Friday, November 02, 2007

Reform and Tradition

I was eating lunch two weeks ago and got an unexpected phone call from CCAR Press.

My first reaction. "CCAR Press? Sounds familiar. Hmm... I don't remember submitting anything to CCAR press. But maybe they've heard about my interminable ongoing novel-in-progress... Or maybe they somehow came across my blog and want to publish me. Or maybe they telepathically identified me as a frigging genius whose voice just begs to be heard!"

Oops. Turns out CCAR Press publishes the Reform prayerbook, Mishkan T'filah. Shucks.

It turns out there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the siddirum are selling like hotcakes. The bad news is that this means that little old orders like mine (shuls get a price break at around 100 copies. Yet another reason it's too bad I'm not a shul) won't get filled until sometime next year.

Anyway, it turns out this call was semi-fortuitous, because the siddur is in the news. Apparently some Reform traditionalists (chew on that for a minute) are up in arms because they think the new prayer book is on a mission to make Reform "Conservative-esque."

Scholars say the editorial decisions reflect the evolution of Jewish culture, theological ideas and history. But some rabbis and congregants who champion classical Reform Judaism believe the book endangers the identity of the movement and blurs the distinction between Reform and Conservative Jews.

"I'm really sorry it's happening this way," said Rabbi Michael Sternfield of Chicago Sinai Congregation. "I give [the editors] an A for effort. They know their stuff. But I think their mind-set is to make the Reform movement as much like Conservative Judaism as we can."

Knobel said the book responds to a demand for choices from congregations, many of which have started producing their own prayer books.

"[That's] symbolic for us that people were becoming dissatisfied with what we were providing," he said. "We really feel people are hungry for something."

Note to Rabbi Sternfield: it's not about stealing from CJ, it's about giving RJs the option to be more Jewishly literate. To deny them this ability in both your siddur and your Hebrew schools is grossly unfair, particularly if it's becoming something that more and more RJs WANT, and negates any pretense that Reform Judaism is actually about choice. Just because some Reform rabbis don't want Hebrew doesn't mean they should be in a position to cockblock everybody else, anymore than preferences involving facial hair should lead to you shaving any Reform Jews that still have beards.

Fans of the book say its beauty lies in the multitude of options. Four versions of each prayer are laid out on a two-page spread intended as one extra-wide page. On the right are the prayer in Hebrew, its pronunciation and a more literal English translation. On the left is a more poetic translation of the prayer, followed by a metaphorical or meditative passage reflecting on the prayer, or commentary about the prayer's origins. It is the first Reform prayer book to include commentary.

"The way sacred texts remain important, meaningful and relevant is through an ongoing process of commentary," Knobel said. "We're constantly looking at the sacred texts we have and looking for a meaning in them that speaks to us in our day and age in our own personal and communal teachings."

Unlike previous prayer books that have dictated when congregants sit, stand and read aloud, the new book leaves it up to the worship leader to give stage directions at their discretion. Knobel said it's also up to leaders to build in larger blocks of silence so congregants have time to absorb and reflect on supplemental texts throughout the service.

Choices and commentary? Heaven forbid! Some confused congregant might accidentally think they're reading the Talmud or something.

But some critics consider the book a giant step in the wrong direction. They say its inclusion of more traditional prayers kowtows to conservative pressure.

"I do really feel this prayer book is a mistake," said Sternfield, whose congregation wrote its own prayer book seven years ago. He said "Mishkan T'filah" reflects a shift toward the Conservative Jewish movement.

"Reform Judaism has an authenticity unto itself. The more we try to be like other movements, the less authentic we are to our own core values," Sternfield said. "I'm very much in hopes that our pendulum will swing back to a different position from where it is today. It may take the disenchantment over this book for the movement to come to its senses a little bit."

Funny me, I thought the whole Reform Judaism thing was supposed to be about changing to fit the needs of the times. At least that's what this brochure says. What do you want, Rabbi Sternfield? Do I need to personally emboss each page of MK with an imprint of I.M. Wise? Who, incidentally, knew Hebrew. Also, if your OWN congregation wrote its own siddur, clearly they weren't being served by Gates of Prayer.

