That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn’t elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement’s new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, “Mishkan T’filah,” still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.

The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzvah and asks himself, “Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?”

Still and all, some encouragement may lie in the fact that a movement rejective of Judaism’s heart has even subtly and tepidly reclaimed an element of the Judaism of the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe, it is told, once asked: Who is more worthy, someone on the 49th level of spiritual accomplishment or on the 1st? His answer: “It depends on the direction in which each is heading.”

And for all the new Reform prayer book’s profound faults – and those of the theology that produced it – it seems to signal a change in direction.

Take the book’s very formatting. If Marshall McLuhan was right that there is message in the medium, Mishkan T’filah immediately telegraphs its distinction from earlier Reform prayer books. Unlike its predecessors, it includes the word “siddur” on its cover. It not only includes a Hebrew text but opens and reads from right to left. (The left side of each open pair of pages offers modernistic comments on the Hebrew to the right, recalling – to me, at least – King Solomon’s words: “The heart of the wise one is to his right” [Ecclesiastes, 10:2].)

But even those inclined to dismiss such changes as mere window dressing might note the amendments made – after years of sometimes contentious disagreement among the prayer book’s editors – to the actual Reform liturgy itself.

For instance, in utter affront to the Reform movement’s longstanding rejection of the concept of techiyat hameitim, or “resurrection of the dead,” Mishkan T’filah offers the option of reciting the blessing acknowledging that essential Jewish belief.

In a nod to (forgive the pun) die-hard Reform “traditionalists” (a word rather turned on its head in this context), Mishkan T’filah still suggests that the phrase “He Who gives life to the dead” be understood as “a powerful metaphor.” But – and, again, small changes can hold larger significance – the editors’ note adds that the resurrection of the dead “may be taken literally” as well.

It is easy to glibly dismiss that concession. With sociologists predicting that American Jews least connected to Jewish belief and observance (a group that includes the majority of the million-plus who identify as Reform Jews) are headed for Jewish extinction, it would seem Panglossian to see an editorial change in a prayer book as a harbinger of hope.

But I can’t help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday “quickening of the dead” and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.

As the deep Jewish scholar and thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote, the only reason we consider the germination of a seed to be natural and resurrection of the dead miraculous is because we are accustomed to the former but not the latter. What we choose to call the “laws of nature,” he explains, are not inherently “sensible”; they simply are what they are: G-d’s will.

We can describe how a plant grows, how its genes code for the stages of that process, even the workings of the atomic structure underlying its DNA. But why any of that should work the way it does is ultimately answerable only with: “Because, well, that’s just the way it is.” Or, from Judaism’s perspective: because G-d has so willed it. And, notes Rabbi Dessler, He can no less easily will things that strike us as incredible.

The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn’t subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.

It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

But I’m not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.

Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.

But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.

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18 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Today, many “Reform-affilated Jews” are not Jews at all. This growing Reform subgroup is not part of “a desiccated limb of the Jewish people”. Rather, it is part of a deceived Erev Rav recruited under false pretenses.

    When the Reform movement’s awareness of Judaism goes up another notch, it will have explain to many of its congregants how they can halachically convert to Judaism. Many of these won’t even know this is their personal matter of concern, thanks to past and present mumbo jumbo from Reform leaders.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    I am impressed with the positive tone of this piece. it clearly gets across the rabbi’s mecha’ah (protest) while maintaining a respectful and loving tone. shkoyach.

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

    It is not entirely naive.

    A few years ago, the Reform movement agonized over updating its platform, something it does every few decades. One of the architects is a personal friend of mine. He struggled to be true to Reform “tradition,” while accomodating a changed outlook on Jewish tradition that he and others perceived.

    His original draft contained references to Shabbos, Kashrus, and even Tarahas HaMishpachah – at least on a voluntary basis. It set off a firestorm of criticism and commentary. Many more drafts were offered before a compromise one was accepted, which softened but did not eliminate his input.

    The process revealed a deep fissure in Reform ranks, with a new generation of rabbis much more inclined to explore tradition, although far removed from traditional attitudes towards that tradition.

    I spoke with one of the Gedolei Hador at the time, who instantly saw the positive implications. If Reform Jews will be more open to exploring tradition, there is little question that a certain percentage, as individuals, will want to explore further and deeper. Some of those will make it back all the way. I have seen those people myself; they now daven in the same shuls that I do.

    Years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin made a point of attending the annual convention of the Reform rabbinic group, the CCAR. I’m not sure if I would have done the same, but that is not the point. Each year he went, he succeeded in striking up relationships with individual rabbis, whom he was later successful in bringing back to observance.

    Bottom line: It may be naive to think that the Reform movement is going to turn around. It is not naive to note that there are new winds blowing, and that many individuals – and rabbis – could be brought further along, if we fashion our response correctly. We must become ro-im es hanolad.

  4. David says:

    Yes, the tone of this piece was hopeful and appropriate in every way.
    But the reform movement has not changed its convictions; it is only looking for a market. Should it later decide that there are more customers in their previous direction after all, we can say goodbye to the Hebrew text, to the current direction of turning pages, and to allusions to techiyat ha’maytim (which will be again resurrected when trends switch yet again).

