Is God a majestic king on a throne with unbounded power or a “beloved friend and partner”? A “He” or a “Holy Presence who spreads Her wings over you”? Does God even exist?
There’s a range of options on each two-page spread of the new version of American Judaism’s best-selling prayer book, which was just released by the Reform Movement — the faith group’s largest denomination.
The text will be used during the fall High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, an intense liturgical period of reflection for many American Jews. The first overhaul of the book in 40 years was unveiled this month.
The new book includes gender-neutral blessings for transgender people, changing “bride and groom” to “couples” in an effort to be LGBT-friendly and weaving Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes and Henry David Thoreau with the Old Testament.
New passages also leave more room for doubt and questioning. On Page 181, there appears: “I speak these words but I don’t believe them.” Opposite, on page 180, a more traditional prayer sounds more certain, refering to a creator God who is “slow to anger, quick to forgive.”
In its attempt to inspire a diverse, liberal faith community with a complicated relationship to prayer, Reform Judaism is a pioneer among liberal denominations in adapting ancient texts to engage increasingly mainstream topics, including gay equality, interfaith families and doubt.
Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in the District’s Glover Park neighborhood, said the new High Holidays text — titled Mishkan HaNefesh in Hebrew, or “Sanctuary of the Soul” — addresses important trends in the evolution of the faith.
“What rabbis have had a long time coming to grips with is that Jews are a prime example of people who live and feel their lives to be secular. And our basic texts were written by people who took God’s existence for granted,” Zemel said. “That is the defining issue of our age.”
Most houses of worship have not addressed topics reflecting the increasing secularization of American society in their main texts, often because they disagree with the associated views. But some liberal faith groups are experimenting, primarily by including such views in printed supplements.
“We’re trying to see ourselves as in continuity with historic tradition, but worship is always changing because the world around us changes and people change and theological understandings shift,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, who chairs the liturgy and music commission of the Episcopal Church.
Episcopalians last updated their prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, in the 1970s. But last year, the church came out with a supplement, Daily Prayer for All Seasons, which trims a thick series of traditional daily prayers to a couple pages of prayers organized into categories with more general, contemporary names: praise, wisdom, love, forgiveness.
“This prayer book presents a variety of images of God,” the book’s introduction reads.
Rabbi Hara Person, head of the Reform movement’s publishing arm at the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the executive editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, said that over about seven years of discussion, test runs and edits, editors and writers tried to reenvision the concept of how Jews use prayer books.
They removed stage directions (such as “all rise” or “the congregation is seated”) and tried to make the book a personal guide that Jews can navigate as they wish rather than a user manual to a service with a leader and followers.
“We want people to find their own personal moment,” she said.
Jews tend to attend services less frequently and to pray significantly less than Americans in general. Fifty-one percent of American Jews pray less than once a week, twice the percentage of Americans overall who say they pray less than once a week, according to a Washington Post analysis of General Social Survey data from 2006 to 2014.
On the other hand, clergy of all faiths are hustling to find ways to inspire a multitasking, noncommittal worshipper who may be browsing among religions and weary of institutional structures and events. The new data shows that even while Americans are ready to ditch a lot about religion, our desire to pray has remained remarkably stable.
The Reform Movement invested in reworking its regular weekly prayer book in 2007, but the High Holidays book is in a sense a more ambitious effort. About three-quarters of Jews say they either never go to services or seldom go, but the High Holidays are synagogues’ big moment, like Christmas and Easter. And with two holidays spaced out over a few weeks dubbed a period of reflection, the potential for engagement is high.
“The themes and challenges of the High Holidays are different than they are in the regular weekly prayer book. On the High Holidays, we think about things on a much grander scale,” Person said. “We’re dealing with the really big issues of life, death, forgiveness, eternity — things we might not necessarily think about when we go to synagogue on a weekly basis, if we go.”
The new High Holidays book is only the third in the history of American Reform Judaism, which came from Europe in the late 1800s as a then-groundbreaking, more universalist, egalitarian and liberal movement of the faith. The second was in 1975.
Thirty-five percent of U.S. Jews today consider themselves Reform, by far the largest denomination.
Even as it embraces change, the book makes a significant investment in tradition by including for the first time all the Hebrew not just in English translation but also in transliteration.
That’s a recognition that many people in the pews are likely to be Jews who do not read Hebrew or are non-Jewish family members.
In fact, the driving force behind the book was an effort to reach out in a diverse way. Among the additions is a prayer acknowledging those with disabilities. Alongside a prayer that calls God “the straightener of bent backs,” the new one asks, “But what of those who cannot stand up?” and then answers, “Those whose bodies cannot rise possess the same divine essence, the same potential.”
And one of the major questions about reaching out is how to do so considering the weighty themes of the High Holidays, including judgment, sin and the role of God in reconciliation. Rabbi-editors put everything on the table, Person said, including how to — and whether to — include some of the most classic, familiar prayers, ones that everyone knows but to which many do not relate.
Among them, she said, was Unetaneh Tokef, an ancient and powerful liturgical poem that Jews chant while standing. Haunting, it says that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God decides who will live and who will die, and in what gruesome ways, “who by strangling and who by stoning.” And perhaps more daunting to the modern American Jew, “who will be calm and who tormented . . . who will live in poverty and who in prosperity.”
According to Person, some rabbis in their group said: “ ‘You can’t have that in the book. It’s so antithetical to modern thinking.’ . . . It presents God as a puppeteer, which is not, as modern people, how we’re comfortable thinking about God, that behavior determines your fate. What about the child who dies of cancer?” she said.
While the classic prayer appears on the right-hand side of the new book, the opposite side presents a different picture, acknowledging that certain things will happen — people will die, suffer, be lonely — but rearranging the place of God in these inevitabilities. “Even so, the way we act, the way we speak, the way we meet God’s image in ourselves and in others, these things have great power to make our lives matter,” it reads.
“We wanted to say, ‘Maybe you weren’t raised Jewish, maybe you have never read this, whomever you are, we want you to feel like you cannot just read the words and walk in and out of here, but that some kind of transformative experience goes on,” Person said of the many options the book lays out on each spread.