"We're in the Prayerbook"

Since the creation of the Jewish people—whether you believe that to be with God’s promise to Abraham, the revelation at Sinai, or the building of the Temple—there have been inconsistencies in what it is we, as Jews, believe. Even in our Torah there are multiple viewpoints: is God omnipotent or not? Is God omniscient or not? Does Judaism descend from the mother or father, from the tribe, or from circumcision and a promise? The Psalms, likewise, offer other disagreements and questions. Was animal sacrifice necessary? Were the Deuteronomic ideals of reward and punishment correct? These divisions within Judaic beliefs caused rifts between the tribes, within families, and among sects. Today, we see these divisions continue to divide us among denominations.

Make no mistake, however. While it may, at times, seem easier to explain us based on our divisions, we are, nonetheless, connected. As Rabbi David Ellenson explains, “All Israel shares a mystical bond that transcends time and space.” All Israel. You, me, our colleagues and friends at Sons of Abraham. Those joining Rabbi Techtiel at Chabad. Yes, we are different. Yes, we may worship and believe differently. And yet, we are all inherently connected to a history, and to a belief system that while often changing, can still be traced across thousands of years of divine inspiration, rigorous intellectual study, and a never-ending series of debates between rabbis that has propelled us forward to this time, to this moment.

Our long, evolving history is what grounds us to this place, to our Jewishness. But how, in all those texts, all of the archeological finds, all of the spiritual and intellectual debate, can we find ourselves now? How can we define what our Judaism is today? What has been our response to decades of tradition united with change? You can, of course, start with our history. You can read books telling of archaeological finds of found ritual objects in houses, or collections of history outlining where we moved to, what the governments imposed, and perhaps even what we were wearing. But you won’t find our beliefs in the history books, nor will you find them in the Talmud, or the Mishneh Torah, or the Shulchan Aruch. These texts represent what the leaders hoped the masses would believe but we have no indication that all of these beliefs were fulfilled or even known.

No, friends, to gain insight into who we were, and who we are, we must only enter the synagogue, and pick up a siddur, a prayerbook. Prayerbooks are, above all else, the diary of the Jewish people. They are social documents that are built to expressly match the relevance of the beliefs of each Jewish generation. The words inside a siddur are not hopeful understandings or historical outlines. They are what our fellow Jews said every day, or every week, in their native tongue and Hebrew. The siddur is the way that the leaders of the movement, the rabbis, present theological views to the popular audience, which are then adapted.

Many of you may not realize it, but here at Temple Israel, a source of pride is that each Shabbat, you sing from the latest siddur of the Reform Movement, and in your hands today are the newest High Holy Day machzors. Your Temple Israel leadership understands that the siddur, the prayerbook, is the representation of where our movement stands, and that if we do not use it, we fall behind. Since my arrival at Temple Israel, many of you have discussed with me how the services I lead may differ from what you grew up with or experienced before. Others of you (Purdue students, I’m looking at you here) have told me how nice it is to hear the songs you grew up with at summer camps throughout your youth. In all of these instances, we have discussed the trajectory of the Reform Movement–a movement from what was called “Classical” Reform to what we are now calling “Contemporary” Reform. As new generations of Jews grow up, and begin to hold leadership positions in shuls, you are seeing a progress that can only be described as moving in both directions. That is, as the Reform Movement moves forward, you see Reform Jews taking back traditions. Notice that I am not saying that we as a movement are moving backwards. We aren’t going “back to the old ways.” Rather, we are making informed decisions about ways that some of the more traditional aspects of Judaism can help us to experience our Judaism more deeply.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the siddurs and machzors of our movement. I, like many of you, grew up reading Gates of Prayer, known to rabbis as “Gates of Blue,” due to the blue cover, and its subsequent High Holy Day partner, “Gates of Red,” the Gates of Repentance. I was attending synagogue at the tail end of Gates of Prayer’s legacy, witnessing our Rabbis order the gender neutral version, and before that taping the gender sensitive “Avot” (now with “imahot”) to the back cover. My copy of Gates of Prayer opens left to right, unlike its successor, Mishkan T’fillah. Gates of Prayer also included far more readings in English, emphasizing most rabbis’ preferences to conduct the majority of service in English, so that all congregants could understand. There are other aspects worth noting as well. For example, if you open Gates of Prayer to the Shabbat Evening Services, the first line at the top, written in italics, is, “For congregations where the lights are kindled in the synagogue.” Right away that tells us that there were enough congregations when Gates of Prayer was written that did not hold the tradition of kindling lights in the synagogue. What a window into our practice! When Mishkan T’fillah was created, Reform synagogues around the country were lighting candles unquestionably. But this was not always so!

In fact, at the bottom of the candle blessing page in Mishkan T’fillah, you read the following:

“The mitzvah of kindling Shabbat lights in the home is an early rabbinic practice,” and it sources that knowledge to the Talmud, M. Shabbat 2:1. It then goes on to say that “The Shabbat candle blessing is first recorded in the ninth century prayer book, Seder Rav Amram. Lighting Shabbat candles as part of the synagogue service is an innovation of Reform Judaism.” I love that it says this. It tells us so much. It tells us that Jews during the time when Mishkan T’fillah was written cared about where things came from. They asked the questions about how far back Jewish practices and beliefs go. You want to know why we light candles in synagogue? It’s our innovation. We created it. The previous part is telling as well. We have no idea how far back Shabbat blessings go, except through the lens of the prayerbook. In the 9th century, a Jewish prayerbook put in the Shabbat candle blessing, which tells us it was popular enough then that it had to be included. Gates of Prayer tells us that somewhere down the line some congregations started lighting candles in their synagogues, some didn’t. And now it’s common practice at all Reform synagogues. It shows us that a practice that is unquestioned and, seemingly unwavering, was the product of a long evolutionary history.

