Reform set to publish new prayer book

Mishkan T'filah, available after Holidays, aims to unify movement.

reform jews 224.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
reform jews 224.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Reform Movement's rabbinic association is on the verge of publishing a new prayer book intended to unify the almost 200-year-old movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States today. The form and content of Mishkan T'filah, a prayer book that has been 10 years in the making, reflects a noticeable departure from Reform's previous text, which had long been a source of dissatisfaction within the movement. Even before publication, the book has already sold over 150,000 copies. It is expected to be available soon after the High Holidays, although no publication date has been set. Originally, publication was planned for October of last year, but the production process was beset by delays, including problems related to the arrival of fabric from Europe, which will be used for the book covers. The previous prayer book, Gates of Prayer - published in 1975 as an update to its 1895 predecessor, the Union Prayerbook - was organized as an anthology of 10 individually-themed Shabbat services. A synagogue could choose to use the same service each week, or to sample different ones, making it hard for members of the Reform movement to identify with a single text. With the aim of unifying the growing movement, Mishkan T'filah offers a framework for a single service, which places the traditional texts side by side with a selection of alternative readings and selected commentaries. Part of the challenge of creating a new prayer book for the Reform movement was the need to cater to the wide range of congregants that one finds in any given congregation, said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, the editor of Mishkan T'filah. Any given Reform community will have congregants who are more observant and those who have no Jewish education, as well as non-Jews, who may be spouses or guests. "You name it, and that person is present in a Reform worship environment," said Frishman. "How do we make certain that anyone who comes to pray finds their voice?" The new prayer book is the product of 10 years of extensive research and discussion that began with a study of Reform congregations, funded by the Eli Lilly Foundation. Years of painstaking work followed, as the editorial and publication committees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) tried to produce a prayer book that reflected both its leading liturgists and the involvement of lay leaders of Reform congregations. Deliberately democratic, Mishkan T'filah - which is 712 pages long and includes services for Shabbat, festivals, weekdays and other occasions of public worship - was piloted in 300 congregations nationwide prior to publication. "This siddur [prayer book] has undergone more scrutiny than any siddur in the history of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the CCAR. The most significant departure from the previous prayer book is in the formatting of Mishkan T'filah. The rabbinic association opted to do away with the previous compilation model, in favor of having a single service that offers flexibility and variety. "It became clear that while Gates of Prayer served us well as a replacement to the Union Prayerbook, the isolation of themes was not working as well as we had hoped," said Knobel. Instead of dealing with themes in a linear way, the new siddur addresses each theme on a two-page spread. On the right is the Hebrew prayer with a literal translation and transliteration; on the left are alternative readings in English related to the traditional prayer, and additional commentaries on the text. Some of these readings come from traditional religious texts, while others were chosen from secular literature. "Each of the passages on the left reflects a different point of view, and as a result you can create a worship experience where themes are integral, almost as though looking at a hypertext," said Knobel. In addition to formatting changes, Mishkan T'filah differs from its predecessor in its liturgical choices. Hebrew plays a role never before seen in a Reform prayer book, and prayers that were once considered antithetical to the movement have been reinstated. "In writing this siddur, everything that was previously rejected we considered again," said Frishman. Certain prayers that are controversial within the Reform Movement, such as the prayer for the resurrection of the dead (Mehayat hametim), were reinstated after serious consideration. The previous prayer book replaced the phrase "who resurrects the dead" with "who gives life to all." The notion of resurrection is "antithetical to Reform reasoning," explained Frishman. "However, in our generation, there is a strong metaphorical response to traditional prayers, and a number of clergy and lay people saw mehayat hametim like a flower withering that you pour water over," she said. In the end, the earlier version was kept, but "hametim" was included in parentheses. Additionally, commentaries on the left-hand page draw from sources that point to the traditional resurrection prayer as a metaphor. Most of all, the prayer book is testament to the Reform movement's commitment to "tikkun olam," repairing the world. "The siddur is an ethical statement," said Frishman. "God wants us to devote our lives to attending to others, and the sense of God's oneness in the world is about looking towards tikkun olam and peace."