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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

The Prayer Books, They Are A'Changin'

by Rabbi Elliot L. Stevens
[Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism]

 [Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism (]

In 150 years, the Reform Movement has produced a number of prayer books, each reflecting its times. Still, every new version sparked controversy. Will "the people's prayer book" buck this legacy and be embraced by all?

Second only to the Torah, the siddur (prayer book) expresses the ideology of our people. But because it changes over time and is the book that people regularly read and use, it defines and unifies us even more than the Torah. In the Reform Movement, each new prayer book--despite the almost inevitable controversies that accompany its publication--has served to unify hundreds of congregations throughout North America, as well as Reform Jews everywhere.

In 1857, long before founding the three central pillars of the Reform Movement in America--the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), the Hebrew Union College (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889)—Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise compiled Minhag America, a revolutionary prayer book. He hoped that it would someday unite the traditionalist and anti-traditionalist factions of American Jewry by providing clear and faithful English translations of the liturgy while retaining much of the traditional Hebrew text, shortening the service, dropping all references to a personal Messiah, and calling for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty.

Rabbi Wise's intent notwithstanding, Minhag America was not universally accepted. Neither was the first draft of the Union Prayer Book (UPB), the prayer book which the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) planned to publish based on Minhag America. For by the time the CCAR was ready to release the Union Prayer Book in 1892, a more radically Reform wing, led by Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, had the votes to change the CCAR's direction away from its centrist origins. The 1892 version of the UPB was actually recalled, at considerable expense; its replacement, published in 1895 as the "first edition" of the Union Prayer Book, was more in keeping with the tenets of Classical Reform. Edited by Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, Einhorn's son-in-law and author of the famous Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 that defined Classical Reform Judaism for several generations, the 1895 UPB had a universalist orientation--it rejected such traditional Jewish notions as peoplehood, chosenness, the personal Messiah, resurrection, and a return to the Land of Israel. It also deleted the musaf ("additional" Shabbat service) as well as any references to the priesthood and the sacrificial cult, which Rabbi Kohler deemed to be non-rational and unimportant to modern Judaism. In defining a more "modern" mode of worship, the 1895 UPB and its subsequent revisions also carefully noted when congregants should stand or sit, or read responsively. Moreover, fearing the cacophony of davening characteristic of Eastern European Jews and insisting instead on absolute decorum, Rabbi Kohler eliminated most opportunities for congregational participation and essentially entrusted the liturgy to the rabbi as reader and to a trained choir.

Later editions of the Union Prayer Book (1922, 1941) were more accommodating of tradition--a trend that began as early as 1914, when the CCAR adopted an amendment that called on the Conference to "take into consideration the needs of conservative congregations insofar as these do not conflict with the principles of the Conference." In the 1922 edition, the term "rabbi" was substituted for the original UPB's "minister," as Reform Judaism tempered its overtly universalist tendencies. And the 1941 edition, coming four years after the adoption of the first Reform platform expressing support for rebuilding Palestine, reflected an increasing emphasis on peoplehood.

Some twenty plus years later, it became clear that the 1941 UPB was showing its age. By the 1960s, creative services with more Hebrew had gained in popularity; interest was also growing in the Shoah (Holocaust) and Zionism; and Jewish pride was spiking in response to the Six-Day War, the movement to save Soviet Jewry, and a society-wide interest in exploring ethnic and cultural roots. At the same time, the practice of highly participatory and emotive styles of worship in UAHC camps was filtering into Reform congregations.

All of these currents would find expression in the next CCAR siddur, Gates of Prayer (GOP), edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern and a committee chaired by Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus and published in 1975. GOP sought to accommodate these new trends while maintaining traditional patterns of Reform worship by including ten themed services for Friday night, all in contemporary English; an unprecedented selection of new prayers, readings, and meditations to accompany the Hebrew text; services for Holocaust commemoration and Israeli Independence Day; and an extensive section of song texts. The first CCAR prayer book available in an optional Hebrew opening format, it signified the Reform Movement's growing openness to tradition. GOP achieved immediate success, selling 50,000 in its first year and nearly 1.5 million copies to date.

Despite its achievements, Gates of Prayer was criticized by some as being more of an anthology than a cohesive prayer book, with ten alternative services for Friday night; being too heavy; and being wed to the masculine language of the past. Some congregations expressed their displeasure with GOP by choosing to retain the UPB; others compiled their own worship materials, often editing the texts for gender sensitivity.

In January 1981, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, then chair of the CCAR Liturgy Committee, proposed a new project to enhance the poetic possibilities of Reform worship. Two years later, the CCAR engaged T. Carmi, an Israeli poet and one of the great scholars of Hebrew poetry, to research the vast corpus of post-biblical Hebrew literature and recommend texts that might be adopted for liturgical use. The "Carmi Project," which produced hundreds of potential selections grouped according to the grand themes of Jewish liturgy, eventually would influence and enrich GOP's successor, Mishkan T'filah.

