Jewish Prayer Books 1: Forms of Prayer – the British Reform siddur

In my first term at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, 1984, I found a copy of the then Reform Siddur (prayer book/book of daily and sabbath services) for sale second hand in SPCK. I loved exploring the shelves and the cellar there and when I worked part time for them spent most of my earnings there as well. The siddur was from the library of the retiring bishop of Winchester. Co-edited by Lionel Blue it immediately sparked my interest and I soon tracked down the local (South Hampshire) Reform Jewish community which was to be the start of important friendships. Since then the Reform movement have published a new siddur

Non-orthodox Judaism in the UK is represented by Liberal, Reform and Conservative groupings of synagogues and communities. The first two represent progressive Judaism although the British Reform movement is more conservative than the Reform movement elsewhere. Liberal and Reform rabbis train at the same seminary (Leo Baeck College), move between the movements and accept conversions, marriages and court decisions.

Forms of Prayer is a prayer book for daily and sabbath use, it also includes life cycle and calendar events as well as numerous passages for study and reflection. The Reform movement also has prayer books for the High Holy Days and the Pilgrim Festivals in line with the 1977 edition of Forms of Prayer.

Liberal Judaism

Reform Judaism

Source

Forms of Prayer: Seder ha-tefilot, Reform Judaism, 2008

This 2008 edition is the 8th of the Reform movement in the UK. The seventh edition was the first siddur I owned so I feel a sort of loyalty to Forms of Prayer that I don’t feel about any others. I keep a copy of the pocket edition of thos latest version  (for which I am very grateful) with my breviary and pray from it very often.

Blending the Contemporary and Traditional

Reform and Liberal Jews have seen a ‘return to tradition’ in recent decades and this edition of Forms of Prayer is the most traditional yet. But that apparent traditionalism can be deceptive. The contemporary element in this siddur is found mainly in the study and reflection anthologies and in the translations of the texts. Even the traditionalism can have a post-modern quality about it and it is in the actual worship, the use which is made of the texts, that our contemporary culture is most often reflected.

The Siddur as a work of art

There is much art in this edition. The  line drawings of synagogues, many destroyed in the second world war, which graced the last edition now find their place on the endpapers. The art throughout the book features the Hebrew language through stunning calligraphy. Many of these are worthy of extended reflection in their own right. The book opens in the Hebrew way and is printed in blue and black type (a reminder for Anglicans of the Alternative Service Book of 1980). The Hebrew typeface is very clear and easy to read. Transliterations are provided in italic underneath and translations to the left of each passage. Every Hebrew text is translated, only those likely to be used by non-regulars at shabbat and home services are transliterated. The fine binding edition has a modern feel with silver edging to the pages and a two tone binding in grey and deep red. The pocket version is bound in light blue plastic. Both of these editions come with a ribbon marker. I don’t have a copy of the ‘ordinary’ binding.

Worship beyond the Synagogue

There is no way that anyone could assimilate this book only while worshipping in synagogue. It is a book that needs to be read and meditated on. Each service will be used in part and so involve selection by the service leaders. As well as traditional texts there are meditations before services, a rich selection of Reflections and an excellent Study Anthology. There is a life-time of reflection to be had here, certainly by this Christian as much as any Reform Jew.

Forms of Prayer includes life-cycle events and prayers for use at home. All the major home rituals are provided for.  As a dog owner I particularly like the inclusion of prayers for acquiring, and at the death, of a pet.

The seventh edition acknowledged that while home rituals were at the heart of Judaism for many in our times it is at the synagogue that they are learnt and most used. This edition continues the practice of including sabbath table songs in the liturgy.

Education: creating liturgical literacy

Most Anglican worship books are pretty much scripts for services, even when they contain a multiplicity of options. Forms of Prayer is very much more than a script.  As well as the Hebrew text, translation and sometimes transliteration on pages, a horizontal line indicates further commentary at the foot of many pages. These are very much more than footnotes. They elucidate the text, expand the understanding and educate the reader. A good example is the commentary on Psalm 29, the last of the psalms to welcome the Sabbath; here it reads:

“We complete the journey back to God … the key word that opens and closes Psalm 29 is kavod, literally ‘weight’, the ‘’heaviness’, the ‘presence’ of God within the world. Where human and divine meet, in the temple, all proclaim God’s kavod.

