Fifteen years of song
ט’’ו בשבט שמח / Happy Tu BiShvat!

A place where prayer can dwell

Last night I convened my synagogue's religion committee to begin the conversation about how to transition to Mishkan T'filah.

MT is the Reform movement's new prayerbook -- the first since the mid-70s. (If you want some historical context on that, I recommend The Prayer Book of the People, a conversation with liturgical scholar Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, and The Prayer Books, They Are A-Changin' by Rabbi Elliot Stevens.) MT differs pretty strongly from the Reform siddurim that preceded it. It also differs strongly from what my community has been using for the last several years -- indeed, for all the years I've been a member of my synagogue -- so the switch is going to feel pretty profound.

My community has spent the last several years using a homegrown siddur called B'Kol Rinah ("With A Joyful Voice.") The siddur was created by our rabbi specifically for us, designed to fit our multi-denominational history. Our shul began as an Orthodox institution more than a hundred years ago; first hired a Conservative rabbi in 1969; and joined the Reform movement about seven years ago. Many of our members have never used a standard Reform siddur. B'Kol Rinah incorporates a lot of traditional text, alongside readable translations. It's looseleaf, so it's easy to edit. And it's what we're used to.

But we bought 100 copies of MT more than five years ago, long before the book actually existed in print, as a sign of good faith as we formally joined the Reform movement. We're a Reform shul; it makes sense for us to use the standard Reform siddur, in order to be aligned with the movement as a whole. I think it's the right thing to do -- but I'm also hyper-conscious that shifting from our current siddur to this new one will pose some challenges. Perhaps for those of us who lead the services, most of all.

The URJ has dedicated a section of their website to offering tips to congregations on how to introduce MT. MT is very unlike Gates of Prayer, the previous Reform siddur, and even more unlike the Union Prayer Book which preceded Gates. The thing is, most of the articles on the URJ site presume that the challenge lies in introducing a community to a text which involves more Hebrew, and more "traditional" material, than what they're used to. Our challenge is the opposite: introducing our community to a text that may involve less traditional material than we've grown accustomed to.

One of the book's challenges is its layout. (Here's an article, with downloadable pdf, that aims to explain how the layout works.) Basically, each prayer appears on a set of facing pages, like this:

On the right-hand side of the page, the prayer appears in a basic, more-or-less traditional format (traditional Reform, that is -- and oy, I can't define what that means without a whole long digression, so just run with it) accompanied by "faithful translation and transliteration." On the left-hand side of that two-page spread, there's an interpretive text on the same theme as the prayer which appears on the right: a poem, or a series of quotations, or a meditation on the prayer's theme. Regardless, the page ends with the same chatimah, the final line that "seals" the prayer, on both sides. So a shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) can lead a service using only the right-hand sides of the pages -- that would be a "more traditional," more Hebrew-intensive, experience. Or she could lead a service using only the left-hand sides of the pages -- that would be a service based around poetry and creative interpretations, following the liturgy's basic themes but not using the usual words. Or some combination of the two.

The multiplicity of options is meant to make the siddur more flexible, adaptable to suit a variety of liturgical needs. As the book's introduction tells us:

In any worship setting, people have diverse beliefs. The challenge of a single liturgy is to be not only multi-vocal, but poly-vocal -- to invite full participation at once, without conflicting with the keva text. (First, the keva text must be acceptable; hence, the ongoing adaptation of certain prayers, over time, such as the G'vurot.) Jewish prayer invites interpretation; the left hand material was selected both for metaphor and theological diversity. The choices were informed by the themes of Reform Judaism and Life: social justice, feminism, Zionism, distinctiveness, human challenges.

This structure offers remarkable flexibility and fluidity. It allows each worship leader, and for that matter any given worshipper, to navigate her or his own path through the myriad of available liturgical options. If that results in people becoming more fluent in the traditional mat'beah (the structure of the service and its essential flow), that could be a tremendous plus! Of course, if it results in people becoming confused, or losing sight of the prayers' themes and the way one flows into the next, that would be a tremendous loss. 

