Ysoscher Katz

Time to Reconceptualize the Siddur

Tefilot have a very short shelf life. After a while they become outdated, losing their power to inspire. That, as a matter of fact, is why our tefilot are so bloated. Each generation added a new layer, hoping to bring vitality to prayers that have gone stale. It is high time our generation did the same, adding a modern sheen to our ancient liturgy.

We need to repeat the mesorah of expansion-but with a twist. Instead of making our tefilot even more verbose, let us add a visual supplement. Let us find art works that correspond to the state of mind that the particular tefila we are engaged in is trying to cultivate and tag that work of art to our tefilot. It will serve as a visual supplement to our verbal exercise.

Adding a visual angle will make our prayers emotionally rich, spiritually meaningful and, most importantly, help revive a central religious precept. Pouring new life into our spiritual pursuits is, according to Rav Kook Z”L, obligatory, not optional.

I strongly believe that his famous adage: הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש should be read prescriptively, not descriptively. His words are a mandate, not a prophecy. They are a religious charge to find sacredness in the contemporary and in turn use those newly sacralized means to revitalize those practices which have become old and atrophied. Tefilah fits that bill. It is in desperate need of spiritual revival.

Revamping the entire liturgy is a rather ambitious project which could eventually happen but for now one needs to start small, doing it incrementally and let it expand with time. Instead of finding visual props for all our tefilot, let us start with the selichot. Let us find a different artistic prop for every day of selichot, ideally one that corresponds with the gist of that particular day’s selichot liturgy. A more general artistic reference, one which offers a unique or unconventional angle from which to explore tefila would, however, suffice as well.

Today is the first of nine days of selichot (for Ashkenazim). I will post a different piece of art on my Facebook wall each day. Hopefully this project will help revitalize our high-holiday davening.

If you are an artist, art connoisseur, or art enthusiast, please join this endeavor. Recommend a work of art that you think could spiritualize our selichot experience. (Post your recommendation in the comments section here or on my FB wall and I will share it with the larger public.) Feel free to add one or two explanatory sentences, spelling out the connection between the particular work of art and the high-holiday prayers. No art is off limit except for the obvious, the bland, or the inappropriate. Extra points for non-Jewish recommendations. I prefer kashering the treif over regurgitating that which is already kosher.

Ideally this could be the beginning of an expansive enterprise, engaging an ever broader array of artistic mediums in order to enrich our avodat Ha’shem. This year’s visual project could be the steppingstone for an auditory angle. Visual props could eventually lead to auditory supplements, expanding the project to include musical props. We can, for next year’s high-holiday period, compile a selichot musical playlist made up of sacralized secular songs which correspond to our tefila on any given day of selichot.

Here is a link to my FB wall.

Below: Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516); The Garden of Earthy Delights


About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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