Monday, August 23, 2004

A Call For English Readings

My brother-in-law is running High Holy Day services in Montreal (with a little bit of help from others, including DH and me), and he has apparently had trouble finding English readings that are accessible without being completely vapid. This has left me thinking about why appropriate readings are so difficult to find.

Part of the problem is that our situation is so far from ideal. It would be nice if everyone could read the traditional prayers in their original language. It would be nice if everyone were sufficiently familiar with the liturgy to be able to invest it with meaning on their own. It would be nice if we could count on everyone to be 100% present, ready to be intellectually and emotionally invested in the service. Since none of these is the case, we is stuck trying to find texts in the vernacular that relatively apathetic congregants might find meaningful on their first and only reading.

Another problem is that the readings that exist are found mainly in Reform and Reconstructionist prayer books, and they are generally unsatisfying. Just as liberal Jews seem to have trouble achieving a sense of grief on Tisha B'Av, they seem to have trouble promoting guilt and remorse on the High Holy Days. Liberal spiritual leaders want to make worship a positive experience. They want to emphasize God's mercy and unconditional love for all humankind. They don't like the idea of divine judgment. That's all very well, but in the final analysis, there can be no repentance without remorse, and without repentance, the quest for spirituality is rather vacuous. We have to start by feeling bad about ourselves.

A third problem is the literary quality (or lack thereof) of most contemporary "creative liturgy." The Conservative prayer book is filled with horrid compositions by committees of rabbis, which sound like translations even though they aren't. Stilted language can be distracting.

Now that I've made the task seem completely insurmountable, does anyone know where we might be able to find quality English readings? They don't have to be perfect. The more material we have, the better, even if we don't love all of it. Contemporary poems by actual poets are good (I look to the VR here). Excerpts from works of Jewish philosophy, ancient or modern, are good too. Translations of traditional prayers are great if they're readable. (Does anyone know where we could find a halfway decent translation of the High Holy Day piyyutim?) Midrash, psalms, biblical passages . . . whatever. Variety is the spice of life.

Thanks for your help.

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