Skip Navigation
August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775
The Gates Liturgies


Jewish Liturgy and Reform Judaism's Identity
The framework of the Jewish liturgy1 and the texts of most of the prayers that comprise it can be traced to the Second Commonwealth and the several centuries immediately following the Destruction in the year 70 C.E. Besides the recitation of Psalms and the reading of scripture, the prime components of the liturgy are two: a credal element, termed the Shema and its benedictions; and then the Tefillah, or Prayer proper. Of these, the first affirms the divine unity (Deuteronomy 6:4) and is followed by three biblical passages2 that enjoin the love of God, the study of Torah, and the fulfillment of its commandments, and that also enunciate a doctrine of reward and punishment. These passages are preceded by theological statements on creation and revelation3 and are followed by the acknowledgment of God as redeemer in history;4 and, for the evening service, the passages are followed by a supplication against the perils of the night.5 The second major feature of the liturgy is prayer in the conventional sense, at least for the weekday services.6 Jews have always felt that petitions for personal, worldly goods mar the solemn joy and detract from the serenity of spirit that the sacred seasons of the year are meant to induce. Consequently, even on weekdays, a goodly part of the Prayer rubric is devoted to praise of God and to expressions of thanksgiving and only limited opportunity is provided the worshiper to give voice to personal supplications within the formal service itself, though extemporaneous private prayer is always encouraged. The content of the regular service is completely prescribed, both for the individual and the congregation, with all the advantages and disadvantages that attach to a fixed liturgy.

The function of a fixed liturgy, according to Moses Maimonides, twelfth-century philosopher and legalist,7 is to guide people to pray in elegant and grammatically faultless language worthy of the One they address, as well as to teach them how to voice their hearts' desires and the needs of the community in reasonable fashion and logical sequence. Maimonides took it for granted that all Jews pray; his concern was that they should refine their prayer. Nowadays, many Jews, both those who classify themselves as Reform or traditional, and those who are avowedly indifferent, need to be given some understanding of what prayer is and what it is not. In Gates of Prayer we include a number of meditations intended to elucidate what prayer achieves. For example: "Prayer invites God to let His presence suffuse our spirits, to let His will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will."8

A second purpose of a fixed liturgy is to direct Jews to contemplate the meaning of their history, the miracle of survival.

In a world torn by violence and pain, a world far from wholeness and peace, a world waiting still to be redeemed, give us, Lord, the courage to say: There is One God in heaven and earth. The high heavens declare His glory; may earth reveal His justice and His love.

From Egypt, the house of bondage, we were delivered; at Sinai, amid peals of thunder, we bound ourselves to His purpose. Inspired by prophets and instructed by sages, we survived oppression and exile, time and again overcoming the forces that would have destroyed us.

Our failings are many—our faults are great—yet it has been our glory to bear witness to our God, and to keep alive in dark ages the vision of a world redeemed.

May this vision never fade; let us continue to work for the day when the nations will be one and at peace.9

Again, a fixed liturgy summons Jews, willy-nilly, to attend to tikkun olam, literally to the "repair of the world." It compels them to face up to the personal failings that all too often go unrecognized and affirms their obligation to remedy the evils that bedevil humankind, so far as ever mortals can do. The old liturgy spoke in generalities: We have sinned; we have transgressed; we have done perversely." The new liturgy speaks far more pointedly:

We sin against You when we sin against ourselves....

For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts,
and for distorting facts to fit our theories....

For using the sins of others to excuse our own,
and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes....

For keeping the poor in the chains of poverty,
and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed.

For using violence to maintain our power,
and for using violence to bring about change.

For waging aggressive war,
and for the sin of appeasing aggressors.

For obeying criminal orders,
and for the sin of silence and indifference.

For poisoning the air, and polluting land and sea,
and for all the evil means we employ to accomplish good

For using others as a means to gratify our desires,
and as stepping-stones to further our ambitions.

For withholding love to control those we claim to love,
and shunting aside those whose youth or age disturbs us....

