The answer to everyone's prayers?

A Conservative rabbi finds that a new UK reform prayerbook is a worthwhile addition for all Jews.

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March 5, 2009 10:45
4 minute read.
The answer to everyone's prayers?

kissing siddur 88. (photo credit: )

Of making many prayer books there is no end. Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked that at the time when Jews prayed they had no need for new editions, but now that prayer is difficult and mostly forgotten, we are constantly revising the siddur. All the movements have issued new editions - the Conservative Movement created a new Sim Shalom plus an edition with commentary Or Hadash. Most recently British Orthodoxy issued a new siddur with a fine translation and commentary by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And now we have Forms of Prayer, the most recent liturgical work of the Movement for Reform Judaism in Great Britain. Evidently there is a need. Let me indicate immediately that the British Movement for Reform Judaism has reason to be proud. My own problem has been how to review a siddur of the Reform Movement fairly when my own religious orientation is not Reform but Conservative. According to my standards, the siddur is bound by Jewish law, whereas Reform rejects that position. One knows in advance, therefore, that this siddur will not meet those standards. Therefore I decided that the only way to do so is to judge the work by the standards and the goals of the compilers of the siddur. The editor of Forms of Prayer is Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, who recently retired from his position of head of Leo Baeck College. In his preface, after acknowledging that siddur texts become like a mantra and are therefore difficult to change, he writes that "change is at the heart of the value system of Reform Judaism - not for its own sake, but in order to answer the needs of a community always in transition in a changing world." The changes that need to be addressed, he continues, are the need for gender neutral language and greater emphasis on the equality of women; the need for multiple services and encouraging choices within the sections of the service; the need for transliteration; the need for individual expression since the liturgy tends to speak in collective terms; and the need to address contemporary issues. How well does this work succeed in addressing these needs while retaining enough of the traditional liturgy to allow people to be comfortable with it? Very well indeed. First a word about the layout, the graphics and the general contents. The book is attractive, with illustrations and calligraphy that are helpful and pleasing without being intrusive. The pages are set up with Hebrew on the right and English on the left, making it easier to glance at the English even while reading the Hebrew. The translations are free and tend to the poetic. They are gender free, avoiding the translation of any phrase such as baruch hu that might require a masculine pronoun. Transliterations abound. Of the 750-page volume, less than two-thirds is devoted to actual services. The rest is taken up by a Psalm Anthology and by a Study Anthology which consists of passages from mostly contemporary scholars. These sections serve to comment on many of the prayers and concepts of Judaism and could be very valuable either for individual study and meditation or as material for study groups. In addition a 25-page section of Reflections offers very fine meditations on many important prayers. The services themselves, while abridged to an extent that makes me uncomfortable, retain a large portion of the traditional material while adding modern compositions and commentaries. The section of Pesukei D'zimra demonstrates the fact that a traditional framework has been retained without feeling the need to use all traditional texts. Most of the psalms have been eliminated, while modern poetry and Shabbat z'mirot have been included. Are these substitutions really better that the original texts? I am doubtful. Similarly the introduction to the Song at the Sea has been retained, but the Song itself has been eliminated. If length was a factor, would it not have been better to eliminate those preliminaries and retain the Song? The basic morning service itself, while somewhat curtailed, retains most of the traditional service. This "conservative" tendency is to be seen in many places in this siddur. For example, the full text of L'cha Dodi is printed, as opposed to previous siddurim of British Reform, even though the paragraphs "which most congregations omit" are indented. Because of the desire to provide alternatives, there are alternative biblical passages for the second and third paragraphs of the Shema. The Shaharit Amida is retained almost in its entirety. The matriarchs have been added to the first paragraph. The blessing which speaks negatively about the nations of the world has been eliminated and retzeh has been changed to eliminate any possible reference to a restored Temple worship. The Musaf is greatly curtailed, has two versions and deals with sacrifices by specifically and forthrightly stating that prayer has replaced sacrifice. The days commemorating the two major events of modern Jewish history - Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day - are dealt with by special services containing a selection of appropriate readings. All in all, Forms of Prayer accomplishes what it set out to do. If I were a Reform Jew, I would want to pray from this siddur and believe that I would find it quite satisfying of my needs. But more than that, for a Jew of any persuasion there are readings, meditations and explanations here that are well worth reading. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.


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