I think one of the main lessons of the story of Yonah that’s read on Yom Kippur is that even the greatest men, with the greatest intentions, can’t understand God’s master plan because of their own biases. (You know, the Navi Yonah didn’t want to prophesy in Nineveh and give them a chance to repent because they were Israel’s enemies, but was forced to and was then taught a lesson by God to help him understand.)
Anyhow, I think the same thing is true with our tefillos. Just because the people who wrote the prayers saw Yom Kippur a certain way, doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be for us. The piyutim especially, begging God to spare us for one more year, save us from our enemies, calling up merits and mercy and promises and tears in exchange for salvation. These don’t apply to us, in my opinion. They were written by Jews who feared for their lives from peasants, cossacks, lords, etc, and truly put their faith in God. And it’s wrong for us to shtup our own thoughts into these prayers like some people tell us to do. Unless you mean it, don’t pretend to- God probably isn’t that stupid.
These prayers were written by fearful oppressed people living in horrible conditions. It makes sense that they bargained with God as if he were a dictatorial king- that’s what their entire reality was. We, however, don’t live in fear. And since we don’t have to, why would a person intentionally put himself in a scary, unhealthy environment like old-country religion? Approaching God, religion, spirituality with such a mindset doesn’t work for most people in America because it makes God seem like an out of touch, paranoid, insecure, control-freak. He doesn’t belong in reality, and he doesn’t seem real. If you want to gain benefit from faith -and I think that there can be a lot to be gained by having faith, even today- you can’t use the old way. It’s false, it will always feel false, and it will be extinguished if made to face reality.
Here, the old problem of Mesorah comes back. The tefillos are part of our heritage. You can’t throw parts of the religion out because they don’t make sense to you. You’re separating yourself from the rest of the Klal. You need to reach a consensus with representatives from all groups of Jews, which will never happen, because you’d have to meet with people who still isolate themselves in communities that haven’t left the feudal ages. What do you do? Cut out the rotten branches, and with it, your ties with the community; or leave the pieces in that threaten to destroy you and the whole tree?
I wish someone in the frum community had an answer, or at least the guts to deal with this elephant in the room. As of now, I just read over the tefillos mechanically to be yotzeh zein and not exclude myself from the tzibbbur. Sometimes I’ll selectively pay attention to a sentence that catches my eye and ignore the concluding part that makes me think, Wow, that’s unhealthy. But honestly, it’s a very screwed up way to daven, and not prone to sustained fits of kavanah, which is what praying is supposed to be about.
If I were in charge, I’d either have the whole thing rewritten from scratch (in a non-dead/foreign language), or keep shema and then a whole bunch of topic keywords that everyone could skim and use as jumping-off points for personal prayer.
Anybody else have some thoughts on this?