Post-denominational prayer

TALI's new siddur introduces a little bit of Yiddishkeit to the Israeli school system

By MATTHEW WAGNER
October 12, 2006 11:55
4 minute read.

Yahad Bitfila The TALI Education Fund 62 pages Chabad, Breslav, religious Zionists and Shas have every right to envy TALI's success in introducing a little bit of Yiddishkeit into the secular school system. With 150 member institutions in the secular education system from pre-school through high school, the TALI school system is one of the largest and most influential disseminators of Judaism among the secular population in Israel. Although the TALI Foundation sits in Jerusalem's Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies and was founded by the Conservative movement, a good part of its success has been its insistence on distancing itself from labels such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, hassidic, Sephardi etc. Instead, it has focused on teaching Judaism, albeit in a liberal, egalitarian form. This post-denominationalist approach gives TALI (a Hebrew acronym for Tigbur Limudei Yahadutor Enhanced Jewish Studies) an unthreatening aura. Secular parents are not worried that their children are being inculcated with fundamentalist religious faith. Also, the modern Orthodox establishment does not see TALI as a threat. A new stage in TALI's influence has arrived with the publication of its first prayer book, Yahad Bitfila (Together in Prayer). The 60-page prayer book for children from kindergarten through second grade was conceived and written by leaders of the Conservative (Masorti) Movement. But, in keeping with TALI's post-denominational message of staying away from labels, nowhere in Yahad Bitfilais this mentioned. Instead, broader ideals such as liberalism and pluralism are emphasized. The word egalitarian appears no fewer than five times in a short PR promo accompanying the prayer book. The egalitarian, liberalistic and pluralistic aspects of post-denominationalism are expressed by a few small but significant and apparently necessary liturgical changes to the Orthodox prayer book. In the morning prayers children are instructed to thank God "who has made me Israel" and "who has made me free" instead of the Orthodox original "who has not made me a gentile" and "who has not made me a slave." Also, the prayer that smacks most of gender discrimination - "thank God who did not make me a woman" for men and "thank God who made me as He willed" for women - is transformed into the egalitarian "thank God who created me in His image." The prayer book's colorful drawings describe a world of relative egalitarianism. At least one picture shows a girl wearing a kippa. Although these changes in Orthodox liturgy are not radical, they do constitute a certain reform. They reflect Conservative Judaism's belief that God's commandments are not to be understood solely as stated in the Torah and the ongoing Oral Tradition, but also in the social, economic, moral and even personal realities of the people charged with obeying it. Ideals such as liberalism, egalitarianism and pluralism inform our understanding of God's will. God lives in a dynamic, ongoing relationship with us and so God's will, or at least our understanding of God's will, may change with changing circumstances. In contrast, Orthodoxy opposes any and all changes in codified law, especially when these changes are a result of new ideologies that are outside the pale of Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik wrote: "We can reach the truth [in Jewish law and practice] only through Torah and halachic thinking and understanding from inside, according to the methods provided to Moses and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be revealed only by joining the ranks of rabbis from the first generations to the last. There is no such thing as making up something new that the earlier generations did not know about. To say, 'I've discovered an approach to exegesis that is completely new' is ridiculous." DESPITE TALI's departure from Orthodoxy, the modern Orthodox establishment has been surprisingly supportive of TALI. Former National Religious Party education minister Zevulun Hammer enthusiastically helped TALI in its formative years. Leading national religious education figures, such as Rabbi Avi Gisar, who heads the Council of National Religious Schools, have also voiced their support. They argue that it is better that secular Israeli children get some Jewish education, even a liberal brand, than nothing at all. This approach clashes with Orthodoxy's traditional antagonism toward all types of liberal Judaism. But it appears that modern Orthodoxy's willingness to accept TALI is a direct result of the Conservative movement's success in distancing itself, at least nominally, from TALI. Historically, Orthodoxy has been so antagonistic to Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism because they are distinct, easily identified ideological schools of thought with their own theories about Jewish law and practice that are contradictory and subversive to Orthodox thought. In contrast, post-denominationalism is of its very nature amorphous and undefined. Labels such as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform need to be eradicated, say post-denominationalists, because they are divisive and limiting. One post-denominational rabbi told me that it was very Christian to be preoccupied with the theological differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. After all, it is Christianity, not Judaism, that puts so much emphasis on what one must believe. Judaism emphasizes what one must do. So as long as TALI maintains its postdenominational identity while encouraging young secular Israeli schoolchildren to pray to God, most of Orthodoxy will continue to support it, even if TALI teachers, in keeping with their school system's liberal, pluralistic principles, are careful not to say whether God exists. Besides, the existence of God is not an issue for children who will use Yahad Bitfila. As Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook writes, "the ease with which a child adopts spiritual emotions is proof of the natural purity of man's soul and of how inclined man is to accept and respect the existence of God and the holy." Only time will tell whether Yahad Bitfila will have a lasting effect on the hearts of our children.


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