This week we begin confronting the idea of Jewish liturgy as an inter-textual continuum. This is an important idea, which will carry over in our upcoming analysis of musical patterns in synagogue music, of ritual body language, and beyond, all the way to the study of the aesthetics of Jewish ritual.
Neither the text, nor the language of Jewish liturgy are one. They are instead the result of a stratification and fusion of languages, sources, meanings and interpretations.
If we examine the competing notions of “Jewish language,” we are confronted with a series of methodological strategies deployed to manage the multi-dimensional nature of language within Jewish life. However defined (we touched upon ideas ranging from “any language spoken by Jews” to notions of linguistic fusion and koiné, to the relationship between language and cultural identity), a Jewish language is the result of several different concurring linguistic agents.
In learning about the emergence of piyyut (liturgical poetry), for example, we explored the origins and the implications of the very word, “piyyut”: a Hebrew adaptation of the word poiesis (the Greek etymological source of “poetry”), related to texts written predominantly in Hebrew, originally in a metric derived from Arabic poetry. The word, “piyyut,” is then at the roots of a confluence of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Islamic cultural traditions.
By observing the diversity of Jewish languages across the global Diaspora (thanks to an excellent website and its map of Jewish linguistic differences around the world, and to musical examples drawn from an audio-anthology prepared by Israel’s National Sound Archives), we encounter structural similarities that can be analyzed through a suggestive metaphor, coming from the realm of astronomy. Echoing Walter Benjamin’s notion of “constellation” (of related ideas), we may describe each “Jewish language” as a galaxy of linguistic interactions. The galaxy of Jewish language involves a core language, its fundamental relations with Hebrew and/or Aramaic, and the com-participation of a host of satellite languages. (The understanding is that Hebrew, and Aramaic, can also act as the core language of individual linguistic systems).
Similarly, the textual sources of Jewish liturgy are not homogenous. They encompass the following:
– the entire Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible, comprising the Pentateuch, the Prophetic books, and the remaining writings)–including both the original Hebrew text and its subsequent translations (beginning with the Aramaic Targum and continuing with translations in other languages);
– the Talmud, which is both quoted textually in some sections of the Prayer Book, and a source of inspiration for the structure of the liturgy and the basic formulas that inform it (the blessings, or berakhot)
– other prayers
– liturgical poetry (piyyut)
In the textual continuum of the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur, these textual sources are constantly present. They intersect one another, and complete and comment on one another in a dynamic galaxy of competing layers of meaning.