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    David, isn’t it telling that the “market” (that is, the Reform laity who comes to shul and keeps the whole thing running) wants Hebrew and allusions to the resurrection of the dead?

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I have sometimes encountered the rocky phenomenon of couples, one of whom was raised non-frum or even was not Jewish, the other FFB on the way off the derech. The one was captivated by the wonders of Judaism, the other by the promise of the otherness of the blonde WASP or whatever. I suspect that the Reform “Jews” who are the major market for the return to tradition are the so-called “Jews by choice”, i.e. Reform Gentiles. Some of them will eventually undergo a halachic conversion while others will discover that they had a maternal great-grandmother who was a member of the tribe. The workings of Hashem are wondrous.

  7. David N. Friedman says:

    This one is easy. The Reform movement is finding reason to move to the right and towards tradition. This is to be applauded. If they are faking it until they make it–this is positive.

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “the reform movement has not changed its convictions; it is only looking for a market”

    i think we have to distinguish between the reform movement and the yiden that comprise it. jet’s not forget that just because THEY labeled themslves something fancy and different, it doesn’t make them different. After all, we put no credence in that label. To us, yiden are yiden. I think RAS was referring to the neshomos underneath the movement.

  9. LOberstein says:

    Very interesting approach and everyone is being sensitive. Orthodox Jews take text and ritual seriously because we believe in Divine origin. I don’t think that most Reform or Conservative laymen are that involved or care about the nusach of the siddur. Apathy is more accurate. How often do they go to Temple, when they are there, the service is short and there is very little actual Jewish education for adults or children. So, how can this affect anyone other than some of the rabbis and maybe a very small percentage of the laity. Most Reform Jews never learn Hebrew, how much can one learn in Sunday School. A huge percentage are intermarried and many of the non Jewish spouses practice Christianity and their children “observe” Chanukah and Christmas.

  10. David says:

    Upon reading comments 5, 7, and 8, I partially repent of my comment (#4). Indeed, any move in the right direction must be welcomed. I looked for evidence of a change of heart when one of mere tactics might suffice. Perhaps I have held too strongly onto one of the major spokesmen of Reform (a name like Brucker comes to mind but I am not sure) who answered, upon being asked some 25 years ago what disqualified a synagogue from being part of the Reform movement, “when they don’t pay their dues.”
    Thank you Ori, J.O., and D. Friedman.

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “Orthodox Jews take text and ritual seriously because we believe in Divine origin. I don’t think that most Reform or Conservative laymen are that involved or care about the nusach of the siddur. Apathy is more accurate”

    – would that it would be true that Orthodox were as concious of divine origin as RLO implies we are. i think he is right that the philosophical source of our rigourous devotion to ritual is that (academic) belief, but to imply that we are more connected in our day to day actions with our core philosphies than are Conservative or Reform is not obvious to me.

  12. Harry Maryles says:

    Wonderful article. Subject of my post today.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Great article. One can only understand such developments and others of a similar nature within the heterodox groups as Hirhurie Teshuvah.

  14. LOberstein says:

    The name you are trying to remember is Balfour Brickner. I believe he was a reform rabbi in Cleveland Heights,Ohio.

  15. Baruch says:

    Balfour Brickner was the Rabbi Emeritus of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in NYC.

  16. Richard Wolpoe says:

    It is refreshing to see that the Reform Movement is beginning to “See the Light”. I suggest that Torah-True Jews pursue the following stance:

    1) On the One hand be firm with our Beliefs and Practices
    2) On the other hand – Be open to extend a hand to those who – though far away now – are heading back in the Torah dicrection. [Shalom Shalom larachok v’lakarov…]

    Rabbi Safran has apparently fulfilled both of the above. While remaining loyal and Torah-True, he sees the glimmer of light {pintele-yid perhaps?] amongst those who used to abandon Torah more completely.

    And if I may add a third lesson – Torah Education will help lead the non-Observant to a higher Torah Consciousness. While indeed it may be forbidden to teach non-jJws Torah, there is no such prohibition [at least as far as I know] to teach the not-yet-Observant. Eventually, that education will lead to greater observance. Today – unlike say 180 years ago – most Reform Jews ignore Halacha because they are ignorant of Torah. With a more Torah-True prayer book, they may work their way back. And with proliferation of many user-friendly tomes – such as the Shottenstein Talmud this possibility is greater than ever before.

    Kol Tuv

  17. Baruch says:

    While I am very impressed by the authenticity of Orthodox
    prayer forms, I find the uninterrupted cacaphony of the
    congregants who are typically bored beyond measure helpful
    for the latest stock tips and corporate mergers.
    Be careful when you point your finger. You’ve got three
    other fingers pointing back at you!

  18. Bob Miller says:

    Baruch (November 1, 2007 @ 11:52 pm) needs a change of shul scenery to show him that many other Orthodox congregations have found a better way.

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