JTA has more, with a specific focus on the prayer calling for the resurrection of the dead (which I find interesting, but largely a non-sequiteur).

But befitting a prayer book conceived to appeal to diverse beliefs and practices, members of the editorial committee offered various and sometimes conflicting explanations for the prayer's return. In particular they differed on whether the change reflects merely a new comfort with liturgical metaphors or a deeper change in Reform theology.

The movement's Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 explicitly rejected the notion of bodily resurrection, an idea considered unmodern, unscientific and irrational.

"Certainly to the 19th century reformers, the idea that Judaism believed in resurrection of the dead seemed to them the antithesis of the kind of rational Judaism that they thought most Jews wanted and expected," said Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish history professor at Brandeis University.

In prior Reform prayer books, the traditional blessing of God as the one who revives the dead -- in Hebrew, "m'chayeih hameitim" -- was changed to "m'chayeih hakol," literally "who gives life to all." The new prayer book includes the modified version, but also offers worshipers the ancient formulation as an alternative.

Many if not most of those involved in the production of Mishkan T'filah continue to reject the idea of God literally raising dead bodies from the earth. As metaphor, however, the phrase is thought to be sufficiently meaningful for people that it was worthy of restoration.

"For a number of people in our movement, reclaiming traditional language feels very meaningful," Frishman said. "And when that language resonates positively, people want it."

Editorial committee members provided various metaphoric interpretations for the prayer, from the reawakening that occurs after surgery to the notion that the Jewish people were resurrected after the Holocaust in the rebirth of the State of Israel.

Others, however, are less willing to dismiss the idea of resurrection as pure metaphoric fancy, arguing that if there is an afterlife -- a notion that Reform has never renounced -- it will have to be a bodily one, since human beings do not know themselves in any other way.

On the one hand, maybe this puts Reform in something of a similar quandary as Conservative- putting something on paper that the rank and file don't really believe. On the other hand, given that MK is supposed to be all about giving people options, I don't think it's quite the same thing as CJ continuing to profess that the movement is uniformly halachic (see Neil Gillman's critique of this self-conception in his speech back in Dec 2005).

Actually, the Gillman episode is an interesting one to compare to the oresent MK brou-ha-ha, because as in 2005, one of the first responses we heard was the unabashed triumphalism of folks like Jonathan Rosenblum, who said Gillman had validated the critiques of Rabbi Avi Shafran, head mouthpiece of Agudat Israel of America, who had said way back in 2001 that CJ's claim to be halachic was disingenuous. Never mind that Gillman went on to say that he still identified as a CJ and thought the movement was a legitimate one, or that plenty of CJs disagreed with Gillman's analysis- Rosenblum had his sound-bite and that was enough.

So, guess who do we find crowing about the new MK and its turn towards tradition? None other than the esteemed Rabbi Shafran, back again.

That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn't elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement's new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, Mishkan T'filah, still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.

The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzva and asks himself, "Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?"

Hang on, they still believe in the right to choose things? What a lousy bunch of Orthodox Jews. Oh, wait.

And anyway who said that the goal of MK was to get Orthodox brownie points?

Rabbi Shafran also takes note of the new prayer for resurrecting the dead:

...I can't help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday "quickening of the dead" and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.

The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn't subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.

It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

But I'm not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.

Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.

But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.

Wow, so once again we get insight into Rabbi Shafran's incredible love and respect for all his Jewish brethren, that is, the ones that see the light and realize that their true purpose is to become good little BTs.

Though I'd like to be as accommodating and gracious as Harry Maryles or Daniel Treiman, Shafran comes off more as snickering than giving credit where due. That he refuses to even mention the obvious gray area between "practically extinct" and full-fledged Baal Teshuvah seems to indicate a pretty major blind spot. A true acknowledgment of the importance- and positive turn- of the new prayer book would be to encourage Reform Jews to be more observant, not merely say, "I can't wait for them to become real Jews like me."

