Reform Liturgy Must Ring True or People Will Not Participate

The siddur is not a study text for rabbis and cantors; it is a love letter between Jews and our God. The experience of worship is not intellectual.

God calls to the heart — and one doesn’t fall in love without compatibility.

For contemporary liberal Jews, the prayer mate for our souls must relate to our experiences, our values, our ethics, our theologies.

In Reform worship, we do not attend because of halachic obligation. We might attend because of community expectation, but most often we return because the experience is meaningful. But ultimately, the liturgy either rings true or it does not.

Liturgy is a human construction. It responds to the crises of the Jewish soul and urges us to live according to core Jewish principles. It is both a theological statement about our reality and an application of that theology.

But whose Jewish theology?

Well-documented Reform theology recognizes the relationship between personal choice and obligation. If our liturgy does not echo the Reform Jew’s experiences and crises, or inspire a vision that uplifts with relevance and possibility, the Reform Jew simply will not feel compelled to participate.

Prayer books may seem to be about theology and belief, but as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches, they speak to “hurt and hope.” The traditional siddur serves well for study but not for prayer. For prayer, the text must call to our hearts.

The idea that we will come to pray if our text is classical is simply not true. We have 200 years of experience to prove that; the strong majority of American Jews have worshiped from Reform siddurim, as well as Conservative and Reconstructionist. They consider our siddurim normative.

The siddur is an ongoing composition of the Jewish people not to be fixed in stone. The integrity of our liturgy grows from our willingness to examine and edit when the evolution of human thought and behavior challenges the text.

In Reform Judaism, prayers are edited when language and ideology breach our ethics and theology. Three examples: The original Aleinu was composed in the context of “Judaism vs. others” — “For they bow down to nothingness and emptiness, and pray to a god that will not save.” Even the traditional siddur of the post-medievalists rejected that.

A second example: There are variant forms of the “misheberach” for healing. One invokes God’s attention because tzedaka will be offered on behalf of the patient. Such phrasing suggests a quid pro quo healing. Offering tzedaka is a noble response when we ask for something from God, but it should not be a requisite. It leads to a theology of retribution — you were stricken because no one offered enough on your behalf.

A third example: Traditional liturgy is male centered. Reform liturgy, on the other hand, recognizes all of our ancestral leaders. In our prayers, the biblical matriarchs are invoked along with the patriarchs. Some argue, perhaps correctly, that grammatically, “avot” — the Hebrew word for fathers and ancestors — is an inclusive term. We counter that mankind is theoretically inclusive but connotes maleness, versus “humanity,” which is a neutral noun. Since liturgy is emotional as well as intellectual, we say “avot v’imahot” — fathers and mothers.

Liturgical revision respects what has come before — from the Mishnah and Talmud, from Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions, earlier Reform siddurim and any extant prayer books that inform our lives. The process of prayer-book reform is arduous, thoughtful and purposeful. We uphold the intellect and experience of our constituency, inviting their participation.

Perhaps more than any other prayer book, the feedback that guided the development of Mishkan T’filah reflects true regard for the lay-clergy relationship. Mishkan T’filah was imagined and formed by the rabbis, cantors and lay leaders of our movement, including extensive piloting in more than 300 of our synagogues.

For Reform Jews, the siddur is a tool for personal and communal growth. The intellectual decisions to include, exclude, revise or create the liturgy of Mishkan T’filah answer the spiritual cries from our hearts and souls.

From one Aleinu text in our new siddur: “Al kein n’kaveh l’cha Adonai Eloheinu, lirot m’heira b’tiferet uzecha, l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai” — Adonai our God, how soon we hope to behold the perfection of our world, guided by a sacred covenant drawn from human and divine meeting.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the religious leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform movement’s new prayer book. This article was written in response to a JTA op-ed titled “Revisions to siddur deny Jews chance to grapple with text.”

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