Ground-breaking or heaven-breaking prayers?

Is the new Reform prayer book ground-breaking or heaven-breaking?

reform stained glass 88 (photo credit: )
reform stained glass 88
(photo credit: )
"Groundbreaking.. a blend of cutting-edge innovation and ancient tradition... deliberately democratic... has theological and stylistic diversity... reflects Reform's leading liturgists and the involvement of lay leaders of Reform congregations…." All this is from the promotional material accompanying the brand new prayer book just published by the Reform movement. To use these Madison Avenue buzz words in connection with prayer seems a bit inappropriate. One wonders: when Moses brought down the Torah, was he accompanied by a PR man touting its innovations and theological diversity? Actually, with the accompanying heavenly Shofar sounds plus the thunder and lightning, any PR man would have been envious. The book does have a mellifluous and elegant translation, an attractive layout and format, and - despite the hype - presents a sincere attempt to strike a balance between modernity and Jewish tradition. According to some of the early reviews, it demonstrates that Reform is stepping back from the brink of self-immolation and is embracing certain Jewish traditions. For example, we now find blessings about certain classical Jewish themes - like revival of the dead - which had been summarily rejected in the past. And it is officially called a "siddur," an old-fashioned word that was off-limits in earlier versions. All this is certainly to be applauded. This compilation is a vast improvement over the Reform prayer books of the past. Other reviewers, however, claim that it is too little and too late, that Reform has long ago drifted too far from Jewish roots, and that it will take much more than polite nods toward Jewish tradition to resurrect a movement that, despite its exaggerated claims of primacy in America, may soon be in need of its own revival of the dead. Putting aside my theological objections, the other major problem of this new Reform prayer book is its very trendiness. It is simply too cutting edge and too au courant with the latest religious fashions. What I mean is this: In the 19th century, the old Reform prayer books reflected the cold rationalism of the times. They were proper and dignified replicas of Protestant modes of prayer. Overt displays of religious sentiments were frowned upon; a yearning for God was considered unseemly and inappropriate, and references to ancient Jewish practices - often preceded by the adjective "primitive" - were duly prettified or simply expunged. But in today's world, genuine religious feelings are respected, and even Orthodox Judaism is admired for its valiant religious steadfastness. Thus this new prayer book once again reflects contemporary times: respect for tradition is in; scoffing at our past is out. So why be crotchety? If things are so good, why are they bad? Because I worry about tomorrow when, in the shifting sands of popular opinion, this too shall pass, and the mysteries of the God-Israel relationship are once again cast overboard. What happens then? A still newer edition? NO, THANK you. The God to Whom I try to direct my prayers transcends current vogues and fashions. The prayers I address to Him need not be in tune with the latest intellectual fads; they need only be in tune with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides. Prayers that are ephemeral and trendy, that sway in the winds of current fashions, that mimic the surrounding culture, are not prayers but editorials. I want my prayers to be here today - and also here tomorrow. Better than groundbreaking prayers are heaven-breaking ones. I laud every step that Reform Judaism takes to move their members toward such richness. And this book does take such a step - which could strengthen all of the Jewish collective. But I do question the relevance of what some erudite professor of religion at Harvard, or a learned theologian from Cambridge, or a prominent thinker from Hebrew University theorizes about Jewish liturgy. And my soul is not touched by what a committee of prayer experts, democratically reflecting the opinions of lay leadership, concocts for my religious edification. What I need is to daven, to reach out to my Maker and be in touch with Him, just as my bobbe and zeidde were in touch with Him. Just as Maimonides was. The very process through which this work was created may have engendered severe limits for those who want to engage in genuine outreach to God. Theologically diverse and innovation-driven prayer committees are unlikely to help me apprehend eternity. Instead of the timeless we get the timely, instead of the eternal we get something all too mortal, and ultimately the prayer book is relegated into an intelligent, thoughtful blog. My classic, old-fashioned siddur is a faithful friend, and will not change tomorrow as a result of a majority vote of a committee of well-meaning liturgists. My life is enriched by the knowledge that I am reciting the very same eternal words - the same ashrei, the same amida, the same aleinu - that my great-grandfather recited, and his great grandfather before him, and that I hope my great-grandchildren will some day be reciting. I gain inner strength from knowing that Maimonides offered essentially the same prayer of silent meditation that I recite every morning, and that its timelessness still speaks to me. Think of it! Maimonides and I hand in hand, partners in reaching out to the One Above. Here is encapsulated the essence and power of Jewish tradition. So as welcome as I find Reform's gradual turn toward this tradition - I will not be using their new, groundbreaking prayer book. I fear that the prayers I would offer today could find themselves on the cutting-room floor tomorrow. Shakespeare did not deal with Jewish prayer, but somehow his sonnet 116, with a one-word change, is applicable: …love is not love/that alters when it alteration finds/or bends with the remover to remove./O No! It is an ever fix'ed mark/ that looks on tempests and is never shaken, /a star to every wandering bark…" Change the word "love" to "prayer," and there you have it: "Prayer is not prayer that alters when it alteration finds…it is an ever fix'ed mark/that looks on tempests and is never shaken." My trusty old siddur cuts no edges and is not innovative, but it does not alter when it alteration finds, and thus is never shaken. It guides my soul by a fix'ed star. The writer, a rabbi in Atlanta, Ga., for 40 years, is the former editor of Tradition magazine, and author of nine books and numerous articles. He is presently on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia of Mitzvot.