New Reform Prayer Book Reflects Changes In Movement

By Ansley Roan
Religion News Service
Saturday, November 17, 2007

NEW YORK -- Worshipers at Reform synagogues across the country are beginning to hold a new prayer book, or siddur. Along with a dramatically new design, worshipers will find the words of Pete Seeger, Helen Keller and Langston Hughes.

It's the first new prayer book in more than 30 years for the country's 1.5 million Reform Jews, and leaders say the book itself -- and the process that created it -- embody a uniquely Reform approach to Judaism.

"Our prayer book reflects our identity," said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "If our identity changes just a little bit, you can revise the prayer book and that suffices. If our identities change considerably, then the prayer book begins to look like a cracked mirror."

Hold a mirror up to a typical Reform congregation and there will be a wide range of people -- lifelong Jews, non-Jewish spouses in a growing number of interfaith families, former Orthodox and even those who don't believe in God but value a Jewish community, said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who edited the book.

"When it comes to anything religious, change is always traumatic," said Frishman, who leads Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. "The awareness was building within our movement that the words of our prayer book were not meeting our needs. We needed to broaden our conversation about God."

The new book, which is called "Mishkan T'filah" (Sanctuary of Prayer), broadens that conversation with significant changes in design and content. Like the movement, it has elements that are traditional (more prayers in Hebrew) as well contemporary (gender-neutral references to God).

And while congregations are not required to adopt the new book, the first printing of 150,000 has already sold out.

The most revolutionary changes were the layout and design. Unlike the previous prayer book, the book opens right to left, like a Hebrew book. Instead of page after page of prayers, the two-page spreads feature a Hebrew prayer on the right, accompanied by an English translation and transliteration, which allows those who don't speak Hebrew to sound out the prayers.

"We wanted a Hebrew text which reflected where the Reform movement is today in terms of its commitments to Israel, to tradition, to ritual, social justice," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, "and we wanted transliteration because we have been using considerably more Hebrew than we used to."

On the left side of the page, worshipers may find English prayers or poetry by a variety of writers, including Langston Hughes. The new book also includes lyrics to songs like "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by Pete Seeger, and commentary and quotes by writers ranging from rabbis to Helen Keller.

"It draws upon the whole breadth of Jewish tradition," said Rabbi Aaron Panken, vice president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "It allows someone who is coming new to prayer in a Jewish context to read along and pull up a nugget here and there of something interesting to think about."

The elements on the pages are reminiscent of the Talmud, with the text in the center surrounded by commentary, said Rabbi Elaine Zecher, who served on the editorial board. And like visitors to a Web page, worshipers can "click" on something that interests them. The layout allows worshipers to come to the prayers from different perspectives, which in some ways could be considered traditional.

"In Hebrew, the word for truth is 'emet,' " said Frishman. "The sense of what truth means in Judaism is to be all-encompassing, in balance, having a full perspective from all angles."

For all the new content, the prayer book isn't just filled with words.

"There is also space on the pages," Frishman said. "Prayer should allow you to breathe."

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