Rabbi Stern raises some very legitimate points about how disenfranchising it can be when prayers are in Hebrew if you don’t understand the language. That being said, I don’t agree with his solution of abandoning the siddur (the Hebrew prayer book) altogether. A couple of other possibilities:
- find a better siddur – Rabbi Stern’s point about the dry, uninspiring English translations and readings is well taken. This is especially the case for the old-style siddurs many of us grew up with: “We thank Thee for the tasks we shared together, and for the hours we communed with Thee”! Fortunately, there are some fabulous, modern prayer books out there. “Kol Haneshamah,” the prayer book of the Reconstructionist movement, used a Hebrew scholar and poet to translate the prayers into English that maintains much of the imagery and power of the original. It also contains many additional moving and thought-provoking supplemental readings, as do a variety of other more recent prayer books.
- supplement, don’t remove – enrich services with elements besides the Hebrew prayers. Guided meditation, additional readings, chanting, movement–all of these are ways to get at the power behind the words, even if we can’t understand them.
- praying is about more than just understanding the words – at times we tend to get very intellectual about prayer which is, after all, not fundamentally an intellectual enterprise. Understanding is good, but the ancient (and modern!) words have a power that goes beyond just comprehension. Whether it’s knowing that these words have been spoken by countless generations, or trigger a childhood memory, or simply keep our minds busy so our souls may truly pray, there is a value to using the Hebrew even if we don’t understand every word.
Bottom line: the Hebrew of the prayer book is poetry. More to the point, it’s our people’s poetry. We should add to it, adapt it, update imagery for modern sensibilities, certainly skip sections, and use plenty of English as well–but we ignore it at our peril. As poetry, the prayers contain much more than we understand on first–or second, or hundredth–reading, and there is much that gets lost in the translation.