|Read Rabbi Barras’ Monthly Reflections — “Rav Bar Oz”|
In this space each month, we feature the writings of one of the members of our Beth Am Clergy. This month we invite Rabbi Judith Kempler to share some thoughts with you. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments.
We are thrilled to bring Mishkan T’filah to our worship
Thy soul shall find itself alone
’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone—
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee—and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still.
Above, in Edgar Allen Poe’s Spirits of the Dead, the poet paints a picture of what happens to the soul after the body has died. But does this picture ring true for us? How do we as Jews see the body and the soul after death? The struggle to label, define and demarcate the Jewish view surrounding life and death appears throughout our daily liturgy.
The second section of the Amidah, Gevurot, speaks of God’s great might and ability to be our source of life and blessing. The Gevurot includes a list of several things that God does for us with this great power including support the fallen, heal the sick, free the captive, sustaining hope to the downtrodden and acting as the Source of Life to All. In both the opening and closing lines of the Gevurot God is called M’chayei Ha’Kol, one who gives life to ALL. Most of us have read or sung these words countless times without giving much thought to their history (or truth!). But, embedded in the words of this well-worn prayer is a major theological and liturgical evolution that has recently come to the forefront yet again.
Let me explain. If you open an Orthodox or “traditional” prayer book to this section of the Amidah, you would find that the paragraph closes with the blessing (known as a chatima) Baruch Ata Adonai M’chai Ha’meytim. Most literally, this blessing translates as “Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead.”
In seeing this wording, we might ask, “What does this mean and do WE (Reform Jews) believe it?” Is this a literal revival of dead bodies or souls? Or something more metaphorical? The answer is both yes and yes. The rabbis of the Talmud speaks of this revival metaphorically, suggesting that we recite “Blessed are You… who revives the dead” when we see someone whom we have not seen in over a year (BT Berachot 58b). In this way, it becomes a “WOW, you’re still alive — that’s wonderful!” kind of blessing. The wording is also found in the early, early morning liturgy right before the morning blessings in which we thank God for renewed consciousness and energy upon waking up by saying, “Blessed are you… who restores the souls of dead corpses.” (As in…I was dead asleep or I was dead to the world).
But, there is also a stronger precedent for understanding this “revival” literally. Some rabbis claimed that the whole person dies and is resurrected at some future time while others maintained that only the body dies and the soul lives on until it is rejoined with the body at the time of resurrection. Either way, this notion that God revives or resuscitates the dead was rejected by the Reform, British Liberal, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. The idea of resurrection was rejected in favor of the immortality of the soul.
This rejection manifested itself in our prayer books first and foremost and has taken a variety of forms.
The Union Prayer Book replaced m’chayei ha’meytim with the phrase “who has implanted within us immortal life.” (Found in the blessings after the reading of Torah).
More recently, the liberal liturgists moved away from any notion of afterlife, including the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer which used the phrase, m’chayeh hakol (giving life to everything) and translated it as “all life is your gift” or “give life to all.” The Reconstructionist prayer book, Kol HaNeshama, uses m’chayeh kol chai, translated as “nurturing the life of every living thing” and describes God as “the fount of life, who gives and renews life.” Here you can see how the more liberal branches of Judaism have tried to avoid or reinterpret notions of resurrection in favor of emphasizing the role of God as the one who gives life. Our own prayer book, Nesiat Ha’Nefesh, A Journey of the Soul, says Baruch Ata Adonai m’chayei hakol and in the English “Beloved are You, Adonai, who gives and renews life.”
But, something interesting has occurred in the publication of the NEWEST Reform movement prayer book: a return of m’chayei ha’meytim. Why did the creators of this prayer book make this choice? What does it say about the theological shifts within the Reform movement today?
The return to m’chayei ha’meytim is just one of several interesting textual changes that occur in this siddur. Published in 2007, Mishkan T’filah has been used by hundreds of congregations and, this fall, it will become our community’s official prayer book as well!
In preparation for this change, the clergy will be offering several workshops throughout the summer that will help us understand the liturgical changes, emendations and navigate our way through this new prayer experience. In the fall, I will be teaching a longer series of classes on understanding prayer and exploring the history of our liturgy.
We are thrilled to bring Mishkan T’filah to our Friday night worship, Shabbat morning minyan and holiday celebrations. Have questions about liturgy or why it is that we pray, bow or chant in a certain way? Email me at email@example.com or any of the clergy. Enjoy the summer!
Rabbi Judith Kempler