Teach us to forgive ourselves for all these sins, O forgiving God,
and help us to overcome them.10

Lawrence A. Hoffman has demonstrated that any liturgy should be regarded as not only a systematically constructed and dramatically presented testimonial of faith but also, and even more significantly, as a reflection of the self-image of the religious community, their statement of their perceived identity.11 On the basis of Hoffman's conclusions (and making allowance for oversimplification), we can see in the 1895 Union Prayer Book the self-image of a Jewish community composed in the main of fairly recent immigrants who had found unprecedented acceptance and opportunity on these shores. In consequence, they were of a mind to dispense with many of the traditional practices that had set them apart and sustained them during their age-old struggle for survival, practices that now seemed to hinder their integration into American society and that appeared alien to the American experience. Thus, they undertook to assimilate the style of Jewish worship to the pattern of the dominant culture. They appropriated much in the 1895 prayer book from Protestant churches: rubrics such as minister (in place of rabbi, or cantor, or leader, the last representing the German Vorbeter, the usual designation for a Jewish officiant), choir, canticle, hymn, anthem, silent devotion, adoration, benediction—all previously unknown to the synagogue. So, too, was the introduction of newly composed prayers, which now and then approximate sermons, as adaptations of the pastoral prayers of the church. Furthermore, the traditional prayer book presupposes that public worship will be conducted every morning and evening,12 and therefore it places the weekday services at the front of the book. The Union Prayer Book, following the Protestant practice of concentrating public worship on Sunday, put the Sabbath evening and morning liturgies at the front of the prayer book and relegated the weekday services to the back, thereby signaling that communal worship was no longer required of the Reform Jew and perhaps not even desired.

The 1924 revision of the Union Prayer Book was occasioned by widespread insistence that a Reform liturgy should react to the social problems of its age.13 The community thus had come to regard itself—or at least its spiritual leaders wanted the community to regard itself—as social activists in the prophetic spirit of an Amos or an Isaiah.

Both the 1895 and 1924 prayer books portrayed Reform Jewry's perception of themselves as adherents of a religious faith corresponding to the various Christian denominations, although historically Jews had always considered themselves a distinct people that embraced all those who declare themselves to be Jewish, whether by descent or choice, whether religiously committed or even antagonistic to the Jewish religion. A 1930 critique of the revised prayer book charged that the Judaism it manifested had been reduced to a "drab ethical monotheism, ignoring much of its colorful life and historical associations.... Naturally Judaism, being the Jew's way to the Holy One, voices in its prayers the longings and aspirations of the Jewish people. This may be branded by some as particularism. Possibly we are a bit too sensitive to what the non-Jewish attendants at our services may say.... Most often what is best and noblest in the national is in reality of universal value and significance."14 And, in reaction to the prayer book's emphasis on social action: "The Union Prayer Book conveys the impression that it was especially written for a people composed of retired philanthropists and amateur social workers."15

The alarming growth of German antisemitism in the thirties convinced many Jews that assimilation provided no guarantee of acceptance into the larger society, nor even of security. The Newly Revised prayer book of 1940 represents the Reform community's new realization that it had jettisoned too many distinctively Jewish practices, and with them some degree of spiritual integrity. The 1940 prayer book restored such ceremonies as the Kiddush for the eve of Sabbath and festivals and the memorial service for the seventh day of Passover.16 It introduced a ritual for the reading of the Torah on Friday evenings, in recognition of the fact that many congregants could not leave their offices or places of business to attend Saturday morning services when the reading of scripture is a regular feature of the liturgy.17 The 1940 prayer book substituted reader for minister, and, because increasing numbers of Reform Jews had become sympathetic to Zionism, it added a new prayer for the rebuilders of Zion and the supplication that the Land might be restored not simply as another state but, rather, "as a living witness to the truth of Thy word which shall lead the nations to the reign of peace,"18 although, in deference to those who remained opposed to Jewish nationalism, the prayer was relegated to a service read only on the fifth Sabbath of the month!

