Shmoneh Esrei Part 1: Avot v’Imahot

Welcome to part 1 of my current pet project for the remainder of the summer, which is to go through each of 19 blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei and explore what kind of interesting things they have to tell us about the God they are directed toward. One of the neat aspects of the civilizational approach (see my previous posts on Reconstructionism) is that it throws into sharp relief one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism: that rather than upholding a single, coherent theology Judaism embraces an eclectic array of theological perspectives (often differing in emphasis, occasionally mutually exclusive), drawn from across the vast expanse of Jewish history. While from a certain point of view this can make it difficult to identify what, if anything, Judaism has to teach us about God, from another perspective it gives us an incredibly flexible toolkit for encountering a reality which by definition exceeds the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. Any truly Jewish attempt to understand the divine must begin with the humble admission of our inability to fully grasp the infinite.

With that in mind, let’s begin with the Avot v’Imahot. What’s really interesting about this blessing, and what makes it particularly appropriate that it should come first, is how it is at the same time so old and so new. Of all the alterations made to the Amidah in liberal siddurim, the most universally accepted is the addition of the names of the matriarchs–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah–to the traditional patriarchal list of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This fairly simple addition is indicative of one of the most significant shifts in the Jewish community to occur in modern times: the slow, painful and hard-fought struggle of women to claim recognition as full members of the Jewish people, on an equal footing with men and with an equal stake in the ongoing evolution of our religious civilization. This struggle has made itself felt in all aspects of Jewish life, from the question of who can serve as leaders in communal organizations to differing resources and expectations in the religious education of children. As Judith Plaskow points out in Standing Again At Sinai, one of the areas which it has been necessary for women to reclaim for themselve has been that of history, which in the Jewish world as in most other societies has been up to recently almost exclusively a male-dominated discourse reflecting male concerns, in which women enter only peripherally as the objects of male desire, anxiety and control.

The Avot v’Imahot exemplifies this assertion by Jewish women of the right not to be erased from the historical narrative of their people by inscribing the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this traditional affirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. I’m some respects, the Avot may represent one of the earliest strata of Jewish theology, reflecting as it does a basically tribal world view in which God may indeed be the transcendent creator of worlds, adon olamim, but the significance of this idea is nevertheless eclipsed by the more local concern of the individual relationship between a particular god and that god’s particular people.

Rather than beginning with the more standard formula which emphasizes both God’s status as our god (eloheinu) and as “king of the world” (melech ha’olam), the Avot begins more simply by blessing God as “our god, and the god of our fathers (and mothers).” This perspective, also in evidence in different places throughout the Tanakh, is less concerned with the idea with God’s universal sovereignty than it is with the notion of God as elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel, whom we can rely upon for blessing and support on account of the covenant struck between that god and our ancestors. The omission in this context of the names of the matriarchs has always been significant because it reflected the patriarchal understanding of that covenant that saw it as a relationship between God and the privileged society of Jewish males, with women playing only a peripheral role if that.

It is this understanding of covenant which made it possible throughout much of Jewish history to regard the all-important realms of religious ritual and Torah study as the sole prerogative and responsibility of men, with the self-reinforcing result that men have historically had sole access to the language and symbolic vocabulary for describing God. By establishing a place for the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this ritual affirmation of covenental continuity, Jewish women have asserted their right to have a voice in the ongoing evolution of our collective understanding of that covenant.

The basic theological truth contained in this blessing therefore is that all our understanding of God ultimately arises out of our own experience, that before we can say anything else about God we must first understand hir as our God. Even this intensely personal experience, however, does not arise in a vaccum. We come into ourselves through the medium of a family and a community into which we are born, and we are shaped by the historical experiences of our people just as surely as we are influenced by our own experiences. Thus, before looking at the role God has played in our own lives we must first acknowledge the role God has played in the lives of those who have come before us, and in the life of the community of which we are a part, understood in the broadest possible sense.

New Series: the Shmoneh Esrei

So I’ve got this thing about language and the truth–I like them to correspond. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was when I was in second grade and they made us take this standardized test. One of the questions had three pictures–a dog, a boy and a potato–and asked you which one had eyes but couldn’t see. Of course, you probably know the answer they wanted me to give, but I had not yet been initiated into the more bizarre and illogical quirks of the English language, so I spent several long and frustrating minutes wrestling with the problem before declaring, under protest, that the dog must be blind. I’m pretty sure that when I eventually found out that potatoes have “eyes” it just made me more angry, not less.

Which is all to say that I get very emotionally invested in words and how they’re used. That’s why I think that one of the best ways to understand what we believe about God is to pay close attention to what we say about hir. Of all the Jewish texts, I think the siddur is really the most fascinating to study because of the way it assembles bits and pieces of the tradition from all over the place into a collection of things we say about God collectively, on a regular basis, over and over and over again.

I want to focus on the Shmoneh Esrei (so named because it had eighteen blessings before they added a nineteenth) because it exemplifies some basic themes you find throughout the siddur. First, what it has to say about God is very functional. The Amidah isn’t concerned with speculating about what kind of a thing God is, so much as focusing on the things God does. This is either very pragmatic, or deeply insightful, or both if you like. Reading what the Shmoneh Esrei has to say about God makes me think of the theology of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who claimed that we can’t really say or know anything about God because our concepts are all formulated to handle the finite things we encounter in this world and aren’t built to handle the infinite and transcendent. The only things we can really know about God are A.) What God is not and B.) What God does.

I thought it would be interesting then to go through the Shmoneh Esrei blessing by blessing and think about what each one is saying about God and our relationship to hir. This isn’t necessarily to say that you have to believe everything (or anything) the Amidah has to say about God in order to find meaning in reciting it each day. But if you, like me, happen to think of God as a transcendent and incomprehensible reality that nevertheless has an effect on our lives that can only be described in the language of relationship and concern, then this exercize might be an interesting model for thinking about what that means for you.