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Praying Subversively

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:  “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement.”

The power of these words, taught to me by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, grounds me as I weave our T’fillot for High Holidays. In Heschel’s theology our synagogues turn from places of rest to places of action. No more places that uphold society’s problematic aspects, only places of honest questioning. This idea draws a large question mark over the entrance to each of our Batei Knesset (Houses of Gathering) and asks, what for? Why do we gather? Beyond the legitimate need for Jewish companionship and the craving for familiar melodies and prayers, what is the meaning of this gathering? For generations now, the Reform movement has answered with social action and the ethics of Tikkun Olam. The creative transformation of our liturgy speaks to that, with examples such as the Amidah prayer in which we now mention our foremothers Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhaa and Zilpah, along with forefathers Avraham, Issac and Yaakov. This is just one instance where both gender and class hierarchies are collapsed.

But reading over Rabbi Heschel’s words, my mind is no longer quiet. What liturgical movement are we expected to create? How do I understand “revolution” in this context?


The Merriam Webster online dictionary gives this etymology: “from Latin revolvere to revolve.” To revolve is to roll or move around an axis (physically or mentally); it is to create movement while maintaining a centre. In Hebrew, the word  חג/ “chag” (holiday or festival, as in Chag Shavuot) has the same definition: to revolve, to move in a circle around a common centre. Ancient festivals are called “chag” most probably because the ritual involved some form of circle dance or movement.

For liturgical revolution to find a home, we need to create structures that can move but maintain a centre. I am reminded here of the difference between the Mikdash (Temple) and the Mishkan (Tabernacle in the desert). One was a solid (imagined) centre, strong but immovable. The other, the Mishkan, was softer, but helped us maintain our centre in a changing place, while we circled around it. Our synagogues are fashioned after the Mikdash (sometimes shuls are referred to as “Mikdash me’at,” minor temple). This leads them to be physically and mentally [emotionally?] stable, but not as nimble as the tabernacle. Synagogues tend to become more of a refuge from the outside world, which is important, but not always a guide for the wanderings in our fast-changing reality. Perhaps congregations also need a minor tabernacle? [“Mishkan me’at”? ]

What could these little tabernacles look like? One image which came to mind is the Sukkah: a small temporary hut built for the festival of Sukkot, celebrated for 7 days starting at the full moon of Tishrei. The rules for building a Sukkah ensure that the structure we create both protects us from the elements but enables us to feel them (we should have shade from the sun but must also see the stars). We often teach that the Sukkot remind us of the huts the children of Israel lived in while wandering the desert. This year I would like to suggest they are a reminder of the Mishkan, the sacred gathering place of B’nei Israel in their wanderings. A moveable, soft, sacred structure, giving image to holiness in the wilderness. During Chag Sukkot (here is that word again!), we leave our strong homes behind, we leave our imagined security and stability, move into a hut, and discover it is beautiful! That is the true revolutionary power of Sukkot – flimsy structures are decorated and made lovely, during the only festival where we are instructed (!) to be joyful. Sukkot reminds us that being outside our comfort zone can be created in joy and done in beauty. Sukkot is a time to imagine what joyfully being part of this world could feel like, and this is what our synagogues, liturgy and ritual should also learn how to do.

In the coming decades of massive change in the environment, society and technology, our Jewish sacred spaces cannot remain only places of refuge. They cannot even remain just places of learning or celebration. Rather, they should become places of inspiration for what our world could look like, portals to the world-as-it-could-be, guiding centres as we walk through the developing wilderness of the unknown.


[This was first published in the Sep. edition of The Alberta Jewish News]

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