By some strange series of coincidences, Judy and I managed to attend both the ballet and the symphony last weekend. (This is one of the greatest advantages to Pittsburgh over New York, BTW – while NYC may have far more options for cultural offerings, here it is cheaper and easier to see world-class performers. Just one more reason why Pittsburgh is truly awesome.)
Upon leaving Heinz Hall, Judy made the observation to me that at times, listening to a symphony orchestra live is similar to the experience of sitting in synagogue services and letting the sounds of tefillah wash over you and put you in a meditative zone. It is a distinctly “low-tech” experience, where you seemingly do nothing more than sit. But, psychically, spiritually, so much is happening in this state.
While I must say that usually I am a little more engaged in the recitation of words of tefillah rather than letting it “wash over me,” I certainly appreciate where she is coming from. The synagogue experience, in some ways, is the culmination of two thousand years, and arguably three thousand years of development. It is a highly-refined, carefully-constructed piece of spiritual canvas upon which the words of liturgy have been painted. Love it or hate it (not all of us are shul-goers), the synagogue experience, that is, davening / sitting in the pews is certainly the most well-known image of observant Jewish practice.
And, like the symphony and the ballet, it functions on a few different levels. On the one hand, all can enter and participate (by merely being in the audience and listening or watching or following along in the siddur / prayerbook). On the other, to truly appreciate what is being created and referenced and invoked in its vast complexity, requires much more knowledge and effort.
And in some sense, the origin of Jewish prayer is drawn from the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Vayyiqra, which details the basic types of sacrifices offered on an ongoing basis in the Temple. The sacrificial system, as practiced in the mishkan (portable altar) and later the First and Second Temples, was the earliest form of Israelite worship, and arguably the ancestor of tefillah / prayer. Rambam (aka Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1205 Spain, Morocco, and Egypt) tells us that the ultimate goal of animal sacrifice was to bring us to the better mode of worship, that is, tefillah, the prayers of our hearts, minds, and lips.
So, while I am happy (as a vegetarian and a lover of animals) that we have not offered animal sacrifices since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (thanks, Rome!), I must concede that the very holy acts in which we have been engaged this morning are originally derived from Parashat Vayyiqra and the sacrificial rites of ancient Israelite tradition.
Back to the ballet and the symphony. Consider the following: the siddur / prayerbook that you hold in front of you is a pastiche of texts, poems, instructions, customs, and choreography that span Jewish history. The oldest parts are ancient writings that may be 3000 years old; these are drawn from the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible: the Shema, the Psalms of Pesuqei Dezimra, Veshamru, etc. And then there is a whole range of composed prayers from the rabbinic period, in the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. Not counting the brand-new material like the Prayers for the Country and the State of Israel, the youngest parts are only about 500 years old, poems like Lekha Dodi.
The range of piyyutim, liturgical poems (the Hebrew word piyyut is a borrowing from the Greek poietes, poet) spans over a thousand years; the payyetanim, clever wordsmiths from the Middle Ages, wrote thousands of these special additions to the siddur. In certain periods of Jewish history, congregations looked forward to hearing newly-composed piyyutim presented by the hazzan (cantor) every Shabbat.
The structure of every Jewish service, like a symphony or a ballet, has multiple movements. Every service has a specific formula, and they are all built around two things: Shema and Amidah. The Shema (along with the berakhot / blessing structures around it) we say morning and night, as instructed in the first paragraph. The Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, replaced the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Together, the Shema and Amidah may be thought of as the central movements of the symphony, sometimes accompanied by special extra pieces that appear from time to time: reading the Torah, the joyous Psalms of Hallel, and so forth.
Choreography: Tefillah is a kind of dance! We step forward, away from our everyday selves and into the heavenly court when we begin the Amidah; we step back at the end to return. We bow at certain times. We elevate ourselves like angels during Qedushah, our feet held tightly together like the heavenly beings described by Ezekiel in his vision of the chariot (Ezekiel, chapter 1). We shuckle – sway to put our whole body behind our words. We stand, we sit, we cover our eyes, we march around with the Torah.
History. Like the ballet and the symphony, each movement of tefillah / prayer has a story behind it. The Amidah, for example, is rooted in Talmudic literature, and, as I said earlier, is understood to replace the daily sacrifices about which we read earlier.
In the weekday Amidah, the original eighteen berakhot (benedictions) recited three times daily were standardized by Shim’on HaPaquli in the Beit Midrash of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh during the first century CE (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 17b).
And there are stories behind the choreography and the customs. Why do we recite silently the line after the opening line of the Shema (“Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed”)? Not only because it’s not in the Torah (unlike the rest of the three paragraphs of the Shema), but also because a midrash tells us that when God gave these words to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the heavenly court of angels (yes, more angels!) responded with these words. So we add them, but only in an undertone to prevent breaking up the words of the Torah.
History, culture, our stories have all shaped the siddur.
And yet, the siddur is a work that is still in flux. Really, everything in the category of Talmud Torah, learning the words of Jewish tradition and passing them down from generation to generation, is a work in progress. While the text of the Torah does not change, the way that we read it and understand it certainly does.
Likewise, the symphony and the ballet have changed:
- instruments have changed
- tuning has changed
- audience taste has changed
- training of dancers has changed
- interpretations have changed
And so forth.
And we, the Jews, have changed as well. So too have our modes of prayer. And yet there is a kernel of continuity which will always make our services uniquely Jewish: the Hebrew language, the structures of berakhot, the basic “dance” moves, the silent moments, etc.
The symphony will continue. We will always dance through the choreography of services, to create that sacred space through reciting our ancient (and not-as-ancient) words from movement to movement. Whether you let it wash over you like a member of the audience or you are first violin or a principal ballerina, leading the whole endeavor, the pieces fit together in a harmonic, choreographed expression of what it means to resonate with Jewish history, culture, and tradition.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/19/2016.)