Shabbat shalom. I’m going to do something a bit different today, and not talk about the Torah portion, but rather the contents of our prayer service.
I would like to start with a bit of background. In the fall I participated on the Synagogue Council’s bi-annual Unity Mission to New York. The purpose of this trip is to explore both the distinctions among the various streams of Judaism, and what we have in common. This was a profound experience, and I recommend this trip to others. I wrote about the Unity Mission in the HBT newsletter a few months ago, but if you missed it, my article (last I checked) can be found on the Synagogue Council’s website home page.
The timing of today’s talk should have been perfect – last Sunday was to be a reunion of the Unity Mission participants. But our dear friend the blizzard-of-the-week canceled that gathering. I had originally planned to reflect on the Unity Mission, and the reunion would have refreshed my thinking. So I decided to go in another direction.
Reflecting on the experience during the Mission of attending multiple services that are conducted by the other streams gave me the idea to discuss the Reconstructionist liturgy. I’m sure there were lots of these conversations during the HBT affiliation process, but that was a long time ago, and I thought it might be helpful and interesting to review the changes our movement in general, and our synagogue in particular, have made. This may be of special interest to you, because the group that attends Shabbat services tends to be more traditional than our community as a whole.
During the Unity Mission, at one point we were discussing the differences in t’fillot that we had participated in. I pointed out that you really have to be paying attention to notice how a Reconstructionist service – at least at HBT – differs from a Conservative service.
So I’m going to pay attention. In the introduction to Kol Haneshama (the Reconstructionist siddur) it says that “…[E]ach generation should act in light of its own Jewish sensibilities, moral strivings, exploration of inherited tradition, and spiritual search.” I think there are five categories of how the Reconstructionist movement has changed the liturgy in light of our sensibilities, values, tradition, and spiritual search:
· God acting in the world (individual reward and punishment; bodily resurrection)
· Equality among men and women
· No desire to return to sacrificial Judaism, or messianism
One of the theological principles of Reconstructionism is the rejection of the concept that the Jewish people are “chosen” or “special” among the nations of the world. We just finished the Torah service, which has one of the most obvious distinctions between the Reconstructionist service and a traditional service – it is obvious, because we do both versions, letting the person who has the Aliyah choose the version s/he is most comfortable with – “kervanu l’avodato” – “who has drawn us to your service” vs. “bachar banu m’kol ha’aminim” – who chose us from among all of the peoples.
You probably also notice that our members can read three different versions of Aleynu (p. 445). Most people here read the first version, which was included in the 1945 Reconstructionist siddur, and I’m not sure if anyone reads the middle one, which was developed some years later. The Aleynu at the bottom of the page is the traditional version, which has the phrase “sheh lo asahnu k’goyei ha’artzot …” – translated here as “who made us different from the other nations of the Earth, and situated us in quite a different spot, and made our daily lot another kind from theirs, and given us a destiny uncommon in this world.” The 1945 version replaces this phrase with “who gave us teachings of truth and planted eternal life within us.”
God acting in the world/individual reward and punishment/bodily resurrection:
One example of this is that during the Amidah the traditional liturgy is “m’chayei hametim” – will raise the dead; Reconstructionists say “m’chayei kol chay” – who gives life to living things.
From the introduction to Kol Haneshama: “The classical translation of the name Yahweh is ‘Lord’, a masculine noun that does not work because of its gender, and it does not work as living imagery. Furthermore, it is not consistent with a theology that stresses God’s immanence – God made manifest through human action, through nature, and through the workings of the human heart.” In our siddur God’s name is translated as a descriptive name in half-size capital letters.
E.g.: The Halleluyah prayer on p. 227 – Hallelu et Adonai is translated as Hail the OMNIPRESENT.
Equality among men and women:
We include the matriarchs at the beginning of the Amidah, but many Conservative synagogues now do this. (Hey, but we did it first, and we still get props for inventing the Bat Mitzvah.) Later in the Amidah, we add the phrase “Magen Avraham v’ezrat Sarah” – the shield of Abraham and help of Sarah.
No desire to return to sacrificial Judaism or messianism:
We have eliminated the musaf portion of the service, and instead usually have a reading of poetry or something intended to be inspirational. The Musaf Amidah corresponds to the additional sacrifice that was offered in the Temple on Shabbat and festivals. The commentary in the siddur says that “Because Reconstructionists do not anticipate or hope for the rebuilding of the Temple, we do not feel a need to retain … its emphasis on animal sacrifice.”
So those are the five categories I found, and some examples of each one. I would like to close with a word about this week’s parshah. This week’s Torah reading is a fairly detailed description of instructions for constructing the Ark of the Covenant. T’rumah is translated as gifts – the gifts that the Jewish people contribute to build the Ark. Now, you might think that this would be a good segue, and expect me to make a pitch at this point for donating to HBT, but that’s not what I was going to say.
In the commentary in Etz Chaim, the editors ask the question: “After the life-altering experience of standing at Sinai, how does one keep the feeling of Sinai present?” One way to maintain this feeling “is by creating a sacred space, fashioning a physical site to represent the presence of God in the midst of the community.” As Reconstructionists, we not only create a physical space, but we adapt the prayers and the meaning of the words so that the service is relevant to us and our values, in order to enable us to keep the feeling of Sinai present. Shabbat shalom.