The enormity of the Holocaust on the one hand, and, on the other, the establishment of the State of Israel brought a reawakening of faith and commitment and, for Reform Jewry, mandated a complete revision of its liturgy. Gates of Prayer, which appeared in 1975, admitted Yom Hashoah, the day of commemorating the martyrs of the Holocaust, and Yom Ha'atsma'ut, Israel Independence Day, into the religious calendar. It is a prayer book that speaks to and for a community comfortable with the open expression of its Jewishness, with more Hebrew in the service, with devising new ceremonies, and with reviving old rituals. A token of the latter is to be seen in the fact that an increasing number of worshipers cover their heads at prayer and put on a tallit (prayer shawl), practices that Reform Judaism had discarded in its early years because they were thought to make the Jew appear foreign, exotic in non-Jewish eyes. Nowadays most congregants are eager to play an active role in the synagogue, to demonstrate their proficiency in reading the Hebrew prayers, and to sing the responses, where not so long ago they were content with listening to monologues from the pulpit and to art music performed by professional choirs. In encouraging lay involvement, Gates of Prayer is responding to the popular urge to recapture the spontaneity and fervor that have traditionally been characteristic of Jewish worship.

History of the Prayer Book Revisions
In Reform Judaism the publication of liturgy is the responsibility of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which operates through a standing liturgy committee of six members, plus a chair, who serve for five-year terms.19 All are rabbis; occasionally laypeople are invited to serve as consultants. An ex officio representative of the American Conference of Cantors provided invaluable assistance in the editing of Gates of Prayer and its companion volumes.

The work of liturgy renewal began in 1967, when Rabbi Herbert Bronstein of Glencoe, Illinois, was invited to revise the 1923 edition of the Union Haggadah, the home service for the eve of Passover. This Haggadah appeared in 1974. In 1967 the committee also began to revise the 1940 prayer book by commissioning four experimental services for Sabbath eve, each with its own theme. The committee benefited from a series of studies and conferences on worship that were arranged both by Jews and non-Jews, as well as from a number of articles that urged the revision of the 1940 prayer book and from informal communications by members of the Reform community. There was never a dearth of advice!

After having been reworked by the entire committee, the experimental services were printed in pamphlet form and tested in the congregations. The reactions were generally unfavorable. So great was the dissatisfaction of some congregations with the inadequacies that they perceived in the old prayer book and so impatient were they with the progress of the committee that they turned for help to England, where Rabbis John D. Rayner and Chaim Stern had just completed Service of the Heart (1967), a prayer book intended for the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues of Great Britain. The North American committee adopted Service of the Heart as a model for its own deliberations, and further, appointed Rabbi Stern, who had taken up residence in Chappaqua, New York, as editor. Scholarly liturgist and gifted stylist, Rabbi Stern prepared a manuscript in consultation with the chair of the committee. The draft, which was sensitive to the Union Prayerbook tradition, incorporated new materials that Rabbi Stern had himself written, some of them for Service of the Heart, or that he had solicited from others, both on the committee and in the Conference at large. Some of the supplementary readings were drawn from non-Jewish sources. The manuscript was carefully reviewed and frequently emended by the committee, often after heated debate. Eventually a trial edition was published and circulated to the membership of the Conference for their comments and criticisms. On the basis of the responses and of further consideration on the part of the editor and the committee, a final draft was sent to the Conference for a mail ballot. Upon receiving overwhelming approval, we prepared the book for publication. A similar procedure was followed with Gates of Repentance.

In 1928 Samuel S. Cohon, editor of the 1923 Union Haggadah and the 1928 Rabbi's Manual, wrote:

The Union Prayerbook, like the other publications of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, is the product of committee endeavor. Committees are, as a rule, composed of men who are not necessarily saints or poets, men of differing minds and of varying viewpoints, which clash on matters which are usually of deep moment. They can, therefore, make progress only through compromise. To this condition we may trace most of the inconsistencies in the Union Prayerbook.20

The differences in viewpoint that Cohon reported in 1928 fade into insignificance in comparison with the diversity of outlook that prevails in Reform Judaism today. Our constituency runs the theological gamut from traditional theism to religious naturalism, from classical piety to estrangement. To accommodate the various attitudes represented in the community, we had inevitably to sacrifice a degree of unity of content and style, but a book that enunciated a single theology could never have won the ratification of the Conference.

