That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn’t elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement’s new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, “Mishkan T’filah,” still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.
The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzvah and asks himself, “Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?”
Still and all, some encouragement may lie in the fact that a movement rejective of Judaism’s heart has even subtly and tepidly reclaimed an element of the Judaism of the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe, it is told, once asked: Who is more worthy, someone on the 49th level of spiritual accomplishment or on the 1st? His answer: “It depends on the direction in which each is heading.”
And for all the new Reform prayer book’s profound faults – and those of the theology that produced it – it seems to signal a change in direction.
Take the book’s very formatting. If Marshall McLuhan was right that there is message in the medium, Mishkan T’filah immediately telegraphs its distinction from earlier Reform prayer books. Unlike its predecessors, it includes the word “siddur” on its cover. It not only includes a Hebrew text but opens and reads from right to left. (The left side of each open pair of pages offers modernistic comments on the Hebrew to the right, recalling – to me, at least – King Solomon’s words: “The heart of the wise one is to his right” [Ecclesiastes, 10:2].)
But even those inclined to dismiss such changes as mere window dressing might note the amendments made – after years of sometimes contentious disagreement among the prayer book’s editors – to the actual Reform liturgy itself.
For instance, in utter affront to the Reform movement’s longstanding rejection of the concept of techiyat hameitim, or “resurrection of the dead,” Mishkan T’filah offers the option of reciting the blessing acknowledging that essential Jewish belief.
In a nod to (forgive the pun) die-hard Reform “traditionalists” (a word rather turned on its head in this context), Mishkan T’filah still suggests that the phrase “He Who gives life to the dead” be understood as “a powerful metaphor.” But – and, again, small changes can hold larger significance – the editors’ note adds that the resurrection of the dead “may be taken literally” as well.
It is easy to glibly dismiss that concession. With sociologists predicting that American Jews least connected to Jewish belief and observance (a group that includes the majority of the million-plus who identify as Reform Jews) are headed for Jewish extinction, it would seem Panglossian to see an editorial change in a prayer book as a harbinger of hope.
But I can’t help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday “quickening of the dead” and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.
As the deep Jewish scholar and thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote, the only reason we consider the germination of a seed to be natural and resurrection of the dead miraculous is because we are accustomed to the former but not the latter. What we choose to call the “laws of nature,” he explains, are not inherently “sensible”; they simply are what they are: G-d’s will.
We can describe how a plant grows, how its genes code for the stages of that process, even the workings of the atomic structure underlying its DNA. But why any of that should work the way it does is ultimately answerable only with: “Because, well, that’s just the way it is.” Or, from Judaism’s perspective: because G-d has so willed it. And, notes Rabbi Dessler, He can no less easily will things that strike us as incredible.
The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn’t subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.
It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.
But I’m not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.
Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.
But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.