Changes in liturgy are not simple. Liturgy is theology in action. It is the repeated articulation of the world we want to see and the people we want to be in that world. A shift in liturgy is, therefore - technically - a shift in vision. But if people do not see the words of prayer as an articulation of their vision, and do not subject their own vision of the world to the crucible of prayer, then such a shift would not actually change anything. 

One can only wonder about the extent to which the average davenner (Jewish pray-er) fully understands the prayers that they say, or if prayer has more of a comforting, rhythmic, almost-meditative as well as social and connection-to-generations-of-Jews effect. And one can further wonder whether the average davenner truly sees the liturgy as the articulation of the world that he or she wants to see and the person he or she wants to be. 

A recent Nishma Research study, the first specifically on Modern Orthodox Jews in America, showed that only 32% of MO Jews under 45 think prayer is meaningful. Interestingly, 63% in that same demographic think shul is important. 

No such study is available of previous generations of davenners, so it is impossible to say whether the average davenners of previous generations were more invested in or affected by the encounter with liturgy. And it is therefore not possible to assess, based on past history, the effects of a theoretical shift in liturgy on the people who would use it regularly. 

But, as someone who davens daily and does care a lot, I am quite interested in the potential benefits of changes in liturgy as a way for individuals and communities to take ownership of that essential component of their relationship to the Divine.  In this sense I have substantial respect for communities that change liturgy to reflect their beliefs, even if I do not need or want those particular changes myself. 

Daniel Sperber has already done substantial work concerning the permissibility of making changes to liturgy:

“… the overwhelming evidence shows it to be quite permissible to make changes as long as one dos not alter the overall content and structure of the blessings or prayer… the hope or the challenge is that, if numerous congregations are willing to be creative, struggle agains the trend and adopt fr themselves new modes of prayer, making changes within the parameters that we have pointed out, eventually these changes will be accepted, maybe not across the board, but certainly within a certain section fo the Jewish Orthodox community… Over the past forty years or so, changes and modifications have been made o certain prayers to fit new political situations in the State of Israel. Therefore, we should not, and need not, seek unanimity in our liturgy. Let there be yet another nusach of tefillah, one that will be acceptable within the context of modern-day Orthodox feminist thinking, and which hopefully will gain even wider legitimacy.”

He goes on with a word of caution:

At the same time, we must exercise great care to retain the traditional elements of our prayer book, to preserve its character and structure, to ensure that any additions, deletions, or alterations do not contradict or conflict with normative halachah and, as far as possible, to preserve the style and spiritual (man, I hate that word - ed.) ambience of our traditional prayers. Intense thought and stuff, together with extreme caution, are required before any emendations may be made, for it is easy to destroy but difficult to build constructively. 

 

David Hartman has done interesting work about the importance of liturgy reflecting the beliefs of the people who use it. He quotes the Gemarra Bavli Yoda 69b (translation from Rav Steinsaltz at Sefaria, that bastion of awesomeness):

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesomeGod” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. God’s anger is flared by the gentile nations’ enslavement of His people, yet He expresses tremendous might by suppressing His anger and holding back from punishing them immediately. Therefore, it is still appropriate to refer to God as mighty. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?

The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful and hates a lie. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him. 

 

Hartman writes:

 

…Jeremiah and Daniel’s experience of history did not correspond to the portrait of God’s power depicted by Moses. This is how the Talmud explains why, in their prayers, we see God addressed only as “great and mighty” and “great and awesome”. When they were unable to see God’s might or awesomeness, they did not want to “ascribe false things to Him…

It is a key point within the story that for the Rabbis, it was the reality of history that shaped their conception of religious language. Truth must grow out of their lived experience, not claims of truth based on authority. They could not use a language that they would know in their hearts was false or meaningless, calling self-deception in a matter of such religious import “ascribing falsehood to God.” The lived experience of the community must be the validation of their religious language.

 

What we have, then, is on the one hand a commitment to Moses’s language and on the other a necessity to rethink its meaning. This language must be understood in a new way if we are to use in in prayer. Here we find the Rabbis boldly asserting that the tradition can claim you only if it is mirrored truthfully in the world you love in. Tradition could not live though its claims of absolute truth based on revelation, but on the lived realty of the Jewish people’s experience of that truth. The tradition becomes true if it remains a plausible description of the world they live in. The implications of this approach have great resonance for modern Jewish who want to be honest and truthful and loyal to the traditional and yet find themselves bothered that they don’t find the implications of the religions language of the tradition mirrored in they experience.

Mordecai Kaplan, albeit from a different perspective, adds additional urgency to the importance of flexibility in liturgy. But his angle is around the privilege of individuals to add their own spontaneous self-expressions into group worship.

 

“…the authoritarian aspect of ritualism is no longer tenable, for it can lo longer be believed that, in order to be effective, worship must take on the form laid down by authority, and that the least departure from it is heresy and rebellion A certain element of uniformity is necessary, because it is the very purpose of worship to arouse a feeling of common consciousness. But to make uniformity an indispensable requisite of worth negates spontaneous self-expression. Least of all should stereotyped liturgical formulas which have ceased to call forth any emotional response usurp the place of new formulations of spiritual yearnings.”

 

I do not think I can contribute anything to what Sperber, Hartman, or Kaplan have written. But I would like to add a sense of urgency to the mix. 

32% of Modern Orthodox Jews under aged 45 think prayer is meaningful. Please consider the impact of that statement. Of the 63 percent who think that shul is important, half of them are showing up to shul and having an experience they would define as not meaningful. That is likely not a neutral experience. Every time it happens, they are left with the awareness that the Judaism they are encountering regularly does not reflect their concerns, work for them, or give them a way to express themselves, let alone enhance their lives, make them feel connected, etc. 

If only 1/3 of a restaurant’s ratings were positive, the restaurant would close (unless of course it was the only kosher restaurant in a certain area, in which case they would likely not care).

So, how would a change in liturgy make any difference? It likely wouldn’t. Frankly, I think we need to change the entire approach to prayer that synagogues use. But if the liturgy they encountered expressed their feelings and questions, it is possible that they would look at it differently.