In lifeatholyblossom, moscowitz, siddur

Here is a taste of the new siddur we launched this past Shabbat morning– my preface at the outset of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh.

PREFACE: Siddur Pirchei Kodesh

With the publication of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, Holy Blossom Temple has embraced the future. In the shadow of the bloodiest century in human history, when grave doubts about Divine existence and efficacy continue to harden hearts, we nonetheless assert the centrality of prayer. When few affirmations ring true, we confidently affirm that we may still approach God in gratitude, our entreaties and hopes expressed and embodied in our new siddur.

Still, why trouble ourselves with prayer at all?  Indeed, why introduce a new siddur, even one which, while elegantly melding past and present, is keen for the future?  Our answer, three-fold, begins with the current spiritual agitation – a rampant disquiet appearing indifferent to prayer, at best. This spiritual unrest, however, is hardly new: born of human want and yearning, it occupies every heart in every people in every time. In conceiving this book, we sought not to ignore such spiritual need but rather to know it and name it. To do so, we went back to our beginnings as a people, confident our past may help pave an understanding of the present, and no less, the needs of the interior life of Jews in every age.

Consider, then, the Biblical Hannah, she who is barren, “in bitterness of soul,” who, after years of hoping, pours out her heart, beseeching God for a son.  Hannah prays intensely and earnestly; she says to God, in effect, why would you give me this body, so ready to bear and nurture a child — and yet no child?  While Hannah is troubled by the dissonance between what she desires and what she has, she believes God might yet be available to her.  Hannah’s yearnings outrun her satisfactions, and so she turns to prayer.

Witnessing Hannah’s passions while at prayer, the High Priest, Eli, initially misjudges her, deriding this restive self possessed woman as a drunkard.  Upon realizing his error, Eli bids her to go in peace and expresses the hope that God hear her pleas. Before long, Hannah’s prayers are answered; she more than makes up for her earlier barrenness, giving birth a number of times over — first to a boy who will become the Prophet Samuel, then to three more sons and two daughters. Instinctive at prayer, Hannah is the Bible’s paradigm of the spirit unleashed toward God.  Moved by her spirit, cognisant of the complexity of the human condition, the Sages hold her up as an exemplar of human prayer.  Like the Rabbis, we, too, know what has taken hold of Hannah’s heart; we recognize her seeking, even as we may fail at her articulations. Siddur Pirchei Kodesh is our endeavour not to falter at giving voice to our longings, and those of others to follow.

For we need  be claimed neither by Hannah’s exemplary status, nor by  her biblical circumstances to experience the tug of  internal yearnings or to sense the still familiar, scent of Jewish prayer.  Vulnerable and mortal, achingly absorbed by need and want, yet capable of Hannah’s spirited greatness, we reach for the Divine far more often than we are inclined to admit.  This new book gives concrete expression to that audacious overture.

Is this kind of yearning for the Divine not the way of the Jew?  To reach out in private desperation like Hannah; to sing in public grandeur like the Levites; to rage in broken-hearted angst like Job; to proclaim in triumphant gratitude like Deborah; to reflect in awe like the Psalmist – so that, collectively, if not individually, our relationship with the Divine, while it might have broken many times, did not do so irrevocably.

The seeking soul and the yearning heart have always been animators of Jewish prayer. Yet, such personal exigencies are not cause alone for Siddur Pirchei Kodesh.

Why then this particular book, the sixth or so in our congregation’s history — one rather different from previous prayerbooks to grace these pews on Bathurst Street, and those on Bond and Richmond Streets? Why this book, one which neither pretends away the great age of Jewish prayer, nor presumes ours to be a time deaf to prayer?  And why now — when radical individualism appears to overwhelm communal striving, when an omniscient, digitalized reality holds sway equally over public life as it does over private preoccupation?  We believe this siddur must help to transcend the personal experience, and form a bridge between the personal and communal realms.

Now, as our congregation’s and people’s yearnings wend their ways towards the ways of the Jews, two other factors inspire this new siddur. One is located within the surprisingly enduring relationship between Jews and books; the other is driven by the contemporary sense of Peoplehood.

For the Jews, books, particularly those infused with the enduring word of the Divine and the interpretive wisdom of the Rabbis, possess nobility, even answers.  The Bible, The Talmud, The Siddur — these books hold forth as our intellectual and religious foundation.  The knowledge and the framework for understanding the world found within them instruct and inspire: as God speaks to us in Torah, we speak to God as we pray and learn these texts.  We believe our sacred books are transformational; they yield knowledge and wisdom; they build character and shape how we think; they stand tall as religious and personal bulwarks against an age that has lost its bearings. These books bear the imprint of many conversations, yearnings and challenges over the millennia, the Biblical Hannah’s among them. Even were ours not a time of rapid digitalization, these books, the holy books of the Jews, belong within the physical grasp of the Jew.

Siddur Pirchei Kodesh stands in the honoured line of such books and this thinking. Still, its conception has occurred when the desire to belong, unmistakably manifest amongst untethered liberals, inevitably draws us toward tradition and ritual (at least in the public realm), if not belief itself.   For while human needs and yearnings are eternal, and while the human condition is deeply redolent of fragility and hope; nonetheless, the world moves on and circumstances change. Our liberal Jewish milieu and we liberal Jews, inextricably bound up in the life beyond our community — integrated we like to say, not assimilated — stand more than ever with and within the People Israel, “Klal Yisrael”.  The State and Land of Israel, the Hebrew language, the smell, the thinking and organizing framework of Jewish tradition, the norms and values of an ancient religion and its people — these compel us here in the twenty-first century as they have not for a century or more.  For now the essence of Jewish Peoplehood — long the heart of Jewish liturgy – is integral to the ethos of Holy Blossom Temple, its prayers, its passions, its Jews. It is our privilege, indeed our loving obligation, to join our voices and longings to those of Hannah and the myriad who have come before us.

May it long be so and may the collective wisdom found in these pages become our preoccupation in the best sense. And now, when prayer is needed as much as at any time past, may this prayerbook be treasured, availed of, loved so that we, the Jews of this sacred place, possessed of faith or not, stand before God and one another with Siddur Pirchei Kodesh in our hands and with gratitude in our hearts.

Rabbi John Moscowitz
June, 2011
Sivan 5771

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