I was not raised as a religious Jew, but I’ve still managed to be a bit disdainful of reform Jews. Back in the 1970s, I figured out that almost nothing distinguished reform Judaism from a sing along folk festival, right down to the obligatory long haired guitar player who always showed up at reform services. My feeling was that, while I’m not religious, if I were religious, I’d want to attend a synagogue that made me feel as if I was actually doing something connected with religion. A feel good hippie celebration didn’t do it for me.
It’s beginning to look, though, as if the 1970s was a high mark in deep religious feelings amongst the Reformed Jews. They’ve just churned out a new prayer book that it so inclusive it seems to leech all the Jewish-ness and Biblical-ness completely out of Judaism:
Traditional touches coexist with a text that sometimes departs from tradition by omitting or modifying some prayers and by using language that is gender-neutral. References to God as “He” have been removed, and whenever Jewish patriarchs are named — like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so are the matriarchs — like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The prayer book took more than 20 years to develop and was tested in about 300 congregations. Its release has been delayed for a year because the initial printed product was shoddy, said people involved with the project. But the book is expected to be released in about a month — too late, however, for the High Holy Days, which begin Sept. 13.
“It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish,” she said, referring to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on Saturday mornings.
It seems to me that Reform Jews really need to sit down and figure out which community they represent: people who are Jewish or people who are spectators.
Having said that, the new prayer book does have some nice touches that make traditional ideas more accessible for Jews who don’t speak or read Hebrew:
There are four versions of each prayer laid out on a typical two-page spread. (Since the book is read back to front, the right page is read before the left one). On the right page is the prayer in Hebrew, the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer into phonetical English, and a more literal translation. On the left-hand page is a more poetic translation of the prayer, followed by a metaphorical or meditative passage reflecting on the prayer, sometimes by a well-known writer like Langston Hughes or Yehuda Amichai.
Rabbis who prefer to lead a more traditional service can choose a prayer from the right-hand side of the page, while those who prefer a more alternative approach can choose from the left side.
It would just be nice if that practical accessibility was a way to lead Jews into Judaism and not into some weird, non-Biblical, non-Sexist, non-God ecumenicalism.
I know I’m the last person who should be commenting here, since I don’t practice religion at all, but it’s looking to me as if the Reform Jews aren’t doing much of that either. If religion simply reflects current pop culture and social mores, without any strong ties to tradition, the Bible, and the great Jewish thinkers, you’ve really got nothing more than a Jewish themed book of the month club, do you?