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The New Liberal and Progressive Prayerbook: A Strange Mixture of Universalism and Zionist Thinking

Klaus J. Herrmann
Summer 1995

A remarkable new edition of the British "Liberal" prayerbook is now in print. Entitled Service of the New Heart, its seven hundred plus pages are intended to replace the 1967 edition. The Liberal Jewish Prayer Book that had been published in the 1920s and revised in 1937 was no longer deemed appropriate after World War II. This was the position taken by those who were responsible for the 1967 Service of the Heart, most notably Rabbi Chaim Stern.  
Unlike the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the U.S., which is to be renamed Union of Reform Jewish Congregations shortly, there is a difference between "Reform" and "Liberal" congregations in the United Kingdom. The latter adhere more closely, or at least they once did, to American Reform Judaism. The former may resemble more nearly American congregations on the very progressive rim of Conservative Judaism. Even there, however, it must be noted that British Reform synagogues usually have no cantors and worshipers are required to wear yarmulkes. Both Liberal and Reform synagogues in the U.K. draw their rabbis from the graduates of Leo Baeck College in London. Moreover, both Liberal and Reform congregations hold membership in the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  
Rabbis John D. Rayner and Chaim Stern, in addition to an appreciable number of their colleagues, performed superbly on the level of professionalism within the area of language. Thus, the English is certainly no precise or even "proper" assessment of the original Hebrew. It is an inferential and symbolic translation, but it is not paraphrasing endeavor.  
Deprived of Gender  
As could have been anticipated, Almighty God has been summarily deprived of Its masculine gender and this God is therefore referred to no longer as "The Lord" or as "He." Unlike Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science restructuring, "Our Father, Our King" was mercifully not altered to be "Our Father, Our Queen." Instead of such radical departure of feminizing the deity, God has become "The Eternal One" or "The Eternal God." In the end, the theist theology of Judaism was retained, to the discomfiture of those who follow a Humanist and not a Theist perspective.  
A plethora of themes, no less than fifty-three of those, magnify the contents of this Liberal prayerbook, each of them appropriate to scriptural readings for the Sabbaths throughout the religiously defined cycle of the year.  
Those of us who populate the camp of classic Reform Judaism and have vigorously opposed and rejected the Zionization and re-orthodoxisation of our devotional books are somewhat, but only somewhat, able to rejoice.  
Indeed, we should be heartened by Rabbi John D. Rayner’s and his colleagues’ adherence to the universalist character of petition in the new prayerbook. During the course of the 19th and pre-World War II 20th centuries, the editors of Reform/Liberal/Progressive prayerbooks, inclusive of the Passover devotional called "Hagadah," saw to it that the Orthodox Jewish adherence to Zion-Jerusalem centered devotionals would be rejected and decisively so. Our late friend Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski cited Rabbi Abraham Geiger’s excisions of Zion-oriented language from our prayerbooks, a principled policy followed punctiliously by all pioneers of Liberal/Reform Judaism, the odd exception proving the general rule.  
Classical Reform  
Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-74) was far from a radical reformer in practice. His theoretical liturgical themes, however, were classical Reform throughout. Here are some of Geiger’s basic premises:  
The "Volk" (national people) called Israel is no longer alive, neither in fact nor within the hearts and aspirations of the present. The "Volk" was transformed into a community of religious faith.  
Hebrew is a dead language and therefore is of no emotional thrust for the community of Judaism. Hence, the vernacular ought to be employed throughout the prayerbook. Moreover, "If Hebrew were to be represented as an essential component of Judaism, Judaism would be in the image of a national religion because a distinctive language characterizes distinctive peoplehood." (Geiger failed to explain why Latin continued as the central language of Roman Catholicism, when Catholicism was quite certainly no "national" religion).  
In the case of Jerusalem, Geiger stated that, "Jerusalem remains for us the sacred source whence in the past sprang forth the teachings of Truth. For the present Jerusalem at best represents for us poetic and melancholy memory, but no spiritual nourishment. No exaltations and no hope are associated with Jerusalem. To us Jerusalem is symbolism, not a geographically limited location. But where the literal meanings of prayers could lead to misunderstanding that we direct our adoration to that location, the words will have to be excised."  
Aggravating References  
The rabbis of Liberal and Reform Judaism correspondingly saw to it that all of the prayer manuals were systematically cleared of offensive and provocatively aggravating references. Most significantly, prayers for the ingathering of the dispersed Israelites (Jews) "from the four corners of the earth" into what once was the Kingdom of Judah/Israel became justifiable victims of censure. The same applied to petitionaries that would want to see God’s glory returned unto Jerusalem, Jerusalem re-established, the descendants of King David returned to Zion in the guise of a Messiah or that God hasten such events.  
