Straightforward, this is my problem with Mishkan T’filah

I’ve griped about Mishkan T’filah on this blog for a long time now. The ongoing comment thread (which is great fun, by the way–sorry I’ve been busy and away from it for a few days) at my post about selecting a siddur for your Hillel, has convinced me that I need to state my basic problem with MT more plainly. I’ve written a lot about this siddur, but I don’t that I’ve ever stated my problem at its simplest. So here we go:

All siddurim take positions, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes intentionally. Siddurim are serious things, with important meanings. To approach them arbitrarily, either in using them or creating them, is not good for the Jews. It is not bad for a siddur to take a unique theological position.  It is bad for one to take a wishy-washy position or conflicting positions. Mishkan T’filah seems to be chock-full of arbitrary choices and conflicting positions. The structure and order of Jewish prayer is a work of genius. Good siddurim know that and approach structure with reverence. MT does not.

Just as strongly as I believe that the ArtScroll siddur is a bad thing, I believe that MT is a bad thing. I honestly believe, as totally angering as this may be for some, that people who like it are ill-informed. It is a bad creation cover-to-cover. It is not a siddur, but an ill-executed attempt to bring some definition to a movement of Jews. If MT is any indication, this movement defies definition at every turn.

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12 responses to “Straightforward, this is my problem with Mishkan T’filah

  1. Oh boy. Before I respond, a few opening remarks:

    1. I should state that MT is by no means my favourite siddur or first siddur of choice generally, but I still feel compelled to defend it against your charges here.

    2. You write: I don’t that I’ve ever stated my problem at its simplest. I don’t think you have, and I don’t think you have here, either. I’m not sure how simple your post is, as there’s not a whole lot of evidence and seems to be more of a personal rant. Of course, you’re entitled to your own personal opinion about your connection (or lack thereof) to the siddur. But if you’re going to present it in a public forum as a form of constructive criticism, it would be helpful if it were both of those things – constructive and critical. At this point, I think you’re falling a bit short in both aspects.

    3. Don’t think I’m taking you to town here. I just want to respond to each of your charges against MT in a coherent way so that I (we) can fully understand your dislike of it.

    Here we go :) …

    “Mishkan T’filah seems to be chock-full of arbitrary choices and conflicting positions.”
    - Can you list these arbitrary choices and provide evidence that the editors made them with a lack of reason. – Can you provide examples of the conflicting positions, and perhaps think of reasons why they may not be conflicting, as I’m sure the editors did? Please be as comprehensive as possible.

    “The structure and order of Jewish prayer is a work of genius. Good siddurim know that and approach structure with reverence. MT does not.”
    - Are you arguing that there is one singular established structure for prayer that MT somehow flouts? Knowing you, I don’t think that’s what you would say. If you agree that there are multiple pathways to prayer, doesn’t that validate any siddur’s approach?

    - In short, I’m interested in hearing how MT is unstructured and unordered? How does it not revere the structure and order of Jewish prayer? For that matter, what is “the structure and order of Jewish prayer?”

    “I believe that the ArtScroll siddur is a bad thing”
    - This is a value judgement, and a strong one at that. It doesn’t clarify what your problems with the siddur are. Why is AS “bad”?

    “I believe that MT is a bad thing.”
    - See above. Why is MT “bad.”?

    “I honestly believe, as totally angering as this may be for some, that people who like it are ill-informed.”
    - This is an argumentum ad hominem. Instead of critically critiquing MT, you instead turn to the people who use it and critique their wisdom in an attempt to pass judgement onto the siddur itself via them. That’s not fair. Why should your personal experience with the siddur become the standard against which all others’ are judged?

    -Are you seriously suggesting that the scores of Rabbis, Cantors, Professors, and other members of the liturgical academia who had a hand in the creation of this siddur are ill-informed? Are you suggesting that you are wiser then them? I’ll make use of one of Larry’s responses to your previous post: ‘I am not prepared to accept that you know more about [liturgy] than Rick Sarason or Larry Hoffman or Peter Knobel or Elyse Frishman’

    “It is a bad creation cover-to-cover.”
    - See previous comments on value judgments. How is the entire siddur a bad creation? If you can provide us with a coherent line of thought that shows how there are critical flaws in the siddur that can lead to a detriment to Reform congregations or Jews in general, I may be prepared to accept this comment. But in terms of your stated goal of
    “stat[ing] [your] basic problem with MT more plainly,” this falls extremely short.

