Public and Silent Worship, Part III: Reforming Reform by Rabbi Golomb.

Worship in the synagogue is roughly 2000-years-old.  The prayerbook (siddur), however, is only about 1100-years-old.  One reason for this time gap is that in the days before the printing press, the creation and distribution of a large number of siddurim was simply impractical.  More to the point, the competing notions of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion) tended to tilt toward the latter in the early centuries of worship.  The prayer leader (sh’liah hatzibbur) had a good deal of latitude in how he wished to express established rubrics that determined the order of worship.      

With the creation of a siddur, however, keva began to overtake kavanah.  People prayed the words that were before them.  Further, the siddur itself began to expand.  Jewish communities were comfortable with including new prayers and readings, but uncomfortable about dropping established ones.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, a standard siddur (now printed and widely distributed) had become rather long and unwieldy.  Many of the additional prayers and liturgical poems were thematically repetitive.  Thus, began the era of prayerbook reform.      

From the start, Reformers made two important changes in the siddur.  They began to cut down the length, particularly eliminating redundant prayers and readings.  And they introduced a translation of the service into the vernacular (German, French, Yiddish, and English, among others).   Reducing the size of the siddur also reduced the length of a service.  When combined with increasingly larger portions of worship being recited in the vernacular, a tacit understanding within the congregation was achieved.  Congregants would make a point of being present at the start of the service, and staying through to the end.  The pace of worship would be dignified; not excessively fast, and virtually all of it would be recited aloud.      What happened to kavanah

Classic nineteenth and early twentieth century Reform Judaism put a great deal of stock into idealist reason; that is, a non-metaphysical rational understanding of the world about imbued with a progressive spirit.  Jewish liturgy was therefore translated or paraphrased to be both scientifically sound and socio-politically optimistic.  The liturgy was designed to say just what most of the congregation already believed.  Kavanah was built into the service, rather than being something brought by the individual to worship.      

Toward the latter half of the last century, Jewish optimism in the inextricable progress of civilization began to be shaken.  A liturgy that exuded idealist reason began to ring a bit hollow.  Even after the experience of the Holocaust, however, it was not shattered.  Reason and progress still animated most of those who joined Reform congregations, but it could no longer be the sole basis of kavanah in a Reform service.  The Movement responded to a new reality – it reformed! – and created a new type of prayerbook (Gates of Prayer) that attempted to tackle a variety of approaches to worship with a variety of prayer themes.      

The newest siddur, Mishkan T’fila, has made an important modification.  Gates of Prayer offered a variety of services, each one of which was thematic consistent.  Kavanah could be brought to bear on the service, only if the theme of that day’s worship resonated for you.  Mishkan T’fila, on the other hand, brings a variety of themes together on each two-page spread.  A worshiper has a choice.  You can read (or sing) along with the prayer leader.  Or, you can read to yourself one of the alternative prayers.  Or, you can meditate and create a prayer of your own.  Public and silent worship is combined; kavanah is preserved.    

Vassar Temple’s late starting Shabbat service maintains this more conventional approach to Reform worship.  It is a reform of classic Reform.  No doubt, future congregations and siddurim will modify the approach in order to suit yet unknown developments in Jewish thought.  From near the start of the synagogue worship service, Jewish prayer has been a combination of keva and kavanah, achieved through a combination of public and silent worship.  Vassar Temple employ two ways of preserving this most basic element of the service

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