By 1985 a new CCAR editorial committee had been formed, chaired by Rabbi H. Leonard Poller. As the work began, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR, prepared a monograph describing the changes in Jewish worship patterns over the course of the last generation. A new prayer book, he wrote, needed to take into account a number of trends: a growing emphasis on personalism as opposed to peoplehood, the individual's search for the sacred, the presence of many diverse constituencies within Reform congregations, the expansion of ritual occasions (such as new rituals for the New Moon), a new interest in the choreography of worship, and the influence of Jewish feminist thought on language and imagery in referring to God. In order to truly address the evolving spiritual needs of the worshiper, he said, any new prayer book must include the perspectives and opinions of the laity.

This was a radical proposition. Traditionally, in Judaism and in Reform Judaism, the conception and creation of a prayer book had been almost exclusively in the domain of the rabbinate. Yet, an increasingly learned and sophisticated laity was playing a greater role in worship and synagogue leadership--and in the creation of new liturgies for home communities.

In 1994, the CCAR began a three-year project to better understand the evolving spiritual needs of Reform worshipers. Entitled "Lay Involvement and Liturgical Change," funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Cummings Foundation, and directed by the rabbinic-lay team of Rabbi Peter Knobel and Daniel Schechter (then chair of the Joint Commission on Worship and Religious Living), the project recruited volunteers from congregations in diverse settings to keep detailed worship journals while others in the same congregations recorded their observations of prayer services--all in an effort to understand the elements of successful worship, to establish criteria for evaluating liturgies, and to lay the foundation for a new siddur.

The research yielded some unexpected results. Themed services don't work because of worshipers' differing needs. Thus a children's service in GOP might not be satisfying for older members or those without children; a "humanistic" service that doesn't mention God would likely not serve those seeking a more intimate dialogue with a present God. In addition, the long-established pattern of responsive readings is too limiting for those looking for greater participation. The project also yielded important recommendations. The prayer book should have faithful translations (as opposed to interpretive translations) as well as full transliteration of the Hebrew prayers; commentaries and background information should be added but not in such a way that they might detract from the worship experience; the prayer language needs to accommodate different theologies and offer gender-inclusive images of God; and prayer should allow for private meditation. Overall, the siddur's language should be elegant, poetic, and contemporary, and its design graphically pleasing and inviting. Finally, the prayer book should include an extensive selection of musical texts, recognizing that the "singing congregation" is far more common than a generation ago--indeed, participatory worship may be the greatest innovation in what we now see as a worship revolution.

In 1999, when the time came to select an editor who could translate theory into practice, the CCAR invited blind submissions. Of the eighteen proposals received--some by renowned scholars and liturgists, others by relative newcomers to the work of creating liturgy--two were selected: one by Rabbi Elyse Frishman, a congregational rabbi and liturgist with a deep knowledge of Jewish texts on liturgy and worship, who was named editor; and the other by Judith Abrams, a talmudist expert in rabbinic source materials, who would serve as consulting editor. Rabbi Peter Knobel would chair the editorial committee of rabbis, cantors, lay persons, and liturgy scholars representing the fullest range of theological diversity and worship styles within our Movement. The new prayer book would be named Mishkan T'filah ("Dwelling Place for Prayer"), with its symbolic reference to the tabernacle carried by the Israelites from Sinai to the Promised Land.

Rabbi Frishman had conceived an innovative approach to the layout of a prayer book. Each prayer would be set as a two-page spread. The prayer itself (the keva, or fixed text), fully transliterated and with a faithful English translation, would appear on the right-hand page; thematically related prayers, readings, and meditations (kavvanot) would be on the left. Those worshipers wishing a straightforward, traditional service could stay entirely on the right-hand side; others might elect to say (or sing) one or more of the alternative prayers on the left. To signal the end of a section, everyone would end with the chatimah, the one-line summary, and then turn to the next page. Marginal guideposts would list the progression of the service with the current prayer or traditional reading highlighted, and historical notes and spiritual insights would appear across the bottom of the page.

Would Rabbi Frishman's concept work? To find out, the CCAR provided bound galleys to more than 300 congregations in an elaborate program of field testing. For the next three years, congregations, Hillel organizations, URJ and CCAR conferences and conventions experienced successive interim editions. The answer, in short, was yes--and then some; hundreds of individuals provided literally thousands of additional comments and suggestions for improving the prayer book. As the CCAR completed its editorial work earlier this year, pre-sales of Mishkan T'filah had already exceeded 75,000 copies.

Now, in the 21st century, Reform Judaism has transformed its liturgy and worship to meet the needs of a new generation. Hopefully, Mishkan T'filah, with its grounding in Jewish tradition, creative introduction of new liturgical texts, and bold new design will respond to the deepest spiritual longings of individual Reform Jews, while unifying our Movement.

Rabbi Elliot L. Stevens
, a member of the Mishkan T'filah editorial committee, is the rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, AL.

Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue of Reform Judaism (

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