It’s Certainly a Thrill: Welcoming a New Prayer Book
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5778 – September 20, 2017
Good evening, good Yontif. It’s certainly a thrill to be using this new prayer book, Mishkan haNefesh. It’s a once-in-a-generation event! The last time Reform Judaism published a new mahzor was in 1978, and before that was in 1945. I’m grateful to all who provided insight, opinion, and judgement while we were considering the book: the Ritual Committee, participants in a class, attendees at town meetings, some reviewers, our Board of Trustees who actually made the decision, and to the nearly half of the congregation that generously contributed to our campaign for these books.
The changes from 1945 to 1978 seem to be pretty modest when compared to what we’ll experience with this new liturgy. In 1978 we jettisoned the archaic pronouns “Thee, Thou, & Thine” and archaic verb forms such as “Doest, sayest,” and my favorite, “withereth.” We took a hold of gender inclusion for humanity, though a gender-neutral God would not appear until the 1996 minor revision. Our new volumes use exciting, invigorating translations. The options and alternatives are moving and enlivening; they make us think, and wonder. We won’t be able to read them all, so I hope you’ll come a little early to read through some of the blue and gray pages. Do us a favor, please, and don’t just walk off with a copy. If you want to borrow one, speak to me after Yom Kippur.
After selecting the readings, I began to consider a big question, which I have carefully and creatively formulated as “Why is this prayer book different from all other prayer books?” What motivates a new prayer book? How much is a new mahzor a mirror of the mood and mindset of the moment, and of our movement? Our prayer books, I believe, are created by people whose sensitivities, ideas, and theologies are shaped by the transformational events of the times. How much is a prayer book a product of the cultural touchstones of its editors, and its anticipated audience? How do temporal and cultural icons become significant in our worship? How does history impact our High Holy Days? Indeed, the whole reason we are praying is a response to geo-political circumstances: the first-century Judeans rebelled against Rome, so the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, so sacrifices ceased and prayer was substituted.
Our old prayer book, Gates of Repentance, was crafted by and for people who had witnessed the birth of the State of Israel. We were beginning, just beginning, to appreciate the establishment of the Jewish State as a modern miracle, an event to be spoken of with theological importance. I was living in Israel at the time the book was published, and the focus was still on survival, as Israel’s existence had been threatened and challenged from the start, with the memories of wars in 1967 and 1973 still fresh, and the incursion in Lebanon while we were there.
The Holocaust also shaped their theology and teachings. They had seen the rise of the Third Reich. They could not forget the horrors, the martyrs, the uprooted, the survivors, the vanished Eastern European Jewish culture, the failure of the western civilization, the silence of the world; they remembered the refugees, and the destruction of Hiroshima, too. They made sure that we would remember them, as well as the three million Jews who were silenced behind the Iron Curtain after the war.
Israel and the Holocaust are just the Jewish touchstones of significance when our old book was put together. Exactly a month ago, as I was writing these words, the CCAR issued a news release that it was not going to co-sponsor an annual pre-High Holy Days phone conference call with the President of the United States. I’d been one of the several hundred American rabbis on these calls for the last 8 years, and it was always a thrill to have Barack Obama wish you a “L’shana Tovah.” The news release stated that “The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.” Now that word “xenophobia”: fear of strangers – I first encountered that word in Gates of Repentance, when they needed, for an alphabetical list of sins, a sin that began with the letter X. It’s a good sin, well not a “good sin,” but a legitimate sin that some or even many of us could be guilty of. We could easily see why rabbis creating a prayer book in the 1970’s would include that as a sin: they had lived through the hey-day of Civil Rights movement. They had marched in Selma, sat at lunch counters in Greensboro, and gone to jail in Birmingham. The editor had been a Freedom Rider. One of my colleagues, the son of a rabbi, wrote a few years ago about one Shabbat dinner at his home as a boy when the Shabbat guest was the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I don’t recall seeing “xenophobia” in Mishkan haNefesh, not that we’ve conquered our xenophobia, but rather we’ve found some less esoterically worded sins. Ironic, since xenophobia seems to be increasing around us.
The editors and original users of the old book had a broad range of other shared experiences that shaped their hopes, dreams, fears, and their sense of right and wrong. They were still living, back in 1978, in the Cold War. They had also lived through and perhaps fought in real wars. The desire in America for peace in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s permeates our Gates liturgy, with the big blue Gates of Prayer coming out in 1975, just three months after Saigon fell. Civil discord and violence was part of the cultural baggage too: assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. King, Malcom X, the shooting of George Wallace; riots in the cities…. all these miseries were in the minds of those who wrote and used GOR.
Not every formative experience of 1978 culture was negative. Vietnam and Watergate were behind them. The 1945 prayer book was created by and for people who listened to radio; by 1978, virtually every middle class home had a television. (I think that’s supposed to be a positive!) From the low of a November Friday in Dallas, there was, 80 days later in February, a Sunday night on Ed Sullivan, when 4 lads from Liverpool changed music and culture. The Betamax and VHS technologies were becoming household technologies.
