Siddur Eit Ratzon vs. Mishkan T’filah, Part I

Two things happened recently. BZ challenged me to do a full comparison of Siddur Eit Ratzon and Mishkan T’fillah. Then, last weekend Danny Moss told me that if I keep bitching about Mishkan T’filah and not doing anything about it, I’m just an obnoxious whiner.

So I shall now spend a few days of  blog time here attempting to prove that Siddur Eit Ratzon is a better sidur for the Reform movement than Mishkan T’filah is, that SER is evenything MT could have and should have been, but failed to be.

We’ll begin with some definitions. I’m going to define three terms I’ll use throughout these posts. Each is a definition of a liturgical style. However, we will leave aside the issue of aesthetic trappings and focus on liturgical structure and content. That means we will be ignoring such things as cantors and choirs; guitars and organs; Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach.


Reform (little or big R, take your pick) liturgy

Reform liturgy may reflect any number of structural traditions and changes. What makes it Reform is the decision-making process that leads to any changes and abridgments and the content of the prayers. Given that Reform is a “big tent” movement we can expect a wide variety in terms of content.

We can expect an urge to create gender-sensitive translations accompanied by an urge to make the Hebrew itself gender-sensitive. This may include everything from always accompanying the word Avot with the word Imahot to the compulsion to include the names of female biblical characters alongside the names of male biblical characters to the urge to change highly patriarchal labels for God. (Ex: MT replaces Malkeinu with Shomreinu in one place). From the more traditional Jews in the Reform midst, however, we often see discomfort with all of these efforts. In the case of the male characters, they say that they are mentioned here on their own merit rather than because of their maleness. In the case of Imahot, they will point that Avot is implicitly a gender-neutral word already because it can refer to both mothers and fathers due to the mechanics of Hebrew gender grammar.

We can also expect to see at least some discomfort with messianic allusions within the text of the liturgy. This discomfort may take on an extreme form; the erasure all mentions of such a character or concept from the liturgy, going so far as to exclude even mentions of King David that are unrelated to messianic imagery. Or it may be milder; we find some Reform Jews who are comfortable with the concept, yet highly skeptical of it.

However, in the case of imagery involving the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, we find a universal and extreme discomfort with the idea.

Also, within Reform, we find the urge to pray entirely in Hebrew and entirely in the vernacular along with a the urge to find a middle ground with some Hebrew and some vernacular. Along with this, we find the urge to include vernacular readings which may replace or supplement the Hebrew prayers with poetic, interpretive readings.


Traditional (small T) liturgy

Traditional liturgy is what we find in orthodox sidurim such as Artscroll, Koren, and Rinat Yisrael. It has various forms and various levels of stringency, but is marked by a strict adherence to a prescribed, evolved structure. Within Reform liturgy, there are many who are more traditional than others, desiring a service with a more complete structure. Here, traditional will refer to that urge to create a Reform service that has a complete or mostly complete traditional structure. These traditionalists are a minority, but a loud one. They want things like Musaf and a full complement of Kadishes throughout the service. Despite this, all of what is discussed in terms of content in my definition of Reform liturgy still applies to these traditionalists within the big tent of Reform.


Liberal liturgy

This is not an often discussed liturgical faction within Reform. I even had to make up this word for it. What I’m talking about here is the group Reform Jews who want to do eastern meditation, shiviti meditation, do yoga, and chant the first line of the Shma like a mantra for ten minutes.


Liberal liturgical and traditional liturgical tendencies within Reform Judaism are often seen as opposing forces. Indeed, they have very different goals and tendencies. Yet, both co-exist, along with a larger middle ground liturgical contingent, within the first term I defined: Reform. It was the explicit goal of Mishkan T’filah to create a big tent sidur for a big tent movement: It was to be a sidur that would allow one person to at the liberal end of the spectrum to lead a service he or she would be comfortable with and another person at the traditional end to lead a service of his or her preferred style and structure. It would also allow everyone all over the middle of the spectrum to lead services allow over the map.

And in the case of all over the map, we have a sidur that delivered. But the editors did not see fit to allow those on the fringes to lead the services they want. The sidur includes no help with meditation and leaves those who would like to say Kadish Shalem grasping.

There is, however, another option. There is Siddur Eit Ratzon, developed by Rutgers University math professor Joe Rosenstein. And I shall now attempt to prove that is the true Reform sidur of our era. More on that tomorrow.


8 responses to “Siddur Eit Ratzon vs. Mishkan T’filah, Part I

  1. Pingback: Siddur Eit Ratzon vs. Mishkan T’filah, Part II - Comparative layout «

  2. It was to be a sidur that would allow one person to at the liberal end of the spectrum to lead a service he or she would be comfortable with and another person at the traditional end to lead a service of his or her preferred style and structure. It would also allow everyone all over the middle of the spectrum to lead services allow over the map.

    I’m not sure it’s really a spectrum. Personally I’m not into meditation, yoga, etc. (my liturgical preferences are macroscopically traditional and microscopically progressive — i.e. I say musaf with the imahot). But I know people who are into both macroscopically-traditional Hebrew prayer and meditation/yoga/etc., but NOT the modes of prayer that you describe as in “the middle” (stereotypically “Reform” modes, with English “readings”, etc.).

  3. Whether it’s a spectrum or not, it’s a big range and this sidur was designed to appeal to a wide range of litrugrical preferences.

    And it fails to do that. That’s my point.

  4. The fact that you may have found one Siddur that you feel is better designed to appeal to a wide range of people doesn’t necessarily follow that MT fails.

    I feel like you’re setting up MT as a straw man in these posts. There is a lot of room in MT for different kinds of services. Is it perfect? great? maybe not.

    Have you sampled the “Paths of Faith” (Chaim Stern) Siddur?

  5. ML – I have sampled Paths of Faith. Indeed, I own a copy. I haven’t explored it fully, but it looks to me like GOP plus Meitim. If you’d like to draw my attention to something more interesting about it, please do so. I simply haven’t found the time or the need to go through it fully yet.

    As for MT as a straw man, perhaps. But I felt this way about MT before I had encountered SER. I felt that MT was disenfranchising myself and people I care about by essentially saying, “If this sidur doesn’t work for you, you’re out of our tent.”

    I offer SER up as a better alternative to a sidur that I see as inconsistent and ill-conceived. More on consistency in a future post.

  6. I actually mention Paths of Faith as a good example of what the movement -didn’t- want. If you like Gates of Prayer (or any of the pre-MT siddurim), you’ll probably like Paths of Faith. I am curious to your thoughts of that siddur, if only because I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and like what you have to say, even when I (slightly) disagree.

    I like what I’ve seen of SER. My point was ontly that MT and SER are pretty similar, compared to the Gates of Prayer or some of the other reform siddurim.

    I think it’s a lot easier to do a more traditional service with MT than with any of the old Reform siddurim though. I think “disenfranchising” is a pretty harsh word.

    And then there’s the “big tent” issue. Liking a “big tent” is liking the idea of being comfortable being uncomfortable. I think an “open” tent is a good thing but bigger isn’t better.

  7. I like Gates of Prayer, but only because it make me feel comfortable because I grew up with it. But I’m only comfortable with Big Blue. The little grey one does nothing for me because it’s a purely tactile thing.

    Of course you can do a MORE traditional service with MT. But you can’t do a structurally TRADITIONAL service with it. End of line.

  8. Pingback: Returning to the fold, part two « Minhag In Progress: Incursions into the Void

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