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Entering Mishkan T'filah
by Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman.

[Reprinted from CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Fall 2004]

When did the winter of our discontent begin with Gates of Prayer? Why do we need a new prayer book? Is it just a matter of seeking newness?

The work of the new siddur began truly with a survey, not of theology and clergy, but of laity. In 1994, Rabbi Peter Knobel and Dan Schechter received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to survey worshippers in Reform congregations throughout the United States to determine what they sought from a new prayer book. What were the results? Strongly articulated were the desires for transliteration, meaningful God language, expanded God language, relevant and compelling English prayer, faithful translation, and a response to the feminist critique. Based on this project, a proposal was set before the CCAR Board, describing a prayer book with four different services, à la Gates of Prayer. The time to select an editor arrived, and a critical awareness emerged. It would be important for the editor(s) to focus less on personal style and instead be able to respond to the diversity of the Movement’s expectations. Those expectations? Anecdotally: A prayer book that would help us re-engage our Jews in meaningful worship. How? Offering a balance of creativity and beauty, theology and purpose.

The survey described lay expectations of worship as participat­ing in community and seeking renewal of spirit through ritual, music, and intellectual engagement with the Torah. Many felt a strong sense of community; many also found theological issues vexing. They sought community that observed their personal crises and celebrations, a “healing” environment, and an ethical integrity. They wanted more than a surface brush with tradition. Almost half could not read Hebrew, yet they wanted Hebrew prayers, with transliteration. They wanted to hear Torah and have it translated into English. They loved to sing aloud and to pray in unison; they articulated that responsive readings worked the least well for them. They sought greater terminology for God, less masculine and less hierarchical. And they described a conflict over the language of prayer and the role of God: Though there may be less belief in a personal God, the desire to call upon God in prayer remained central.

Yet, although prayer invites us to beseech God, we must also be open to what God wants from us. Samuel Karff wrote, “Each gener­ation must struggle to hear the call, ‘Where art thou?’ Each must choose to answer, ‘Here I am, send me.’” (The Theological Founda­tions of Prayer, 1967, UAHC Biennial). Each generation—not merely each individual. A siddur must challenge narcissism; that challenge begins by saying to a worshipper: Your voice is here amidst others. To hear the call: To realize that prayer is not merely an outpouring of self; it is the opening of our senses to what is beyond our selves. Send me: Prayer must motivate us to give selflessly.

Rabbinic liturgy offers this opportunity; the Reform challenge to rabbinic theology, though, equally challenged our receptiveness to that liturgy. Although some metaphorically reinterpret difficult material, such as the middle paragraphs of the Sh’ma, for many the literal sense of the text is an insurmountable roadblock. For gener­ations, Reform liturgy offered alternatives to the traditional. Creative response is inherent in Reform liturgy.

By the mid-1980s, with Gates of Prayer only ten years old, it was confronted with gender and cultural complaints. But Reform worship was also in conflict. It is possible that Gates of Prayer was being challenged not just because of its content, but because of prob­lems in the worship culture.1

Classical Reform’s rational, decorous worship style encountered new age, American spiritualism. The gulf between formal sanctuary worship and informal, relaxed worship was widening. Desktop publishing enabled congregations to produce their own prayer books—a wonderful exercise in teaching liturgy and investing congregants in their own siddur, but devastating for the Movement in terms of a unifying Reform minhag. And while creative services elevated kavanahh, the keva of worship radically diminished. Personal expression mattered more than fixed liturgy.2

It used to be argued that such a siddur served two primary purposes: It unified Reform congregations in worship (“one can attend any Reform synagogue and feel at home”) and articulated a clear Reform theology. The latter became untrue with the publica­tion of Gates of Prayer and its myriad theologies. The former became untrue as worship styles in Reform synagogues increasingly diverged. Today, it can seem unclear whether one is attending a Reform or Conservative service—the prayer book may or may not be a Movement prayer book, there may or may not be instrumen­tation, the length of the service may vary as much as its content, men and women have equal access to participation. It can take a fairly sophisticated worshipper to discern the particular distinctions of our prayers (whether or not there are the middle paragraphs of the Sh’ma, for example). Movement boundaries blur as personal clergy style prevails. One could argue that the autonomy of Reform has reached its fullest expression in worship; congregations pray their own way, because they can.

Worship is a transforming agent in Jewish life, critical in helping synagogue culture to evolve from corporate to caring. It is the setting in which worshippers find life’s critical issues taken seriously, yet also challenges us to live ethically and be socially responsible.

There is a fine balance in prayer between self-representation and loss-of-self. Not dissimilar from the most intimate physical act, one needs to be fully present for the other, and at the same time, lose oneself in the other—in spiritual terms, I-Thou. How does one accomplish this in prayer if the matter is always intellectual, if one is always evaluating the content of the new prayer? Intimacy in prayer escapes us.

In Beyond the Worship Wars, Thomas G. Long teaches, “Part of the joy of worship is to know the motions, know the words, know the song. The vital congregations knew their order of worship and moved through it with deep familiarity. What is more, the worship­pers had active roles—speaking, singing, moving—and many of these they could perform from memory” (p. 90).

In 1972, the now classic Lenn Report wrote (p. 102), “Classical Reform is being seriously questioned from within by a generation of rabbis who are themselves largely the products of Classical Reform.” A chart outlining results of the distinctive practices, beliefs and attitudes of the spectrum of then-Reform Rabbis showed a strong trend away from Classical Reform—including worship experimentation, increased emphasis on religious ritual, less reli­ance upon God. The following statement received resounding support in the survey, and revealed a new sense of direction: “I believe that Reform should pay less attention to décor (sic: decorum?) and more to emotion.”

We actually heard and understood this, but took a (perhaps necessary) double-decade detour. We thought ongoing innovation would refresh our worship. Not only was this exhausting for the worship leaders, it was impossible to sustain. The very idea of worship is that it should provide an ongoing familiarity and comfort, of inclusiveness amidst that constancy.

