From the Rabbi - October 2010 Print
Dear Friends:

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, I joined about twenty-five other members of CBI for traditional services in the morning.  There was a lively spirit, much singing, and Rabbi Yonina Creditor kept up a spritely pace that moved the service with enthusiasm to a conclusion that was earlier than some of us expected.  There was a good feeling of camaraderie among this community of worshippers.

Still, I found myself reading and rereading some of the prayers in English that are found in the Silverman High Holyday prayer book, the Mahzor.   This volume was published in 1951, exactly sixty years ago.  The language is dated.  No one uses “thee” or “thou” any more, nor do we end our verbs with –est, as in “sayest.”  That kind of expression is stilted and does not resonate with modern linguistic usage.

Each generation finds it necessary to update the prayer book.  In our liberal services, I noticed that the very recent edition of Gates of Repentance that I ordered after last year’s Yom Kippur (when my really old one fell  apart) used “Eternal One” instead of other names for God – like “King” or “Sovereign.”  The Conservative movement has just published a new High Holyday prayer book called Lev Shalem, “[With a] Whole Heart.”  The editorial committee decided to omit the word “salvation” because people don’t have a clear sense of what it means, and they chose to no longer use the word “awesome” to describe God, primarily because it has been tarnished by its slangy use in Valley Girl talk.

The criteria of the Conservative editors, much like the criteria of the Reform Jewish editors, centered around two ideas: keeping faith with the traditional practices while, at the same time, addressing what congregations and modern, liberal Jews want and need.

Those two criteria sometimes complement each other and sometimes are in conflict.  Consider the Al Cheyt recital of Yom Kippur in Gates of Prayer.  It is updated to include both the traditional sins of pride and interpersonal malice, but also more modern transgressions, like pollution, governmental corruption and neglect of urban improvements.  On the other hand, there are limits imposed by traditional Jewish practice about how short the service can be and, equally, by expectations of congregants about what would be a satisfying and sufficient ritual observance.

What is crucial, however, is to note that every prayer book, whether traditional or liberal, reflects the social context in which it is to be used and the people who will hold it. The contexts change and the people change, so the prayer book itself has to change to be at all relevant to the realities of the lives of Jews.

And yet, paradoxically, the change is largely cosmetic.  At base, the values and ideas that are reflected in Jewish prayer books are the same that have characterized our worship for the last fifteen hundred years or more.  These values and ideas may be present in modern clothing, but they are the identical ones of which our ancestors spoke on their special days and of which we continue to speak on our High Holyday days.  There is something comforting and reassuring that, in the midst of all the flux and change of modern life, the values of Judaism persist to motivate and inspire our lives for a new year.
                                        Shalom,                       
            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi