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Prayer As Performance Art

Prayer As Performance Art

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat/Pesach candles: 6:52 p.m.
(Fri.); 6:54 p.m. (Mon.); 7:54 p.m. (Tue.)
Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24
Havdalah: 7:52 p.m.
Last Chometz: 10:57 a.m. (Mon.)

Composer Benjamin Britton wrote his first piece of music at age 6. His teacher, Frank Bridge, would sometimes reduce him to tears, by demanding of young Britton (while playing his work), “Is this really what you have in mind?!” Music, he held, must be an honest reflection of the composer’s insight.

The same is true of prayer — a subject dear to the interpreters of this week’s parashah, Tzav. The portion begins innocently enough: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying” [Leviticus 6:2]. However, since the word “saying,” (lemor) is the infinitive, it can be more properly read as, “Command Aaron and his sons to say.” But to say what?

One possibility is, “to say prayers.” Tradition associates the entire sedra with the implicit acknowledgement that the priestly sacrifices would someday give way to verbal prayer.

Prayer, however, is like music, not just because it is usually chanted or sung, but because it is an art form in its own right. As such, it ought to obey the advice given to Benjamin Britton: it must express “what we really have in mind.”

But wait. Britton composed music; he didn’t just play what others had written. He was, if you like, in the wholesale side of art production, not just its retail provider to others. Does Bridge’s advice apply to people who just play the music? Don’t singers and pianists and cellists and violinists merely follow the notes on the page?

Not at all. Musicians regularly interpret the score before them: that’s where their artistry resides. We call it their interpretation. The same is true of other performance arts — actors, for example, who interpret playwrights. Prayer, too, is a performance art, where those who pray are asked to make the lines they say their own. As we say our prayers, we too should ask, “Is what we are saying really what we have in mind?”

That question applies especially this Shabbat which goes by the name Shabbat Hagadol, “The Great Shabbat.” Tradition deliberately misreads the name as Shabbat Haggadah, the Shabbat when we are to practice going over the Haggadah, in preparation for Passover eve.

My teacher, Professor Samuel Atlas, used to ask us why the Rabbis insisted that even if we all were wise enough to know the Haggadah by heart, we would still be obliged to recite it annually. The answer, he proposed, is that the story means something different every year. Like music, the Haggadah is supposed to be an honest reflection of  “what we have in mind” from year to year.

That’s a frightening responsibility, because it means we actually have to have something in mind — rather than simply mouth the words we see before us. We cannot approach seder eve without asking in advance how we intend to interpret the seder’s story afresh. What parts shall we emphasize? What conversations will this year’s seder feature? What questions shall we put to those who sit around our seder table, lest they miss the point and do nothing more than read last year’s script all over again.

Here’s an easy solution. In the early years — when the Haggadah was just coming into being, that is — the ritual did not begin with four stock questions, the way it does now. Rather, it revolved around an altogether novel question that arose spontaneously and launched the night’s discussion. So try this. When the mandatory four questions have been recited, ask your guests why this seder night is different from all the others they have attended. What is new this year? How are we, personally — or our country, or the Jewish People, or the world itself — in need of deliverance from enslavement, in ways we never might have imagined, had the past year not gone by the way it did?

“Say prayers,” God commanded Aaron and his sons. But not just Aaron’s generation! The Midrash to our sedra says clearly, “This command was intended for the generations yet to come.” We are those “generations yet to come,” commanded to say the prayers of the Haggadah in tones that differ from year to year.

As we go through our annual account of slavery and freedom, we should consider the tale we tell as if we were composers and it were our music. Benjamin Britton’s teacher should be standing over our shoulders, asking, “Is this really what you have in mind?” And we should be able to say, “You bet it is!”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, and the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Press).

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