument is disingenuous and that there is another unspoken reason for these omissions and for many of the mistranslations as well, i.e., that they contain statements the editors find unacceptable and that they feel might be unacceptable to large numbers of this prayer book’s potential users. For example, just what does the untranslated Torah b’racha on page 39 mean? I would venture to guess that some of those potential users might not consciously recite a blessing announcing that God chose Israel from among all peoples to give us His Law; that some would object to the ideas obscured in the translation of Eilu D’vorim (p. 9), a prayer whose Hebrew text instructs us to dower the bride and to perform other worthy deeds in anticipation of the rewards we are to receive here and in the next world; that many would bridle at three specific references to God’s people Israel buried in the Hebrew of the short prayer, V’Ha’arev Na (p. 9). Again, I don’t want to argue theology, or public relations either; I do insist, however, that Hebrew words have meanings and that the editor/translator of a Hebrew prayer book is obligated to present those meanings honestly.

By way of dismissing my point that many of the contemporary pictorial and verbal materials serve as a “decoy” (his word) to lead the reader away from the traditional prayers they accompany, Rabbi Greenberg argues that such materials appear “all through the volume.” Indeed they do so appear, and so too do they continually distract the reader all through the volume. My objection to the Beatles’ piece and to so many of the other pop materials introduced is precisely that they do not explain or illuminate the prayers at hand. They serve instead, mistakenly and repeatedly, to suggest that the young reader’s transient social, political, and personal views—as they are reflected and distorted by today’s pop culture—are the very views that Jewish prayers have always espoused.

My Funk and Wagnalls defines particularism as “exclusive devotion to the interests of one’s particular state, party, people, or religion.” I thought and continue to think it a fine term to describe that special relationship—lovingly described and repeatedly recalled in traditional Jewish prayer—between God and His people Israel. It is a relationship that our detractors and many of our own people cannot abide. “Pictures of bearded Jews at study, Jews of all ages at the Western Wall, Golda Meir weeping at the grave of an Israeli soldier,” etc. may well have a place in a prayer book that undertakes to present pictures, and so too may supplementary selections from ancient and modern Jewish sources have a place, but they are frequently ambiguous and inadequate substitutes for the many overt and clear statements (in the traditional prayers) of the love of God for His chosen people Israel that Greenberg and Sugarman have chosen to obscure. For those specific references to this relationship that have been permitted to stand clearly stated in the Hebrew and English, I hereby record my thanks.

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Correction

In “The Conversion of the Jews,” by Marshall Sklare [September], an error occurred on page 47, line 50. “In 1939 . . .” should read “In 1930 . . .”

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