A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Words Create (Editors Destroy)

In this week of Bereishit, in which we read again and celebrate again, the story of creation, my thoughts drift to the power of language (a concise, if not completely accurate summary, of Bereishit would be "Words, Matter" If you think of a more concise summary, let me know).

Genesis postulates that there is a relationship between words and language. God says y'hi or (let there be light) va'yhi or (and there was light). I do believe that a words opens up a universe of meaning and this is how I understand the relationship between the importance of language in the creation story and the importance of language in the brit between the Jewish people and God. Whole realms of ethics, subjects for theological speculation, are opened up by Divine articulation. More than that, though, words of the tradition inspire actions and personal transformation. Language leads to creation.

This is why Judaism is constantly renewing and developing: the texts are always opening to people to take on new meanings and to discover in our own lives how language leads to creation.

Why all this? Because I'm working creating a new Kabbalat Shabbat service (starts this Friday at 6pm, come check it out) that is going to be truly great. It will draw on the psalms of a full Kabbalat Shabbat service. But I can't use the Reform prayerbook for the service. Why? Because the editors (some of them former teachers of mine for whom I have a great deal of respect) decided to remove large chunks of the readings in this (and many other) parts of the prayerbook.

To be fair, this most recent prayerbook has restored much language that had been removed from earlier Reform prayerbooks, so this has to be seen in context. But Reform Jews are robbed of the possibility of new creation, new meaning, by editors who have decided that it is not a priority that Reform Jews have access to certain traditional readings in their prayers.

The great contradiction of Reform Judaism: it is on the one hand a very democratic movement. It values individual Jewish experience and the search for meaning in the establishment of communal practice and in the articulation of individual obligation. But there is another anti-democratic strain, in which the intellectual elites of the Movement make editorial decisions to remove large swaths of prayers that have existed for centuries, essentially making spiritual choices for millions of Jews, choices that preclude the creation of universes of meaning.

This is why I encourage people to own our Reform siddur but to also own many other "traditional" prayerooks that have all the other good bits...


  1. Language is the essence of our thoughts. The struggles that Buber makes to articulate that which is beyond language suggests that there, just beyond verbal reach, is where consciousness and spirituality live. This inadequacy of language reflects our fundamental limitations as people. Our attempts, nevertheless, to span this impossible divide reflects our inner spark of divinity. Even as we acknowledge the fundamental limitations of language, we must dedicate ourselves to study and translation (as you write) for the word is our most powerful tool.

  2. Reflections on Rabbi Josh’s blogspot “Words Create (Editors Destroy)
    Rabbi Josh so profoundly states the “Word/Matter” when referring to “Bereshit.” I am so glad that only the words of God have the power to create (Heaven, Earth and life). But that does not mean that our words are powerless. Our words develop our character and influence the lives of those who hear our words.
    If our words have created in us a hard, faithless, evil heart, so too can our words undo that and create a warm, loving, caring heart of faith.
    Rabbi Josh reveals the importance of developing tradition to bring a way of life that inspires proper living to receive gratefully the words of the prayer books, in order to grow in understanding, love and trust in the Lord.
    Rabbi Josh so wonderfully instructs us not to limit ourselves to one prayer book that may have edited out important insight from God.
    I would like to say that the prophets, including Jesus, through the process of editing the words of God, by being a fallible conduit, have in many ways skewed the understanding of God. We should still seek God and realize the basic truth of the prophets, but we should not overlook the mistakes that were made in the Torah and Bible, and that perfection will only come directly from the words of God.