How Should We Pray? (Ki Tisa)

piyyut manuscriptMoses said to God, “Please show me your ways, that I may know you – and see that this nation is still your people.” God said to Moses,  “I will pass all my goodness before you, but you won’t be able to see my face.” God passed before him and he cried out, “Compassionate! Gracious! Patient! Great in Love and Faith!” (from Exodus 33: 13-20; 34:6) 

Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides explains:

Here Moses asks for three things: (1) to know God’s essence; (2) to see God’s ways; (3) to receive God’s forgiveness for the nation.

And God answers each request in turn. (1) No one can know my essence. (2) I reveal my ways in the created world, in each thing I call good (Gen. 1). (3) Yes, I forgive, as I am filled with forgiving qualities.

Our sages call these forgiving qualities God’s middot — a word they also use for human ethical qualities. With that word, they affirm the particularity of Moses’ experience of God. Moses sees God as the source of ethics and morality, and as the spirit of forgiveness. This vision flows right from Moses’ public role as lawgiver. It reflects his lifelong struggle with his own anger.

Even though our experiences of God are subjective, we Jews must agree on a shared liturgy. There’s no better source than the subjectivity of Moses, our greatest prophet. In fact, our Talmudic sages grounded our liturgy in Moses’ words.

Contemporary poets, however, depart from Moses’ words. They borrow language from lesser Biblical prophets to describe their own subjective spiritual experiences. These sources are fine for poetry, but subjective spiritual experience should not be imposed on the community as liturgy!

Do you agree with Maimonides? Should writers, singers, and prayer leaders embellish the liturgy with personally relevant poetry? Why or why not? How can it be done well?

For more reflections on Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), click here.



  1. Two brief thoughts:

    a) Definition:

    . . . A “standard” is a proven solution to a problem.

    Using that rubric, the established liturgy is a “standard” — if you want to pray, do it like this, it’s been proven to work for many people over many years.

    You want to change it? Go ahead — but don’t be surprised by failure. Zalman’s comment that “Renewal Judaism is an alpha-test environment” is relevant – alpha-test software is _expected_ to fail occasionally.

    So what’s the right rate of change, to avoid irrelevance of the old, and not drive people away with too much novelty? I wish I knew.

    b) Nothing we have now, is as good as a burning carcass.

    . Charles

    1. Thanks, Charles, for adding to this in person. Yes, the rate of accepting new liturgy can be quite slow in Jewish tradition! Some of the poetry Maimonides has in mind — piyyutim like Adon Haselichot — are now part of liturgy!

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