A new set of formative experiences is the foundation of our new book. We are not who we were in 1978; society and the world are different. We have been shaped by 9/11, AIDS, and Chernobyl. We saw the Gulf War live on television, the expansion to a 24-hour news cycle, and the contraction of the print media. We are cyberconnected through our gadgets and our social media, giving us information and disinformation. Wikipedia is the go-to source. We shop on-line and have it delivered.
We saw the terrible destructive force of Hurricanes Andrew in Florida, Katrina in the Gulf, Sandy in New York. We saw the election of an African-American as President, and saw NATO and the European Union extend into the Eastern Bloc after the Soviet Union collapsed.
We’re watching great numbers of people fleeing ISIS by moving into Europe, changing the face of that continent. We’re learning that sexual orientation and gender identity is not binary, but rather a whole spectrum.
And we cannot forget the changes in Jewish life since 1978.
Here in the US, we are increasingly a secular people, with more dividing lines fragmenting the Jewish community. As the saying goes, “everyone makes Shabbos on their own,” meaning that people make their own decisions, avoiding commitments of community and institutions. We are aging; as a religious group, we have the oldest average age because we are marrying later and having fewer children. A lower percentage of the children are receiving any sort of Jewish education. Many get it through Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for college-aged kids, courtesy of Jewish philanthropists who see the Israel experience as a magic bullet to Jewish renaissance and continuity. We’re also seeing increased presence of non-Jews in our synagogues, some seeking personal spirituality, and others supporting a Jewish family identity.
World Jewry, too, affects our Jewish consciousness differently these days. Two and half million Jews were able to leave the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, mostly for Israel, the US, and Germany. Ethiopian Jewry, barely on the radar screen in 1978, was brought to freedom in the early ‘80s.
And in Israel: So much has changed since Begin’s Likud victory in 1977. Now, 400,000 Jews live in 225 or so settlements in the West Bank, plus another 200,000 in neighborhoods of Jerusalem captured in 1967. These 600,000 are about 1/8 of all Jewish Israelis. There is a universe of difference of opinion -secular, political, religious, nationalist, messianic-about how to handle this situation. Israel is torn, American Jewry is torn, and the situation only gets more volatile.
The status of Reform Jews, the status of women, the status of Reform and other women to pray at the Western Wall , all issues that have synagogue and state, religious-based political parties and government enmeshed in an unhealthy and unsavory mess, affect our attitudes to Israel, which in turn affects our attitudes to what it means to be a Jew, especially a Reform Jew, today.
This is what made us – our congregation and our fellow congregations – who we are today. What do we want, and what do we need from a prayer book on these Days of Awe?
We want a book that speaks to us.
• Our prayers of praise must recognize the parameters of a God we can accept;
• our prayers of thanksgiving must humble us while moving us to awareness of how truly fortunate we are to be living in this time, this place, under these circumstances;
• our prayers of petition must acknowledge that what we urgently need and what we want the most are also the most difficult for humans to attain on their own.
We want a prayer book that recognizes our sophistication and complexity. We need acknowledgement of how human society has evolved since the eras when the classical liturgy was penned; and we need the reality of how distant we are from perfection. Our new book accommodates the humanists who want to leave out God; for traditionalists, it brings back “resurrection.” It speaks to both those who find meaningful moments in solitude, or instead in relationship. It addresses those who observe in solemn rest, those who observe in intensive Jewish action, and those who value vigorous pleasurable experiences. We’ll find time-honored prayers and religious terminology as well as new and creative understandings of what it may mean to be a Jew, or thinking or feeling person, today.
The tale is told of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshiskhe פשיסחא, a Hasidic leader in the early 19th century. Everyone must have two pockets, he taught, with a piece of paper in each pocket. When you’re feeling depressed, or discouraged you reach into one pocket and pull out the paper that say “”For my sake was the world created.” (M. Sanh. 4:5).” That should cheer you up. On the other hand, said Simcha Bunem, if you’re feeling high and mighty, you should reach into your other pocket and pull out the paper that quotes the Torah “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen 18:27)
Our prayer book must support us in our highs, and in our lows. At this time of year, more than any other, we are willing to those lows. Our failings. The notion of T’shuvah, or turning in repentance, is the key motif of the season. If we open our 21st century hearts to the words we shall encounter, we shall be comforted in our low status, and exalted to improve our conduct. Our prayer book will remind us of the universality of the miserable moments and occasions and events and situations humans find themselves in, and shall encourage us to be understanding of our own humanity, and the humanity of those who inevitably will annoy, insult, hurt, or injure us.
Our prayer book, in and of itself, will not bring us to the high point of spiritual enlightenment. It will not unlock the heavenly gates of repentance. It will not make you a better Jew, or a better person. It is a tool, a key: it is a key that may possibly, just possibly, unlock your soul.
May this volume in our hands, which each one of us has the merit of using for the first time, be for us that key. May our souls be opened up for good for the coming year, and ever more.