Hebrew in Mishkan T’filah, Our New Reform Prayerbook

Sermon delivered January 16, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Temple Administrators have a joke: There are only two temperatures in the Sanctuary: too hot and too cold. Rabbis don’t, but could, have an analogous lament: The two most common complaints about Reform Jewish worship services are: (1) There’s too much Hebrew in the Service; and (2) There’s not enough Hebrew in the service.

The language of prayer has been a somewhat contentions issue since Reform Judaism was founded in Germany, with changes to the worship initiated almost two centuries ago. One reason: As European Jews became increasingly integrated into the societies in which they lived, they spoke German, French, or whatever the language of the land, rather than Yiddish. Fewer Jews understood Hebrew. They found little meaning in a service conducted entirely in Hebrew. They couldn’t even understand the sermon!

Traditionalists were shocked and offended by even the smallest change in the service. Language certainly wasn’t the only issue, but opponents of Reform claimed that Jewish worship should not be offered in any language other than Hebrew. An early anti-Reform activist taught, hadash asur min ha-Torah, “Anything new is prohibited by the Torah.” Thus did Orthodox Judaism begin, as a reaction to Reform.

On the point about language, at least, the Reformers had the better argument. Rabbinic writings from two millennia ago tell us that a meturgeman, or translator, was a widely known synagogue functionary. From what we can glean from the sources, the Torah would be read in Hebrew, while the meturgeman would shout out the translation, louder than the Torah reader’s Hebrew, for all to hear and understand.

When Reform Judaism came to America, it had two sacred tongues: Hebrew and German. Both of those languages are found, alongside English, in a prayerbook that sits in a place of honor in our home. You see, I’m at least a fifth generation Reform Jew, which I can prove by taking out the Yom Kippur prayerbook embossed in gold with the name of my great-great-grandfather, Gotlieb Lemle of New Orleans. Even in the late 19th Century, southern Reform Jews prayed in more than one language, one of them Hebrew. Half of them probably complained that their Rabbi used too much Hebrew, while the other half lamented the alleged absence of the holy tongue.

My great-great grandfather’s prayerbook actually predates the Union Prayerbook, the oldest Reform siddur that was actually used by people living today. From the late 19th Century to 1975, that small blue volume was the veritable “Book of Common Prayer” for Reform Jews. The prayer service flowed perfectly, almost entirely in English, on the left side of every two-page spread. The Hebrew was present, but easily ignored, on the facing page.

If few 19th Century German Jews understood Hebrew, almost no American Reform Jews in the middle of the 20th Century could even read the ancient script. The venerable generation of our own congregation recalls a day when only the Shema and the Kaddish were offered by the congregation in Hebrew. Precious few boys, and no girls, studied Hebrew in Reform Religious Schools. Bar Mitzvah was extremely rare – it was banned in some Temples, though not here – and Bat Mitzvah was unknown in Reform Judaism. Hebrew worship was known to Reform Jews as something that Conservative and Orthodox Jews did. We prayed in English.

And we were proud. You see, Reform Jews knew and proclaimed a little “secret.” In our less charitable moments, we would say that Conservative Jews might be able to rattle off the Hebrew, but they had no idea what they were saying. Reform Jews could boast that at least we knew the meaning of the prayers. We said them in English, so everybody could understand.

My maternal grandmother was particularly proud of praying exclusively in English. I recall taking her to Reform Jewish worship in Jerusalem, when I was in my first year of rabbinical school there. She was horrified that the prayers were in Hebrew. Try though I might, I never could get her to understand that Hebrew is actually the daily spoken language in Israel!

Of course, I had celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, and my sister had become a Bat Mitzvah. We could read Hebrew. We didn’t understand Hebrew as kids, but at least it wasn’t foreign to us. Moreover, my generation was born after the establishment of the State of Israel and matured after the Six Day War. Connection to Israel, and to the Jewish people around the world, was not such a foreign concept to us.

For my generation, prayer in Hebrew gained meaning. Offering at least some of our prayers in the sacred tongue felt more authentically Jewish. We felt good about our competence to read the prayers in the language of our ancestors. And when we traveled, we could go into a synagogue, anywhere in the world, no matter what the language of the land, and be familiar with at least part of the service.

Of course, we continued to value prayer in English as well. Understanding our worship matters to the younger generation, too.

Next week, we shall take up our new Reform prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, for the first time as our regular, weekly siddur. Many of us will find the greatest inspiration in the new English readings, which are magnificently poetic.

Hebrew, though, is not relegated to secondary status. We will have choices for each part of the service, and the first choice we will be offered, each time, is Hebrew. When we choose one of the English offerings, it will generally conclude with one sentence of Hebrew, known as the hatimah, or “signature” of the prayer. That one line at the end of almost every English prayer is the only way that Mishkan T’filah can be said to have more Hebrew than our prayerbooks of the recent past.

A fierce debate was waged over the Hebrew while Mishkan T’filah was in production. The editors planned that every single Hebrew word would be transliterated, written out in English letters. Yes, some folks find transliteration difficult to read. For most who don’t read Hebrew, though, transliteration makes the Hebrew more accessible. People who haven’t learned to read Hebrew can read along with everybody else.

Some Rabbis objected to transliteration in Mishkan T’filah. Why, they asked, should anybody bother to learn Hebrew, if the transliteration would always be available?

That argument has legs. We do want our students to learn to read Hebrew. We want them to feel competent as Jews and to be able to participate in Jewish worship wherever their lives may take them.

On balance, I agree with the editors. Everybody should be able to participate in our services. Learning to read Hebrew, as valuable as that is, should not be the price of admission to meaningful worship.

Thankfully, though, Mishkan T’filah is also available in a version without transliteration. Can you guess which one we’re giving to our Hebrew students? The Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls you will see up here in the future will not have transliteration in their own prayerbooks!

Mishkan T’filah will offer us the best of our Jewish tradition: prayers in the sacred Hebrew language of our people and of our tradition.

Mishkan T’filah exemplifies the best of our Reform heritage: English renditions that are faithful to the original and which speak to the soul, prayers we will all understand.

Mishkan T’filah permits each congregation to balance between Hebrew and English in keeping with local custom. That’s what we will do, two different ways, here in the Wulfe Sanctuary and in the Barshop Auditorium.

Mishkan T’filah makes worship welcoming to every person, Hebrew reader or not, with the opportunity to pray in the language of our tradition and in the language of our daily lives.

Come back next week, and the week after, and for years to come, and pray with us, in Hebrew and in English, with meaning.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May that be God’s will. And let us say, in Hebrew and in English:

Amen.