In helfman

Oseh Shalom Graphic by Baruch Sienna. Baruch designed and did the layout and art for the WUPJ siddur.

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

After the creation of the State of Israel, just 69 years ago, Judaism was changed forever, and our prayer books and rituals have since evolved to reflect this change.

The same has always been true in Jewish prayer: the lived experience of Jews are woven into the fabric of our prayer book.  While the book in front of us today feels whole, if you gently scratch at the surface, your fingernails will tug at the threads attached to memories of religious competition during the Golden Age of Spain, the sorrow following the Crusades, and the feelings of longing after the destruction of the Second Temple.

In the prayer books of our Reform, Progressive, Liberal and Reconstructionist movement around the world one sees the work of editors standing with thread in hand, carefully thickening and thinning our historical tapestry. In each of these books, new threads have been gently woven in, marking the anger, hurt and pain of the Shoah, the joy of the founding of the State of Israel, and the death of its soldiers and civilians in war and terror.  The contributions of women has been exposed from underneath the surface of the siddur, and editors have woven in new colours of expression as they reinterpret motifs of chosenness.

I just finished working with over 20 rabbis around the world – with help from many other individuals  – to stitch together elements from 28 prayer books in 14 languages into a new siddur for use at conferences of the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).  As you may know, our member, Carole Sterling follows in the footsteps of Austin Beutel, Rabbi Dr. Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck and many other notable names as the President of the WUPJ. Rabbi Dow Marmur was the President of the WUPJ from 1999-2001.

One of the most important decisions, made by the current President of the WUPJ, Rabbi Danny Freelander, is to use the draft Hebrew from the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Reform Rabbis Council in Israel (Maram)’s new siddur.  This core Hebrew text is different  than the core Hebrew in our Holy Blossom siddur – Siddur Pirchei Kodesh.  It is a text which pushes different boundaries. In some ways it is more ‘traditional’ – it reclaims sections of prayer which were removed by early reform rabbis.  And at the same moment, it carefully softens the text’s masculine overtones and elevates our matriarchs from below the surface of the liturgy.   Rabbis Dalia Marx and Alona Lisitsa have been guiding the formation of this text, which will be the new Israeli Reform prayer book.

The decision to use this book at the core text of the WUPJ siddur brings the textures of Israel into the core of Progressive Jewish prayer.  I know this text will be the bones of many future prayer books, as the current Israeli text is the supporting structure of Argentinian, German and Russian siddurim.

While the new Israeli prayer book, when published, will pair the liturgy with modern Hebrew poems, the WUPJ project surrounds this core text with poems, translations and creative readings used around the world.  Each of the 28 prayer books contain their own unique weave of liturgy, and I had to make the difficult decision of when to graft some translations closer to the core text, and to let others stand out as unique innovations.

The complete text will be available from the WUPJ website soon.  But I want to highlight two of the many many liturgical innovations to illustrate how thoughtful the editors of each of these siddurim around the world are, and how diverse our movement is:

The first is an alteration in the Hebrew in the draft IMPJ/ Maram Siddur which serves as the WUPJ core text:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גְּבוּרָה

The ‘traditional’ text, including in our Holy Blossom prayer book, Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, ends with the word “גָבֶר”, and translates the prayer as “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who makes firm our steps.”  This translates the words “הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גָבֶר” idiomatically. A more literal translation is “who prepares the steps of man.” Our Holy Blossom translation, for non-Hebrew speakers, keeps a ‘traditional’ text for those who are able to understand the text to wrestle with, and provides an idiomatic translation to guide our understanding.

The editors of the new Israeli volume don’t have the luxury of readers who can ignore the surface meaning of a text, and have chosen to soften the masculine overtones of this prayer by changing the last word from man to a word which can mean courage, bravery, grit or strength.  When I think of “הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גְּבוּרָה” I think “who prepares us to walk [as if we were] heroes” – it is aspirational. An intention for our day.  This shifts this text from a nominally male construction about locomotion to a statement of intention as to how we should live each and every day of our lives – with courage, grit, and heroism.

The second text is an English translation of the Dutch siddur, Seder Tov Lehodot published by Verbond van Liberaal-Religieuze Joden in Nederland, Amsterdam, 2000.  It interprets the Geulah prayer, about redemption which includes Mi Chamocha just after the Shema:

You are the Eternal, our God, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the camp of slavery. In our time, Your people has been harder hit than ever before. Despite the dark and frightful years of the Shoah, Your people has survived and remained alive. To the remnant that escaped You gave strength to rebuild life, in spite of all the deep and painful wounds. And in our days we have witnessed the wonder of the dispersed of Your people ingathered to their land to rebuild it, and the miracle of children returning to their own borders.

Just as our prayer book was altered after the Crusades, Seder Tov Lehodot alters our liturgy after the Holocaust and after the founding of the State of Israel.  Knowledgeable of historians and Israel educators warn against the simplicity of narratives linking the Shoah to the founding of the State of Israel, this prayer carefully ties these two modern narratives together – through the narrow place of Egyptian slavery to the return of God’s children to their own borders.   

Each page of the WUPJ Shabbat morning siddur is rich with translation choices, edits to our core liturgical text, and hard choices.  Once the siddur is online, I hope you will look through, and try your best at the languages.  Each one is carefully constructed and hangs together in a volume which weaves the lived experience of Reform, Progressive, Liberal and Reconstructionist Jews around the world onto a new prayer.

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