HALAKHIC APPENDIX: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF HEBREW OR OF ENGLISH IN A SERVICE?
(As with all our appendices on Halakhah, we mean to prompt learned Jewish discussion rooted in Jewish categories and sources. It is in the nature of Halakhah that questions prompt different answers from different respondents. What we provide is a single view, in each case composed by Elliot Dorff. It is not intended as definitive; only suggestive of some of the issues involved. Dorff writes as a Conservative Jew, and his references are to Conservative synagogue practice. The parenthetical section of the following note on Hebrew and English is an expansion of Dorff's Conservative Guidelines, so as to provide greater background and cover Reform practice as well.)
[Jewish law permits prayer in any language, but Hebrew has been the preferred language of prayer since the time when the liturgy first came into being. Except for women's prayer books (in Italian or Yiddish), public worship has always been in Hebrew, therefore until the nineteenth century, that is.
It was then that the issue of praying in the vernacular first arose, particularly in Germany, where reformers were intent on modernizing Jewish practice for the many Jews who were leaving Judaism because they found its medievalisms uncongenial to modern life. The question was whether prayer in Hebrew was such a medievalism. Some said yes, and some said no.
The issue emerged most clearly at a rabbinic conference in mid-century, when the body voted that while Hebrew was desirable, it was not altogether necessary. This was already a compromise position that fell short of the radical group for whom Hebrew was no longer even desirable. One rabbi, Zacharias Frankel, went down in history as walking out of the meeting because he felt Hebrew was more than just desirable; he wanted the resolution to affirm its necessity, and when he was outvoted, he refused to go along with the majority.
To this day, modern Conservative Jews trace their ideological lineage back to Frankel, while modern Reform Jews side with the majority opinion that Frankel rejected. Conservative worship has therefore increasingly become more Hebraic, not less. The first official Conservative Siddur was the Silverman Prayerbook of 1946, for instance. It was patterned after a private prayer book by Rabbi Morris Silverman of Hartford, Connecticut. The original book featured transliterations for most of the congregational responses. These were omitted from the official prayer book that the movement published, and Siddur Sim Shalom was planned with Hebrew clearly in mind as the language of Jewish prayer, to the point where sexist language in the translation was officially overlooked, since it was felt that people would not actually use it.
Reform worship has varied with regard to the Hebrew-English balance. Isaac Mayer Wise wrote a moderate book about half and half: full Hebrew pages on the right with matching English translations on facing pages. The other major forerunner for the American Reform Movement, Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, published a book with almost no Hebrew at all. At the moment, Reform congregations are committed to bilingual worship, but divided on such important "details" as how much of each to demand, and whether to include transliterations in the prayer book.]
Conservative synagogues, by both custom and conviction, recite over 90% of the prayers in Hebrew even in late Friday night services and on the High Holy Days, when the least traditional crowd is likely to be in attendance. This decision may have come at considerable cost to the movement in members, and illustrates one of the problems we have in making our synagogues "user-friendly" places. The Law Committee has so assumed this practice that the only specific ruling on it that I could find is that the blessings surrounding the aliyah should not be said in English, but rather copies of the transliteration should be made available (Summary, p. 9:1).
English may accompany the Hebrew and English prayers may be added. As far as English style is concerned, Siddur Sim Shalom (1985) omitted the Shakespearean English pronouns, but retained masculine pronouns for both human beings and God. The revisions of that Siddur, currently in press, will change that for human beings, but I honestly do not know what the editors did with regard to God. This is by no means a settled issue in Conservative circles.
Lawrence A. Hoffman, "Halakhic Appendix: What is the Status of Hebrew or of English in a Service?" Synagogue 2000, 1996, pp. 50-51.