    “It is not a siddur”
    - Oh please. I’m not even sure how to respond to this. This seems like a cheap shot below the belt just because you personally don’t like the siddur.

    but an ill-executed attempt to bring some definition to a movement of Jews.”
    - How is it ill-executed? What were the stated goals and objectives of the siddur, and how did it fall short?

    - I do agree that it is an attempt to bring some definition to a movement of Jews, as almost all siddurim are, and I agree that it is a difficult goal to begin with.

    “If MT is any indication, this movement defies definition at every turn.”
    - You and I actually agree to some extent on this, but more re: RJ and not MT. We’ve had many conversations in person and on this <a href="http://davidsaysthings.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/when-i-say-reform-intellectual-community/"blog about how Reform Judaism is ultimately undefinable. As I’ve noted before, I think we can talk about RJ’s characteristics, but that an all-encompassing root definition may be untenable.

    You’ve defined RJ previously on this blog as follows:

    “Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief, founded in the acknowledgement of the fact the age of rabbinic oligarchy has ended and the only ritual or moral authority that a Jew is answerable to is God that Jew’s own conscience and intellect.”

    - Has something changed? Do you still believe this? If so, how does MT not fit in nicely with that definition? If you don’t still believe that, do you have a new definition of RJ to posit?

    - How is MT an example of the undefinable nature of Reform Judaism writ large?


    In short, David, what you really want to provide us with is a book report. Certainly, your personal experiences with the siddur are important to consider and would also be interesting for your audience. But you need to go beyond that.

    At the end of the day, this post (and some of your previous comments re: MT) seems to be little more than a biased, subjective, personal rant. If you want to pass serious judgement on MT (and by no means should it be exempt from serious critiques), you need to approach it in a thoughtful, critical manner. As a journalist, you should know that. Unfortunately, this post doesn’t hold up on it’s own.

    I’m looking forward to your responses.

    • “Can you list these arbitrary choices and provide evidence that the editors made them with a lack of reason.”

      It’s not a comprehensive list, but here are a few things. I cannot provide any evidence of what is in the minds of the editors other than what left their minds and ended up in the pages of MT.

      1. Part of the Shma that was previously excluded from North American Reform liturgy is back. Part of it is not. That part that is back is optional in the morning, but still not available in the evening. The part of it that is still out remains so in spite of it having been widely interpreted in recent years as an environmentalist piece and in spite of this movement having become highly environmentalist. So much of this is arbitrary, it should be plainly obvious.
      2. Many of the choices of interpretative readings are so tenuously connected to their supposed topic it is absurd. Some even contradict the theme of their parent prayer directly. Pg 173, for instance, features a reading about Shabbat that asks God to “ruffle us from our complacency.” It also begs of God to take away the false Shabbat that hides the troubles of the world from us. This is so contrary to the understanding of Shabbat as a day that is comes to us a slice of the completed world to come, it drives me up a wall and back.
      3. The choices in G’vurot about life versus death are an impressive admission that we’re willing neither to grapple with hard texts nor to disregard the nonsensical replacements for them that we’ve become accustomed to.
      4. I could go on.

      “Are you arguing that there is one singular established structure for prayer that MT somehow flouts? Knowing you, I don’t think that’s what you would say. If you agree that there are multiple pathways to prayer, doesn’t that validate any siddur’s approach?”

      Am I arguing that there is an established structure? Yes. The words, the exact order are flexible, to be sure. But there is a structure that we all hang those words on and that is quite established. It has many universal parts and orders. Do I agree that there are multiple pathways to prayer? Yes. Do I believe that such an agreement is an endorsement of every siddur’s approach? Absolutely not. And you, Jesse, I think know better than to claim that because I believe there are multiple options, I must also believe that all options are equally valid. I do not believe that.

      “In short, I’m interested in hearing how MT is unstructured and unordered? How does it not revere the structure and order of Jewish prayer? For that matter, what is ‘the structure and order of Jewish prayer?’”

      It disregards the roles and meanings of kaddish on many occasions. It disregards the role of the Amidah. It doesn’t have the chutzpah to tell us that the Amidah is a time for standing. I could go on. What is the structure? I’ll refer you to My People’s Prayer Book for that.

      “Why is AS ‘bad’?”

      Oddly, it’s bad for precisely the opposite reason that MT is! AS is so sure that it had a singular correct version of Jewish liturgy that the many converts and newcomers to prayer that pick it up get indoctrinated into the nonsensical position that AS has Jewish liturgy down right and everyone else is wrong to varying degrees.

