Reforming Jewish Liturgy

Modernity has caused Jews of every ideology to relate differently to the content of their prayers.

Changing beliefs, such as the abandonment by many Jews of belief in a personal Messiah or in the resurrection of the dead, and changing ethical sensibilities, such as the rise of feminist consciousness, have called into question values expressed by some of the traditional liturgy. How Jews have responded to that perceived tension is the subject of this article, reprinted with permission from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer, published by Jewish Lights.

How can we invest ourselves in the words of prayer when, to us, the words make no sense or, worse, are obviously untrue? How do we bring our heart and soul into the words of a formula when that formula violates the dictates of our heart and soul?


Orthodox & Conservative

Orthodox and Conservative Jews tend to reinterpret such words, often using metaphor or some type of schematic classification, so that the ultimate meaning remains acceptable even when the words are troubling. In addition, the prayer book itself contains many contradictory statements and images. Hence, Orthodox and Conservative Jews may indeed say some words whose literal meanings are confusing or difficult to accept, but such Orthodox and Conservative Jews will emphasize some very different words of prayer.

Reform & Reconstructionist

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, however, have taken another approach to the meaning of the words of prayers. Starting in the late 18th century, a number of German rabbis began to systematically reform–that is, rewrite–the traditional liturgy. Although some of those early Reform changes have since been reconsidered and the traditional words of liturgy restored, many other early changes have endured and have now become standard in Reform prayer books.

The Reconstructionist movement, begun in the early 20th century in America, has also systematically reformulated the prayer book, stressing the need for consistency and rational honesty during prayer.

Feminist Liturgy

More recently, feminist Jews within the liberal denominations have also stressed the need for praying only when the words can be said with honesty and sincerity, and thus for praying in a way that values female as well as male experience. Poet Marcia Falk, author of an alternative prayer book, asks [in The Book of Blessings, published by HarperCollins]: "Why should we be willing to hold one set of beliefs as our truths while we articulate something very different in worship? If we do not try to touch our deepest faith–our most truthful truth–in prayer, then where?"

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