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New Prayer Book Shows Signs of a Broad Change in Reform Movement

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 2007

The Reform Movement’s rabbinic association is on the verge of publishing a new prayer book. The New York Times (Sept. 3, 2007) reports that the prayer book “was intended to offer something for everyone — traditionalists, progressives and everyone else — even those who do not believe in God. The changes reveal a movement that is growing in different directions simultaneously, absorbing non-Jewish spouses and Jews with little formal religious education while also trying to appeal to Jews seeking a return to tradition. Traditional touches coexist with a text that sometimes departs from tradition by omitting or modifying some prayers and by using language that is gender-neutral. References to God as ‘He’ have been removed, and whenever Jewish patriarchs are named — like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so are matriarchs — like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”  
The prayer book took more than 20 years to develop and was tested in about 300 congregations. “It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish!”  
“There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in God,” said Rabbi Frishman, who leads the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. “How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very God-centric and evokes a personal God, a God that talks to you in a sense? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in God that way.”  
Unlike the Reform movement’s last prayer book, Gates of Prayer, which was published in 1975, the new prayer book has a Hebrew title, Mishkan T’filah (which means a sanctuary or dwelling place for prayer). And it reads from back to front, like a traditional Hebrew text.  
There are four versions of each prayer laid out on a typical two-page spread. On the right page is the prayer in Hebrew, the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer into phonetical English, and a more literal translation. On the left-hand page is a more poetic translation of the prayer, followed by a metaphorical or meditative passage reflecting on the prayer, sometimes by a well-known writer like Langston Hughes or Yehuda Amichai.  
Rabbis who prefer to lead a more traditional prayer can use the right-hand side of the page, while those who prefer a more alternative approach can choose from the left side. “This is a way of having the best of both worlds,” said Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis, which is publishing the book. “You have the possibility of doing, if you want, an entire service in Hebrew, as traditional as you can be within the Reform movement. At the same time, you can do something extremely creative.”  
The Times notes that, “Many Reform Jews grew up with the Union Prayer Book that was first published in 1895. The earliest versions of this prayer book rejected such traditional Jewish notions as a personal Messiah,the Jews as God’s chosen people, and the desire to return to the land of Israel ... When the Reform movement adopted the next prayer book in 1975, Gates of Prayer, it reflected Reform’s move toward Zionism and some acceptance of tradition, featuring services for Israeli Independence Day and Holocaust commentaries.”  
The Jerusalem Post (International Edition, Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2007) declares that, “Hebrew plays a role never before seen in a Reform prayer book, and prayers that were once antithetical to the movement have been reinstated.”  
The Chicago Tribune (Oct. 28, 2207) reports: “Scholars say the editorial decisions reflect the evolution of Jewish cuture, theological ideas and history. But some rabbis and congregants who champion classical Reform Judaism believe the book endangers the identity of the movement and blurs the distinction between Reform and Conservative Jews. ‘I’m really sorry it’s happening this way,’ said Rabbi Michael Sternfield of Chicago Sinai Congretation. ‘I give the editors an A for effort. They know their stuff. But I think their mind-set is to make the Reform movement as much like Conservataive Judaism as we can ... I do really feel this prayer book is a mistake. Reform Judaism has an authenticity unto itself. The more we try to be like other movements, the less authentic we are to our own core values. I’m very much in hopes that our pendulum will swing back to a different position from where it is today. It may take the disenchantment over this book for the movement to come to its senses a little bit.”

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