Lawrence Hoffman teaches, “The book is less text than pre-text for the staging of an experience. In a way, we are returning to the age of orality, where performance of prayer matters more than the fixed words. As long as books were the issue, all we needed was a good reader. Union Prayer Books were even labeled “reader”; and the Hebrew Union College, back then, taught students to read correctly. The question of worship leadership has expanded now, to include the theology and artistry of being a sh’liach tzibur—how to orches­trate seating, fill empty space, provide the right acoustics, and honor individualism within the group experience.”

Perhaps we must reframe the purpose of the sh’liach tzibur. The worship leader needs to apply the siddur’s script to a particular worshipping community. Even with the essential advance plan­ning, there also must be a spontaneous response to the people present. In any given worship experience, the tone of the community varies: Joyful, mournful, concerned, alert, exhausted… music and style need to respond. What, then, does it mean to plan ahead? To develop the flow of the service per se—evolving the keva of worship that adjusts each time to the needs of the particular worship commu­nity. What is flow? Developing a relationship between music and prayer that underlines the entire liturgy, its sense of build and climax. Inherent in liturgy is a sense of direction; the sh’liach tzibur, as true facilitator, communicates what should happen next through the use of music and voice.

Using Mishkan T’filah, the actual selection of prayer can wait for the moment. The point is that the sh’liach tzibbur must offer a recipe that works comfortably for the community, and be able to adapt each week to the particular needs of the community. Worship can never be business as usual.

And of our own opportunity to commune with the Divine? Prayer for the sh’liach tzibur begins in the community and grows outward. As the needs of the community are met, so we can lose ourselves in their midst. We are of the community, and if we have attended well to them, we have also attended to ourselves.

Early in the project, some wondered why “form” mattered; create compelling content, and all would pray meaningfully. It became clear how critical was the relationship between worship and the siddur, and that it went well beyond matters of content. The Lilly survey taught that Reform Jews wanted to participate actively in worship. The new siddur needed to balance tradition and inspira­tion, keva and kavanah. But ownership would be critical; over time, one could memorize the book, yet feel its freshness anew.

Mishkan T’filah invites familiarity, even as it allows for diversity. Over time, one can’t help but memorize the book. The content of each page spread, though varied, becomes known. Of course, the constancy of the keva text anchors every prayer. It is the cumulative effect of worshipping from this siddur that will deepen meaningful ritual.

There are two divergent worshipping communities in Reform sanctuaries.3 “Regulars,” according to the work of the Joint Commission on Religious Living, are those who come at least eight to twelve times a year on Shabbat; they will master the concept of the siddur readily, and be able to take advantage of its possibilities. The second community includes guests, yahrzeit observers, and the occasional worshipper. They will need guidance; but they already need that guidance in Gates of Prayer. (We assume strangers can follow Gates of Prayer—but we use Hebrew without transliteration, and don’t announce where we are on the page. We do not use Gates of Prayer linearly; we alternate Hebrew and English, or do both, read then sing the same passage or vice versa. We skip pages to find the candle blessing or Torah material or Aleinu. It is not obvious to the non-regular how to follow Gates of Prayer.) The new siddur—any new siddur—reminds us to attend to all our worshippers, and rethink our techniques.

Cumulative ritual builds over time. Even the High Holidays are cumulative; worshippers who attend only then nonetheless are attached to what they have learned over the years. Certain melodies resonate deeply because they are thoroughly associated with that season. Change happens slowly because of that cumulative mean­ing. On Shabbat, even with the challenge of balancing the needs of regulars against those of non-regulars, change can occur more rapidly. But always, one must ask: Why change? What does it mean to be bored in worship? What is boring? We have attempted to shore up our worship with newness, but “newness” diminishes familiar­ity. This does not refer to music repertoire; indeed, over time, the music can deepen prayer as it becomes familiar. One-shot worship experiences may spread fresh seeds, but they will not take root in the parched worship setting. The basic worship must be healthy, mean­ingful, and purposeful for inspiration to blossom. Cumulative ritual is tended over time; it requires ongoing attention and nurturing. The new siddur, by virtue of its being different, opens us anew to this task.

The true paradigm shift for Mishkan T’filah is the concept of an integrated theology.4 In any worship setting, people have diverse beliefs. The challenge of a single liturgy is to be not only multivocal, but polyvocal—to invite full participation at once, without conflict­ing with the keva text. (First, the keva text must be one that is accept­able; hence, the ongoing conversations about retribution, resurrection, and redemption.) Jewish prayer invites interpretation; the left-hand material was selected for both metaphor and theological diversity. The choices were informed by the themes of Reform Juda­ism and life: Social justice, feminism, Zionism, distinctiveness, human challenges. The heritage of Reform brings gems from the Union Prayer Book and the Gates of Prayer.

Theologically, the liturgy needed to include many perceptions of God: The transcendent, the naturalist, the mysterious, the partner, the evolving God…. In any given module of prayer, say Sh’ma Uvirchoteha, we should sense all these ways. This is the distinction of an integrated theology: Not that one looks to each page to find one’s particular voice, but that over the course of praying, many voices are heard, and ultimately come together as one. As a worship­per, I must be certain that I am not excluded; yet, it is not my partic­ular belief that needs to be stated each moment. As worshippers, we realize that our community, however diverse, includes me—but it is the community that matters most. The ethic of inclusivity meets awareness of and obligation to others rather than narcissism. Petu­chowski taught:

Tradition would never ask, “What kind of God does prayer need?” Rather, tradition would reverse the question: “God being what He is, what kind of prayer would be appropriate?” Prayer may be a basic human urge, but God, tradition would say, is not dependent for His nature or existence upon man’s basic urges. A god constructed to meet people’s urges and needs is the kind of god that the Bible calls “idol.” … Tradition also recognizes that God can also be approached through channels other than prayer—the philosopher may find Him at the end of his chain of reasoning, and the scientist may put down his test tube in a moment of radical wonder and amazement; the mystic may bathe in His light during moments of illumination, and the prophet may hear His voice urging him on to the improvement of society. Perhaps one of the reasons our most recent liturgical ventures have been so daunting is that we try in our prayers to include the voices of the philoso­pher, the scientist, the mystic and the prophet … We try to make our prayer be all things to all people.

