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Can the Reform Movement Build a Better Prayer Book?

Review of Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur , (Central Conference of American Rabbis Press, 2007).

Prayer books serve as our roadmap for the Shabbat (Sabbath) synagogue service. With the publication of its new prayer book, Mishkan T'filah ("Sanctuary of Prayer"), the Reform movement seeks to enhance the quality of the road map it provides each participant.

Mishkan T'filah

The new book offers significant differences from the previous one in both form and content. The form of Mishkan T'filah provides a dramatically different perspective. Every prayer in the service is given a two-page spread. The right half of the page presents the prayer in Hebrew with a contemporarily-worded English translation, as well as a transliteration of the Hebrew (the Hebrew sounds written in English letters). The left hand side of the page offers interpretive English translations of the prayer from both classic and contemporary sources. This layout also provides footnotes regarding the origin of or elaboration on aspects of the prayer. This offering for each prayer ostensibly provides more choice for each participant during the service.

The content in the prayer book displays a bit of the old and the new. Current or recent writers penned many of the left-hand sided English interpretations mentioned above. In terms of God language, references to the deity as God as "King" and "Master" are out, while references as a more inclusive "Eternal" and "Source of Life" are in. On the other hand, the prayer book allows, if not welcomes, traditional Jewish ideas that the early Reform movement jettisoned as anachronistic to modern Jews. Certain prayers, such as parts of the Amidah and V'ahavta prayers, are restored to their traditional, pre-Reform form, such as an acknowledgment of God's power to resurrect the dead (in the Amidah) and the inclusion of the command to wear fringes or tzitzit (in the V'ahavta).

The question remains: How effective will this new map be in guiding participants in Shabbat services--especially when those participants span the spectrum of Jewish involvement and knowledge? The form and content of this new map add to and detract from the potential accessibility of the trip through a Shabbat service. Simply adding transliteration exponentially enhances the ability for a vast majority of participants in Reform Shabbat services to partake and connect. And with the new gender-inclusive language, language that allows for an array of God-ideas, and eloquent and expressive poetry from classic and contemporary artists, we have a prayer book that in many respects seems to reach its arms out to embrace those who would use it.

And yet there are ways in which Mishkan T'filah could inhibit accessibility. The inclusion of some traditional theology disregards Classic Reform ideology that sought to minimize the particular nature of Judaism and enhance its universal nature. For example, Reform Judaism's original exclusion of references to bodily resurrection were also a rejection of the idea that the world that followed such events would be one framed by the Jewish understanding of the world, with non-Jews following suit. Also, the structure of the prayers in the book may be quite potent with those who use it regularly and/or have a basic familiarity with the form of the Jewish service. Those without such familiarity may find the structure more difficult to follow or use to its fullest potential. In the end these may be minor infractions, as many may not even concern themselves with such theological questions or may simply find inspiration in the beauty of the poetry.

In regard to the question of the ultimate utility of this new prayer book … having extensively experimented with the draft version of Mishkan T'filah in my own community, I can sincerely say that it is a helpful and useful road map during a Shabbat service. In fact, after simply planning on using the draft versions in rotation with the movement's current prayer book, my community currently uses the new book almost exclusively. It functions well and fits the way the Reform movement currently prays.

My questions in regard to the book's ultimate utility are not really questions about the prayer book itself, but about the utility of the Reform prayer experience. A road map can only serve as a guide along previously chartered territory, it cannot lead its user (or in this case an entire movement) toward the next paradigm in communal prayer experience. Mishkan Tefilah efficiently guides its user through the contemporary Reform prayer service; the Reform movement will need another tool to guide it toward the next evolution of prayer.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). Tefilat Amidah, Hebrew for "The Standing Prayer," is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. It is recited during every prayer service. Traditionally it's recited individually in silence, then repeated aloud as a congregation; some congregations omit the silent recitation and/or abbreviate the repetition. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Rabbi Adam Morris

Rabbi Adam Morris serves as the rabbi at Temple Micah in Denver, Col., and also acts as the rabbinic consultant for Seasons of the Spirit, an educational resource for progressive churches around the world.

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