Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A 3/4 defense of piyutim

I put up versions of this post every year. The first one appeared on October 7, 2005. Then I was completely in favor of piyutim, and had no patience or sympathy for anyone who thought differently. You might say I was a snob. Today, I still think piyutim are wonderful, but agree that if most people find them uninspiring we should remove them from the service, instead of playing make believe. 

Isn't it odd that the frum thing to do nowadays is to complain about the High Holiday piyutim Some say they are boring, others argue they should be dropped from the service. I hear it in yeshivish shuls. I hear it in shtiebles, too. And the evidence of my own eyes is incontrovertible. Everywhere I go, I see men who self-identify as very frum, or as utterly and completely "Torah True", ignoring the piyutim. None of this makes any sense to me. Also confusing is the claim, often heard and often repeated, that davening is not a show.

I don't think the composers of the piyutim would agree.

Aside from the silent Amidah, which was set aside for silent reflections and meditations, and the Torah reading, the tefillah was designed to sweep you up in the mood, a mood that is set by the liturgical readings (piyutim) and the sacred music (chazanut.) Every so often, you are called to participate in the pageant - during modim at oleinu, for example, or during the avoda when everyone becomes an actor in the events the Reader is describing. The piyutim were (for the most part)  written as introductions to the avoda, to oleinu, and to vidui, and they were designed (for the most part)  expressly to create a mood, or to warm you up, so to speak, for the key parts of the service.

The strange, new idea that you're supposed to sit with your forehead scrunched in rapt concentration for the full service would be foreign to the men who composed the tefillah, imho. To some extent, they designed tefillah not only to be enjoyed, but to be experienced. The philistine complaining about music and poetry I hear every year sounds a lot like the griping you get when you accompany a small child to the symphony or the opera.

And that analogy about the opera is meant to work on many levels because I believe the piyutim need to be appreciated as art. What else did those who elected to include them in the davening expect us to do with them? They're not magic spells, or kabbalistic formulas. They're poems that are meant to be appreciated as poems, and that are meant to have the affect on you that is accomplished by all good poetry.

If a poem doesn't mean anything to you - especially a poem that the Rabbis thought appropriate for Yom Kippur davening - perhaps you owe it to yourself to find out what you are missing? And if the cause is lost, and we're simply not capable anymore of appreciating this particular art form, why don't we admit defeat, face reality, and remove the piyutim from the service? Here's another analogy: Shul architecture. When the money is available, we construct sacred space that we find significant, rather then employing the forms and styles our ancestors would have appreciated.  We no longer ask shul-goers to sit in dimly-lit Gothic interiors, nor do we expect anyone to spend the day staring at a crazily-elaborate Baroque aron kodesh. These styles have been phased out, because they no longer work, by which I mean we no longer find them inspiring or significant. If the consensus is that piyutim no longer work, perhaps this style of liturgy should be phased out as well.

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