An integrated theology communicates that the community is greater than the sum of its parts. Although individuals matter deeply, particularly in the sense of our emotional and spiritual needs, and in the certainty that we are not invisible, that security should provide a stepping stone to the higher value of community, privilege, and obligation. We join together in prayer because together we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage. Abra­ham knew that ten people made a difference. In worship, all should be reminded of the social imperatives of community.

Prayer must move us beyond ourselves. Prayer should not reflect me; prayer should reflect our values and ideals. God is not in our image; we are in God’s. Our diversity is God. The integrated theol­ogy in Mishkan T’filah suggests that it is the blending of different voices that most accurately reflects God.

Contemporary Reform theology continues to wrestle with oppo­sitional beliefs. As work on the siddur intensified, the Pittsburgh Principles were being debated. The tug of war goes on between Reform heritage and Jewish tradition. Gates of Prayer, too, was theo­logically inconsistent. No one Reform theologian dictated the content of Gates of Prayer. It is no different today. The Editorial Commit­tee of Mishkan T’filah offered several conversations with the body of the CCAR about retribution, resurrection, and redemption. Noth­ing was concluded from those forums. Interestingly, this experience parallels a similar lack of consensus at a 1950 theological conference, as remembered by Eugene Borowitz (Renewing the Covenant, p. 237). In realms of controversial theology, we must include a variety of texts.

Is this an indictment of serious Reform thinking? No. Eugene Borowitz (Renewing the Covenant, p. 253) describes our dilemma well:

People often feel that our inner struggle over the contemporary meaning of Torah hinges essentially on our Jewish loyalty or will­ingness to sacrifice some measure of selfhood for our Judaism. Though that may be partially true, it overlooks the greater human spiritual/social development of which we have been a part. Our essential problem is not specifically Jewish but historical.… We … must decide on the mix of modernity and tradition we believe to be faithful to what God demands of us.

In our siddur, therefore, it is critical that Reform Jews understand what is expected of them. Yes, the theology of the new siddur reflects religious naturalism, and the theology of human adequacy, and process theology, and a balance of particularism and univer­salism. But the essence of Reform liturgy continues to be on what God demands of us, with heavy emphasis on ethical action and social justice. Borowitz again, (Renewing the Covenant, p. 252):

…the non-Orthodox reject a compartmentalized spirituality because they believe that the human soul, created in God’s image, ought to strive to be one even as God is one. And that means an ever-expanding whole, integrating one’s spiritual experience with that of one’s faith community and, reaching beyond that, with the experience of all God’s children.

Hence liberal spirituality ideally knows no barrier between what we learn from every other human discipline and from reli­gion’s teaching. Explicating that unified sense of human existence has turned out to be a more difficult task than early liberal religious thinkers estimated. Not the least reason for this has been the unex­pected shifts our modern worldview has taken as people have studied humankind and pondered its recent sorry behavior. None­theless, liberals know that their distinctive way of serving God centers on this pursuit of the integrated soul.

This dedication arises from a compelling sense of what the human spirit can achieve when empowered to use its gifts of intel­ligence and creativity freely in God’s service.

An excellent illustration of theological and social debate is the one over the middle paragraphs of the Sh’ma. One group argues that its literal meaning can never be divorced; since it is Deuteronomic, its context is absolutely retributional. There can be no reconciliation with a theology that justifies senseless suffering and death. Others contend that one must understand the material metaphorically; the “cause and effect” theology is absolutely applicable to today’s ecological crisis. In draft editions, the paragraphs were included, to assess the desire for their inclusion. Alternative material was considered (the Reconstructionists had chosen other Deuteronomic passages). Since Reform is a prophetic Movement and the idea was to deflect the retributional sense toward one of rational, social justice, passages from the prophets were selected as alternatives. In the end, because the paragraphs come from Torah, it was decided that in the context of prayer, this material continued to be too chal­lenging. Mishkan T’filah will uphold the pattern of Gates of Prayer.

A second debate was whether or not to include t’chiat hameitim.5 The argument is clear: Either physical resurrection defies reason—it doesn’t belong in our prayer book—or, the language is metaphor, even to the sages of the Talmud, and the prayer is testimony to God’s ability to overcome anything. Two irreconcilable camps. Some went so far as to say: If this is/isn’t included, we won’t buy the book. The work of the prayer book is a navigation of people’s wants: After much discussion about options, including rejecting a contraction or parenthetic form (e.g., hakol/meitim or hakol [meitim]), the first draft contained a compromise text that began with hakol, included “meitim” in the middle two references, then concluded with “hakol.” This meant to emphasize the metaphor rather than the literal sense of the prayer. Responding to completely mixed feedback, the second draft included two complete versions, the Gates of Prayer Reform version as the keva text, and the traditional as midrash on the left (a clever solution). But this eliminated the possibility of truly creative midrash, since there was no room remaining on the left page; so the third draft will consider a different, as yet undeter­mined, approach.

Since these debates reveal the diversity of our Movement, could the new siddur include the issues? This question led to a deeper appreciation for the teaching opportunities than Mishkan T’filah could offer. Its very format is a teaching tool. On the right side of the page is the Hebrew keva text with a faithful translation and trans­literation.6

On the left are two alternative prayers, reflecting varied theolo­gies. Not every theology is represented on a page-spread; over the breadth of the liturgy, all are included. Headings were explored; those in Gates of Prayer did not necessarily guide the uninformed worshipper—certainly those in stylized Hebrew without vowels were merely decorative for many. Mishkan T’filah puts full rubrics in the margins, in vocalized Hebrew and transliteration, and high­lights that page’s particular prayer. Commentary is new for a Reform siddur; ours emphasizes Reform history and thought, and the imperative for social justice.

