Modernizing the Jewish Prayerbook:
Revisions That Sacrifice the Spirit
Throughout the ages, the Prayerbook has occupied a central position in Jewish life. More than a mere manual of devotion, it is—in a sense—Israel’s personal diary, catching, as in a series of exquisite vignettes, the scenes and moments of her entire life, and recording, in a diversity of moods and styles, her deepest and most intimate emotions. Here, for those who have eyes and ears, is Sinai on the one hand, and Belsen on the other; the gleaming courts of the Temple, and the peeling walls of a Polish klaus; the blare of the silver trumpets, and the singsong of the Talmud student; the colonnaded walks of a Spanish town, and the narrow, winding lanes of Safed. Here is a Gabirol effortlessly bringing down the immortal to earth, and a Rhineland cantor scribbling his earthiness into immortality. Here is Luria panting desperately after the Celestial Chariot, and Kalir pinning the glories of God to an acrostic.
Yet the remarkable thing about the Prayerbook is that, for all its gradual growth, its diversity of expression, and its infinite variety of atmospheres and modes, its basic outlook and philosophy have remained always the same. Back of the elaborate rituals of the Temple, the tortuous virtuosity of the medieval hymnographers, the quirks and conceits of the Cabalists and mystics, there has lain a common adherence to certain fundamental tenets and concepts: the divine direction of nature and event; the immutability of the Torah, or divine dispensation; the Covenant and the special commitment of Israel; the eternity rather than transience of life; the ultimate, inevitable triumph of righteousness. Through exile, crusade, Inquisition, and pogrom, Israel has consistently found in these ideas the frame for her identity and her experience.
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