I can accept that most frum Jews aren't going to be ok with picking and choosing. But there's no down side to more Reform Jews praying in Hebrew. And on this topic, the Orthodox would be well-served to take a page from Chabad's playbook and encourage non-Orthos to go AS FAR AS THEY WANT, rather than saying, "we look forward to seeing you in our shul next week." Even if that's what you actually believe guys, Jesus, don't say it out loud. Oh, and calling Reform Jews spiritually dead isn't exactly a way to get on their good side, either. Chalk up another lost kiruv opportunity (to be fair, the Orthodox aren't the only ones who can be provacative).

Also check out this Jerusalem Post article from last month that chronicles where the Reform movement is headed and how it's getting there. Liberally-quoted money quotes:

Gates of Prayer - a compilation of 10 themed services published in 1975 - sought to accommodate these trends. The siddur included an unprecedented selection of new prayers, readings and meditations to accompany the Hebrew texts, some geared toward Holocaust remembrance and Israeli Independence Day. The success of GOP was immediate with sales reaching 50,000 in its first year and nearly 1.5 million copies to date.

But despite its achievements, Gates of Prayer was criticized almost from the start for being more of an anthology than a cohesive prayer book and for relying on the masculine in its language. Some congregations reacted by returning to the UPB, but many compiled their own prayer books, often editing the texts for gender sensitivity.


By 1985 a new siddur was in the works.

As work began, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary, 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 a radical proposition, he asserted that a new prayer book needed to take into consideration the opinions of the laity.

...After years of discussions, and trial runs, the resulting text is Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur, which has sold 150,000 copies prior to publication.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman, whose proposal won an initial competition, conceived of the approach to the layout: Each prayer is set as a two-page spread. The prayer itself, fully transliterated and with a faithful English translation, appears on the right-hand page, and on the left are thematically related prayers, quotes by Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Milton Steinberg, and meditations that include texts from the Talmud or contemporary poetry. Worshipers who prefer a straightforward, traditional service can choose to stay entirely on the right-hand side, while others might choose to say one or more of the alternative prayers on the left.

"Now we understand there is no single theology we represent," said Hoffman. "Rather, Reform theology is an amalgam of many voices coming together. Instead of many services there is one with many different voices on each page."


Yes and no, said Hoffman.

"It's not so much a return to tradition as much as it an attempt to present the fullness of Jewish tradition modified by principles that animate Reform Judaism," he said.

Rabbi Daniel Bronstein , a congregation scholar at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn said it's more traditional than anything that's been done in a Reform siddur in terms of the restoration of traditional liturgy, drawing from more traditional sources, the inclusion of much more Hebrew and much less responsive English reading. But there is also a greater presence of women thinkers and rabbis, more renewal and non-rabbinic voices as well. "It reflects that on the one hand Reform is becoming more traditional and aligning itself with Klal Yisrael, but at the same time it's always going in the progressive direction."

The names of the prayer books, carefully chosen, offer some insight into what they package. Rabbi Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of HUC, points to the name of the latest siddur as the first indicator of the Reform Movement's embrace of tradition.

The Union Prayer Book was an attempt to create a book that all Jews could use, Levy explained. With Gates of Prayer, the emphasis is on being at the threshold. "Now we are inside the mishkan," said Levy. "Being inside reflects a wider embrace of Jewish tradition."

..."Most of us feel that it's keeping with the movement, which originally saw itself as responsive to change," said Levy. "If Torah is seen as continued revelation, then changing times help us see Torah differently."

The language of the Pittsburgh Platform, which said "at this time we reject the practices of diet and purity," opens itself up to such an argument, he said. "Whether by 'at this time' they felt it would always be so, or at another time could prove something different is open to interpretation."

The 1937 Columbus Platform, which came as a response to the Pittsburgh Platform, was created with the realization that the Reform Movement needed to affirm the synagogue as an important center of Jewish life. Similarly, the realization that holding on only to a "religion of reason" needed to be expanded was part of the motivation behind the 1999 Pittsburgh Platform. "With that platform we affirmed what had been happening for 10 years, namely an increase in spiritual life and dedication to study," Levy said.

