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The Mutable Meaning of Liturgical Conservatism

I am pretty comprehensively ignorant of Christian liturgical questions, but I was thinking about this Michael Brendan Dougherty tweet that Rod Dreher linked to the other day and wondering about the significance of liturgical conservatism. And I realized, the more I thought about it, that I didn’t really know what it portended, and that it might portend many, even contradictory things.

At least from a Jewish context, the context with which I am most familiar. As I observe the Jewish world from my admittedly limited vantage point, the trend, pretty much across the spectrum, is in a broadly conservative direction liturgically speaking. Orthodox congregations, of course, never abandoned the traditional liturgy, but the generational trend has been towards greater stringency in observance of the particulars, and, more recently, towards the revival of the peculiar distinctive traditions of Sephardic and Mizrahi practice (which, a generation or two ago, had been somewhat suppressed under pressure from the Ashkenazi majority, at least in Israel). But for a generation now Reform Judaism has also been moving in a traditional direction – bringing back Hebrew, for example, and emphasizing the traditional forms and order of prayers. Their approach to tradition is far freer than in the more traditional streams of Judaism – they view tradition as a resource to be used rather than a constraining form – but within the context of that freer approach, the trend is to use more, rediscover more, learn more. The situation is more complicated in Conservative Judaism, where a generation that was very close to modern Orthodoxy and a high level of implicit knowledge is passing away. But the young Conservative Jews I know are more interested in – and knowledgable about – the liturgy than the prior generation, and the trend I see anecdotally is toward greater congregational participation.

And yet, that liturgical conservatism that I perceive within the liberal Jewish movements doesn’t portend a political or social conservatism at all. The same people I know who are passionately attached to traditional liturgical forms, who are learning to lead davening and to read Torah, have generally liberal attitudes toward sexuality, a relatively tolerant attitude towards interfaith relationships, a more nuanced relationship with Zionism – again, all in comparison with their parents. And, in fact, where those social questions intersect with liturgical ones, these liturgical conservatives frequently wind up on the same side as those who are full-spectrum modernizers. While in the Orthodox world, the trend is rightward across the board, and in the secularized Jewish world the trend is leftward (at least in America), in the liberal Jewish religious world the liturgical trend and the social/political trend feel to me like run in opposite directions.

Which led me to wonder: what does liturgical conservatism really signify?

Attachment and engagement with the tradition requires you to care about the traditional forms, words, music, etc. To properly debate whether to bring this back or change that, you have to know what “this” or “that” are, what they signified then, and what they might mean now. But that attachment and engagement doesn’t necessarily mean – shouldn’t necessarily mean – an uncreative fealty to the received way of doing things. It means caring enough about that inheritance to want to pass it on in better shape than you received it.

It makes sense to me that the same person who cares what the right nusach is for singing the musaf hatzi kaddish would also care about whether to amend the traditional amidah to include the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs – but it doesn’t mean that that person will necessarily come out on the traditionalist side of the latter argument. There’s a powerful traditionalist argument against such emendation, but that doesn’t mean that argument should or would be dispositive – and, in my experience, it isn’t, always. Rather, the person who is engaged enough to care about the one is engaged enough to care about the other – and that caring might lead to two different answers, traditionalist in the one case, “modernist” in the other.

There’s a tension in any modern person approaching a traditional liturgy, between two conflicting desires. On the one hand, there is the desire to say what you mean. Praying for, say, the restoration of animal sacrifice feels to a lot of people I know problematic – because they don’t want to see the Temple literally rebuilt and animal sacrifice restored (and, in fact, there’s rabbinic warrant for questioning whether the messianic age would really require such restoration). On the other hand, there is the desire to mean what you say, to have the words transform you by saying them. Praying for, say, the resurrection of the dead feels problematic to some people because it feels like a literal absurdity – but on another level, that’s precisely why you pray for such a thing, because it is an absurd hope.

Rejecting that kind of tension – resolving it neatly either by eliminating anything you don’t feel “comfortable” saying or by rejecting out of hand the possibility of emendation – strikes me as a spiritual mistake. It’s not true that our ancestors never changed anything, and if we act as though we have no right to change anything, we’re saying, in some sense, that we are a lesser sort of being. The implication is that the liturgy can’t mean for us what it meant for them – and that seems to me like a dangerous concession. By the same token, only somebody who doesn’t really care about the object of prayer would cavalierly make our own psychic “comfort” the proper standard by which to judge the adequacy of the liturgy.

I guess what I’m saying is that a living tradition is one that inspires a kind of passionate engagement, and that engagement is one that could lead, theoretically and practically, in the direction of reviving old forms, or altering them – or both, simultaneously, in response to different questions. Whereas a tradition that could only be cavalierly abandoned or maintained in a militantly unreflective manner – which feel to me like two sides of the same false coin – is a tradition that is dead in the heart.

And if that’s the standard, then at least within the Jewish world, I see a lot of life on both the religious “right” and the religious “left.”

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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