The Amidah Project

This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.

(This post has been graciously cross-published on DavenSpot here.)

For the past few months, my Reform synagogue has done something most Reform synagogues don’t: we’ve stood and recited a partially silent Amidah, Judaism’s sizeable central prayer. You find the Amidah–which means “standing” in Hebrew, because you stand when you say it–in every Jewish service, whether shacharit (the morning service), mincha (afternoon), or maariv (evening.) Tradition suggests most if not all of the Amidah is recited silently, and most Orthodox and Conservative congregations follow suit.

Yet even with the traditionalizing trend of the past three decades, many Reform congregations pray an abbreviated form of the Amidah, always out loud, and often seated for the prayer’s latter parts. Meaningful passages in Hebrew are often skipped in favor of English intepretations or, simply, left out entirely.

Aside from a few seconds for “silent prayer,” there isn’t often the same opportunity our Orthodox and Conservative brethren have to really be alone with your heartfelt intention.  In fact, a typical Reform Amidah can be far from heartfelt. It’s hard to really go deep with your tradition’s central prayer when your denomination seems afraid of it’s deepest parts.

When we decided to test out a partially silent Amidah (we still chant the first three, long blessings out loud), several people pushed back. Some were afraid they wouldn’t understand the “new” parts in Hebrew. (We use Mishkan T’Filah, Reform’s latest, fully translated and transliterated prayerbook.) Some were afraid they wouldn’t know how long to stand or when to sit down. (We sit when we’re individually done.) Some said they’d miss formerly chanted or sung parts. Overall those who pushed back were afraid that they’d miss, essentially, meaning.

What we’ve found is instructive. Some people still want the “old way” back. And, frankly, I would prefer our newly silent Amidah to be one arrow in an overall quiver of ways to approach the Amidah–including our “old way.” Especially in Reform, there’s no reason to leave anybody out. (And I happen to feel quite touched when our cantor sings R’tzei.)

But overall, people seem to like our newly silent Amidah. Why? Because in those long, pungently silent minutes of silent prayer, we are finally (and in Reform, for once) rendered alone–with our thoughts, with our prayer, with our tradition. The experience has knocked many of us out, initially rendering some of us to tears. And that outcome was totally unexpected. Wonderful. Incredible. A blessing. But unexpected.

Maybe that’s how far as Reform Jews we’ve let ourselves become removed from the meaning behind the words we pray–no matter what language we choose to pray in. But the meaning is there if we just listen for it. For some in my congregation, taking ourselves off of our liturgical autopilot for a little while was enough to start to sense why we say the Amidah in the first place. The prayer is truly an emotional journey if you let it be.

I don’t blame any Reform Jew for feeling disconnected from an Amidah recited silently in Hebrew. It just hasn’t been our practice, and not a lot of us talk about our prayer experience publicly. So I will. Over the next few weeks I intend to post a series of blog entries that lay out the Reform versions of core Jewish prayers, beginning with the Amidah (both the Shabbat and weekday versions), in Hebrew transliteration and English translation, accompanied by my thoughts on my emotional experience during each specific blessing or rubric of the liturgy. (Perhaps with video, as well.) After all, I definitely feel an almost exhausting emotional journey during the Amidah. It’s a feeling worth sharing–and most of all, describing. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’m calling my new series “The Amidah Project.”

We can’t all be Debbie Friedman, z”l, able to find the most miraculous meanings in seemingly hidden Hebrew corners of the liturgy and set them to catchy modern music. But we can all pause, and read, and listen, and then write and talk about our experience. I invite all of my Jewish readers to do just that. Open your nearest siddur–on Shabbat, the one covered in dust in your closet, or online. Find a part where you always tune out. This time, though, tune in. Read it slowly. Sit with it. Consider what those words might really mean–from Deity, to you. You might come up with nothing. But you might come up hearing that still, small voice.

The basis for our entire tradition.

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