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The New Reconstructionist Siddur: out with the New, in with the Old

Reconstructionist Judaism, the small religious movement famed for challenging many of Judaism’s most cherished precepts, has issued a new prayer book that defies some basic tenets of Reconstructionism itself.

Entitled “Kol Haneshama,” or voice of the soul, it is the movement’s first new prayer book in 44 years.

As its name hints, the prayer book abandons the classical Reconstructionist disdain for the spiritual and other-worldly. It is steeped in awe of Divine mysteries, including once-spurned miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea.

It even restores — albeit as an “alternative” reading — Judaism’s most defiant declaration of chosenness, the “Aleynu” prayer.

“This represents the coming together of what has been the reputation of Reconstructionism for intellectual honesty, which has been maintained, and a new sense of openness,” Rabbi Arthur Green, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said at a news conference where “Kol Haneshama” was unveiled.

“It’s the coming together of the mystical and the spiritual with the intellectually honest and rigid.”

“The simple question, ‘Do I literally believe in this or not?’ is not the exact determinant of what one can say in prayer,” Green said.

The new prayer book was compiled by a committee of rabbis and lay leaders and was edited by Rabbi David Teutsch, dean of admissions at the Reconstructionist college in Wyncotte, Pa.

FRIDAY SERVICES ONLY

The sadder contains only the Friday night service; a full-scale Sabbath and festival prayer book is expected in about two years.

“This revision has been a long time coming,” said Lillian Kaplan, past president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, who launched the prayer book project two years ago.

Reconstructionism’s first prayer book, Kaplan said, “was printed in 1945 for a generation of Jews who were steeped in Jewish tradition and were looking for ways to assimilate. Now that condition has almost been reversed.”

The new prayer book, she said, is aimed at “a new generation of Jews who come from assimilated backgrounds and are looking for ways to return to tradition.”

The 1945 prayer book purposely eliminated such classic Jewish ideas as chosenness, resurrection of the dead and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Those changes reflected the theories of Reconstructionism’s founder, the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of the 1935 work “Judaism as a Civilization.”

Kaplan’s innovations prompted outraged reactions at the time from some figures on the religious right, who went so far as to stage a public burning of the 1945 prayer book. The burning was reported on the front page of The New York Times.

The new prayer book — hardly less daring — is influenced by such modern trends as feminism, environmentalism, “New Age” mysticism, and the havurah-style Judaism of the 1960s.

It adds liturgical treatments of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel; avoids references to God as “he”; lists the matriarchs along with the patriarchs; offers visual aids to private meditation; and provides musical notation to traditional Sabbath songs. About half the supplementary readings are written by women.

“This is a model of a user-friendly prayer book,” said Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, executive director of the Reconstructionist federation. “The person we had in mind was not the rabbi, but the person who is actually praying.”

The book’s most striking departure, however, is not what is new but what is very old. Veering from the strict rationalism associated with Mordecai Kaplan, the new book reinstates some of the traditional prayers and concepts dropped from the original Reconstructionist liturgy.

REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

“Probably the most radical departure from tradition in the old prayer book,” said Green, “was the removal of the second paragraph of the ‘Shma’ which was seen to be referring to reward and punishment.”

The paragraph, beginning with the words “v’haya im shamo’a,” is a section of Deuteronomy warning that disobedience will bring drought and exile.

“The new prayer book restores it,” Green said, “with an alternative (immediately following it). Not because we believe in literal reward and punishment, but because ecological concerns have shown us that human actions have consequences.”

As a result, Green said, “we were able to reaffirm that paragraph.”

Alternatives to specific prayers are offered throughout the 272-page book. The most extreme case — and the book’s most symbolic return to tradition — is in the emotion-laden “Aleynu” prayer which closes the traditional service.

In its ancient from, the “Aleynu” calls on the community to “exalt the Lord” who “has not made us like the peoples of the earth.”

The 1945 prayer book completely rewrote the passage, substituting a call from the Torah blessings to praise the Lord “who gave us the true Torah and planted eternal life in our midst.”

The new edition offers the 1945 “Aleynu,” but follows it immediately with the traditional version and a synthesized one composed by Green.

“Some people in the movement, especially after the Holocaust, feel there is reason to come back to the original ‘Aleynu,'” Green said.

NOT A TOP-DOWN PROCESS

Others, however, continue to oppose it — hence its position as the second of three choices.

“On the ‘Aleynu,’ we felt we didn’t have a position we could unite the movement around,” said Teutsch. “Liturgy is not just a top-down process. You have to listen to the people who pray. Not only are theological choices made, but also deep emotional choices. People look at a certain prayer and say, ‘This is what I grew up with.'”

“Jewish prayer books are usually translated by a committee of rabbis,” Green said. “This is the first translation of a Jewish prayer book by a recognized poet.”

“We think that American Jews, regardless of where they start, are capable of intense spirituality,” said editor Teutsch. “This allows them to grow. I think that is going to change the way other prayer books look.”

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