Issues Addressed by the Reforms
Among the most important issues the committee had to consider were these:

1. Reform Jewish liturgy has constantly to strike a balance between the conflicting claims of tradition and modernity. Should prayers hallowed by centuries of pious usage be discarded merely because, literally interpreted, they contradict the scientist? How far can we go in indulging legitimate nostalgia without alienating those who demand that the prayer book speak unequivocal truth? For example, Exodus 31:16f, has traditionally served to justify the observance of the Sabbath. The passage ends, "for in six days the Eternal God made heaven and earth."21 These words, at odds with scientific hypotheses about the origin of the universe, were omitted from the previous editions of the Union Prayerbook; after discussion we agreed to reinstate them as a poetic affirmation that creation stems from the divine will.

2. The classic Hebrew prayers must be made comprehensible to those who have little or no Hebrew. Some of our people clamor for literal translations, as if the prayer book should also serve as a textbook in elementary Hebrew, and as if any one translation could convey all the nuances in the simplest Hebrew sentence. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), which liturgically is the confession of Jewish faith, contains only six Hebrew words, but these can be rendered in at least four different ways, all of them faithful to the Hebrew. The Union Prayerbook translated the verse, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One."22 (The original lacks the verb is; it must be supplied from the context.) Following Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (1085-1174), we inserted a second is, so that the Shema as we now read it makes two statements: The Lord is our God, and the Lord is One.23

Therefore, because no single translation can be adequate, we have occasionally provided several English versions of important Hebrew texts, some relatively literal, some free and interpretative. In Gates of Repentance we marked the paraphrases and interpretative renderings with an asterisk in order to distinguish them from the more literal translations, though at no time did we sacrifice literary grace for a word-for-word translation. Now and then we left untranslated familiar passages that are generally sung. Surprisingly, very few noticed the absence of the English.24

3. The English of the earlier prayer books, whether issued for traditional or Reform congregations, almost always imitated the style of the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and, in some cases, the intricate constructions of literary German. Today few people are comfortable with archaic English, nor do they care for the second person singular familiar pronoun thou and the obsolete verb forms it commands, much less verbs in the third person that terminate in the syllable eth, the bane of children who lisp. Indeed, by eliminating these outworn forms, we are the more faithful to the Hebrew, which addresses the Deity in everyday language rather than reserve a particular (archaic) form for God alone. Our English is unpretentious, yet, we hope, dignified and elegant, a fit vehicle for the exalted sentiments appropriate to worship. True, not all have applauded our decision to use current speech, especially when, for the sake of consistency, we had to rewrite passages as beloved as Psalm 23 and the praise of the woman of valor in Proverbs chapter 31.25

4. Now that women have taken their rightful place in the religious community, certain hitherto unquestioned liturgical expressions have become disturbing to many worshipers. Their demand is for gender-inclusive language. Lord, King, Father, Master are now verba non grata, along with the use of masculine pronouns to refer to God. Most people recognize the justice of these claims, though when the prayer books under discussion were being prepared, it still seemed possible to argue that grammatically speaking, God is not necessarily enrolled as a male, even when God is the antecedent of the masculine singular personal pronoun. Some committee members argued also that some masculine metaphors for the divine are inseparable from the experience of the Days of Awe—the age-old litany "Our Father, our King" for instance, which points up the paradox of the transcendence and the immanence of God, and which would be diminished by the reduction to the gender-neutral "Our parent, our ruler."

The committee's uncertainties resulted in a compromise position, whereby male-specific references to God were retained. On the other hand, we eliminated many exclusionary references to men rather than to human beings generally, as, for example, in Psalm 15, where the Hebrew has a succession of eleven clauses introduced by he. We substitute either those who, or who alone, turning the masculine singular pronoun into the common gender they.27 Sometimes we translate the Hebrew third person pronoun by an English second person pronoun, without doing violence to the sense of the original.

The women's movement came into its own only after the completion of Gates of Prayer. Gates of Repentance had the benefit of women's advice on the choice of language, and as a result, it has fewer distressing passages. Without doubt, all future Reform liturgies will be kept free of sexisms with regards to the Deity as well as to human beings.

