Originally published in European Judaism 12:1 (1978), pp. 45-7.
A NEW PRAYERBOOK
Forms of Prayer—Daily Sabbath and Occasional Prayers, Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, London, 1977, £4.95.
It was with strong feelings of impropriety that I undertook to do a critical review of this beautifully produced new edition of the Reform Prayer Book, the advantages of which have been widely and justifiably proclaimed. It is all very well for me to talk. My congregation is perfectly satisfied with the traditional Prayer Book (except for the prayers for the restoration of sacrifices, which we omit, and some few other minor adjustments which have been made) so that I know nothing of the agonising decisions the learned compilers have had to make in their courageous attempt at presenting the eternal themes while acknowledging the demand and need for change. I am quite sure that if I had been commissioned to perform a similar task I would have failed miserably. The following is offered, then, not at all as any kind of attack on a fine work of durable worth but rather as a small contribution towards the dialogue currently being engaged in between Reform and more traditional grouping in Anglo-Jewry.
At the beginning of each of the services there are a number of prayers in the modern idiom, evidently intended for the purpose of attuning the minds of the worshippers to the mood of prayer in general and to the Sabbath in particular. Instead of the sonorous language typical of the old siddur, even the Hebrew here reads as if it were a translation from the English; is, in fact, very ‘English’ in both ideas and expression; and is more in the nature of a theological essay than an exercise in prayer. Take, for example, these two prayers for the Sabbath eve (pp. 15-17):
‘Our God and God of our fathers, we are all Israel; in Your Service we have become old in experience and young in hope. We carry both in the deepest places of our hearts and minds. On this Sabbath day we turn to You with eyes newly open, with hope re-awakened, shrugging off the layers of worry and doubt that have closed about us.
‘We are all Israel, created by Your promise, raised in Your blessing, fulfilled by Your task, refreshed by the Sabbath of Your love.
‘We are all Israel, holy by Your word, wise through Your Torah, righteous through Your commands, renewed by the Sabbath of Your rest.
‘On this Sabbath day keep us; on this Sabbath day remember us; as we keep and remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy. Amen’.
‘Creator of mercy and of blessings, be present in our prayers this Sabbath eve. Sabbath joy follows the working week, and our troubled minds find their comfort and rest. With prayers and thanks we turn to You to make this day holy. Wipe away our sins in Your mercy, and strengthen our work for good. Cleanse us from selfishness, and give us new longing for all that is good and true. Enlighten the darkness that lies within us, and bring a blessing to our homes and to those we love. So may we keep Your covenant forever, for Your help is sure.
‘May the blessing of this Sabbath come not for ourselves alone but for all. For it is in giving that we find contentment, in serving that we find our true freedom, and in blessing others that we ourselves are blessed. Through us may the promise be fulfilled “and all the families of the world shall bless themselves by You”. Amen’.
These are good short sermons but hardly qualify as prayers. The mediaeval thinkers discuss the difficulties in petitionary prayer—does God require us to inform Him of our needs? By the same token there is no necessity to deliver a sermon to Him on the significance of the Sabbath. There are also a number of questionable sentiments in these prayers. What precisely is the point of stressing in the first of these prayers that ‘We are all Israel’? This appears to mean, we are still Jews. I may be wrong but it looks as if Reform Jews are so on the defensive because of extremist accusations that Reform is un-Jewish that they feel obliged to remind God and through Him remind themselves that they are as good Jews as the others. The devout Jew has given thanks to God for not making him a goy or, in the more positive version, for making him an Israelite (neither version is given in this Prayer Book in the relevant section) but he never felt called upon to declare that he is a Jew. A less debatable idea is expressed by ‘fulfilled by Your task’. Yet this implies, possibly, that the aim of the mitzvot is to promote self-fulfillment. The deeper religious attitude sees the mitzvot as opportunities for doing God’s will, with self-realisation as a bye-product not an aim. (But this may well have been the editors’ intention). Furthermore, the Jew does not usually exclaim in his prayers that he has been made holy by God’s word, wise through His Torah and righteous through His commands. This comes perilously close to a boast. The prayer should be to become holy, wise and righteous, with the inference that these lofty ideals are still remote and have not yet been in any way adequately attained. We ask for holiness, wisdom and righteousness because we are conscious of how lacking we are of them and how little we strive to achieve these states. ‘I am dust and ashes’ protests Abraham in his prayer of humility.