With its origins in the 19th century, Reform Judaism was a response to an increased sense of alienation from Orthodoxy. Its founders looked to universalism as a way around the stringencies and ghetto mentality of the Orthodox world.

"Whereas in the 19th century we needed universalism, in the 1970s we needed particularism, and we did that by restoring several prayers that emphasize the particular destiny of the Jewish people," said Hoffman. The Aleinu prayer which centers around the notion that "our lot is not like theirs," was initially removed.

"By the time of the 1970s history had demonstrated that Jews have a unique destiny, like it or not, so it was restored," said Hoffman. "The issue now is no longer medieval heritage, now it is secularity."

...Deliberations about the Shema, one of the oldest known prayers, were probably the most divisive. In traditional siddurim, the Shema includes not just the Shema Yisrael and V'ahavta, but two more paragraphs which American Reform prayer books have omitted since the 1890s. The editorial committee was urged to reinstate the last two paragraphs, as part of a movement to recapture some of the traditional liturgy. But the third paragraph links divine reward and punishment to human merit and sin - an implicit suggestion that sickness or suffering may be Divine retribution, something Reform Jews reject. So Mishkan T'filah omits this paragraph, but readopted the second.

"We didn't include some traditionalist prayers that, in all good conscience, Reform Jews cannot say," said Frishman, who likens the decision to include more of the traditional liturgy to cooking. "The more I become aware of different herbs and vegetables, all become possibilities to create an amazing dish. The generation before might have rejected certain things because they were imposed on it, but we are not imposed upon, so we look at everything more openly."


A glance at today's critics reveals just how much the embrace of tradition has been solidified. A decade ago when Levy introduced his Ten Principles arguing in favor of greater ritual observance, critics argued the movement was caving in to Orthodoxy. Today those who point to shortfalls in the siddur say it fails to go far enough in its embrace of traditional liturgy.

"A strong editorial hand doesn't give justice to profound poetic impulse that humans have expressed over the last 2,000 years," said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim. "I am among a whole variety of rabbis across the generations who are uneasy with too many changes to the siddur so that it makes it unrecognizable."

Rabbi Leon Morris, executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York, urged the editorial committee of Mishkan T'filah to include the Shema in its entirety.

"One of the things I am asking is whether the 21st century provides us with a different way of thinking about what we do with inherited classical texts." he said.

Jews today are not looking to the prayer book to reflect their theology, explained Morris, who is part of a younger generation of Reform Jews who feel a connection to the traditional liturgy. "This is a post-modern turn - we are very much aware there are different ways to read texts and, increasingly, liberal Jews are appreciating and drawing meaning from classic texts even when they clash with our own personal beliefs."

Comparing the late 19th century with where the movement stands today, it is hard to deny the trajectory toward a greater embrace of tradition, said Morris. "But it is much less guided by a deepened commitment to Jewish law and more guided by a greater openness to tradition." No one, he said, felt a "halachic obligation" to include all three paragraphs of the Shema.

"It's not that Reform Judaism has no relation to Halacha, it's that the authority of Halacha is more in its ability to be persuasive than inherently authoritative by virtue of being Halacha," he said.

Today's generation of Reform Jews doesn't carry the same baggage as the founders of the movement, Morris said. "In a certain way Reform Judaism today is rebelling against secularism rather than Orthodoxy. Today Jews need to assert they are Jews."

Will adopting more traditional liturgy and ritual practice eventually make the Reform Movement indistinguishable from the Conservative Movement from which it sought so desperately to distinguish itself?

Levy hopes not. "I think a merger of Reform and Conservative Judaism would be terrible - difference helps keep vibrance," he said.

For Bachman it remains clear why he is a Reform Jew: "I am Reform because I believe humans wrote the Torah with divine inspiration, I believe men and women are inherently equal, I believe in welcoming gays and lesbians and intermarried families - and the movement that has those principles at the core is Reform."

Very interesting stuff. Looking forward to getting my own copy. Eventually.

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