5. The traditional liturgy, read three times each day throughout the year, remains basically the same for weekdays, Sabbaths, festivals, fast days, Days of Awe. However, in our novelty-hungry generation, repetition very quickly becomes monotonous. Of course that danger was recognized in past generations, and some variety was introduced by means of special melodies for different sacred moments and also by the insertion of piyyutim, recondite poetical compositions, generally in acrostic form, which assume that the worshiper is well-versed in rabbinic literature in order to understand the allusions they contain. (For the most part the piyyutim have now been eliminated from the prayer books of even the most Orthodox congregations.)

In order to provide variety in our liturgy, we have used more than one version of the classical Hebrew prayers where these have come down to us, and we have reinstated other, long-forgotten prayers. An example is the Tefillah of medieval Palestinian Jewry, which fell into oblivion when the community was destroyed during the First Crusade in 1099. We have introduced it into Gates of Prayer in a Sabbath service and, in part, into the service read on Israel Independence Day, when it seems especially appropriate.28 Furthermore, we have provided fully ten different orders of worship for Sabbath eve, the first quite traditional, two others for occasions when many children are present, and still others on themes of religious naturalism, doubt, estrangement, the mystical search, social justice, covenant, and commandment. Each has new prayers and meditations intended to respond to the situation of today's Reform constituency.29

6. As already noted, the twin focal events for the Jews of our day are the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, both of which have brought Jews to a new self-awareness and a consciousness of mystery. We have tried to see in destruction and rebirth both warning and opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for all God's children.30

The new prayer books have been received with warm approval and some quite strident disapproval.31 Critics tend to be voluble. Because in our time the Days of Awe speak more compellingly to the Jewish soul than does the Sabbath, Gates of Repentance has had a far more positive reception than has Gates of Prayer, which has the added task of persuading disparate groups within Reform Jewry that the Sabbath can enhance their lives spiritually, emotionally, even physically, and that Judaism as a whole deserves their attention and support.

Those who worked on Gates of Prayer can derive a measure of consolation from the fact that the unfavorable verdicts are often mutually contradictory. What one condemns as pedestrian may well appeal to another as insightful, uplifting, provocative. Again, Gates of Prayer is often faulted for being cumbersome. It is indeed a heftier volume that its predecessors, though it weighs less than the contemporary Conservative and Orthodox prayer books, and, for that matter, the 1979 edition of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Had Gates of Prayer offered fewer services and fewer optional readings, it would be the more easily held, but surely there would have been acrimonious disagreement on the sections to be excised because there is no consensus on what devotional material will most surely touch the hearts and excite the minds of Jews. Furthermore, the prayer book itself is often assigned blame that rightfully belongs to officiants who use it carelessly and even irreverently.

Gates of Prayer is also the victim of unrealistic expectations. It has not effected a religious revival throughout Reform Jewry. No prayer book could achieve that, nor will the revision of Gates of Prayer now contemplated meet with greater success. Our next prayer book will do away with the infelicities that mar this one, but very likely others will elude the editors' vigilance. The revision too will be born of controversy and grudging compromise. As those who lived during the era of the Holocaust become older and memories dim, the next generations may become impatient at being reminded of the fate that Jews suffered, just as they will have no immediate acquaintance with the sense of awe and mystery that attended the rebirth of the State of Israel, the sense that the God of the Exodus had entered history again to redeem "this eternal people" (in Leo Baeck's words). Still, it is improbable that many fewer prayers and a more compact book would suffice a people as diverse as ours.

This much we fancy we have accomplished: We have made Reform worship recognizably Jewish in style and mood. No longer is the synagogue service the sole domain of the pulpit and the choir loft, while the faithful are permitted only a minor role in the sacred drama. Nowadays most congregants are not afraid to read aloud, to lift their voices in song, to unite fervently in prayer, in Hebrew as well as English. The new liturgy has enabled at lest some Reform Jews to experience firsthand something of the numinous, to come into the presence of the holy, as former generations were privileged to do. And that experience will be shared by increasing numbers as, in the course of time, Gates of Prayer ceases to be a novelty and instead becomes familiar. And for those who labored over it, their greatest reward is to discover something unexpected in this prayer or that, something none of its compilers consciously intended, some note that may even have the power to transform a life.

A. Stanley Dreyus, "The Gates Liturgies: Reform Judaism Reforms Its Worship," Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds., The Changing Face of Jewish and Christian Worship in North America (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press), 1991.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved