When the Ground Breaks

Part 1: Prayer Books and Women

Is offering a single feminine verb-form an innovation in Jewish prayer?

Mishkan T’filah includes the feminine “modah ani” [“I offer thanks”] along with the masculine “modeh ani,” in the early morning prayers. This was cited as a remarkable feature in related educational materials, when the Reform movement released the siddur [prayerbook] in 2007.

The just-released (April 2009) Koren Sacks Siddur — translated and annotated by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK — also contains this grammatical addition, which has been noted in reviews.

Meanwhile, however, other siddurim — the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom (1989) and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1996), for example — have long included both grammatical forms. Moreover, Sim Shalom offers additional readings from both women and men, while Kol Haneshamah incorporated commentary and poetry from both women and men many years prior to Mishkan T’filah‘s publication (more egalitarian siddurim). So, how does a Jew who has been using one of the latter respond to the “modah ani” news?

“About time!”?
Or, like the much-maligned fourth child at the seder, ask: “What is the importance of this development to you?”?

Maybe the fourth child was trying to initiate some inter-denominational dialogue: How do Jews understand, and respond to, news from elsewhere on the spectrum of practice and belief?

What Does This Mean to You?

Mishkan T’filah

“You revive the dead” and “rain/dew” references in the Amidah [“Standing Prayer”] may not seem like much of an “innovation” to non-Reform Jews; for users of previous Reform siddurim, however, inclusion of these phrases in Mishkan T’filah was remarkable — and not without controversy. R. Richard Sarason explains the history of “raising the dead” in Reform liturgy, concluding:

In recent years, many have questioned Reform liturgical literalism as too quick to emend the traditional text. Is it not possible to understand the expression m’chayeih hameitim as a metaphor? Can it not, as a metaphor, be a source of comfort to those in mourning and a source of hope to others? Still others ask, “Is there nothing beyond God’s ability? In that case, God can reverse death.” For all these reasons, Mishkan T’filah supplies both options, m’chayeih hakol and m’chayeih hameitim, letting worshippers exercise informed choice in addressing their religious needs.

These and other liturgical additions will give Reform Jews new or renewed options in prayer. An interesting layout device closes Hebrew, English translation and alternative versions of the same prayer with the same chatimah, “closing blessing”; this supports a choose-it-yourself prayer style for both leader and congregant — something of an innovation in Reform worship. (See also A Rabbi by Any Other Name) Will these changes make Mishkan T’filah more attractive/useful to non-Reform Jews?

What, if any, response is appropriate to the siddur, from those who likely won’t be using it?


Non-Orthodox Jews may have a hard time seeing the “innovation” in prayers for the birth of a daughter or acknowledging that three women constitute a quorum for reciting Birkat HaMazon [the blessing after meals]. But these additions are among the features touted by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in its active promotion of the new siddur. Overall, the Koren Sacks Siddur has been heralded as showing “a laudable sensitivity to the fact that half of all Jews are women.” (Compare JOFA’s criticism of the 2007 Ohel Sarah [Sarah’s Tent] and related Ohel Sarah review.)

Do the improvements for women mean that feminists — even those who already own siddurim more inclusive of women — should run out and buy a copy?

Beyond its attitude toward women, the Koren Sacks Siddur has several new — if not unique — features and extensive notes from R. Sacks. Here’s a on-line preview, complete with virtually turning pages, and a thorough review.

R. Sacks says that the new siddur is designed to reflect the poetry of the prayerbook and encourage kavanah [intention] in prayer. Several reviewers note that Koren “figured out” that putting the Hebrew on the left and the English on the right — as in Kol Haneshamah and Siddur Eit Ratzon, for example — means that both languages open out from the spine, allowing the eyes to flip back and forth between the two.

Will the new design, commentary and prayer additions make this siddur more attractive/useful for non-Orthodox Jews? What, if any, response is appropriate from those who won’t likely be using it?

Once we understand a bit about the conditions that create “groundbreaking” developments in various walks of Jewish life, what is our responsibility to support those developments?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I? (Avot 1:14)

More on prayerbooks

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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