The desert mishkan was a portable sanctuary. Its care was guarded by the Levites and the priests; yet, it invited all to bring their offer­ings. We clergy are the caretakers of Mishkan T’filah; we hope all who enter are welcomed. Our work is to build worship carefully and consistently, so that participants will know what is expected of them, and that their offerings will, indeed, be acceptable before God.

Notes

  1. In the early 1980s, many congregations introduced language change in the Avot to include the Imahot; similarly, we shifted “He” references to God to second person. Both these shifts had to be memorized. There was no call yet to write a new siddur; but these changes marked a cultural evolution.
  2. A number of URJ camps use a laminated prayer card that highlights this; the keva material is mere backdrop for the “true” prayer expres­sion, which includes personal writings, dance, art, Torah teaching and music.
  3. Hoffman wrote: “Classical Reform prayer was a function of mass production, where everyone is the same. It used a mass-produced prayer book that everyone reads together.... Reform Jews rose to- gether, sat together, read together, turned pages together. This was a Model-T worship for an assembly-line population.”

    This homogeneity is long gone; indeed, the most apt illustration is the Bar Mitzvah service, which may truly be a community of strangers. With so many first-timers, do we conduct worship that is a cookie- cutter of the week before, regardless of who is in the room? Or do the participants impact on us? On the amount of Hebrew vs. English used? The level of explanation? Is this heavily interfaith crowd invited to worship also, to be transformed; do they matter? What is the role of the siddur in the uniquely American Shabbat community?
  4. Elaine Zecher first coined the phrase “integrated theology” in refer­ence to MT.

  5. Interestingly, laity seem not to care significantly; in the piloting, it was clear that the responses to this question were not personal but influ­enced by discussion with the Rabbi; if the Rabbi supported the inclu­sion, so did the bulk of responses from that congregation, etc. Clergy, though, care a great deal.

  6. The option to purchase without transliteration exists. An ongoing debate exists about the merits of transliteration. Some argue that it is a crutch, preventing Hebrew learning. Others observe that most Hebrew students learn phonetically and not for content; translitera­tion is an absolute aid. Many are concerned that youth would be less motivated to learn with transliteration before their eyes; still others are sensitive to those with learning needs. The compromise of two editions meets all concerns.

____________

Elyse D. Frishman is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and editor of Mishkan T’filah.

Introduction to Mishkan T'filah
by Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman & Rabbi Peter S. Knobel

While prayer invites us to beseech God, we must also be open to what God wants from us. Samuel Karff wrote, “Each generation must struggle to hear the call, ‘Where art thou?’ Each must choose to answer, ‘Here I am, send me.’” Each generation—not merely each individual. A siddur must challenge narcissism; that challenge begins by saying to a worshipper: your voice is here amidst others. To hear the call: to realize that prayer is not merely an outpouring of self; it is the opening of our senses to what is beyond our selves. Send me: prayer must motivate us to give selflessly.

In any worship setting, people have diverse beliefs. The challenge of a single liturgy is to be not only multi-vocal, but poly-vocal—to invite full participation at once, without conflicting with the keva text. (First, the keva text must be one that is acceptable; hence, the ongoing adaptations of certain prayers, over time, such as the G’vurot). Jewish prayer invites interpretation; the left hand material was selected both for metaphor and theological diversity. The choices were informed by the themes of Reform Judaism and Life: Social justice, feminism, Zionism, distinctiveness, human challenges. The heritage of Reform brings gems from the Union Prayer Book and from Gates of Prayer, as well as from Reform’s great literary figures over the last century and more.

Theologically, the liturgy needs to include many perceptions of God: the transcendent, the naturalist, the mysterious, the partner, the evolving God. In any given module of prayer, e.g., the Sh’ma and Blessings, we should sense all of these ways. The distinction of an integrated theology is not that one looks to each page to find one’s particular voice, but that over the course of praying, many voices are heard, and ultimately come together as one. The ethic of inclusivity means awareness of and obligation to others rather than mere self-fulfillment.

An integrated theology communicates that the community is greater than the sum of its parts. While individuals matter deeply, particularly in the sense of our emotional and spiritual needs and in the certainty that we are not invisible, that security should be a stepping stone to the higher value of community, privilege and obligation. We join together in prayer because together, we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage. Abraham knew that just ten people make a difference. In worship, all should be reminded of the social imperatives of community.

Prayer must move us beyond ourselves. Prayer should not reflect “me”; prayer should reflect our values and ideals. God is not in our image; we are in God’s. It is critical that Reform Jews understand what is expected of them. The diverse theologies of the new siddur reflect religious naturalism, the theology of human adequacy, process theology, and the balance of particularism and universalism. But the essence of Reform liturgy continues to be what God demands of us, with heavy emphasis on ethical action and social justice.

In Beyond the Worship Wars, Thomas G. Long teaches, “Part of the joy of worship is to know the motions, know the words, know the song. The vital congregations knew their order of worship and moved through it with deep familiarity. What is more, the worshippers had active roles—speaking, singing, moving—and many of these they could perform from memory.” The siddur is a tool in the larger system of worship. Lawrence Hoffman teaches, “The book is less text than pre-text for the staging of an experience. We are returning to the age of orality, where performance of prayer matters more than the fixed words. The question of worship leadership has expanded now, to include the theology and artistry of being a sh’liach tzibur—how to orchestrate seating, fill empty space, provide the right acoustics, and honor individualism within the group experience.”

Using Mishkan T’filah, the actual selection of prayer can wait for the moment. The sh’liach tzibur must offer a recipe that works comfortably for the community, and be able to adapt each week to the particular needs of the community, and to individuals within that community.