There are things I admire about MT already. There's a lot of good poetry here, and I commend that. (There's material from ee cummings, Ruth Brin, R' Jill Hammer, R' Rami Shapiro, and Yehuda Amichai, among many others.) I've spotted a few places (particularly in the weekday edition) where the Hebrew has been revised to reflect the contemporary liberal sensibilities evident in the English, instead of merely revising the English but keeping the old Hebrew intact, which is what many other siddurim do. Every single word in MT is transliterated, which I know will be a tremendous boon for those who haven't yet mastered Hebrew but who want to be able to read or sing along.

There are also things that pain me about MT already. The book's creators excised a few things to which I feel a strong personal attachment. (Top on that list: the second paragraph of the Shema. This essay explores the reasons why that decision was made; the argument is interesting but I don't find it personally compelling, and I am exasperated by what feels to me like a failure of metaphorical and imaginative thinking.) In many places the book feels cluttered, visually and verbally. But mostly it feels like a hodgepodge, like it's trying to be too many things to too many people.

Of course, that may be both the blessing and the bane of contemporary Reform Judaism -- maybe even of contemporary religious life in general. As the book's introduction says, the challenge of a contemporary liturgy is to be not only multi-vocal but poly-vocal; to speak in many voices at once. This siddur is trying to be many things to many people, and one could argue that even if it falls short of that aim, the goal itself is worthy.

Reform Jews in America today are an incredibly diverse group of people, with different sensibilities, different needs, and different thoughts about these questions. We are male and female; black and white and yellow and red; gay and lesbian and straight; old and young; well off and struggling; single and partnered, with or without children; healthy and ill; in-married and intermarried; believers and doubters. We strive to be an inclusive community, to allow everyone’s voice to be heard; and yet we try also to transcend all of these different voices when we come together as Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, in this holy congregation. That is the reason why any prayer book that the Movement produces today will look a bit like a camel, which is to say, a horse put together by a committee.

(That's from Whither Reform Worship, by Rabbi Richard Sarason.) Rabbi Sarason has a point, and I think our multifaceted nature is both our boon and our greatest challenge. We're a patchwork religious movement. My other Jewish identity, Jewish Renewal, is also a many-splendored thing, a patchwork quilt of ideas and practices and teachings; of course, Renewal is actively transdenominational, so a certain patchwork nature is presumed. Reform Judaism aims to be a single unitary denomination -- though one which can include, for instance, my parents' congregation (historically a classical Reform institution) and mine (which lives out Reform values in a decidedly nontraditional way.) My guess is that this siddur will challenge both of our communities, though in different ways. Maybe that's a sign that its creators have crafted something interesting and complex.

My own struggle right now is with the question of how to teach myself to use MT. If I'm going to lead services from time to time using this siddur, I need to be fluent with it. It occurred to me that maybe I should commit to spending six months or a year davening from this siddur alone -- using it for my daily tefilah, and learning how to shape my prayer to its structure and navigate its structure in a way that feeds my prayer. But I'm reluctant to take that leap. I have a range of siddurim I like to use in personal prayer (the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah, the Jewish Renewal Kol Koreh, and lately the all-Hebrew Koren siddur that's become my standard pocket-sized siddur for all occasions) and I don't want to throw them over just because the Reform movement's new book is finally in my hands.

And maybe that's the heart of my problem with the new siddur. I know I need to take the leap of trusting it, using it, making it my own. But until I've already made that leap, it will be hard for me to feel, deep down, that the leap is going to be worthwhile.


Edited to add: conversation with Ethan about this led me realize an obvious solution I should have considered sooner: we need digital siddurim! If only MT were available for the Kindle or the iPhone. One could choose to have one's PDA display the text only in Hebrew, or only in English, or only in transliterations, or some combination thereof.

My shul's looseleaf siddur has a lovely grassroots feel, and is easy to modify in response to changing congregational need; MT is a big hardbound book, which has a very top-down feel. But if this new liturgy were available for PDA, making changes would be easy; just download the new version and you're good to go. Plus an electronic version of MT could be hyperlinked: no more flipping to the back of the book to see who wrote a given poem.

Of course, that only works in communities where use of electricity on Shabbat is acceptable. (The Reform world, no problem; the Orthodox world, probably not until after moshiach comes ;-) And there might be a challenge with people sneaking peeks at sports scores on their PDAs in shul, instead of davening along...

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