In siddur

Unlike some rabbis, I’ve never been very enthusiastic about liturgical reform and always maintained that I could conduct Reform services from any Jewish prayer book. That’s why I had no ambition to create alternative services in any of the congregations I served. I don’t believe that new prayer books bring in new worshippers. The best-attended synagogue services often use traditional, even archaic, texts. Ignorance of Hebrew hasn’t stopped Jews from saying or chanting the words without understanding what they mean. Though intellectually problematic, it’s traditionally sanctioned and existentially authentic. As a result, I was never very happy with most of the innovations in the prayer books produced by the Reform movement. But, unlike some colleagues, I didn’t engage in alternative “samizdat” publications, but used what was on offer. Even when I had reason to help shape services for special occasions, they were intended to supplement, not replace, standard texts. But having just perused Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the new prayer book of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto to be formally launched at the Shabbat morning service on Oct. 29, I’ve changed my mind.

The more than 600 pages of well produced, readable text in Hebrew and English with insightful notes and wide ranging commentaries make this a remarkable and very important book. It’s very usable throughout the Jewish year (except the High Holidays) both at home and in synagogue. Two of the guidelines listed in the introduction by the editor, Rabbi Yael Splansky, say it all: the desire to articulate the Temple’s expression of Reform Judaism– nowadays on the conservative (small c) end of the spectrum– and to celebrate Holy Blossom’s rich and varied history.

This mandate has liberated the editor and her committee from trying to cater to different trends, as the standard Reform liturgies tend to do, often turning prayer books into unwieldy anthologies. Siddur Pirchei Kodesh is intended for one congregation only. Everything about it reflects Holy Blossom  Temple, its history and its philosophy. The book was planned to celebrate the Temple’s 150th anniversary some five years ago. With this in mind, it also includes a very readable brief history by Prof. Irving Abella.

llustrations and appendices reflect not only the congregation’s significant past, but also testify to what it strives to be today. Apart from the Hebrew texts and their English translations, many pages have pertinent and often pithy quotes from the Bible, Talmud and midrash, as well as the whole range of Jewish literature across the ages and current denominational divides. Members and non-members alike will find it a great resource, whether they’ll use it for prayer, learning or inspiration.

Like Mishkan T’filah, the new prayer book of North America’s Union for Reform Judaism, this siddur has been largely put together by women. In addition to Rabbi Splansky and the congregation’s senior rabbi and cantor, the only two lay members of the committee were women. It’s an apt reflection of new trends in contemporary Jewish thought. They’ve opened our eyes to the reality of God, not as the masculine stereotype of power but as the ostensibly feminine manifestation of caring and nurturing. By taking us far beyond gender-sensitive translations, the book is a contemporary statement with important theological implications. Men, no less than women, will be moved by its warmth and its relevance. Recognizing the difficulties that beset most people today when it comes to prayer, this book offers apt introductions to each section that set the texts in context. In this way, it becomes something of a handbook for Jewish living far beyond the confines of the synagogue. That’s why it should find its place, if not by the bed then on the bookshelf, of every Jew, religious or secular, affiliated or not. Paradoxically, because it’s specific, it’s universal.

The above shouldn’t be read as a promotional piece. I had nothing to do with the creation of the siddur and, as implied above, I might have even opposed it. Nor is it intended as a review, because I believe that all users should be its critics. My aim is personal: I’ve a need to confess that, had I had a say, I’d probably have counselled against the publication of a book of this kind and found many excuses for my stance. Siddur Pirchei Kodesh has proven me wrong. Mercifully, I retired before I might have become an obstacle to its creation.

from the Oct 6 2011 edition of the Canadian Jewish News Page 16

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