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An Exchange About The New British Prayerbook, "Service of the New Heart"

American Council For Judaism
Spring 1996


In the Summer 1995 Issues, Klaus J. Herrmann wrote an article about the new edition of the British Liberal Jewish prayerbook, Service Of The New Heart. He criticized many for the changes, including the fact that "God has been summarily deprived of its masculine gender and this God is therefore referred to no longer as ‘The Lord’ or ‘He,’" and the inclusion of a special worship service for the State of Israel Independence Day. In this service, Herrmann wrote, "there are additional citations from the Israeli Declaration of Independence...the prayerbook’s editors regarded it as entirely obligatory for a British congregation of Liberal-religious adherents of Judaism to rise from their seats and ‘standing’ listen to this Independence Declaration read to the congregation. The congregation is to remain standing for the singing of ‘Hatikvah,’ the Israeli national anthem."  

Despite his criticism, which included his assessment of changes in the hymnal and the replacement of "the beautiful and inspirational hymnology of its predecessor volume" with a majority of Hebrew-language songs which "are entirely inappropriate for the contents of a prayerbook in the tradition of Liberal Judaism," Herrmann had some praise for the new prayerbook as well.  

In this regard, he noted that those responsible for the prayerbook, among them Rabbis John D. Rayner and Chaim Stern, "performed superbly on the level of professionalism within the area of language...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 a paraphrasing endeavor." In addition, he wrote, the new British prayerbook "continues...universalist avenues, rejecting out of hand the kind of assaults found in Gates of Prayer/Repentance and the ‘New’ Union Hagadah."  

Following is the text of a letter sent by Rabbi John D. Rayner of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London to Klaus Herrmann, who is a member of the faculty of Concordia University in Montreal and serves as a Vice President of the American Council for Judaism:  

Dear Klaus:  

I have read your review-article about our new prayerbook in the latest Number of Issues with, needless to say, the greatest interest, and would like to thank you for going to so much trouble, and for the positive things you say about the book. As for the ‘downside’, that would have come as no surprise even if you had not given me a ‘foretaste’. Nor would I have objected if your criticisms had been much more severe and extensive. But I must say in all honesty and friendship that I am surprised by what seems to me a lack on your part, in this article, of a certain fair-mindedness which Claude Montefiore, more than anybody, personified, i.e., a leaning over backwards to be scrupulously fair to points of view one disagrees with. For example:  

1. To say that ‘Almighty God has been summarily deprived of Its masculine gender’ is hardly to do justice to the years of heart-searching that went into the decision that it was high time to correct so manifest a theological error as to encourage belief in a male Deity.  

2. When you say that vernacular hymns ‘are of the very essence...of Liberal/Reform/Progressive Judaism’ you are making a mere assertion which others, equally qualified to hold opinions as to what constitutes such ‘essence’, may or may not agree with.  

3. To say that ‘Additional Songs’ is ‘an unusual title for what is meant to be a body of solemn music’ is to make an unwarranted assumption. These songs are not intended for formal occasions but mainly for informal ones such as On’gey Shabbat, youth conference, etc.  

Boy Studying Torah  

4. You fail to mention that the lovely song Al Sefat Yam Kinneret is not just about a valley near Lake Tiberias but about a boy studying Torah.  

5. More generally, you fail to acknowledge, what must have been obvious to you, that practically all the songs were chosen either for their religious content and/or for their biblical provenance.  

6. When you say that the editors ‘conveniently excluded’ the most objectionable parts of Psalm 137, you ‘conveniently’ ignore the fact that such selection of appropriate verses from Psalms and other biblical passages for liturgical use is a time-honored practice, to be found in virtually all Progressive and even Orthodox prayerbooks.  

7. When you object even to the verse we did include, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem...’, you fail to acknowledge that it is not a negative statement about Babylonia but a positive statement about Jerusalem.  

8. But having berated us for including what we included, then to go on to berate us for what we did not include (such as the verse about smashing babies against rocks) can surely have no other purpose than to evoke a negative emotional reaction to the book from the reader.  

Highest Prophetic Ideals  

9. Your reference to the Israeli Declaration of Independence fails to mention that the part we quote expresses the highest prophetic ideals (Just the kind of thing David Einhorn would have applauded!) as well as serving as a subtle hint that we differentiate between these ideals and the reality of the State of Israel.  

10. You may be right about the Israeli national anthem, and I am most interested and pleased to learn from you that there is a plan to replace it, which I did not know. But it says nothing about ‘re-establishing King David’s realm’, and it is mischievous to suggest that it does. It does not even refer to an independent republic, merely to (a) an age-old Jewish love for the land, which is a historical fact, and one which I view largely positively, and (b) the hope that a ‘free’ Jewish corporate life will be established there, which is likewise a fact and, in my view, to be applauded.  