Mishkan T’filah invites familiarity, even as it allows for diversity. Over time, one cannot help but memorize the book. The content of each page spread, though varied, becomes known. The constancy of the keva text (the right hand side of each page which offers the traditional prayer) anchors every creative prayer on the left. It is the cumulative effect of worshipping from this siddur that will deepen meaningful ritual.

The publication of Mishkan T’filah continues the Reform Movement’s tradition of liturgical innovation. A single prayer book provides an important vehicle for group identification as well as personal prayer. The Union Prayer Book and its successor Gates of Prayer and now Mishkan T’filah each express the ethos and values of its own era, at the same time being fully rooted in the structure and substance of the historical liturgical tradition of the Jewish people.

The title Miskhan T’filah is drawn from Exodus 25:8 where God commands us to build a portable sanctuary that can accompany us on our wanderings. “And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Mishkan T’filah is a dwelling place for prayer, one that moves with us wherever we might be physically or spiritually. It offers the opportunity for God, the individual and community to meet

The desert mishkan was a portable sanctuary. Its care was guarded by the Levites and the priests yet it invited all to bring their offerings. Today, we are all caretakers of Mishkan T’filah; may our offerings be acceptable before God.

May all who enter find joy, solace and meaning.

RABBI ELYSE D. FRISHMAN RABBI PETER S. KNOBEL

Editor Chair of the Editorial Committee


Excerpted from Mishkan T'Filah

© 2006 Central Conference of American Rabbis

The Prayer Book of the People
by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman

A Conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman
on the Making of Mishkan T’filah—A Reform Siddur,
the Movement’s Innovative New Prayer Book

[ Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism ]

The 2006 release of Mishkan T'filah--A Reform Siddur marks a historic turning: from exclusive rabbinic authorship to broad involvement of Reform Jews throughout North America; from linear to open services; and much more. To better understand this innovative prayer book, Reform Judaism Editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer interviewed Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual at HUC-JIR, who served on the planning committees for both the new prayer book and its predecessor, Gates of Prayer.

You have been involved in developing Reform prayer books for some time. Has the process changed?

Yes. Creating the Reform Movement's newest prayer book, Mishkan T'filah (2006), was a far more thorough, lengthy, and democratic process than ever before. We began with an extensive survey of our congregations, funded by an Eli Lilly grant and organized by Rabbi Peter Knobel and Dan Schechter. A preliminary committee then responded with recommendations to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), after which several potential editors submitted proposals as to how best to crystallize these recommendations in practice. Then an editorial committee consisting of lay leaders, rabbis, cantors, and liturgists discussed every issue in detail, while field-testing each siddur draft at Union for Reform Judaism biennials and CCAR conventions and in nearly 300 congregations throughout North America. We also received hundreds of additional comments from lay people, rabbis, and cantors—and we listened to every suggestion. At the end, a publishing committee composed of Rabbis Peter Knobel, Bernard Mehlman, Elliot Stevens, Elaine Zecher, prayer book editor Elyse Frishman, Debbie Smilow, and me oversaw the final document, discussing global issues not yet settled, attending to prayer book design, guaranteeing true translations rather than paraphrases, and reviewing English alternatives—sometimes replacing them, sometimes supplementing them in consultation with specialists in Jewish literature, poetry, linguistics, and liturgy. Talk about inclusivity! Each stage of the process factored in issues of gender, age, theology, generation, academic expertise, and style--the intangible issue of how people like to pray. This is truly a prayer book by and for the people.

With all this input, Rabbi Elyse Frishman conceived of a brilliant layout device whereby every facing two-page spread would contain a traditional prayer (with translation and transliteration) on the right, and alternative English readings on that prayer's theme on the left. Any given facing page might include (besides the traditional offering) a feminist voice, a classical Reform perspective, advocacy for social justice, personal reflections, and so forth.

The result is a set of double-page spreads with contents that vary enormously in register and in rhetoric. Some worshipers appreciate evocative poetry; others are drawn to prayers with evident cognitive or philosophical messages. Every double page has enough variety to allow each individual worshiper to find a "home" there. People may recite or sing along with the larger community in whatever options the prayer leader chooses, or elect instead to meditate on an alternative passage. But the left- and the right-side pages always conclude with the same traditional Hebrew line, which is called the chatimah. So when you get to that line, no matter what you're reading, you know to turn the page and keep up with the service.

What does the making of Mishkan T'filah tell us about the times we live in?

I like to link prayer books to economic history. Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, our economy was primarily industrial, with standardized goods (like the Model T Ford) made in factories. The mirror liturgical image was the 1895 Union Prayer Book, which standardized prayer with little regard for the individual worshiper. In that classical mode of prayer, Reform worship rarely varied. Wherever you went—New York, Chicago or Muncie, Indiana—Reform rabbis stood at the front and read at everyone else. Long paragraphs were given to the rabbi; the congregation got one-line responsive readings. But how much individuality can you express if all you get is a one-liner?

After World War II, we entered a service economy, where people expected to be served in a customized manner. Many Jews eventually stopped attending synagogue regularly, but came reliably for life-cycle events, which they treated as customized services. When they no longer felt the need for synagogue services, they quit.

Today we inhabit what's called an experience economy. Consumers shop at malls not just to buy what they want, but to have a buying "experience"—greeters at the door, music in the background, and other kinds of entertainment.

Gates of Prayerexpressed a service economy. It offered ten different service selections to satisfy individualized theological tastes, but only one could be used at any given Shabbat prayer experience. Mishkan T'filah, too, provides options, but it does so on each page, not in separate services. On any double-page spread, individual voices on the left-hand page personalize the experience, while the traditional text on the right-hand page creates a community of worshipers. So Mishkan T'filah provides for a communal experience while allowing for individuality in prayer.

As part of the experience economy, Mishkan T'filah is less text than pretext for a worship experience where the act of prayer matters more than the fixed words it uses. No siddur of the past understood that prayer books are not so much books as they are scripts for the experience of worship.

