The slimline siddur with a touch of Bob Dylan

By Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein, July 3, 2008
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The new gender-inclusive Reform siddur is both ‘more traditional and more creative’, with some radical new material

Forms of Prayer
Edited by Jonathan Magonet, The Movement for Reform Judaism, £24.95 (pocket £9.95)

Recently spending a Shabbat in Istanbul, I was reminded of the variety of liturgy even across the Orthodox Jewish world. Here was a Sephardi service, of the rite of the Safed Kabbalists, delightfully chanted from a modern prayerbook published by Ashkenazi Aish Hatorah in America, with a Turkish translation and transliteration of the prayers.

New Progressive prayerbooks have also just been published worldwide and the British Forms of Prayer is the latest, and in many ways the best.  It is both more traditional and more creative than its 1977 edition which it replaces, and again reflects the Sephardi and Ashkenazi origins of the Reform movement.

A sign of the move to more traditional observances comes early on with a blessing for donning tzitzit added to those for putting on tallit and tefillin, which appear in the 1977 edition but no earlier Reform prayerbook. There is a musaf (additional) service for Shabbat making reference to the Temple sacrifices though not, of course, praying for their restoration. Instead there is a vision of Jerusalem where “all descendents of Abraham may enjoy peace”. On Friday night the traditional shortened form of the repetition of the Amidah (Magen Avot) is included. 

A number of Psalms, previously bowdlerised (and still so in other Progressive prayerbooks) have had the omitted verses restored — though not in accord with Progressive theology. Such verses are printed in blue so that they can be easily left out by those who might object to using them in a worship service. 

The same applies to stanzas in the Lecha Dodi on Friday night and a number of other passages throughout the prayerbook. The prayer that we should “rejoice in the coming of the Davidic Messiah” is restored in the haftarah blessing (though in blue), and Satan reappears in the Hashkivenu prayer, this time not as an option to leave out.

In both of these cases the English translation hides the true meaning of the Hebrew. Several other examples occur of the inclusion of traditional passages left out in previous editions of Forms of Prayer and most other Progressive prayerbooks.

Yet there are many innovative features of this siddur, most notably its use of a gender-neutral English translation and inclusion of transliterations for most of the prayers. God is no longer depicted as “Lord and King”, but as “Eternal and Sovereign”.  “Man” and “mankind” are not used when referring to all human beings, men and women, and so on. The matriarchs join the patriarchs in the Amidah, Miriam joins Moses in singing Mi Chamocha; innovations already introduced in other Progressive prayerbooks.

But this siddur, not inappropriately, creates a new version of Ma Tovu with Leah and Rachel accompanying Jacob in Israel’s tents. A superb collection of poems and meditations on the prayers in the Shabbat services could even be read in its entirety as a creative English service. There is an alternative Aleynu that removes thought of all people coming to worship our God, and the universalistic addition at the end of the Kaddish “upon all Israel and upon all the world” (though in blue!).

Although the prayerbook is 750 pages long, it is remarkably slim and light in weight. Only about 300 pages cover the various synagogue services, and on them much space is taken up with the transliterations and also really excellent notes at the beginning of each section of liturgy and on many of the individual prayers.

This book is much more than a prayerbook; it is also an excellent educational course on Jewish liturgy. It has a range of beautiful illustrations newly created in the form of Hebrew calligraphy, and an extensive anthology section containing a wide range of  inspiring and thought provoking poems and readings, many by women.

My only sadness is that in these 100 pages there are quotations from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, but not one from the late Rabbi John Rayner, the foremost British Liberal liturgist whose prayerbooks were the first to use modern English (no “thee” and “thou”) and gender-neutral translations. His recasting of the benedictions of the Shemoneh Esreh remains unsurpassed, linguistically and theologically.  He would have been dismayed by the fact that once again a Reform prayerbook appears without quoting the exact sources of the innovative material used.

Among the home rituals and prayers and blessings to be said at life-cycle events are some new and inspiring pieces eg: “on the loss of a loved one”, “during depression”, “after a miscarriage” and so on. I was intrigued by a full page headed “a prayer about animal companions” followed by only a short paragraph for “a prayer during illness”. It gives the impression that concerns about one’s dog are more pressing than human tzores!

There are some fine new congregational prayers waiting to be used as needed: for interfaith meetings, the environment, for “release of captives”, and “a prayer in time of war”; I hope we never have to use that one.  Alongside the liturgies for Purim and Chanucah, we get some useful British additions: for Remembrance Shabbat (nearest to November 11) and National Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Indeed, I wholeheartedly recommend the book as a resource for rabbis and lay leaders, whether Reform or not, who are often called to find prayers for a variety of occasions. And I am convinced that the book will enthuse a new generation of Reform worshippers whether they are seeking a more traditional or a more creative service. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and his team are to be congratulated on an excellent addition to the library of modern Jewish liturgy.

Rabbi Goldstein chaired the editorial committee of the Liberal movement’s Siddur Lev Chadash

Last updated: 1:40pm, July 25 2008