Happily, this present British-Jewish prayer volume under discussion progressively continues on these universalist avenues, rejecting out of hand the kind of assaults found in Gates of Prayer/Repentance and the "New" Union Hagadah.  
Those unfortunate re-introductions of Blood and Soil (Blut and Boden) imagery into what stands as a successor to the Union Prayer Book and the Union Hagada are thankfully absent in the Service of the New Heart. We find no "Next Year in Jerusalem" battle cries in it. While the Orthodox-religious position within Judaism merits respect (Orthodoxy considers all prayers for Restoration in Jerusalem and Zion in an entirely eschatological/messianic and therefore metaphysical connotation), the same cannot be averred as to identical phraseology in Reform Judaism.  
This is for the plain reason that there are no Reform/Liberal rabbis or laypeople who openly accept belief in the forthcoming arrival of a personal Saviour/Messiah, be he Jesus, the Lubavitcher Rebbe or someone yet to be designated by the Deity to implement the Jews’ deportation to the Holy Land. Hence, those Zion-oriented passages in Gates of Prayer/Repentance in the U.S. were inserted entirely as a result of Reform Judaism’s politicization into the Zionist mindset.  
Need for Authentic Reform  
In no way do these counter-Zionist views deny the desperate need that exists within the modern State of Israel for a true and authentic Reform/Liberal Judaism. It is indeed vitally necessary that the Jews within the State of Israel be liberated from the oppressive yoke and the suffocating nationalist message imposed upon them by a reactionist Orthodoxy. Sadly, that which alleges itself to be "Progressive Judaism" in the Israeli State is no such thing at all.  
It is true, of course, that Israeli "Progressive Judaism" is in constant strife with the parallel of a Jewish Vatican, i.e., the official Chief Rabbinate. Yet, instead of universalizing its liturgy and liberating itself from the weight of ritualistic baggage incumbent on the Orthodox Jews in many instances. A telling example of this obsession to be respected as ritually observant Jews was the decision to impose a glatt-kosher kitchen onto the cafeteria of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem.  
Having lauded the editors of the newly revised British-Jewish prayerbook, it is necessary to turn to the downside in evaluation. Let us begin with an assessment of that part of Service of the New Heart in which hymns and anthems in the vernacular—in this case the English language—which are of the very essence within an authentic worship service of Liberal/Reform/Progressive Judaism, appear. In the United States it was our Union Hymnal from whose pages edifying and stirring English-language anthems were sung by Reform congregations. In lieu of the Union Hymnal, a Gates of Song was instituted by the American Reform leadership. This volume is so inferior to the one which preceded it as to require a dissertation of its own.  
Inspirational Hymnology  
The 1967 edition of the British Service of the Heart had already eliminated the beautiful and inspirational hymnology of its predecessor volume, although a very few hymns were retained. This present 1995 edition contains a whole section entitled "Additional Songs," an unusual title for what is meant to be a body of solemn music. The Index of Songs lists a respectable forty-eight of these, but every single one is in Hebrew while only four are supplied with an asterisk, "can be sung in English." Clearly, a majority of these forty-eight "songs" are entirely inappropriate for the contents of a prayerbook in the tradition of Liberal Judaism.  
One of the English-speaking possibilities bespeaks an enchanted valley on Lake Tiberias, lakes of the Scottish Highlands apparently not good enough for British Jews of Liberal religious persuasion. Nearly all of the Hebrew songs are of chassidic, kibbutz, or Tel Aviv Dizengoff Square origins. This leaves the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," as the only purely English-language anthem in the whole selection.  
This array of musical selections for worship is indicative of Zionistic intrusions into British Liberal Judaism. One of the song sections goes by the title, "People and Land." The famed founders of British Liberal Judaism, known as the "Three M’s" (Montefiore, Montague, Mattuck) would have been justifiably horrified by the complete ignoring of their own homeland (Great Britain) in lieu of the Israeli republic. Not one of the songs in this British-Jewish volume of devotions bear on the United Kingdom, the actual "land" of the public that is involved with this prayerbook.  
Beyond this, one must take issue with a number of "Services for Various Occasions" included in this book. One of these is called "Yom Ha-Atzma’ ut" (Israel Independence Day).  