The full title of the new prayer book is Mishkan T'filah—A Reform Siddur. Why was "Reform" added to the title of a CCAR prayer book for the first time?

We debated the English title at some length. Some people preferred Siddur for Prayer, but we elected to affirm this prayer book as Reform, even though we believe any Jew could use it. By using "Siddur" in the title instead of just "Reform Prayer Book," we are making the statement that our Movement is comfortable with the age-old vocabulary of our people. The word "Reform" modifies that language with a recognition that Reform Judaism has a point of view and, having been practiced for almost 200 years, is itself a valid tradition.

When you say that the new siddur reflects the Reform "point of view," what viewpoints come to mind?

The siddur reflects our Movement's historical commitment to the vernacular (not just the original Hebrew or Aramaic), to originating new prayers that address new times, to a theology that we can take seriously, to elevated aesthetics (especially music)—and, in more recent times, to egalitarianism.

But I want to emphasize two other aspects of Mishkan T'filah. The first is its integrity regarding content. We didn't include some traditionalist prayers that, in all good conscience, Reform Jews cannot say. For example, in traditionalist siddurim, the Sh’ma includes not just theSh’ma Yisrael and V'ahavta, but two more paragraphs which American Reform prayer books have omitted ever since the 1890s. With the trend toward recapturing abandoned traditions, we were urged to reinstate the last two paragraphs. But the third paragraph links Divine reward and punishment to human merit and sin—an implicit suggestion that sickness or suffering may be God's retaliation, something Reform Jews reject. So Mishkan T'filah continues the Reform tradition of omitting this paragraph, even as we have readopted the second paragraph.

Second, Mishkan T'filah values inclusivity. Reform Jews like to ask "Who's in?," not "Who's out?" We know, for example, that some people have doubts about God. So, hoping to welcome them "in," we offer prayer and poetry that speak to the human condition without referencing God. We also include voices from classical Reform thought—like those of Leo Baeck and Lily Montague.

How does Mishkan T'filah's design and layout differ from previous Reform prayer books?

The aesthetic has changed. In addition to adding a second color (blue), each page has been uniquely designed. The best example is the Sh’ma. To express visually our belief in the Sh’maas the central doctrine of our faith, the Hebrew text of that single line, Sh’ma Yisrael..., is enlarged and stretched across both pages. You look at it and say, "This is really central."

Also, Mishkan T'filah addresses questions Reform worshipers may have about the prayers they're reading. So at the bottom of the page, we provide historical and spiritual interpretations of the liturgy, as well as explanations of traditional body movements associated with particular prayers--not behavioral dictates but alternatives that derive from tradition.

Another unique design feature lets worshipers know where they are in the order of the service. The margins of each page list the sequence of prayers with the name of the prayer at hand highlighted typographically. Ritual depends on familiarity with structure--bringing in a birthday cake "works," for example, because everyone knows the candles will be blown out afterward. In prayer, too, knowing the flow of the service enhances every moment of it.

How do these innovations change the rabbi and cantor's role in the service?

People no longer want to be "talked to" or "sung at." So service leaders will have to work at engaging worshipers, especially in the music. Also, it will take some time for rabbis and cantors to get used to selecting from options on each double page. Prayer leaders will now need to prepare for the service in advance as a worship team, rather than walking independently onto the pulpit to read lines or sing music. Mishkan T'filah does include one linear Shabbat service for those more comfortable with the Gates of Prayer approach, but we expect that linear services will be used less and less as people are increasingly drawn to the spiritual possibilities of services framed around choices on facing pages.

How does the new prayer book reflect our Movement's commitment to social justice?

Gates of Prayer,published in 1975, appeared at a time of heightened fear for Israel's survival and concern for the plight of Soviet Jews. So it tilted toward particularism. Mishkan T'filahremains fiercely proud of peoplehood, but it reasserts what classical Reform Jews called "the mission of Israel," which is the whole point of peoplehood: to be engaged with God in transforming society. It thereby marks a return to a universalistic call to social justice. And while Gates of Prayer had a single service that focused on social justice—you could go to synagogue your whole life without ever encountering it—Mishkan T'filah has prayers for social justice everywhere. The Jewish prayer experience should not only evoke a Jewish response to God, but also a Jewish response to bettering God's world. If cries from without are not heard within, prayers from within are not heard on high.

Does this siddur address the issue of masculine and feminine God language in a way that is likely to resonate with 21st century Reform Jews?

Yes, I think so. Our goal was not to describe God as male or female, but to use evocative language that lends the possibility of seeing God as either, or as both. We address God, for example, as "Teacher of Torah"; we plead with God to "help us be sensitive." Implicitly, then, God appears as both male and female, but explicitly the language is universal.

How does this translation differ from those of our previous prayer books?

Some Reform prayer books were exact translations of the Hebrew. In the 1850s, for example, our Movement's founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, wrote Minhag America. If he wanted to say something in English, he changed the Hebrew to accord with it. In Gates of Prayer, some passages were exact translations but others were not. Mishkan T'filah returned to Wise's standard of exact translations on every right-hand page, relegating creative expressions of the prayer's theme to the opposite page.

Transliteration of all the Hebrew is also provided on every pageanother innovation?

Yes. The Union Prayer Book contained no transliteration at all. In Gates of Prayer,transliteration could only be found at the back of the book. Nowadays, while we as a Movement have increasingly advocated Hebrew literacy in recognition of Hebrew as our people's historic language, we have also urged that prayer be open also to people who cannot read the original. If Mishkan T'filah is a prayer book for all the people, then we shouldn't lock out those who can't read Hebrew.

A minority of rabbis opposed our decision to transliterate all the Hebrew in Mishkan T'filah,believing it will be a disincentive for Jews to learn Hebrew. In respectful response to them (though disagreeing with them), our committee decided to publish an alternative siddur version without transliteration.

