Two verses from the book of Psalms are potent markers in our services. They come from different psalms and epitomise an important view about prayer in Judaism.
We begin our services with the line “Va’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon”(psalm 69:14), and we preface the Amidah with the verse ‘Adonai sefatai tiftach u’fee yageed tehilatecha” (psalm 51:17).
The first literally translates as – “And as for me, I am a prayer for You God at a proper time”; the second reads “God, open my lips and my mouth will tell of Your praises”. Both work from the premise that the individual is the prayer as well as the pray-er, that the words are already present in the person – only their mouth needs to be opened for the prayer to emerge. It is a longstanding tradition, yet seems to have been lost in our age of the professional leader of prayers, the black words inscribed on white pages of the siddur, the distancing from established Judaism of many of its adherents. These days we feel more comfortable mouthing the words of long dead sages, allowing the rhythm and familiarity to lull us – and apart from the spontaneous prayer in a time of crisis most of us find it hard to put into words the feelings and ideas and needs which are part of our everyday world.
But the psalms remind us – we can be our own prayers, we have it within ourselves to be able to speak to God. Surely it is about time to take up the challenge and create prayers and liturgies that speak to our own situation, our own lives and times?
It is true that the prayers in our books are polished by the recitation over time, have the patina of holiness acquired through their meaningful longevity. It would be hard to reproduce the depth of spirituality in some of them. But that shouldn’t stop us creating new prayers, the sometimes raw expression of the soul in search of God. Every prayer we have began life at the interface of someone’s religious need and mind. It is overdue that we build such a library for ourselves and maybe for our children.
When we try to tease out the parameters of creating new Jewish prayer and ritual we can see that the three most basic components of Jewish prayer are:
That it is most powerfully done within the context of a community;
That there are rhythms which place you in the world, then draw you in to a special liminal space, and finally bring you safely to rest back in the world in your new state;
And that Jewish prayer almost always operates along a spectrum of tension between two states – for example the universalist with the particular, the immanent with the transcendent, the creation with the revelation……”
Many new rituals and liturgies have already been created in recent times. Some are to mark events not already marked in Jewish tradition, others pose different and maybe more meaningful ways of responding to our situation than those already on offer in the prayer book. For these new prayers to acquire the sanctity of older prayers they need use and they need time. History will choose what enters the prayer life of later generations. But for now if we share our prayers and rituals, consult with each other and give each other the tools and the confidence to build Jewishly religious expressions of the cries of our souls we will be taking our place in the process of Jewish prayer. We will become what the Psalmist wanted us to be – our own prayers; our mouths will declare what our souls already know.