Yom Kippur – Say What You Mean

One of the things that, when I was in a more “mainstream” movement Jewish setting, frustrated me was the language of prayer. What I mean by that is the translations in most of the “liberal” are also themselves quite, erm, liberal vis-a-vis the original Hebrew; once I actually learned Hebrew, the highly artistic-ish English translations of say, Siddur Sim Shalom became very, very suspect because they are really not accurate.

Last night, I thought I would take a look at the (it’s the old one from 1972) Conservative mahzor on my bookcase (prosaically titled “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” in English, and Mahzor L’Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) to see if I could find anything interesting/inspiring/appropriate for setting a course on thoughts for Yom Kippur. After taking a quick spin though the Kol Nidre prayer and not really finding great inspiration there (it is, after all, a preemptive mulligan on vows for the coming year–nice, legal stuff), I went to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Boy, did I find something. But, as is so often the case, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It was something way, way better.

After setting forth Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19 in Hebrew with a pretty decent English translation on the opposite page, we get this gem (my translation from the Hebrew):

Master of the Universe, Merciful and Forgiving Father whose right hand is extended to accept those who return, I have conducted myself according to the will of my inclination toward evil; I have rejected the good and chosen the bad. And not only have I not sanctified my limbs, but I have also made them unclean.

I will admit, it’s a rough translation, not great in the details and not artfully done (it’s early and my son is running around jabbering about VeggieTales). It is, however, something the Conservative mahzor is not; basically literal. The English on the facing page of the mahzor doesn’t even attempt a literal translation, instead including paraphrases like “Is there a person anywhere altogether righteous…? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation,” and “The struggle is ceaseless, the choice is ours.” (Mazhor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 347)

The next few paragraphs all begin the same way: “barata bi”–“You [God] have created in me” various characteristics–a mind and heart to contemplate the good and to discern holy things, eyes that can see the universe’s beauty, etc. Several of them conclude similarly, too: “oi li ki”–woe unto me, for “I have followed my eyes and made them impure,” or “I have made my ears too impure to hear words of prayer.”

The English? “I have been created with eyes” or “ears” or “a mind,” but always passive, deemphasizing the clearly active voice of the underlying Hebrew. And the conclusion does not include the “woe unto me,” but rather says, “Often I squander God’s gift and look without seeing,” or “hear without listening.” (p. 347)

The problem–and it’s like this throughout the mahzor–is that the English is gussied up, sanitized a bit, and presented as if what we’re saying in Hebrew is what we’re saying in English. (Yes, it’s the older mahzor. Guess what? The Conservative movement’s approach hasn’t really changed much on translation over the last few decades.)

It is not. And if you care about the integrity of public liturgy–whether you want to call it prayer, shared ritual, or something else–that’s a problem. It’s a problem that the mainstream liberal Jewish movements don’t really deal with well, because they live in a strange world where the “sancta” of Judaism (Mordechai Kaplan’s terms) are largely preserved and retained in use, put into the mouth of the average congregant (or at least recited on her or his behalf), and yet are clearly not what the leadership of those movements understand their members as willing to affirm or have affirmed for them.

Yet on the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance quadruples (or more!), those most important of days in the calendar, shouldn’t we say what we mean? And for those of us who will or have taken leadership roles, shouldn’t we provide our fellow Jews with the ability to say what they mean?

This is a hard thing, without question, because it presents us with a challenge: how much do we preserve? What do we set aside? How do we do so in a way that respects a wide range of beliefs? And how do we do so for ourselves?

I think the place to start is by acting for ourselves. And so that is what I plan to do this year. As we move through the calendar, I will try to use or craft language that reflects what I actually think.

I recognize that this will be a challenge for me. It already has been, and we’re not through Yom Kippur yet. I still find awkward–because they are unfamiliar–the blessings for Shabbat and Havdalah that are in the Society for Humanistic Judaism materials. But I can’t in good conscience recite the traditional blessings, because I don’t believe in a god that directly created the universe or acts in history; and that is so regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic I find the traditional texts.

I am comforted, however, by a reminder that this isn’t the first time I have had to adjust to the new. In that timely way they have, Tablet Magazine published an article this week, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year.” It reminded me that I learned to play guitar awkwardly, at first, but became more natural over time. So, too, with Hebrew (and I’m still learning there). So, too, with the traditional prayers I know so well.

So, too, will this be. And it will be an adventure.

I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully, you will have or have had an easy fast, if you fasted. I wish my Jewish readers all the best in the coming year. (To my non-Jewish readers, too, but you’re likely not so preoccupied by Yom Kippur.)

And now, here in Indianapolis, the sky is a clear blue, the temperature is wonderful, and after this morning, we will be headed out to be in the world a bit to cap off the High Holidays.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah.

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