Monday, August 02, 2010

The Power of Piyutim

Most people hate piyutim. I don't, but from time to time find myself wondering what exactly their authors thought they were writing.

A bit of background first. A piyut is a prayer-poem. Jews have been writing them and adding them to the services since antiquity, and the habit didn't fully disappear until well into the Renaissance period. Though the original tunes have been lost, the piyutim were written as songs, to be chanted or sung-- and not antiphonally in the style of the modern shteeble. An 11th century Jew would not have oi-boy-boyed a melody while the reader sang; he'd have sung along. (Ironically, this venerable synagogue practice is dismissed by RW Jews as "modern".)

Stylistically, the piyutim are similar to the non-Jewish poems written in the same time and place. Adon Olam for example employs the Hazaj meter, which frequently appears in the Arab epic poetry of that period. Many piyutim are a collage of biblical verses, cleverly arranged around a theme; others are simply words of praise and glorification of God; others are both. Some rhyme, some follow a meter, some form acrostics, and some do all of the above.

There are a few different ways to understand the purpose of a piyut:

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(1) They are some kind of magic spell. This appears to be the view of the ArtScroll editors who insist in the introduction to their machzar, that piyutim are "...infinitly more than inspired poetry." I imagine the editors, and those who agree with them, hold that the words, when recited with the correct fervor, have the power to stir God to forgive or reward. The problem with this approach is it turns God into Barbara Eden in I Dream of Geni. Say the magic words, with the correct grimace, fist clench, or whatever and God makes your wish come true.

(2) They are a form of spiritual medicine In medieval times, scholars seem to have believed that a soul could become tarnished or damaged. One way to repair a soul was to assign readings to its owner. Catholics can still expect a confession priest to prescribe recitations; rabbis do it, too. Perhaps the authors of the piyutim thought their compositions might serve as a kind of soul medicine?  (In some cases anyway; there's no reason to assume every author of every piyut had the same objective)

(3) They change you If you recite poems about how great God is over and over again, you'll acquire a better appreciation of how great God is, and this appreciation will change the way you think and act. According to this approach, God rewards us based on our thoughts and behavior. Reciting piyutim is a way to improve them. Its difficult, however, to make every piyut neatly fit this understanding.

(4) They force you to "cry out" The Hebrew Bible is full of evidence that one of the fundamental attributes of God is that he responds to the cry (se'akah) of a victim. In verse after verse we're told that it is this cry that forces God to act. Perhaps the authors thought their piyutim were a way to produce the "cry"?

(5) They were meant to introduce the prayers, and make the services more enjoyable. Honestly, I believe this secular explanation is most likely. Evidence includes the contemporaneity development of Christian and Islamic liturgy, and the fact that the piyutim were written in the style of the poetry and songs that people in those days generally and genuinely enjoyed.  As an exercise for the reader, I'll ask why the Orthodox Jews have given up this effort to embellish the services. Other religions and other Jewish sects continue to do what the authors of the piyutim did and look for ways to make the service more relevant and more enjoyable for the participant. We Orthodox Jews don't, often on the grounds that "davening isn't a show". The existence of piyutim however seem to be a strong counterargument. [IRONY ALERT: I like davening just fine the way it is. I find it enjoyable and significant to do it the way we do it, and I demand and require no changes. However, this is a subjective appreciation.]

Herman Wouk on davening
My original argument in favor of piytuim

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