The following appears in the fall 2001 issue of "AIM: Liturgy Resources," published by World Library Publications, Inc.
The Art of Translation
by Alan Hommerding, Editor of "AIM: Liturgy Resources"
I have ministered for the past 5 years or so as an occasional musician for Congregation Sinai in Chicago. The congregation's rabbi, Michael Sternfield, graces the pages of this issue of AIM with his Rosh Hashanah sermon from last year. Recently the Congregation finished publication of their own prayerbook, based upon the 1945 Union Prayer Book of Reformed Judaism. It was interesting to me, as an editor and a liturgist, to read through the new book. Since I was quite familiar with the old one, differences and similarities soon became evident.
My first major experience ministering with the new book came one Saturday morning as nine adult women and men made their B'nai mitzvah. During the ceremony each gave a brief testimony about his or her faith journey. What was, for me, as moving a testimony to their faith and commitment was when each one took a turn reading a passage from Torah, publicly struggling to wrap their tongues around their newly-acquired Hebrew, bravely passing through a rite as adults which they had not passed through as children.
By leading prayer with this new book I learned that this faith community had struggled with many of the same prayer language issues with which Roman Catholics in the U. S. have struggled. Prayers were now addressed to the God of Abraham and Sarah, the image/metaphor pool for addressing the Almighty had been expanded, most archaisms had been dropped, and variant pronunciations for transliterations of some Hebrew texts were reduced greatly. I saw many of the same concerns: inclusivity, enrichment of language, honoring and conserving traditions while liberating what had become archaic, hidebound, meaningless. These issues had been grappled with by God's children in this place, and with much of the same consternation, I'm sure, that we've experienced. The fruit of it, however, was the praying together, the placing on the tongue of those words of love, challenge and faith; not every word was sweet as honey from the comb to each tongue, but the prayer was made nonethless.
In our recent generation, the battleground over matters linguistic in prayer has grown increasingly larger and larger, fueled by faith and conviction in some instances, I'm sure. But the unwillingness of so many to place the prayer of others on their tongues also speaks of a battleground created and maintained by pride. This includes everyone from hasty practitioners of artless inclusivity (there's a picture of one, yours truly, on this page) to those who, more recently, framed Liturgiam Authenticam with its rigid and outright ignoring of the current movement of the Spirit in scripture scholarship and in the social sciences about language, and its disrespectful domination of translations in languages not its own.
Both camps, and those scattered about them, have been in hot pursuit of a "rigid uniformity" that Vatican II said the Church did not desire. In either case, the building of these linguistic monoliths resembles the sin of Babel more than it does the grace of Pentecost.
One rabbi wrote thus of the building of Babel: "As the tower grew in height it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell the people wept, but when a man fell and died no one paid attention." I fear this is where we are - valuing the linguistic "bricks" more than the humans who pray. What a testimony to our true faith and commitment it would be if we all willingly wrapped our tongues around prayers which might be new, foreign, unfamiliar, making us uncomfortable, yet leading us to a place where a brother or sister might be found in prayer, re-shaping us once again, restored in Christ.
Please, God - you who enfleshed your Word, whose word flew into Joseph's dreams, whose word whispered into the womb of Mary, whose word cried through John in the desert - help us know and love the myriad ways you still wish your praise to be enfleshed in our prayer. Please grant those who claim to lead in your name the grace to make our own flesh part of the one great prayer of your glory.