Sermon – Does it matter that I don’t believe the prayers in the siddur?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 June 2011

In the American television series Lie to Me, the British actor Tim Roth plays Dr Cal Lightman, a leading behavioural scientist who can detect whether someone is telling the truth by reading their micro expressions – the twitches, eye movements and looks that we might give without knowing we are doing it. I have no idea whether this has any grounding in science, and in truth it is not a great programme.  But I thought of it last Shabbat as we came to the end of our Psukei D’Zimra, the verses of song that prepare us for prayer.  Rather unusually last week, having started early and with some extra time, we read the medieval poem ‘ilu finu’ – if our mouths were full of song as the sea’.

Now this is a fascinating piece of liturgy – It is a classic example of how our prayerbook expanded through the middle ages – the insertion of a piyyut, a poem, into a core piece of liturgy. It also contains a really interesting internal theological dialogue… Ilu Finu expresses the idea that our words are insufficient to praise God but it is attached to Nishmat Col Chai – a prayer that expresses our obligation to praise God.  It is a wonderful, and very Jewish contradiction. The insertion also contains its own word play – Nishmat Col Chai – the breath of life, leads into Ilu Finu – if our mouths.

So it is fascinating. BUT it is also a piece of our liturgy with which I have great difficulty.  In one part it is, for me, right now, the most problematic text in our whole Siddur.  For as well as expressing the insufficiency of our words – which I get – it also makes a claim of divine intervention in the world:  Our redeemer, it states “from violence you delivered us, from plagues you saved us, and from many terrible diseases you rescued us”.  This is a claim that I find hard to read – I don’t believe in this model of divine providence, in the idea that God protects a chosen people – in the light of twentieth century Jewish history I find it a challenging theology.

So as we read it last week, I wondered what a Cal Lightman might be reading in me – what micro expressions I might be demonstrating as I read something, in truth, that I don’t believe.

I had similar thoughts on Tuesday evening as we ended our Tikkun Leil Shavuot.  We had spent this special evening of study looking at Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.  In this articulation of Jewish dogma, Maimonides makes various theological assertions which again I don’t believe, indeed which raise great difficulties for many of us as modern Jews. And yet, at the end of the evening we came together for a rousing chorus of Yigdal and Ani Ma’amin, two poetic versions of the 13. When putting together the programme, I had deliberately called this closing session ‘Yigdal Elohim chai – we may not believe it but we sure can sing it’. But, again, I found myself reflecting on the dissonance between the words and the liturgical act and thinking what to make of it. We may be able to sing it – but should we?

These examples reflect a real challenge for us.  Ours is not a religion that believes only in spontaneous personal prayer, but in communal prayer using a set liturgy.  However, ours is a liturgy from a different age.  It is a liturgy that is grounded in ancient prayer and overlaid with medieval text.  A liturgy that is not uniform, not crafted, but one that evolved over a thousand years – and so it is one that contains things that absolutely express where we are, but also inevitably contains things that are miles away from where we are.

So what do we do with a liturgy that we don’t believe?

One option is just to babble straight through it.  I don’t mean this critically.  Well, maybe a little.  But this is a legitimate, and classically Jewish practice – to engage with liturgy as ritual, with the prayerbook as almost mantra, and not to engage with the content of it intellectually. Not to be concerned by what the words we say mean, but to value the act of saying. This comes out of the classical Jewish model of obligation, in which recitation is understood to be a Jewish duty, irrespective of understanding or, ultimately, meaning.

But it is not the Progressive Jewish response.  Our movement, as well as prioritising ethics and inclusivity, also believe in the rational self.  That as human beings, granted the divine gift of the intellect, we should not do things without really considering their meaning.

Hence progressive liturgies from the very start of the reforming movements have developed the liturgy to try to ensure that we can pray with integrity.  And we have done it in two ways.  One is to simply remove things which have absolutely no place in a modern liturgy – such as prayers for the restoration of animal sacrifices in a rebuilt Temple.  And as Shlichei Tzibbur – as service leaders, we also might do this – might select and edit as we go to avoid tensions.  Another option that movements take is to take the shape and ideas found in the early liturgy, but to slightly change the wording – either in the Hebrew text or just in the translation, to change the meaning to reflect modern sensibilities.  Interestingly, the early 20th Century British progressive liturgies of Israel Mattuck and Basil Henriques attempted to rewrite sections of Yigdal – either in the Hebrew or the translation, to remove some of the more difficult theological ideas.  But they did so, to my eye, with very limited success, and their changes did not survive. And this lack of success points to the limitation of this approach.  It is hugely important that we take out that which is, quite simply, unethical or illegitimate.  To do so makes prayer work better: The great Orthodox thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said of prayer that it is “the doctrine of human needs.  Prayer tells the individual as well as the community, what his/her or its genuine needs are, what s/he should, or should not, petition God about…” If this is true, though Soloveitchik would disagree, if this is true, then if a petitionary prayer is no longer genuine, if something is no longer a legitimate need, it must be removed.

But that does not apply to the poetry of our prayerbook.  To remove that which is unethical is not the same as stripping the liturgy bare of anything challenging, removing anything which does not exactly reflect where we are and what we believe right now.  Prayer is an expressive act – the liturgy we have is accumulation of the poetic expression of our people. In this respect, while it needs to be sayable with integrity, it doesn’t need to be accurate – it is not a statement of history. Though it cannot be entirely alien, it doesn’t exactly need to reflect our own beliefs – it is not a systematic theology. Good religion – in its combination of imagery, words and music, of choreography, ritual and community can move us, inspire us and challenge us in a way few other art forms can – even when the words we read are not our own.  The poetry of the siddur is an invaluable part of that magical combination.

I will continue to struggle with ilu finu – in one place it expresses something fundamentally that I cannot hold true.  When I read it, it challenges me, and I do so, no doubt, with micro expressions aplenty. But read it, and be challenged by it, I will. And similarly, I will continue to sing Yigdal whole heartedly, with full voice, safe in the knowledge that I may not believe it. And that, in a very Jewish way, that doesn’t really matter at all.