Tradition Today: Reclaiming our heritage

The siddur is a classic of Hebrew literature and Jewish culture which should be reclaimed and taken seriously by all.

I recently attended a performance of Ernest Bloch's "Sacred Service," a setting of some Jewish liturgical texts. As I listened to Bloch's lush and powerful music and looked around me at the rapt audience in Jerusalem's International Conference Center, several thoughts came to my mind. Seeing that for the most part the audience was not made up of people from the "religious" sector, I wondered how many of them were familiar at all with these prayers. Perhaps this was their first acquaintance with some of them and I wondered what they thought. I assume that even very secular Jews know the line Shema Yisrael, but do they know the verses that follow? What about the Kedusha, Tzur Yisrael, Aleinu, Adon Olam, parts of which were included in the work? I would not be surprised if for most, these texts were no more familiar than those of the Bach cantata that preceded the Bloch on the program. At least they were in Hebrew, while Bach was in German. Those who receive an education, even a good one, in our general schools are never exposed to the siddur. It's too religious. The only exception would be the Tali schools and a few others that give the general population a more extensive Jewish education, including the siddur. That is one of the tragedies of Israeli life. The siddur is a basic text of Judaism, a classic work of Jewish literature. Is it to be banished simply because it is "religious"? But my mind wandered as well to the observant population. They know these texts, but how seriously do they take them? All too often synagogues tend to hurry through the liturgy. Prayer is often taken as a requirement that must be fulfilled, but need not be given too much attention. Often people can be seen to mumble the words but do not concentrate on the meaning. Furthermore there seems to be a tendency in many synagogues to use melodies that are intended to be lively and catchy but not necessarily appropriate to the text. Take Adon Olam, for example. Often the melodies used for it make a mockery of the words. They treat it as just another song. It is also too often simply a signal to take off one's tallit and move toward the kiddush. The Bloch setting - which is not suitable for the synagogue but only for the concert hall and trained musicians - makes it very clear that this is a poem of deep spiritual significance which has cosmic meaning. Surely there are melodies all can sing that reflect that. As Bloch himself wrote, "It embodies a philosophy which transcends all creeds, all 'science,' and which, properly interpreted, may outlive them all; it is perhaps the last word of wisdom and knowledge." Bloch was right. Although Adon Olam has been attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol, we do not actually know who wrote it. The majestic opening of the poem paints a mysterious picture in which God is termed the master of the olam - the universe and eternity. The word olam has both the meaning "cosmos" and "eternity." The phrase comes from Psalm 97:5. When we speak of God as adon olam, we are referring to His transcendental, unknowable nature. God is described as existing before all else and as continuing to exist when all else has disappeared. Even then God "reigns in awesome majesty." The very thought takes us into spheres beyond our understanding and beyond the usual imagery of God in which we picture the ultimate goal as the time when God will be sovereign of the entire world. Here there is no world, nothing but the divine that existed before the cosmos came into being. And yet in the second part of the poem, this God who is "without beginning and without end" becomes the very personal and intimate God of the individual. V'hu eli - "He is my God, my living redeemer" who answers in times of distress. The transcendent, exalted God so far beyond human understanding is also the immanent God who is close to each individual and who cares for the individual. As Psalm 113 puts it, "Who is like the Lord our God, enthroned on high, who lowers Himself to see what is below." The poem then concludes with the assertion that the individual can entrust this God with his entire being, body and soul, because "the Lord is with me and I have no fear," an echo of the famous words of the 23rd psalm, "I will fear no evil for You are with me." To quote Bloch again, "Thus... he commits himself, soul and body, into God's hands; or, if one prefers it, he relies upon the vast forces, the laws, the everlasting and higher truth of the universe, and upon their ultimate wisdom." Yes, the siddur is a classic of Hebrew literature and Jewish culture which should be reclaimed and taken seriously by all - observant and non-observant - as a central part of our rich heritage. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.