Thursday, July 23, 2015

Should we change the "Nachem" prayer?

How can we continue to say "השוממה מאין יושב"‎ when it is factually inaccurate?

Chaim Navon, who teaches in Israel at some fancy places, argues the time has come to update the Tisha B'Av Prayers, specifically the Nachem prayer we add to the Amidah. As he says:

כשהכותל המערבי שוקק המוני מתפללים האם אפשר לומר על ירושלים שהיא "אבלה מבלי בניה" ו"שוממה מאין יושב

Translation: When the Western Wall is bustling with crowds of worshipers, is it possible for us to say that Jerusalem is "mourning without sons" or 'alone without inhabitants'?

A good point, right?  It no longer makes sense to speak in the present tense of a Jerusalem that is abandoned, alone, and empty of worshipers. Our Jerusalem is full of life, people, and new construction. How can we stand before God during Amidah and lament a desolate and lonely city that no longer exists?

Imagine you served a human king who had, only recently, solved one of your most pressing problems. Say, you wanted a home and he gave it to you or you needed protection from the local marauder and he provided it. What would happen if, soon after your wish had been granted, you returned to the king to complain about how unhappy you were that you still had no roof over your head, or that tough guy Tony was still raiding your fields?

Yet, this is exactly what the text of Nachem asks us to do, a mere 40-odd years after the reunification and resettlement of Jerusalem. The city sings with life, and we're supposed to go to God whining about how empty and broken down it is? Can we expect God to complete the Redemption if, in our prayers, we stubbornly refuse to take notice of the progress that has already been made?

In his article Navon cites three bold names - Rabbi GoIren, Rabbi Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Halevy - who he says have already changed the words of the prayer. Which makes sense. Those three are known for their realism, and their refusal to treat Judaism like a relic. To them Judaism still breaths, and because it still breaths it must change and develop as the world around us changes and develops.

I respect their perspective, and understand it fully. I agree that only things that are dead cease to change. Still, I would not consent to alter the words of Nachum.

Though Judaism isn't a fragile relic, and shouldn't be treated like something delicate, the various prayers we recite belong to a different category. We don't say Nachem because the words themselves matter to God, or because their recitation works like a spell that in some way or another compels God to act.

We say the words only because saying the words matters to us, because reciting them connects us to our childhood, our parents, our past. And that connection is easily damaged.

Two types of Conservatives argue that the prayer should be left alone. One type argue that some rule or precedent prevents us from changing the words. They are either ignorant or dishonest, Copious examples of changes to the liturgy can be easily presented. Other types of conservative who wish to keep the old Nachem are concerned that changes make things seem less real. If we correct Nachum, they protest, the prayer will feel wrong.

I'm sensitive to that objection, too, and because God, unlike a human king who might feel slighted were we to ignore his acts of kindness, does not care one way or the other, why not let people say Nachum the old way if they find it personally meaningful?

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