New Reform siddur an embrace of movement’s evolution
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New Reform siddur an embrace of movement’s evolution

In the beginning, there was a survey.

If prayerbooks can be said to be mirrors of the communities that give rise to them, then it is fair to say that Mishkan T’filah, the Reform movement’s new siddur, due to hit the pews this fall, is a reflection of ‘1st-century Reform thought and sensibility. Which is no surprise, given that its publication is the culmination of a decades-long quasi-democratic process. Multiple voices — men and women, traditional and contemporary thinkers, rabbis and cantors, and laity — had input, said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, spiritual leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes and the editor of Mishkan T’filah.


Rabbi Elyse Frishman with the final proof of Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform siddur.

"There’s been an evolution in what we [Reform Jews] have embraced, in terms of spirituality, learning, social justice, and creating sacred community, and Judaism has always been a resource to deepen our experience," explained Frishman. "We’re at a place now where we take comfort and joy in learning about Jewish tradition and adapting it to our American lifestyle."

In terms of today’s approach to prayer, Frishman said, that means seeking to "strike a balance between wanting to embrace anyone and everyone who walks through our doors and making our worship service distinctly Jewish," in consonance with the focus on ethnic and cultural pride that emerged in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement.

The latter concern is addressed through a marked increase in Hebrew content, beginning with its title. At the same time, to be inclusive, Mishkan T’filah includes a transliteration for those who can’t read the Hebrew. (An edition without transliteration may be ordered, as Frishman did for the students in Barnert’s religious school. The congregation’s entire order of 900 volumes has been underwritten by "two wonderful member families, the Resnicks and the Hongs," she said.) In contrast, the movement’s original siddur, the Union Prayer Book, first published in 1895 and reissued a number of times since, contained comparatively little Hebrew, then considered a "divisive factor," she said.

Mishkan T’filah likewise represents a different theological stance. "In every worship experience, we allow for theological diversity," stated Frishman, the "different senses of God" evident in the book’s layout. While the Reform movement’s current siddur, Gates of Prayer, brought out in 1974, does acknowledge different beliefs in God with an anthology of distinct services, each with a different theme, that presentation, she suggested, is now outmoded. With the "Gates" format, a congregant may find himself at a service that may not be in tune with his beliefs, Frishman explained, whereas Mishkan T’filah integrates different conceptions of God into every service, through a selection of readings.

Sharing the final proof with this reporter on Tuesday, Frishman pointed out that in keeping with longstanding communal practice and a historical perspective of God, the book’s right-hand pages are devoted to the traditional Reform text, transliteration, and what Frishman called a "faithful translation" into English. Classical commentary on the prayers is included in footnotes. However, to provide what she described as alternative modes of spirituality for those whose beliefs differ from the traditional, left-hand pages contain selected readings on the themes of individual prayers, reprinted from contemporary sources, and original liturgy composed by Frishman or one of the other five members of her final editing team. There is also commentary on these readings at the bottom of the pages.

In the left-hand selections for Ma’ariv Aravim, an evening prayer, for example, one of the alternatives offered is God-centered, but poetic, she noted, while a second option, a verse by the late Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, contains no reference to God but rather highlights the "liminal time as day passes into night."

"Reform worship is all about informed choice," she asserted, which, for the shaliach tzibor, prayer leader, she said, means being able to create an experience that will be meaningful to his or her specific community.

The first printing of more than 150,000 copies is virtually sold out, also not surprising in light of the buzz that’s been created through a survey that launched the process and subsequent field tests of early drafts.

At least 1’5 congregations from around the country participated in a qualitative survey of worship practices, co-directed by Rabbi Peter Knobel — president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, who was the head of the editorial committee that selected Frishman — and Daniel Schechter, an active lay leader in the movement. With the support of grants from the Lily Endowment and the Nathan Cummins Foundation, they engaged Dr. Robert Rotenberg, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, to "take a snapshot," said Knobel, exploring how services were conducted and noting the concerns of both regular worshipers and of those who attend infrequently or not at all. The research determined that "the vast majority of the community was ready for a major shift in its liturgy, attributed to the fact that the world has changed a great deal since 1974, when ‘Gates’ was published," said Knobel. "And it was really now time for a new generation that grew up with a different set of experiences to have its own siddur."

After the completion of the initial draft in ’00’, "We invited anyone who wanted to field-test to do so, even though statistically we only needed about 30 congregations," observed Frishman. Three hundred synagogues responded, about a third of those affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, she said, driving changes in style and substance that were again field-tested at the ‘005 Reform biennial. That was another opportunity to "get everyone used to a new style of worship," she noted.

Mishkan T’filah, it is anticipated, will ultimately replace "Gates," itself the replacement for the "Union Prayer Book." To assist congregations, the movement’s Joint Commission on Worship, which represents the CCAR; URJ; and the American Conference of Cantors "has been developing voluminous material, including the creation of a Website, and will present workshops at the next URJ biennial in San Diego in December, at the CCAR convention in Cincinnati in March, and at regional events across the country," said Knobel.

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