Confession is good for the soul: It'd been a while since I'd been to services. More than a little while. In fact, I was surprised the rabbi remembered my name. The other day, the computer tech who's been overhauling my laptop told me it would take some time because the software had been corrupted. Just like my soul, I thought.
It'd been so long since I'd been to temple that they'd changed the prayer book on me. Again. Whoever's constantly revising the Reform Jewish prayer book keeps moving the spiritual furniture around, redecorating the hallowed old rooms, and generally refurbishing the sacred. And then they wonder why people don't feel at home.
The English of the old Union Prayer Book, dating back to about 1922, wasn't the most inspiring to begin with, but repetition and age gave it a certain dignity. Because the Reform denomination held to it for so long, the businesslike words accumulated emotional power over the years. They became custom, tradition, home.
To this day I'll run into an old Sunday School pupil of mine who can recite favorite phrases from the old prayer book like a protective charm, or at least with a certain nostalgia for childhood. Time hallows.
But these regular revisions of the prayer book don't give time a chance to work. Each new version seems to come out just when you've finally got used to the last one. About the time you've learned your way around the new prayer book, it's the old prayer book. It's been replaced by a New Improved product, as if it were a dishwasher detergent.
Somebody really ought to get the word to the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Stop! Or as my father, who used the same old Hebrew siddur all his praying life, in the old country and new, might say: Enough new prayer books already!
How strange. Jews, of all people, with our long immersion in time, should be immune to the call of fleeting verbal fashion, yet we fall for each one in fast turn. Each of these shiny new prayer books has the look and feel of the latest word, but not necessarily The Word. They offer a faith for our time, but maybe only for our time, which, like every other, is fast-fleeting.
The newest prayer book has the glossy, untouched feel of the new. No pages are dog-eared, crumpled from frequent use, torn at the edges. There are no celebratory wine stains, no sign anyone ever wept over these never-used prayers. The English translation and asides are up-to-date, degendered, politically correct, smooth as glass, tractionless. I don't imagine much of it will stick.
The profound readings come across as profoundly shallow. At least the ones in English do; not even fast-changing Reform Judaism dares change a word of the Hebrew Scripture. Which is something else to thank G-d for on this beautiful Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the English doesn't get the same, preservationist care. As if English could not be a sacred tongue, too, every jot and tittle waiting to be fulfilled.
How sum up this new prayer book's prose style sleek contemporary? Safely ecru? I'm reminded of what Robert Alter, the Biblical translator, once said: The problem with the King James Bible is that the translators' Hebrew was shaky; the problem with every translation since is that its English is shaky.
It's clear that this latest revision of the prayer book is supposed to be a step back towards tradition, yet it retains much the same Choose One from List A, Two from List B quality. It is full of optional readings and sweet little poems in no tradition but Hallmark's.
It's a testament to the archaic yet never dated Hebrew of the Sabbath service that not even this new edition can disguise its awesome power. The worshipper is not only led but confronted. The ancient words strike to the core like a childhood rhyme that one realizes in old age means a lot more than a childhood rhyme.
The old prayers put together so long ago whether in Babylon or over the course of many an exile and homecoming since still admonish and forgive, cast down and raise up, fill one with sorrow and hope. Age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite power; they only increase the appetite they satisfy.
In the end, as the rabbis say, the two most difficult things about studying Scripture are entering it and leaving it. It's taken me a while to get to services, I realize, but now that I'm here, I'm going to hate to leave. No wonder we all linger over the bread and wine afterward.
I realize now that I've brought the world in with me, that I'm still in it, that I've not come here as a desperate petitioner throwing himself on the mercy of the court, a patient who needs to be healed, a sinner who wants to be made clean and whole again. Instead, I've dropped in like some tourist in a museum, passing superficial judgments on the exhibits right and left rather than entering into the art. Which is one more sin to be confessed.
Avinu Malkeynu, Our Father, our King, forgive us for the sin of judging, always judging. (How would you translate that ancient cry Our Father! Our King! Forgive Us! into the latest gender-neutral prayerbook prose? Our Parent, Our Ruler, don't be judgmental?)
JewishWorldReview.com regularly publishes uplifting articles. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.