11. To say that the right-to-left format is ‘completely contrary to the very premises of Liberal Judaism’ is another bare assertion on your part, and, in the words of George D. Prentice, ‘a bare assertion is not necessarily the naked truth’! Of course there is not a single platform of Progressive Judaism which includes anything so trivial in its definition of the ‘premises’. It is simply a matter of accepted typographical convention as well as common sense that since a Hebrew book goes from right to left, and an English book goes from left to right, therefore a book containing both Hebrew and English may go either way.  

12. Finally, I am completely mystified by your Emerson quotation since, in both its parts, it seems to me so patently and emphatically to endorse ‘my’ position. For what it quite plainly implies is (a) that a little inconsistency is excusable and may even be commendable, and (b) that the present generation has every right to differ on some issues from the ‘hard words’ of Geiger and his contemporaries.  

With warmest good wishes. Yours sincerely,  

John Rayner.  

Following is Klaus Herrmann’s response to Rabbi Rayner:  

I am pleased to counter the argumentation by the distinguished co-author of Prayerbook Of The New Heart, Rabbi John D. Rayner.  

It must be noted that Rabbi Rayner has consistently upheld and defended what may be called the classic-Reform point of view, known in Great Britain as "Liberal." He and his successor at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London — Rabbi David J. Goldberg — are among the foremost champions of universalist Judaism and both of them have mightily labored in the vineyard of Jewish-Arab cooperation. Long before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination brought to the foreground that profound division existing between the "Peace Now" camp and that of the irredentist Zionist nationalists, Rabbis Rayner and Goldberg raised their voices consistently on behalf of universalist Judaism’s emphasis on Justice.  

The Israelite prophets’ rallying cry, "Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue," impelled forthright commitment for that kind of justice also to the Palestinian Arabs. On more than one occasion the rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue were subjected to intemperate assaults from Great Britain’s Zionist establishment. Rabbis Rayner and Goldberg violated that erstwhile "Jewish unity" gentlemen’s agreement by speaking up for the Moslem and Christian Arabs of Samaria, Judea and within the state borders of the Israeli Republic.  

Moreover, Dr. Rayner personally experienced and worked together with those who originally fashioned British Liberal anti-Zionist Judaism, most notably Hon. Lily H. Montague, Rabbi Israel I. Mattuck, and Rabbi Harold Reinhart, who lectured in the U.S. before American Council for Judaism audiences.  

Assault on Classic Reform  

At the present time, the assault on classic Reform Judaism within Reform circles themselves is by far more serious than the criticism of the Orthodox, the Conservatives or the "traditionalist" or "masorti" camps. As a result, any newly published prayer book is subject to carefully calibrated attention in order to determine whether or not there is retained principled adherence to both the substance and the style of Reform/Liberal worship traditions.  

Since there no longer exists in the United Kingdom either the League of British Jews (Founded November 1917) or the Jewish Fellowship (founded in 1942), organizations appreciably alike to the American Council for Judaism, it therefore becomes our responsibility to address ourselves to this issue.  

In response to Rabbi Rayner’s particular points:  

1. Doubtlessly there were indeed years of heart-searching preceding the editors’ decision to de-genderize the Supreme Being. My term "summary" did not imply the lack of long-term reflection on the subject. Our Scriptures, however, are replete with references to a God who as it were did reveal Itself in masculine terms. Since the original Hebrew throughout remained masculine, it is difficult to understand the current "political correctness" enthusiasm for change. "God" is, by definition, a masculine term, as the word "goddess" reflects its feminine component. Mary Baker Eddy, over a century ago, made certain that Christian Science would refer to "Father-Mother God." Now, we find in the Liberal prayer book a Memorial Service prayer to a "Merciful Father-and-Mother of all life" as well. Inasmuch as all language regarding the Divine is symbolic to begin with, many would find such designation as appropriate. Still, a great many communicants of Reform Judaism are hardly inclined to such a genderless reference to the Divine Being.  

Role of Hymns  

2. If there is one cardinal difference between a Reform/Liberal worship service and those of the Orthodox and Conservative, it surely is in the essential role of hymns and anthems in the vernacular. This is not merely an assertion subject to argument but is an historically validated statement of fact. All of the Liberal/Reform worship services proceeded with the sacred inspiration of hymns/anthems in that language appropriate to the land: English in the United Kingdom and the United States, French in France and Belgium, German for Germany and Austria. A great many of these hymns and anthems were identical in musical composition and — where theologically manageable — with Protestant-originated items. Of what concern should this be? Our own Union Hymnal, sadly, was replaced by the inferior and radically altered Gates of Song some years ago.  