We can see other examples as well, such as during the Amidah, when we chant the G’vurot, as we did in our machzor tonight. It begins “Atah gibor l’olam Adonai m’chayei hakol rav l’hoshiya.” In our previous machzor and siddur, it went right into the next line, “m’calkeil chayim b’chesed…” right? But what happens in our new siddur and machzor? It breaks, with two options, one for winter, and one for summer. For winter, we say “mashiv ha’ruach umorid hagashem,” (you cause the wind to shift and rain to fall) and for summer, we say “morid hatal,” (you rain dew upon us). What does this speak about? In the winter in Indiana does God cause rain to fall? What about in New York summers, does God rain dew upon us? No. Rather, these insertions come from agricultural understandings of the weather in Israel. In Israel, in the winter, it rains, and in summer, there’s dew. In 1857, Isaac Mayer Wise made this a permanent part of this prayer in his siddur called Minhag America, because in 1857, there was a pull of Jews in Europe and the United States to connect with Israel. In 1975, when Gates of Prayer came out, there had been several other prayerbooks before it that had disconnected from Israel in its physical form. The references had been removed.

Abraham Geiger, one of our Reformers in 1870, for instance, stated on this issue: “Jerusalem, is, for us, at best a poetic and melancholy memory, but no nourishment for the spirit. No exaltation and no hope are associated with it. Jerusalem is a thought for us, not a spatially limited place. But where the literal meaning of the prayers could lead to the misunderstanding that we direct our adoration to that place, the words will have to be eliminated.” And so they were, until the State of Israel was born, and views began to change. American Jews no longer saw America as the new Zion, but Jerusalem as a place to feel connected to not only spiritually, but to visit. Our youth went on NFTY trips and then Birthright; Jews in our congregations started making Aliyah. And so, as you saw tonight, the words came back. In future generations, rabbis and scholars will talk about how in the early 21st century, Reform Jews felt such a connection to Israel that they brought back this insert for the G’vurot, even though it didn’t match the weather where they were.

There are countless other examples that I could also share, but I think there is one that is especially important when we talk about our progress always moving forward, even if it might seem that in returning to what is considered more traditional, we are going backways. Tonight, at the end of this service, we will rise and open the ark, face east, and chant the words of Aleinu as we do at every service. Those who come to our Shabbat services will note that I always tell you to use the “top” version of Aleinu rather than the bottom. Tonight we will do the same thing, the alternative version of this classic prayer. The words of Aleinu that are “traditional” are kept on the bottom of the page in our siddur to give some congregations the option to use it. In that version, we read the words “shelo asanu k’goyei haratzot, v’lo samanu k’mischp’chot ha’adamah,” praising God who “made us unique in the human family, and who did not place us in the other families of the earth.” In other words, a God who made us Jewish and not some other religion. You’ve said the words how many times? You know it so well, and I’m sure you were a little perturbed when I asked you to do a newer version. But the Reform Movement, when Mishkan T’filah was written, looked out unto its congregations and saw a strong presence of wonderfully involved interfaith families, spouses and children of different faiths showing support for their families and the Temple. We couldn’t possibly tell them that we thank God that we weren’t made like them. So the new version, without those words, was placed on the top of the page, while the older version could still be found on the bottom. Progress. New traditions.

Just as there are so many other examples, there are so many other prayerbooks. In the late 1700s, some argued there was not enough Hebrew in shul while, by the mid 1800s, there was too much. Today, we wear tallit and keepot, and even t’fillin sometimes, while our previous generations stated that our religion is “still weighed down with religious customs which must be rightfully offensive to reason.” And the rabbis and scholars argued back and forth throughout the centuries. Our prayerbooks, however, showed us the realities of belief throughout history, and do so today. Our movement has created prayerbook after prayerbook, and some of our congregations, when disagreeing with the movement, have made their own. Why? Because it is what identifies us; it is our diary.

Our prayerbooks, like our movement, encompass a wide range of practice and belief. Some believe, for example, that the Torah is divine. Some follow kashrut, or keep shomer Shabbos. Some doubt the existence of God and have let go of traditions they feel are not relevant. There are so many belief systems and ideas, that we can point to, to divide us. Some days, I admit, it would be nice if we could take a hard stance on different beliefs and values in order to draw a line around us and better define us. But if we did that, we’d risk excluding some of our flock, of isolating them, of having them feel they are wrong. So instead, each week I teach options for how to express your Judaism. I provide you with our history, with why we’ve changed what we believe or why we haven’t, with what the historians say, the theologians say, and humbly, what this generation of rabbis say. And then I leave you to make choices about how you express your Judaism in your home and in our synagogue. Still, the lightening rod that attracts all of our light, and puts us in the same rows, saying the same words, is our siddur.

If you ever want to know where we as Reform Jews stand on an issue, you can always ask your rabbi. And please, continue to do so. But as we begin a New Year, in which we will all be working b’yachad, together, know that the window into our collective Reform Jewish soul was in your hands all along.

L’Shana Tovah.