      “This is an argumentum ad hominem.”

      Oh, it’s definitely a stupid argument, but it is true that I often find myself thinking that. I dislike MT so strongly that I can’t even figure out why some people like it at all.

      “Are you seriously suggesting that the scores of Rabbis, Cantors, Professors, and other members of the liturgical academia who had a hand in the creation of this siddur are ill-informed?”

      I’m not prepared to claim that at all! I am prepared to claim that the more committees and movement ideology politics creep into the creation of a siddur, the more the intelligence of the creators gets muddled.

      “This seems like a cheap shot below the belt”

      Well, when you take it out of context like that, sure. It’s one half of a larger rhetorical point.

      “How is it ill-executed? What were the stated goals and objectives of the siddur, and how did it fall short?”

      How is it ill-executed? Aside from everything else I’m talking about here, it is full of tacky poetry that barely adheres to its point and its design is the most violent toward trees every conceived for a siddur. It’s particular objectives are two-fold, I suppose. Objective one is to be Reform and objective two is to be a siddur. As a Reform piece, it adheres to closely to the middle and is unbelievably disinterested in informing its often uneducated users about prayer. As a siddur, I think you can take a look at the rest of my comment here for more.

      It contradicts my definition here: “blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.” Knowing as its creators do that Reform Jews are out to learn more and to use that knowledge to form their own practice, why is the level of its very sparse commentary so low? This is potentially the book’s biggest failing and its biggest disservice to Reform Jews.

      “How is MT an example of the undefinable nature of Reform Judaism writ large?”

      The G’vurot thing is a perfect example. On the one hand, Reform Jews could be people who deal with difficult texts by studying them and tackling them with commentary. Or we could be people who disregard what we don’t like and introduce whatever words feel good in a particular place. But MT just goes ahead and does both. We cold be people who say the Shma. Or we could be people who say a variety of different parts of the Shma depending on our mood and the time of day. MT goes for latter option strongly, while also giving us back a passage that its predecessors excluded.

      • 2. Many of the choices of interpretative readings are….. absurd. Some even contradict the theme of their parent prayer directly. Pg 173, for instance, features a reading about Shabbat that asks God to “ruffle us from our complacency.” It also begs of God to take away the false Shabbat that hides the troubles of the world from us. This is so contrary to the understanding of Shabbat as a day that is comes to us a slice of the completed world to come, it drives me up a wall and back.

        Man, I **hate** that particular reading. It’s offensive–as if I have been operating all week with my eyes closed, disengaged, uncaring, and sitting on my hands. It tries to rob my little piece of menucha for the week. Feh. That one is a self-righteous piece of drivel.

        That being said, when our new rabbi used it this summer, I heard many congregants respond favorably.

        And, I have to say, of all the things about which people have complained or objected about to me (as I am a congregational muckety-muck), the siddur has not been a significant source of unhappiness. Although I personally am underwhelmed with MT, I am punch-drunk enough to accept and be grateful for it’s apparent benign-ness.

  2. Now all becomes clear. You don’t understand Mishkan T’filah because you don’t understand Reform Judaism.

    Forty years ago, the Reform movement was described as a diverse movement held together by the Union Prayer Book. Gates of Prayer was a recognition that the movement had progressed in diversity beyond the capability of the UPB to be its rallying point, and reflecting the many theological and intellectual positions that the Union exhibited, GOP offered its multitude of different services.

    Flash forward a couple of decades and the fact of the diversity hadn’t changed, although the nature of it had, somewhat. The move towards a new CCAR siddur reflected the need to relate to the things Reform Jews and Reform clergy didn’t like about GOP (“sexist” language, misleading “translations,” and absence of transliteration are a few that come especially to mind), while continuing to cater to the diversity of the movement.

    Yes, there are a few elements that are consistent with the fantasy of a “universal Reform.” The egalitarianism exhibited by the inclusion of the imahot with the avot is one of them. I have heard no kick-back from the “core values” itemized on the URJ website at http://urj.org/about/union/affiliate/. (Full disclosure: I drafted that statement of core values as a member of the Union’s New Congregations committee.)

    The principles expounded by the institutional Reform movement (embodied primarily in North America by the URJ, CCAR, and HUC-JIR) give you the autonomy to reject whatever principles of Reform Judaism don’t make sense to you while still calling yourself a Reform Jew — but nowhere do they give you or anybody else the role of sole arbiter or even sole lexicographer. One person’s reverence is another person’s fundamentalism.

