Intention & Liturgical Change

Liturgy, Tradition, and Change

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The balance of intention and structure that is the hallmark of Jewish liturgy is also reflected in the issue of liturgical change.  Questions of change in traditional prayers come from concerns that a person cannot pray with sincerity words which may have no meaning or whose meaning does not fit with one’s religious conceptions. As is true with all aspects of liturgy, a balance is maintained between intention and structure. Liturgist Debra Reed Blank acknowledges that while Jewish liturgy has developed, those developments have fit within very specific parameters: While the aesthetics are, in her words, “malleable,” the thematic structure and the use of biblical language are constants. These represent the lines of the structure that must be maintained; within those lines, changes that respond to changing religious conception are acceptable. Reproduced with permission from JTS Magazine, Winter 2000, pages 4-5.

Some early rabbis resisted a completely fixed version of the liturgy, resulting in the designation of appropriate points for personal prayer and the development of different versions of the same berakhot (blessings). A passage in the Talmud (the main document of Rabbinic literature), for example, records two different versions of the berakhah (blessing, singular) immediately preceding the Shema. One version begins "Ahavah rabbah" (with great love) and the other begins "Ahavat olam" (with eternal love). While some communities settled on the latter alone, others allocated one version to Shaharit (morning service) and the other to Ma'ariv (evening service)--the practice recorded in Siddur Sim Shalom (the prayer book of the Conservative movement). But note that the theme of the berakhah is not altered, and the berakhah format is retained in both versions.

In the Land of Israel from about the fourth through the seventh centuries, the use of piyyutim (liturgical poems) in lieu of the standard versions of the berakhot was very popular. A piyyutic version of the Amidah (the core prayer of any Jewish prayer service), for example, would not begin "Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu velohei avoteinu..." (Praised are You, Lord our God and God of our ancestors…”) but rather with a poem. It would weave together the theme of the berakhah, in this case God as the defender of Abraham, with the Torah reading for the week or the holiday or some other appropriate reference. Scholars have uncovered many of these among the fragments found in the Cairo Genizah (cache of discarded sacred documents). They testify to a cultural willingness to view the aesthetics of liturgy as malleable. What does not change is the arrangement of the themes of the Amidah into a berakhah series, each marked by the use of the closing berakhah formula. So in a poetic version of a Shabbat Amidah, there are still seven berakhot; it's just that the standard language has been replaced by a poem. The standard seven closing berakhah formulae are still there, with their themes intact.

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Dr. Debra R. Blank

Dr. Debra R. Blank teaches liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was ordained in 1984.