In the second prayer, ‘Creator of mercy’ (ribbon ha-rahamim) is somewhat odd theologically. Ribbono shel olam, ‘Sovereign of the universe’, the usual form of praise to introduce a petition, refers to God as the ‘Lord’ or ‘Creator’ of everything there is. God is not only the ‘Creator’ of mercy. For this the form should rather be av ha-rahamim. ‘Father of mercy’. ‘With prayers and thanks we turn to You to make this day holy’. It is we who have to treat the Sabbath day as holy. God has made it holy from ‘the six days of creation’, which, the Rabbis say, is why mekaddesh ha-shabbat always comes before mekaddesh yisrael, unlike the festivals which depend for their date on the calendar as determined by the people of Israel. ‘Wipe away our sins in Your mercy’. But confession of sins is not a Sabbath activity. And this is not merely a din in the Shulhan Arukh but a profound insight into the basic nature of the Sabbath day when all anguish, even the anguish brought about by remorse for having sinned, is transcended. ‘Through us may the promise be fulfilled. . .’ The ‘promise’ referred to is, as in the quote, that made to Abraham: ‘and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12: 3) and this is given in the Hebrew. In view of this it is hard to know what the English translation means. If it is a kind of Midrashic use of the verse so be-kha, ‘in thee’, is made to refer to God (hence the capital ‘Y’ in ‘by You’), how can such a promise be fulfilled ‘through us’? And, in any event, this is not the meaning of the original ‘promise’.
The adaptation of the traditional liturgy is done on the whole with taste and understanding. Occasionally, however, changes are introduced in an inconsistent manner and for no apparent reason. For example, the older Reform Prayer Book is followed in having the kedushah for the maariv service. I have yet to hear a convincing reason for why modernists feel obliged to depart from tradition here. The same applies to: ‘You give us, Lord our God, law and life’ (p. l47—Hebrew torah vehayyim, instead of the traditional torat hayyim, ‘a. law of life’ i.e. a living Torah. I cannot believe that the early Reformers wished to soften in any way the impact of the tremendous idea that the Torah is religion at its most vital. On the contrary, I should have thought that one of the main aims of the Reform movement is to teach an interpretation of the Torah as vital and relevant to the spiritual needs of contemporary Jewry. The compilers are not bothered by the old bug-bear of universalism versus particularism and refer frequently to the people of Israel and its special role. Why, then, in the Hashkivenu benediction (p. 36), is ‘over all the world’ substituted for ‘over Jerusalem’? This ending is a special Sabbath ending and has an intimate association with the idea of the Sabbath peace. It is this that God is asked to spread over us and ‘over Jerusalem’ i.e. in the Messianic age. This is especially difficult to understand since in the Kaddish, where universalism is more called for and where some today do add ‘and over all mankind’, our Prayer Book gives only ‘May He who makes peace in the highest bring this peace upon us and upon all Israel’. One cannot cavil at the omission of all the stanzas in the Lekha Dodi (p. 28) even though this deprives poor R. Solomon Alkabetz of the acrostic which bears his name. And it would be unfounded to impute the omission of the Zion stanzas to any indifference to the future of Zion. Obviously the omissions are in the sacred cause of brevity. But in that case why include the stanza: ‘Arouse yourself, arouse yourself’? In the context of the complete poem it is Zion who is addressed. In the absence of any previous reference to Zion the call can only be to the worshippers to ‘arouse themselves’, which is banal, and does not fit in with the feminine form of the imperative in the Hebrew. The Yigdal hymn (p. 44) is left intact, including: yishlah le-ketz yamin meshihenu. In English this is: ‘And at the end of days our Messiah will He send’. Here the rendering is: ‘And at the end of days, an anointed He will send’. Why? If it is because of the Reform objection to the doctrine of a personal Messiah ‘an anointed’ would appear to be open to the same objection. Similarly, in the English translation of the Grace After Meals (p. 337) we have: ‘The All-merciful, may He make us worthy of the messianic days’ for limot ha-mashiah and yet on the same page God is entreated to send us ‘Elijah the prophet who will bring us good news of salvation and comfort’. If there is no objection to a personal herald of the Messiah (and one who never died at that!) why should there be any objection to the Messiah being a person and if the one is poetic fancy why should not the other be poetic? So, too, if the angels are allowed to feature in the Prayer Book (e.g. in the Sabbath welcome to them), either because Reform Jews believe in angels or because poetry has its place in a Prayer Book, on what grounds is Satan excised from the Hashkivenu prayer? One would have thought that, after the Holocaust, to which the editors rightly pay a good deal of attention, if we are permitted to speak of angels we are allowed to speak of devils.
The publishers promise a companion band book in which no doubt the theology of the new Prayer Book and the guiding principles behind the compilation will be stated. When this appears I have no doubt most of the problematic renderings will seem more convincing. Meanwhile this brief critique is offered, I hope it is appreciated, by a sympathetic bye-stander who is fully aware of the magnitude of the task and has nothing but admiration for those who have brought it to fruition.