The lesson related to that week’s Torah portion, Ekev. Specifically, it addressed why Reform Judaism dropped the second paragraph of the Shema from its siddur [although the option exists in the newest siddur, Mishkan T’filah].
It’s a troubling paragraph for many Jews. It says God will provide rain for the fields and people will eat their fill as long they follow God’s commandments, but not if they stray. In other words, do good and God will reward you; do evil, and God will punish you.
The conversation lasted for over 30 minutes and spilled over into the oneg. It culminated when one congregant, insisting that thousands of Jews stay away from synagogues every week because they find little in the liturgy that speaks to them, proclaimed: “The prayer book is undermining Judaism.”
Wow! Talk about a shot across the bow of our faith.
Before I go any further, I acknowledge that thousands of deeply religious Jews from all streams hold the prayer book near and dear to their hearts (I’m one of them). They find beauty in its traditional prayers and affirmations of faith. They draw comfort from the psalms and they happily keep faith with the God of their ancestors by repeating the same liturgy that has been recited for generations.
Still, could this congregant have a point?
Could many Jews be totally unmoved by the prayers and blessings found in the siddur, and machzor, and stay away from synagogues for this reason?
Could prayers written in a different era have lost their resonance in modern times?
Could the prayer book, the centerpiece of religious worship be an impediment to drawing a new generation of Jews through the front doors of synagogues?
These are important questions to ponder as we prepare to enter our synagogues for the High Holy Days — the only time of year when many of us actually do enter our houses of worship.
As for the rest of the year, most synagogues have too many empty seats to dismiss the questions out of hand.
Committed Jews are wrestling with this issue. Reform Judaism for instance, is two years away from introducing a new machzor, which is currently being edited by a committee of rabbis and lay leaders. The coordinating editor of the project, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg of Coral Gables, Fla., tells us that considerable attention is being given to “faithful” translations of liturgy over “literal” translations to make the service more meaningful to the average Jew in the pew.
Newer versions of siddurim are also organized differently to include alternative English readings; apps are being developed to enable Jews to pray from their smart phones and click on a host of hyperlinks to enhance the traditional liturgy. Some congregations are even taking a page out of the mega church playbook, placing the liturgy outside the prayer book and flashing it on big screens, with the Hebrew superimposed on beautiful pastoral scenes.
But is it working? Are Jews finding their way back to synagogues as the prayer book is dusted off and jazzed up? And if they’re not, what will it take to bring them back?
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)