  3. Why are you citing My People’s Prayer Book when you have such disdain for its author? Hoffman was one of the four major “perpetrators” of Mishkan T’filah.

    And the structure of the service it presents is the Reform structure that has prevailed since UPB.

    Mishkan T’filah, like its predecessors, did not set out to be a siddur with commentary. It is more than a little inane to fault it for not being what it never intended to be. And none of the Orthodox or Conservative siddurim that I grew up with had commentary either.

    I grant you your right to stand by what you said. Reform Judaism grants you that right. Jesse was kind enough to characterize this as a biased, subjective, personal rant. I’ll use the word he didn’t — silly.

    • If you read my reply to Jesse, you’d see that I’m not faulting individual scholars. I love Larry Hoffman. But, as I said, a committee of people dealing with ideology politics is only a committee, not matter how many scholars are on it.

  4. No, a committee of knowledgeable scholars including two renowned academics and two experienced pulpit rabbis, designated by their rabbinical body, is not “only a committee. ” It is the responsible voice of people chosen by their peers to navigate the shoals of acceptance by 900 congregations, over a thousand rabbis and cantors, 1,499,999 congregants, who probably gave not a moment’s thought to the idiosyncratic preferences of
    any one individual, and made decisions based on in-depth knowledge of the traditions and sources of both the broad Jewish tradition and the particular traditions of the Reform movement. That those decisions are not the ones you would have made, and that you cannot live with that, says more about you than it does about the book, the process, the editors, or the movement.

  5. Upon re-reading, I realized that it might or might not be clear that the “statistic” of 1,499,999 is meant to dramatize the subtraction of one individual from the million and a half estimate typically used to describe the size of the movement, as measured by congregational membership. As I have noted before, this does not pay attention to the erev rav who are not part of the tribe but who identify with it because of its perceived sanction of their lack of observance, nor of the relative handful of thoughtful Jews who are essentially comfortable with Reform ideology but not of the strictures imposed by institutions.

  6. I can’t decide if I want to spend the time to respond to you line by line again…

    For now, I still don’t see how what you’ve posited is anything more than your own personal response to the siddur. On its own, that would be fine, but as I noted previously, you’ve established your own personal feelings and opinions as the standard that all others should have, and you unfairly call into question the sanity of those who created and those who use the siddur.

    In your response to me, you did raise some valid points about the use of AS (though note that you commented more on the people who use it than the siddur itself) and the waste of paper in MT ( I agree wholeheartedly with you here). But in almost all of your response, you haven’t laid out a coherent argument as to how MT is “bad.” (It would be nice if you established what you mean by “bad,” also)

    When you note that the siddur contains “tacky poetry,” it’s clear to me that you’re letting your own tastes and preferences get in the way of a thoughtful analysis of the siddur. This poetry may be incredibly moving, spiritual, and important to others (and I say this as a person who is totally unmoved by it).

    I’m not asking you to “endorse” ever single siddur – that wouldn’t be fair or reasonable. I’m not even asking you to like Mishkan T’filah. But you seem to be calling into question the validity of MT, so I am asking you to understand that MT was created thoughtfully for Reform Jews in North America, and to this date, I am not aware of any mass uproar against it from its users.

    I’m still quite interested in hearing if you have a truly critical analysis of the siddur. Maybe start with your comments on the kaddish and how MT disregards its role?

    Or perhaps you should start with analyzing the objectives of MT, which you’ve assumed to be two-fold, as you note: “Objective one is to be Reform and objective two is to be a siddur.”

    I’m not so sure these are the actual objectives. Those seem to be a little to simplistic. How about checking out these resources and seeing if the siddur holds up to what it was intended to be:

    http://urj.org/worship/mishkan/introducing/
    http://urj.org/worship/mishkan/faq/

    As Rabbi Frishman noted in 2004:
    “The work of the new siddur began truly with a survey, not of theology and clergy, but of laity (my emphasis)… In 1994, Rabbi Peter Knobel and Dan Schechter received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to survey worshippers in Reform congregations throughout the United States to determine what they sought from a new prayer book. What were the results? Strongly articulated were the desires for transliteration, meaningful God language, expanded God language, relevant and compelling English prayer, faithful translation, and a response to the feminist critique.”

    Seems to me that those are the established objectives of the siddur! And it also seems to me that MT holds up pretty well to them.

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