The power of that meeting is pictured as a storm, sweeping through the land of Israel from the heights of Lebanon to the Sinai wilderness. Each flash of lightning and thunder is another ‘voice’ of God. But this power is not destructive, rather it gives us the strength to endure, to hold fast to values and to hope. So the last word of the Psalm, shalom, takes us directly into the peace of Shabbat. … We stand on the threshold, the ‘time outside of time’ that lies before us, the holiness, the special ‘rest’, that makes Shabbat.” (page 119).

The section of Reflections on the Shabbat Services provides ample material to reflect at length on the structure and elements of the liturgies. One of my favourite sections of the siddur is the remarkable meditation by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet “The Journey Through the Palace – a meditation on the structure of the liturgy”. I used this as the basis of a retreat day for myself and still return to it.  A profound piece of writing accessible at the level of narrative and visual imagery.

My only regret is the absence from this eighth edition of one of my favourite prayers from the seventh, by Nachman of Bratzlav (page 348-9), to indulge myself, here it is:

Master of all the worlds, Fountainhead of all happiness…
Help me to immerse my meditation and all the impulses of my heart, and the depths of my thoughts in the mysteries of joy…
And grant, O my creator,
That I believe with complete faith that all fires of suffering
And all the nine measures of destitution and illness and pain,
and the heaps of trouble in this world,
and punishments in the next world, and
All the deaths —
That they are as nothing
As absolutely nothing
Against the wondrous joy of clinging to Thy Godliness,
And the sweetness of the Torah…
Therefore does my prayer stretch itself before Thee,
My Father in Heaven,
Save me and help me from this moment to be alone in the fields every night… To cry out to Thee from the depths of my heart…
To set forth all the burdens and negations that remove me from Thee, Light of Life.
And give strength to strengthen myself in spite of everything —
To strengthen myself with great happiness,
With happiness that has no end,
Until my heart lifts up my hands to clap, to clap, to clap,
And my legs to dance until the soul swoons, swoons, swoons.
And help me ever to make a new beginning and to be a flowering
well of Torah and Prayer,
To work always with quickened spirit,

And to stand with powerful strength against the scoffers and mockers, Who go about in our days — days of double darkness…
But oh, against all the troubles and burdens,
Thy joys, and Thy delights, are strong and powerful…
Oh our great Father, home of delights and wellspring of joy.

Source

Each service also begins with a helpful box orienting the worshipper to what will follow, finally a useful table at the very end of the book helps the reader see the basic structures of the sabbath liturgies.

Diversity

The previous edition of Forms of Prayer included six options for the Sabbath morning liturgy. The eighth edition places all the elements in their original place allowing the worship leader to choose on any particular occasion. Diversity is provided mostly by the study anthology and reflections sections. These are often used in synagogue services and reflect many possible theological viewpoints from traditional piety to post-modern anxiety.

The prayers for homes also reflect some acknowledgement of diversity. There is nothing specifically, for example, for same sex couples and their households but in the candle lighting prayers for Shabbat eve provision is made for the person lighting them alone.

In fact much of the diversity in Reform congregations comes from the style of liturgy as much as the text and particularly in the choice of music. Increasingly congregations will have more than one service reflecting these different styles and tastes. Sometimes these differing styles will be accommodated over the course of each month. All very Anglican: the First Sabbath of the month … the second sabbath of the month…

Inclusivity

The Hebrew in Forms of Prayer is relatively traditional and conservative; the main addition to include both genders is the option in the avot the prayer commemorating the patriarchs Abraham, Issac and Jacob to also add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

In Hebrew the traditional blessing formula is retained “Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam” “Blessed are you Adonai our God, king of time and space/the universe” here translated “Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe…”. Other prayer books have been more creative in both the Hebrew and English but perhaps the conservatism here reflects the overall conservatism of British Reform.

The strongest move to inclusivity is in not using gender specific language for God. For Jews it is easier to avoid ‘Lord’ to indicate the divine name than for Christians where the constant reference to Jesus as ‘Lord’ is an acknowledgement of his divinity.  Forms of Prayer uses ‘God’ almost constantly to refer to the divine name. The translations are smooth, poetic and work well when read aloud but I find this almost universal use of “God” rather impersonal. It has an abstract rather than relational feel, it rather flattens the translations.

Conclusion

This is a superb prayer book. It would provide a rich resource for any Christian to pray with; to inform about another faith community and so challenge our deepest pre-conceptions; to familiarize the Christian with a little Hebrew and to enrich our spiritual practice.  Perhaps more than anything else it might challenge us to think of our liturgies much more richly as a source for prayer and meditation and even encourage those gifted in liturgy to work on books that provide far more commentary to help us make ‘the journey through the palace’.

First published on my previous blog this post has been lightlt updated and is the first of four on Jewish prayer books.

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