A few weeks ago, I received a well-reasoned and thoughtful letter from a (non-historically Karaite) Jewish man who has been attending the Karaite Jewish synagogue in Daly City for a few months. He said that the Shabbat service is the best asset the KJA has, because it is more engaging than its Rabbinic counterparts. He added, though, that he hoped the KJA would find a way to make more parts of the service accessible to persons who do not speak Hebrew.
His email to me was well-timed; the KJA had just put together a committee to review its siddur and to reflect on the nature of our services. Exciting things are on the horizon.
Before we jump into the meat of the post, I want to get on record on a few issues. First, I am neither wedded to tradition nor a free reformer. I think that tradition is important when it serves other important goals. I think that change is important when it serves other goals as well. I think that change to accommodate a lack of education is dangerous. Just as I think that tradition to accommodate no-longer-relevant values is also dangerous. I also spend several hours a week teaching people Karaite prayers. And I want to do more of it.
The heart of the Karaite Jewish service has remained intact for almost 900 years. There is something incredibly beautiful about this. One problem, though, is that the values that formed the basis of the service during the times of the Mourners of Zion and their progeny don’t really speak to people today.
For the uninitiated, here is some background on the structure of the traditional Karaite prayer. Historically, Karaite prayers contained seven key elements, and a prayer according to the Karaite custom should touch on each of these.
1. First, the prayer opens with praise of God and God’s glory. This first step is called shevach (“praise”). For example, at the Karaite Jews of America, the Shabbat morning prayer contains Psalms 103 and 104 toward the beginning of the service. These Psalms focus on God’s omnipotence and his wonders.
2. Second, the prayer contains verses related to the unity of God. This second step is called yachud (“unity”). For example, the first time the Shema is read during the Shabbat morning service is right after the initial praises for God.
3. Third, the prayer contains verses sanctifying God. This third step is called kedusha (“sanctity”). For example, we read liturgical poems by Aharon ben Yoseph, one of which begins “Atah Kadosh” (“You are holy”).
4. Fourth, the prayer contains verses of thanksgiving. This fourth step is called hoda’ah (“thanksgiving”). For example, we read Psalms 136. These verses begin “hodu l’Adonai ki tov” (“Thank God, for He is Good.”)
5. Fifth, the prayer contains verses related to confession. This step is called vidui (“confession”). For example, the Karaite liturgy contains a list of confessions, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
6. Sixth, the prayer contains verses related to supplication and pleas. This step is called either vakashah (“request”) or techinah (“plea”). For example, we read Psalms 106:47-48 and Psalms 40:14.
7. Seventh, the prayer contains verses related to personal pleas. These are usually stated in a whisper and accordingly this step is called tefilah b’lachash (“prayer in whisper”). For example, during the tefila b’lachash, we read Psalms 66:20.
The concluding prayer of the Karaite service is Baruch Shimcha (“Blessed be Your Name”), and it includes all seven of these traditional elements.
The Karaite Jews of America is looking for ways to make its prayers more modern, personal and uplifting; but the beauty of what they are trying to accomplish is that they are trying to do it in the context of the traditional elements of the Karaite prayer. For example, the discussions so far have been around finding the best combination of prayers to satisfy these elements, and on how to sequence the service so that it speaks to participant a bit better.
I do not know if the KJA will be successful in its changes. And I do not know how many changes, in truth, are necessary. But I do know that an organization that is willing to examine its 900 year-old tradition and is willing to find way to move forward within its historical paradigm will generally overcome the obstacles confronting it.
I pray for the KJA’s success in this journey. Sometimes a successful journey brings you back to the place you started. Sometimes you end up on the other side of the world. I cannot wait to see what the “new”service and siddur look like.