The Union Prayer Book opened only from left to right. Gates of Prayer came in two versions, one opening from right to left and one from left to right. Why does the new prayer book open only from right to left?

While proudly universalistic, Mishkan T'filah reflects the growing importance of Hebrew and commitment to Am Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood) in our Movement; therefore, it opens in the traditional manner of a Hebrew book, from right to left.

How important is it to our Movement that a single prayer book becomes widely adopted by Reform congregations?

It's very important. Some people think that we live in a post-denominational age—that denominations just don't matter anymore. I disagree. More than ever, in this age of choice, Jews have to decide what kind of Jews they are. People who say they are "just Jewish" have not yet processed their Judaism beyond its bare essentials. Mature and full Jewish identity requires choices, and choices imply denominations. And the prayer book is the gateway to Jewish identity; more than anything else, how we pray defines what kind of Jew we are. I grew up in an Orthodox shul, and while I can still appreciate traditionalist services, I find the Orthodox prayer book unreflective of the Jew I have chosen to be. I chose Reform Judaism because of what it stands for, and we as a Movement have to make that message clear to ourselves and to others. If we have a plethora of prayer books, we will end up with a plethora of definitions of what Reform Judaism stands for; and although it is true that Reform encompasses a great variety of things, it is also true that if we are all things, we are nothing.Mishkan T'filah encourages individualism, but defines the community in which that individualism is possible. If you regularly attend the service and someone asks you, "What makes you a Reform Jew?," you'll be able to answer the question.

Had Isaac Mayer Wise been one of the readers during the market research phase ofMishkan T'filah, what do you think he would have told the committee?

Isaac Mayer Wise was a remarkable leader because he respected change. When his Minhag America was rejected as the basis for the Union Prayer Book, he accepted the fact that his prayer book had been intended for Jews of the 1850s and '60s, but not the 1890s. Wise would have applauded Mishkan T'filah as the proper expression of Jewish identity not for the 1890s and not even for the 1990s, but for the 2000s and beyond.

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Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism

The Prayer Books, They Are A'Changin'
by Rabbi Elliot Stevens

[Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism]

In 150 years, the Reform Movement has produced a number of prayer books, each reflecting its times. Still, every new version sparked controversy. Will "the people's prayer book" buck this legacy and be embraced by all?

Second only to the Torah, the siddur (prayer book) expresses the ideology of our people. But because it changes over time and is the book that people regularly read and use, it defines and unifies us even more than the Torah. In the Reform Movement, each new prayer book--despite the almost inevitable controversies that accompany its publication--has served to unify hundreds of congregations throughout North America, as well as Reform Jews everywhere.

In 1857, long before founding the three central pillars of the Reform Movement in America--the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), the Hebrew Union College (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889)—Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise compiled Minhag America, a revolutionary prayer book. He hoped that it would someday unite the traditionalist and anti-traditionalist factions of American Jewry by providing clear and faithful English translations of the liturgy while retaining much of the traditional Hebrew text, shortening the service, dropping all references to a personal Messiah, and calling for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty.

Rabbi Wise's intent notwithstanding, Minhag America was not universally accepted. Neither was the first draft of the Union Prayer Book (UPB), the prayer book which the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) planned to publish based on Minhag America. For by the time the CCAR was ready to release the Union Prayer Book in 1892, a more radically Reform wing, led by Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, had the votes to change the CCAR's direction away from its centrist origins. The 1892 version of the UPB was actually recalled, at considerable expense; its replacement, published in 1895 as the "first edition" of the Union Prayer Book, was more in keeping with the tenets of Classical Reform. Edited by Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, Einhorn's son-in-law and author of the famous Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 that defined Classical Reform Judaism for several generations, the 1895 UPB had a universalist orientation--it rejected such traditional Jewish notions as peoplehood, chosenness, the personal Messiah, resurrection, and a return to the Land of Israel. It also deleted the musaf("additional" Shabbat service) as well as any references to the priesthood and the sacrificial cult, which Rabbi Kohler deemed to be non-rational and unimportant to modern Judaism. In defining a more "modern" mode of worship, the 1895 UPB and its subsequent revisions also carefully noted when congregants should stand or sit, or read responsively. Moreover, fearing the cacophony of davening characteristic of Eastern European Jews and insisting instead on absolute decorum, Rabbi Kohler eliminated most opportunities for congregational participation and essentially entrusted the liturgy to the rabbi as reader and to a trained choir.

Later editions of the Union Prayer Book (1922, 1941) were more accommodating of tradition--a trend that began as early as 1914, when the CCAR adopted an amendment that called on the Conference to "take into consideration the needs of conservative congregations insofar as these do not conflict with the principles of the Conference." In the 1922 edition, the term "rabbi" was substituted for the original UPB's "minister," as Reform Judaism tempered its overtly universalist tendencies. And the 1941 edition, coming four years after the adoption of the first Reform platform expressing support for rebuilding Palestine, reflected an increasing emphasis on peoplehood.

Some twenty plus years later, it became clear that the 1941 UPB was showing its age. By the 1960s, creative services with more Hebrew had gained in popularity; interest was also growing in the Shoah (Holocaust) and Zionism; and Jewish pride was spiking in response to the Six-Day War, the movement to save Soviet Jewry, and a society-wide interest in exploring ethnic and cultural roots. At the same time, the practice of highly participatory and emotive styles of worship in UAHC camps was filtering into Reform congregations.

All of these currents would find expression in the next CCAR siddur, Gates of Prayer (GOP), edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern and a committee chaired by Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus and published in 1975. GOP sought to accommodate these new trends while maintaining traditional patterns of Reform worship by including ten themed services for Friday night, all in contemporary English; an unprecedented selection of new prayers, readings, and meditations to accompany the Hebrew text; services for Holocaust commemoration and Israeli Independence Day; and an extensive section of song texts. The first CCAR prayer book available in an optional Hebrew opening format, it signified the Reform Movement's growing openness to tradition. GOP achieved immediate success, selling 50,000 in its first year and nearly 1.5 million copies to date.

