Two worlds, two prayer books

Two new siddurim from opposite ends of the Jewish world are aimed at very specific readerships.

By JACK RIEMER
September 7, 2009 09:48

 
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The Koren Siddur
Edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Koren Publishers
1,227 pp.,
NIS 129 Standard (synagogue) size,
hardcover
NIS 99 Personal size
NIS 79 Compact size, softcover



Siddur Bichol Livavcha
Edited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum
Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, et al.
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah,
New York
318 pp.,
$50, $10 for the accompanying CD



Two new prayer books have recently been published. They come from opposite ends of the Jewish world. I wager that very few, if any, people will study both of them. The first is intended for the Orthodox community; the second is published by the LGBT Synagogue of New York. And yet, I recommend that we read them both for they have much to teach us about the ways in which these two groups are changing, as well as about the meaning of prayer in our time.



Let me begin with the Koren Siddur. It is a work of real beauty. The printing and the design are marvelous. And the translation rises to the heights of poetry in many places. As Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt puts it: "It contains an English liturgy that sings in King David's key instead of clumsily sagging under the weight of technical correctness and emotional impotence."



For more than a generation, even modern Orthodox synagogues have used the ArtScroll Prayer Book, and that was a mistake. The ArtScroll is often embarrassing in its literalism, in its fundamentalism and in its ambivalence toward Zionism. And by using the ArtScroll, modern Orthodox synagogues sent a mixed message to their people. They told the educated members of their congregations that pedestrian English translations were permissible. They told those in their midst who have a sense of historical development that literalism and fundamentalism were acceptable. And they told those in their midst who were Zionists that patching the prayer for Israel into a prayer book that virtually ignores the State of Israel in the rest of its pages is not offensive.



Now, with the Koren Siddur, all these embarrassments have been removed. By printing the Hebrew on the left side, it makes a statement that praying in Hebrew is the norm, and that translations are aids, and not replacements, for the Hebrew. By including Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim (Independence Day and Jerusalem Day) among the holidays, it makes a statement about the place of the State of Israel in our religious lives. By including a service for the naming of a newborn girl, it makes a statement about the place of women in our liturgy. And for these and many other reasons, this book is a very valuable and much appreciated addition to Orthodox prayer.



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I have only two minor questions to ask of the editor.



One is how is it that only the Mourner's Kaddish appears in transliteration? Does it mean that all those who come to pray in an Orthodox synagogue can be assumed to know how to read Hebrew? If so, tavo aleyhem bracha - may they be rewarded for their knowledge. But is it not possible that there are many who come to the synagogue in search and who would benefit from more transliterations? And if this is so, are we perhaps making it hard for these newcomers to find their way? I only raise the question. I do not know the answer.



The second question I have is about the Aleinu prayer. Was it really necessary to add the words: "For they worship vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save?" We live in an age in which we Jews have felt themselves free enough to protest and object to anti-Jewish statements in the liturgies of our neighbors. Do we really want them to see statements like this in our liturgy?



These two reservations aside, I find this new prayer book an enormous improvement over its predecessor and a wonderful statement of what modern Orthodoxy can achieve.



THOSE WHO will pray from this book, however, will probably not pay much attention to the second prayer book reviewed here: Siddur Bichol Livavcha, published by Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue of New York. I wish that they would read it, if for no other reason so that these two communities could learn a little bit about each other instead of just dismissing each other with stereotypes.



After all, why are there gay synagogues? Is it not because the people who go to them feel marginalized, ridiculed or ignored in the mainstream synagogues? This prayer book enables us to understand the hopes, aspirations and fears that motivate gays, and enables us to understand a little bit about what they pray for, instead of simply labeling them and judging them from afar.



The best part of this prayer book are the additions. The prayer for candlelighting is found in Hebrew, in English and in transliteration, as we would expect, but it is also found in Russian, in recognition of the fact that there is a whole new segment of the American Jewish community that knows no Hebrew and knows very little English, that we should not ignore.



Naomi Shemer's translation of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain," which was originally written to mark Abraham Lincoln's assassination, is included to mark the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's. Edmund Fleg's "Why I Am a Jew" is found here in the original French as well as in English translation. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Hillel Zeitlin and Aaron Zeitlin coexist on these pages together with Peter Yarrow, Yip Harburg, Primo Levi, Hannah Szenes and Martin Luther King.



There is one prayer early on that could and should be read by all of us - not just by gays.



It is too long to quote in full but it recounts some of the many reasons why we come to shul, reasons that all synagogues should understand and respond to. It says that "some come to express gratitude, some to express anger, some come looking for peace and quiet, some come to be challenged. Some come to feel closer to God, some come to be nourished by community. Some come for the comfort of familiar words and melodies, some come to learn something new. Some come just because they are Jewish, some come even though they are not. Some come out of a love for Israel. Some Israelis come even though they would never go back home. And some people don't know why they come."





I think that this is an important reminder to us all that every synagogue is a coalition and that there are many different reasons why we come, each of which has to be acknowledged and respected.



There is another meditation that begins with words that may startle us: "We, gay Jews, have come together to strengthen our bonds with our people, Israel..."



Think for a moment of what it means for some people to say these words. Think of what it means for people who are not out at work, or to their families, or anywhere else to come to services and say the words: "We gay Jews..." Out in the world many of these people pretend. Here they say that they are gay. Those of us who say the prayer: "Vitaher libeinu l'avdecha b'emet" - Purify our hearts so that we can serve You in truth - have to be impressed with the honesty and the courage that are found in this prayer.



On occasion, the prayers seem to go a bit too far. There is an Al Hanisim (giving thanks for miracles) for Gay Pride Shabbat that is modeled after the prayers that we say on Hanukka and Purim. The idea of making such a parallel may seem offensive and presumptuous to you, but read it - in the original Hebrew - and see what effect it has on you to see the structure of the old prayers redone to meet the new situation before you judge.



The prayers and meditations for World AIDS Day may seem a bit overdone until you read the commentary at the bottom of the page that says that "more than one fourth of the male membership of CBST have died of AIDS." That is an incredible statistic, is it not? These are people who do not need to set aside one day a year to memorialize those who have died of AIDS. AIDS touches many of these people every day. Many of them cannot look in the mirror without seeing AIDS. And when you realize that, nothing that they pray about AIDS can seem overdone or sentimental. Nothing at all.



The glaring omission in this book is the Shabbat morning service. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the main service at CBST is on Friday night. On Shabbat morning, the synagogue runs different minyanim in different styles and each uses its own siddur - one minyan uses Kol Haneshama, another Sim Shalom, and at times some have used Marcia Falk's Book of Blessings, the De Sola Pool Siddur and others.





So here we have two very different prayer books, addressed to two very different communities. One book is devoted to respecting and preserving,keva - to maintaining the fixed prayers of the tradition. The other strives forkavana - by adding new prayers that speak to the issues of our time in the language of our time. One contains the wisdom of the ages. The other strives to express the pain, the concerns and the hopes of this age. The Koren will probably outlast Bichol Livavcha, because Ashrei and the Shema and the rest of the classical prayers will not get dated. Bichol Livavcha will hopefully get dated if its concerns - world hunger, poverty, the neglect of the environment and the marginalization and disrespect with which the gays must live - are someday resolved.



But meantime, both books have much to teach each other, and we can only hope that those who pray from either will learn to respect and appreciate those who pray from the other.










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