Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Yom Kippur notes

Well, I got through Yom Kippur with no worse effects than a headache. And the service happened and was appreciated by the community. It didn't happen quite the way I'd hoped it would happen, mind you, but it worked.

papersky's recent post on plot shapes made me think about the shape of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I was missing the Reform liturgy as I have found myself doing the past half dozen Yom Kippurs that I've spent in various non-Reform synagogues. It's probably not surprising, that at such an emotionally intense time one misses the familiar nusach one grew up with. But even apart from that, the Reform High Holy Days prayerbook is a truly wonderful work. My Dad always says it's literally inspired and however much I don't presume to know these things I can't help agreeing with him. It has just the right balance between preserving what is powerful from tradition and speaking in a modern, relevant voice which evokes an emotional and spiritual response. And it's scholarly and has loads of source material and it's also easy to use. In fact, it is a symbol of everything that is good about Reform Judaism, even though we don't always get quite that perfect balance.

So anyway, the Reform Yom Kippur liturgy has a very obvious, very simple shape. I suspect that this is because R Magonet, who headed the editorial team, is the sort of person who thinks about plot shapes. It's a shape which mirrors the shape of the Temple; it brings you in from the outside world, through successive inner courts to the Holy of Holies. And then you return from the centre changed so that at the end you are left hammering at the great gates as they close. Then the gates shut you out and you have to carry what you can of holiness back, away from Jerusalem and into ordinary life.

And this year I'm leading from Birnbaum, which is one of the most common Orthodox High Holy Day prayerbooks (there is, unfortunately, no standard Orthodox prayerbook for the High Holies). Pros: it's well laid out, so easy enough to use, you can follow most of the way through the service without having to jump around, and it's in a single volume. Cons: awful, awful, faux-archaic translation (and it was written in the twentieth century, so there's no excuse for trying to be the KJV!) which is neither even slightly faithful to the Hebrew nor remotely easy to read. I have a congregation who would object violently to dramatic changes in what they're used to, but who at the same time want a service that is personally meaningful without having to be a scholar of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry or accepting very unmodern religious dogma. That's not an easy line to tread.

The first thing you come up against, coming into an Orthodox context from a Progressive background, is that the Orthodox liturgy is fantastically repetitive. The Reform liturgy has motifs which repeat throughout the day (the Temple courts are concentric and perhaps have repeating architectural features), but it doesn't require you to say exactly the same prayers over and over again, a dozen times or more in some cases. And there's layers and layers of repetition, the successive services repeating the same structure, the same prayers being repeated within each service, the prayers and especially the hymns themselves are repetitive within their individual structure, and you have several different prayers expressing the same concepts in most of the same words and illuminated with the same Biblical verses. It took me a long time to see all this as anything other than mind-numbingly dull. But thinking about papersky's ideas this year, I concluded that the Orthodox Yom Kippur liturgy is shaped like chromatin: it has an underlying repetitive but meaningful structure (Shroedinger's information-bearing crystal), and it's double helices wrapped round eachother to form coiled coils and the coiled coils wrapped around spools and the middle-range 'beads on a string' structure folded into a superhelix and that superhelix folded in on itself so that the whole thing fits into an impossibly small volume.

Anyway, what happened in practical terms was that we had a fairly steady minyan throughout the day, the congregation size fluctuated between about 8 and 12 and it wasn't always the same people the whole time. And someone who's never led any kind of service before led Kol Nidrei (the commencing service the evening before), and I led Shacharit, the morning service, and it was all going well. Then it turned out that the person who had said he would do the Torah service had understood this to mean that he would read the Torah rather than take the service, so I said, ok, I'll do that, since the Torah service isn't really very difficult, it's just a question of stage-managing the processional bits really.

But then we came to Musaf, the additional service, and it turned out that the person who had said he would do Musaf had completely forgotten having agreed to this. Musaf is hard. It's without a doubt the most difficult bit of the service, it has a lot of unique stuff, and it's theologically difficult, and intellectually difficult, and musically difficult. It represents, and also directly portrays, the heart of the mystery of the Temple service of Atonement, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to plead for pardon for the whole people. So here we are, it's the middle of the morning, people's stomachs are starting to remind them that it's lunch time, and nobody has prepared Musaf.

Somehow or other I found myself apologizing for the miscommunication that had led to this situation (though it wasn't supposed to be solely my responsibility to make sure that every part of the service was accounted for). And given there wasn't really much choice, I volunteered to lead Musaf. Leading Musaf, unlike leading most other services, isn't just a matter of making sure the congregation knows what page they're supposed to be on; you are the 'representative of the congregation' and you partially reenact the rôle of the High Priest from the Temple ceremony. "Poor in worthy deeds, I am horribly afraid as I stand before the Throne of the Most High... The congregation of Israel have chosen me to be their representative, though I am in no way qualified nor adequate for the task."

Luckily I happen to have to hand a copy of the notes I made for Musaf last year, and a vague clue of how I want that service to work and how to make it emotionally engaging. And I do the whole prostration bit, which manages to astonish me every time I do it. The physicality of bowing, and kneeling, and touching your face to the floor (there's no English word for it because it's not something that happens in our culture; it's the same gesture as Muslims use in prayer though), and prostrating yourself completely as you say the words. I've no doubt it looks absolutely ridiculous, but it feels an amazing thing doing it (and nobody openly laughed at me at least!)

So yeah, Musaf happened somehow or other. The rest of the day went more or less according to plan; Prof S ran a very enjoyable and interesting discussion on Jonah in place of Mincha (the afternoon service). We got a bit bogged down because one of the people participating was insisting that free will was invented by the Enlightenment. But apart from that, we talked about Jonah as a story, and the idea of repentance and forgiveness, and whether we really sincerely want forgiveness for utterly depraved evil, and how we can address the fact that, superficially against the message of some of the Yom Kippur liturgy, no matter how good and religious someone is, random bad things can still happen to them.

Then we had a long break, as planned, which I mostly slept through since my head was hurting too much to try to pray or make up for having spent most of the day leading rather than engaging in personal prayer. We reconvened for the memorial service, which I'm not crazy about leading; there's essentially no liturgy, so it's not theoretically difficult, but it is extremely likely to make most of the congregation, including me, cry, and it's hard not to feel that one is being emotionally manipulative. But someone has to stand up and say, now it's time to remember all our loved ones who have died. And I got to be an ordinary member of the congregation for Neilah, the concluding service, and JS, who led it as arranged, knows the right tune to the Neilah song ('As the gates of mercy close') so it felt at least a little bit like a familiar, proper Yom Kippur.

We underran slightly, mainly because I'd forgotten, in my planning, just how short the memorial service is. Somebody suggested that since we had half an hour to kill before breaking the fast, we might as well pray Ma'ariv, the evening service that begins the day after Yom Kippur. So I did that. It's what you're theoretically supposed to do, go straight from the end of Neilah into the ordinary daily liturgy, but it rarely actually happens because people are understandably in a hurry to break the fast by then. It felt like the right thing to do today though, and I suppose I'd always known, but it struck me particularly this time, that the Ma'ariv service opens with "And He is merciful to forgive sin and not destroy..." There's some sort of continuity of the Atonement theme there, I suppose, something which was reinforced because when I came home and logged in to LJ, the first thing I saw on my friends page was that someone had posted the Kaddish, (the memorial prayer, which also acts as a section break in the Orthodox liturgy, so I don't know how many times I'd recited it over the course of the day) in her journal.

I hope that everyone who fasted managed to do so without being too uncomfortable, and I wish everyone the best of new years.

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