Worship Service for Independence  
The 1967 version of this prayerbook had already included a special worship service for the State of Israel’s Independence Day, a relatively brief one and not entitled as "Yom Ha-Atzma’ ut." That service would have been appropriate perhaps for a Liberal prayerbook in the State of Israel, but hardly for British purposes. As might have been expected, the editors deemed Psalm 137 "bespoke tailoring" for the occasion. Conveniently, the editors excluded everything within the ambits of the particular psalm which would have caused any Liberal-religious congregation to flee the synagogue premises in horror.  
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion...how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?"  
Foreign land indeed, one muses. Is Great Britain equivalent to Babylon? While those Judean exiles in Babylonia were indeed the victims of what we would today call de-ethnicization, one wonders how this analogy would apply to British Jews. And then, as could have been anticipated, the editors deliberately reprinted the words of those Judean exiles in Babylonia, as if they applied to British Judaism: "If I forget you, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."  
Now hear the further words of this psalmist of Number 137, out of which those citations above were skillfully extracted: "Happy is he who shall seize your (i.e. Babylonia’s) children and smash them against a rock!" (Another translation from the Hebrew, this one dated 1881 and accomplished by the principal of Britain’s Orthodox rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Michael Friedlander, reads: "Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy (Babylonia’s) little ones against the stones."  
No Honor to Editors  
Psalm 137 is not exactly a clarion call for a universalist and liberally religious Judaism, demanding interfaith cooperation and inter-ethnic collaboration. This psalm, like a host of similarly murderous passages, should never have been integrated into Liberal or Reform prayerbooks. It is no honor to the editors that the psalm was prominently included.  
The Independence Day service for the State of Israel received demonstrable profile in the 1995 edition, far surpassing the space granted to it in the 1967 publication. Comprising no less than five pages of text, there are additional citations from the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Even its former prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is given pride of place because of some statements he once uttered about the necessity for human values and moral character.  
The prayerbook’s editors regarded it as entirely obligatory for a British congregation of Liberal-religious communicants of Judaism to rise from their seats and "standing" listen to this Independence Declaration be read to the congregation. The congregation is to remain standing for the singing of "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem. (The "Hope," originally written by a Hebrew language poet, Naphtali Herz Imber, who at age 53 died in abject poverty in New York City in 1909. He lived in what was then Southern Syria, i.e. Palestine, for six years during the 1880s but was unable to sustain body and soul there.)  
This is how the text is translated in the British prayerbook, hardly an obvious location for the Israeli national anthem that was set to the purloined music of the Czech national music composer Bedrich Smetana who died in 1884:  
"As Long as the Jewish heart still yearns and looks east,  
So long our hope has not perished, the hope of two millennia,  
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem."  
Demonstrable Falsehoods  
These turgidities and demonstrable falsehoods—one always thought that "our land" for British Jews, and particularly for its Liberal-religious section, referred to Great Britain and that the hope of re-establishing King David’s realm was rather not longed for by the Liberal and Reform rabbinate, are being featured within the pages of the Service of the New Heart.  
In a prayerbook published for the spiritual edification of Britishers, "Hatikva" clearly ought never to have been included.  
Interestingly, in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, a number of its members have called for the immediate abrogation and re-writing of what is, after all, their national anthem—and not that of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues of the United Kingdom.  
These members of the Knesset are demanding the immediate elimination of all words and phraseology of "Hatikva" liable to offend and injure the sensitivities of some twenty-five percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.  
These non-Jewish Israeli citizens are not particularly enthused with "Hatikva’s" references to some alleged yearning Jewish heart or for Jews craving to be a free people in their land of Zion and Jerusalem.  
One may safely take it for granted that the founding spirits of British Liberal Judaism would have been most disapproving of these Zionist-oriented machinations which do not even meet with the approval of authentic Israeli-located members of the State of Israel’s national parliament.  
Hebraized Prayer Book  
The editors preface the Service of the New Heart with a learned introduction, well worth careful reflection and study. Unlike previous editions of the Liberal Prayer Book, this present one has been Hebraized even to the extent of opening up from left to right, an unusual decision and completely contrary to the very premises of Liberal Judaism.  
The editorial collegium selected the famous passage from Ecclesiastes (12:12): "Of making books there is no end." Ecclesiastes is that book of the Hebrew Scriptures whose author (Koheleth, the Preacher) might well have been none other than the legendary King Solomon. This third ruler of the Kingdom of Israel and husband to one thousand wives ruled for forty years until 937 BCE.  
A considerably more recent savant was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808-82), who had some very meaningful ideas on the subject of consistency and self-contradictions: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." And: "Speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today."  
Too bad that these Emersonian thoughts, on the very premises of Reform/Liberal Judaism well suggestive, were not also highlighted in "Siddur Lev Chodosh," the Service of the New Heart, written for the prayerful attention of its users.

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