Despite its achievements, Gates of Prayer was criticized by some as being more of an anthology than a cohesive prayer book, with ten alternative services for Friday night; being too heavy; and being wed to the masculine language of the past. Some congregations expressed their displeasure with GOP by choosing to retain the UPB; others compiled their own worship materials, often editing the texts for gender sensitivity.

In January 1981, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, then chair of the CCAR Liturgy Committee, proposed a new project to enhance the poetic possibilities of Reform worship. Two years later, the CCAR engaged T. Carmi, an Israeli poet and one of the great scholars of Hebrew poetry, to research the vast corpus of post-biblical Hebrew literature and recommend texts that might be adopted for liturgical use. The "Carmi Project," which produced hundreds of potential selections grouped according to the grand themes of Jewish liturgy, eventually would influence and enrich GOP's successor, Mishkan T'filah.

By 1985 a new CCAR editorial committee had been formed, chaired by Rabbi H. Leonard Poller. As the work began, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR, prepared a monograph describing the changes in Jewish worship patterns over the course of the last generation. A new prayer book, he wrote, needed to take into account a number of trends: a growing emphasis on personalism as opposed to peoplehood, the individual's search for the sacred, the presence of many diverse constituencies within Reform congregations, the expansion of ritual occasions (such as new rituals for the New Moon), a new interest in the choreography of worship, and the influence of Jewish feminist thought on language and imagery in referring to God. In order to truly address the evolving spiritual needs of the worshiper, he said, any new prayer book must include the perspectives and opinions of the laity.

This was a radical proposition. Traditionally, in Judaism and in Reform Judaism, the conception and creation of a prayer book had been almost exclusively in the domain of the rabbinate. Yet, an increasingly learned and sophisticated laity was playing a greater role in worship and synagogue leadership--and in the creation of new liturgies for home communities.

In 1994, the CCAR began a three-year project to better understand the evolving spiritual needs of Reform worshipers. Entitled "Lay Involvement and Liturgical Change," funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Cummings Foundation, and directed by the rabbinic-lay team of Rabbi Peter Knobel and Daniel Schechter (then chair of the Joint Commission on Worship and Religious Living), the project recruited volunteers from congregations in diverse settings to keep detailed worship journals while others in the same congregations recorded their observations of prayer services--all in an effort to understand the elements of successful worship, to establish criteria for evaluating liturgies, and to lay the foundation for a new siddur.

The research yielded some unexpected results. Themed services don't work because of worshipers' differing needs. Thus a children's service in GOP might not be satisfying for older members or those without children; a "humanistic" service that doesn't mention God would likely not serve those seeking a more intimate dialogue with a present God. In addition, the long-established pattern of responsive readings is too limiting for those looking for greater participation. The project also yielded important recommendations. The prayer book should have faithful translations (as opposed to interpretive translations) as well as full transliteration of the Hebrew prayers; commentaries and background information should be added but not in such a way that they might detract from the worship experience; the prayer language needs to accommodate different theologies and offer gender-inclusive images of God; and prayer should allow for private meditation. Overall, the siddur's language should be elegant, poetic, and contemporary, and its design graphically pleasing and inviting. Finally, the prayer book should include an extensive selection of musical texts, recognizing that the "singing congregation" is far more common than a generation ago--indeed, participatory worship may be the greatest innovation in what we now see as a worship revolution.

In 1999, when the time came to select an editor who could translate theory into practice, the CCAR invited blind submissions. Of the eighteen proposals received--some by renowned scholars and liturgists, others by relative newcomers to the work of creating liturgy--two were selected: one by Rabbi Elyse Frishman, a congregational rabbi and liturgist with a deep knowledge of Jewish texts on liturgy and worship, who was named editor; and the other by Judith Abrams, a talmudist expert in rabbinic source materials, who would serve as consulting editor. Rabbi Peter Knobel would chair the editorial committee of rabbis, cantors, lay persons, and liturgy scholars representing the fullest range of theological diversity and worship styles within our Movement. The new prayer book would be named Mishkan T'filah ("Dwelling Place for Prayer"), with its symbolic reference to the tabernacle carried by the Israelites from Sinai to the Promised Land.

Rabbi Frishman had conceived an innovative approach to the layout of a prayer book. Each prayer would be set as a two-page spread. The prayer itself (the keva, or fixed text), fully transliterated and with a faithful English translation, would appear on the right-hand page; thematically related prayers, readings, and meditations (kavvanot) would be on the left. Those worshipers wishing a straightforward, traditional service could stay entirely on the right-hand side; others might elect to say (or sing) one or more of the alternative prayers on the left. To signal the end of a section, everyone would end with the chatimah, the one-line summary, and then turn to the next page. Marginal guideposts would list the progression of the service with the current prayer or traditional reading highlighted, and historical notes and spiritual insights would appear across the bottom of the page.

Would Rabbi Frishman's concept work? To find out, the CCAR provided bound galleys to more than 300 congregations in an elaborate program of field testing. For the next three years, congregations, Hillel organizations, URJ and CCAR conferences and conventions experienced successive interim editions. The answer, in short, was yes--and then some; hundreds of individuals provided literally thousands of additional comments and suggestions for improving the prayer book. As the CCAR completed its editorial work earlier this year, pre-sales ofMishkan T'filah had already exceeded 75,000 copies.

Now, in the 21st century, Reform Judaism has transformed its liturgy and worship to meet the needs of a new generation. Hopefully, Mishkan T'filah, with its grounding in Jewish tradition, creative introduction of new liturgical texts, and bold new design will respond to the deepest spiritual longings of individual Reform Jews, while unifying our Movement.


Rabbi Elliot L. Stevens
, a member of the Mishkan T'filah editorial committee, is the rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, AL.

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Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism.