Monday, September 20, 2010

Jewish Prayers Are Modernized in New Book // Awesome vs. Awe-Inspiring, Bowels, Hip Hop and Updating Prayerful Language

Full article here // Excerpt below

During the Jewish “Days of Awe,” culminating with Yom Kippur, many Conservative Jews will be turning the pages of a prayer book that no longer regards God as “awesome.”

The word, which has become an all-purpose exclamation that spread from Valley Girls to much of American teenagerdom, has lost its spiritual punch and dignity, say the authors of a new book for the High Holy Days that tries to bring the prayers in tune with contemporary times.

The authors prefer “awe-inspiring.”

“If you say God is awesome, you are immediately in street language, rather than inspiring language,” said Rabbi Edward Feld, who headed the committee that over 12 years wrote and translated the new book.

Keep reading...


The first thing I thought about after reading this article was the song "Awesome God" by Rich Mullins. Somehow that song still imparts to me something of the original meaning of the word "awesome"--maybe it's the dramatic use of the flat-7 chord (sorry, music geek here). But at what point do English words get so emptied of their forcefulness that they are no longer useful for the same things?

Say we were to update the hymns and prayers in the United Methodist Hymnal. What sorts of changes would we make? I can think of one particularly amusing change that already has been made. One of my favorite hymns (and a lesser-known one) is "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." It is a wonderful hymn written by Charles Wesley. Here's how one verse goes in the current edition:

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure, universal love Thou art;

To me, to all, Thy mercies move;

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Lovely, right? Here's the original of the last two lines:

To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Good grief! Was Chuck (as my worship professor affectionately calls him) referring to God having a bowel movement?! Well, no--as it turns out, an archaic English use of the word "bowels" meaning great depth or a gut feeling of yearning or compassion (per this book, excerpts of which are available on Google Books). That's great, but it's not really practical to pause during a hymn to explain strange wording that probably already has a few more irreverent types (myself included) rolling with laughter. It's almost too bad, because if you think about it, "bowels" gets at a sort of physicality of God's love and mercy that just doesn't come out in more abstract terms. But moving bowels now evokes images of porcelain and bad magazines, so the change is absolutely worthwhile.

On another note, in this article, Rabbi Feld sets up a contrast between "street language" and "inspiring language." When might the two be one? What do you think about things like The Hip Hop Prayer Book by Timothy Holder?

-- Sarah

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