Interpretive Translations

The experience of communal prayer means many things to many people – indeed, it can resonate in a myriad of ways for each and every one of us at any given moment. So too, no two siddurim (prayerbooks) are exactly alike – each reflects the unique spiritual sensibility of the community that uses it.

(These prayers were) written and compiled with the characteristically Reconstructionist mix of the traditional and the contemporary in mind. While Reconstructionists have a deep reverence and respect for tradition, we have long been willing to change and adapt the liturgy when we find it at odds with our contemporary spiritual sensibilities. For instance, because Reconstructionism affirms the spiritual integrity of all peoples and religious traditions, we have deleted exclusivist references to Jewish “chosenness” from our liturgy. Likewise, because Reconstructionist thought holds that our concern for others does not and should not end with the Jewish people alone, we have added the words “al kol yoshvei tevel” (“for all who dwell on earth”) to several well-known prayers. And because we understand divinity as beyond culturally-based conceptions of gender, we do not use words such as “He” or “King” when referring to God. The question of how to render the name of God (in Hebrew: YHWH) has always presented a challenging conundrum for translators. The Hebrew term represents the ineffable divine name – an impossible conflation of all three verb tenses of “to be.” How then, might we translate a word that was ultimately intended to be untranslatable? How do we apprehend something that is utterly beyond apprehension? In addressing this challenge, the editors of the current Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshamah, used a variety of different adjectives as liturgical substitutes for God’s name. (These prayers) utilize a more straightforward approach: YHWH is simply translated as “the One” – and the simple pronoun “you” is employed whenever God is addressed directly.

This approach obviously will not fully satisfy all the theological challenges involved in the contemporary practice of prayer- particularly for those who struggle with the concept of a personal God. While these kinds of theological issues are obviously complicated, I would only suggest that those who are unsure to “whom” they are praying might understand the act of prayer to be a kind of “spiritual poetry.” Much like an art form, prayer uses the medium of language to express our innermost longings, hopes, fears, praises, thanks, etc. Even if we do not literally believe in plain meaning of some prayers, prayer language can still help us to access our deepest spiritual yearnings and aspirations. (When it comes to prayer, I often offer this pithy advice: “Try not to get stuck in the words … “)

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to our service!
Rabbi Brant Rosen
January 2013/Tevet 5773

Original Melodies of Traditional Jewish Prayers

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