3. There is surely nothing amiss when hymns are sung for other than "solemn" occasions. The fact of the matter is very simply and to the point that in this new prayerbook there apparently are no" hymns or anthems. The additional "songs" are truly "unusual," because they are out of syncopation with the standards appropriate to Liberal Judaism. Why is this so? In the first place, nearly all of them derive from the dross-trove of Israeli Kibbutz and night club compositions. In the second place, these unusual songs are set to a turgidity non-Western style of music. In addition, these songs are below mature musical and libretto expectations. Religious content in these songs is either minimal or nonexistent. Consider the "Bashana haBa-ah" on page 654. This "next year" number bespeaks sitting on a balcony and seeing children play between houses and fields, seeing red grapes ripening and noting lazy winds lifting old newspapers and clouds to the crossroads. Finally, spreading out the palms of our hands toward the white light, with the white heron spreading its wings, the congregation repeats, as it has after each libretto, "you will yet see how good it will be in the year that will come." Another song "Erev Shel Shoshanim," is not about God but about "people and land." The land, of course, is not England — but Israel.  

4. This brings to mind an additional song, "By the sea of Kinnereth," which is indeed not just about a valley near Lake Genezareth but also about a boy engrossed in a study of the Bible or Talmud. The basic premise remains the same, namely that somehow the editors saw to it that for British Jewish public, some Israeli lake had to be brought into play.  

Lack of British Content  

5. While the God-figure does play a role in some of these songs and while it is undeniably true that the Bible was played out in ancient Israel, how does that factually alter the lack of British-homeland contents in this prayer book?  

6. The infamous 137th Psalm and the selectivity applied to its placement, namely right squarely in the middle of an Israeli Independence Day observance section, is revealing. While it is true to say that selectivity has been time-honored practice for theologians, they nevertheless consistently excised particularistic (Zion-Jerusalem oriented) phraseology. Psalm 137 relates to the longing of the de-enthnicized Jews in Babylon for their ancient homeland. I, therefore, enquired as to the relevancy of this psalm for Jewish citizens in the United Kingdom.  

7. While the psalm is indeed not a negative statement about Babylon (in analogy, Great Britain), why place these words about never forgetting Jerusalem within the pages of a Liberal-Reform prayerbook? No fairminded person can possibly escape the impression that Jewish Britons are to constantly bear Jerusalem (and not the "Heavenly Jerusalem" either!) in mind. Had not just about all of the progenitors of Liberal Judaism excised such unreasonable emotional demands from all of the Liberal/Reform prayer devotional?  

8. It is in fact quite impossible to so dissect Psalm 137 that its horrifying statements against those Babylonian children were to be considered apart and separate from the rest of this psalm.  

Inclusion of "Hatikvah"  

9. The "Hatikvah," it must be noted, was effectively inserted into even our 1932 Union Hymnal under the obviously less than watchful eyes of its responsible editor, Rabbi Louis Wolsey, the man who more than anyone else in 1942 was responsible for the founding of the American Council for Judaism. Whether or not the "Hatikvah" fails to allude to the re-establishment of King David’s realm is less important than this passage in a Liberal prayer volume in 1995: "As long as the Jewish heart still yearns and looks east to Zion, 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."  

This alleged age-long longing was clearly no longer there during the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, when the Liberal/Reform prayer books were originally written. Before that, such "historical" yearning was of eschatological quality. It is one thing to commemorate the birth of the modern Republic of Israel and quite another to elaborate such establishment annually within the framework of a formal Israeli Independence Day celebration in the context of religious worship, as laid down in this Liberal Religious prayer book.  

I must confess to be considerably confused as to why the immortal radical Reformist Rabbi David Einhorn (1809-79), father-in-law to Rabbis Samuel Adler and Kaufmann Kohler, would have applauded an Israeli Independence Service within a reformist prayerbook. If there are "subtle hints" on the differentiations between the prophetic ideals expressed and the reality of the State of Israel, they have escaped me. Yet even if these subtle hints were indeed included in this Independence Service, and I do not challenge this contention, it remains unacceptable and entirely in contra-distinction to a Liberal/Reform typology of Judaism outside the State (Medinath) of Israel to comprise such a special service in Liberal/Reform prayerbooks. It is perhaps understandable that such a service be included in such a prayerbook used within the State of Israel but even then one might want to question the inclusion of nationalist-minded assertions for a universalist type of Judaism.  

"Right to Left" Format  

10. I remonstrated against the "right to left" format of the prayerbook, an appropriate printing for any Hebrew book, but contrary to Liberal Judaism’s "bare assertion" that an English-language prayerbook be opened from left right. I confess to being ignorant of George D. Prentice, but his statement strikes me as an excellent bon mot. Yes, a Hebrew/English book may go either way, but does it not make for a clear-cut statement that the Hebrew text be emphasized and not the vernacular, when Hebrew is given pride of place? This appears to be neither trivial nor typographical convention. Instead, coupled with all the other facets herein enumerated, this represents a clear indication of the superiority of Hebrew, stressing a Zionist desiderata of some significance.  

11. I shall concede that my Emersonian quotation is subject to an interpretation such as Rabbi Rayner furnishes with reference to Rabbi Abraham Geiger’s "hard words." It stands to reason that when he uttered them, in the 1860s, Jerusalem was in fact a desolate heap of ruins. Today, modern Jerusalem is an effectively and well laid out city. True enough, but again what is the reasonable relationship to reformist prayerbooks?  

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