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Must We Mean What We Say?
On the virtues of a hermeneutics of ambiguity in liturgy
I’ve been thinking about the famous essay by Stanley Cavell, with particular reference to the question of intentionality in prayer. I’m an instinctive liturgical conservative, in substantial part because I value the sense of being connected across time and space to millions of other people, a sense that is substantially enhanced by a consciousness that we are all speaking (roughly) the same words. But liturgical conservatism necessarily puts most modern people in the position of saying things that they don’t mean in the same way that they mean other kinds of things they say. The people I know who are aware of this problem tend to address it in one of two ways: either it irks them, and they want to change the words to conform with what they actually believe (what you might call the liberal or reformist response); or it alarms them, and they struggle to bring their belief into line with what they say (what you might call the fundamentalist or earnest traditionalist response).
So, for example, in the traditional text of the amidah prayer, one blessing refers to God who “gives life to the dead.” The liberal or reformist might say, “I don’t believe in a bodily resurrection,” and set out to amend the line to say something affirmable. (Reform Jewish prayerbooks amend it to: God who “gives life to everything.”) The fundamentalist or earnest traditionalist might say, “if I am not to lie to God, I must believe in a bodily resurrection” and set about suppressing any doubt. I generally find both responses deeply unsatisfying. “Gives life to the dead” is a desperate hope, spoken from out of the depths. To affirmatively change that to “gives life to everything” is to dash that hope—a reasonable, perhaps even necessary choice for the study hall, but a strange one for a soul engaged in prayer. But to affirm it as a creed is also, in a way, to abandon hope in favor of a trumped-up certitude. In either case, it seems to me, one has abandoned prayer, inasmuch as one is no longer crying out to God but talking to oneself. That crying out requires the ambiguity of saying “gives life to the dead” and not knowing, for sure, what that means.
That sense of productive ambiguity is what I try to cling to myself, generally. But recently in synagogue I had a couple of experiences that caused me to wonder about that stance, and what it takes to sustain it.
The first experience was in leading the shacharit service on Saturday morning. I am in the habit of singing the latter part of the final blessing before the recitation of the morning shema to the tune of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Why? Because the line where I begin to sing translates as: “And bring us in peace from the four corners of the Earth, and lead us erectly to our Land; as You are God who performs salvations.” The connection between the text and the tune always struck me as straightforward, but I’m not sure I ever teased it out properly in my mind. Recently, though, in the context of the war with Gaza, I became acutely self-conscious about how my choice might be interpreted by others in the congregation. And that forced me to think: what do I mean?
I can tell you what I didn’t mean: I didn’t mean, “the establishment of the State of Israel is the fulfillment of the hope articulated in this prayer.” But someone might well have thought that I did mean that. The only way they would be able to avoid such a conclusion, I suspect, is if they were alive to the openings of ambiguity, were so familiar with them that they assumed, in fact, that I intended to leave them open. After all, one could just as easily interpret the choice to mean, “the establishment of the State of Israel aims to fulfill the hope articulated in this prayer, and we may judge its success in terms of how well it fulfills its terms” as, for example, whether the ingathering is peaceful, whether it is dignified, whether it is comprehensive, whether it (to move on to the subsequent line) brings the people closer to God and testifies to God’s essential unity, etc. One might even, and most parsimoniously, interpret the choice to mean, “the establishment of the State of Israel is an event of religious significance in the history of Judaism that must be understood in the context of this hope, but the precise nature of that relation remains unknown, perhaps unknowable,” which I think comes closest to my actual meaning precisely because it most fully embraces ambiguity.
Sometimes, though, I have been inclined to change language precisely in order to pry open ambiguity that had been choked closed. The best example I can give is in the prayer for the State of Israel. The text of the prayer is, for obvious reasons, relatively new, and likely for that reason it is also surprisingly aggressive in its theological claims, asking God to bless the State of Israel which it then describes as “the first flowering of our redemption.” This is explicitly messianic language, and it isn’t ambiguous, but declarative: Israel is the first flowering. I have no such conviction myself, but I can’t hold to the ambiguous relationship grounded in hope that I can with “gives life to the dead” because the declaration is made about an earthly event, and one that has actually happened.
So, when I say the prayer, I amend it, adding the word, shet’hi meaning, “that it might be.” Rather than pray that God bless the state because it is a harbinger of the messianic age, I pray that God bless the state so that it might be a harbinger of the messianic age. That leaves open for me the possibility that it isn’t, that it won’t merit to be, that it never could have been—even that the messianic age itself is eternally deferred, or has already arrived and looks nothing like what the authors of the prayer imagined. I need that dense cloud of possibilities to say the words, and mean something, without that something ever becoming so clear that I am boxed in.
Is all of this precious of me? Considering how little I adhere to the strictures of Jewish law these days, it is a reasonable question to ask; who am I to care so much about such niceties. Yet I don’t think it is. Or, if it is, I think it’s precious to a purpose beyond my own comfort or discomfort. The more I think about it, the clearer it is to me that a productive ambiguity itself requires great precision, requires attention to the likelihood that what we mean now is not what we will mean tomorrow, or in a decade, or in a thousand years, and that part of the job of liturgy is to speak words that have a prospect of continuing to be meaningful across an ocean of change. The words themselves will also change, of course and inevitably, will be added to and reduced and altered, as they were in earlier ages. But if they are chosen well, precisely to leave open ambiguity, the change will feel natural, organic, harmonious with what came before and what will come after. They will not box us in with either/or, and force us to do violence to the words, to ourselves, or to others.