When One Prayerbook Gives Way to Another

Sermon delivered April 22, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Gates of Prayer arrived in the mid-1970s. Change was in the air. Within a relatively short period of time, the civil rights and women’s liberation movements had brought such swift departures from long-time injustices, that change seemed rather natural at that time.

Still, some folks were uncomfortable. The Temple is a second home, particularly for its long-time members. Changes, no doubt, made some folks feel less at home. The Union Prayer Book was, for so many, an old friend. The prayerbook you have held in your hands tonight is small, and so easy to handle. Its language is magnificently poetic.

Who could argue, though, that the time had come for a new prayerbook? The Union Prayer Book had been around for a very long time. Even the “newly revised” edition, which was only slightly changed from the earlier version, was published in 1948. The Union Prayer Book did not take into account the two most significant events in twentieth century Jewish life, namely the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. With the exception of a rather small number of congregations, exceptionally concretized in the classical traditions of Reform Judaism, Gates of Prayer was adopted, nearly universally and very quickly.

Less than fifteen years after it came into print, though, Gates of Prayer was already on its way to obsolescence. The first issue to arise was that Gates of Prayer uses masculine pronouns to refer to God. Most Rabbis and rabbinical students, if not many lay people, saw this factor as quite an anachronism, as early as the mid-1980s. By the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in 1989, a new prayer booklet was already in use, an adaptation of Gates of Prayer that eventually evolved into what many of us refer to as “Gates of Gray,” officially known as Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays, the smaller gray prayerbook that we use at our Early Shabbat Service.

Soon, a committee was appointed to develop a permanent, new prayerbook for Reform Judaism. I recall well a comment made to me privately by my Rabbi from Houston, Samuel Karff, in 1991, shortly after he completed his term as President of the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis. He believed that Gates of Prayer had been in print too briefly for a new prayerbook to be considered. Indeed, he regarded the appointment of a group to develop a new prayerbook so soon as a shandah, a disgrace, and that Rabbis would be seen as foisting a new prayerbook upon their congregations before that new-book scent had worn off of Gates of Prayer.

Meanwhile, many congregations began creating and adopting their own prayerbooks. The advantage of doing so is that each synagogue and its own Rabbi can develop liturgy uniquely suited to themselves. The disadvantage is found when we contemplate the name of the prayerbook we are using tonight: Union Prayer Book. The original idea that led to the creation of this prayerbook was that Reform congregations throughout North America ought to be united by one common prayerbook. Many Reform Jews continue to believe that all Reform Jews should be able to worship from the same prayerbook, granting us comfort and familiarity as we move from one Reform Temple to another, or at least as we visit one another.

Today, though, we find ourselves among the last Reform congregations still utilizing Gates of Prayer. Many of our fellow Reform congregations have adopted the interim prayerbook, which I’ve referred to as “Gates of Gray.” In fact, so many congregations today use so many different prayerbooks, that we find ourselves in 2005 with no “Union” prayerbook.

As Rabbi Karff had originally hoped, the committee charged with developing a new prayerbook for Reform Judaism moved slowly, very slowly. From that initial conversation in 1991, fifteen years will have passed before the projected 2006 publication of Mishkan T’fillah, as the new prayerbook is to be called. Hundreds of congregations, including our own, engaged in pilot studies of this prayerbook about three years ago. Mishkan T’fillah elicited a range of responses here, with many of our regular worshipers rather liking it, others rejecting it, and all offering suggestions for improvement. At the same time, a fair number of our sister Reform congregations eagerly gobbled up additional copies of the pilot prayerbooks, so that they could pray regularly from Mishkan T’fillah without delay, even though these test copies have paper covers and are rife with errors, to be expected from a pilot prayerbook that had explicitly not been proof-read!

Mishkan T’fillah is difficult to describe to those who have not seen it. Some will be put off quickly, because the title is Hebrew and because the book will be made available only in the Hebrew-opening, right to left, version, “backwards,” as many people call it. Nevertheless, Mishkan T’fillah offers some advantages that almost everyone will quickly embrace. Because it will be available in a two separate volumes, with Sabbath and Weekday services in one volume and the Festival services in another, each book should be lighter and smaller than Gates of Prayer. Mishkan T’fillah offers transliteration of all Hebrew passages, right next to the Hebrew, making more of our services accessible to folks who don’t know how to read Hebrew. The English selections are much more poetic than what one finds in Gates of Prayer, without returning to the old English of the Union Prayer Book. Passages that are particularly meaningful to long-time Reform Jews are retained.

For those who are wondering, to my knowledge, nobody is contemplating a replacement of Gates of Repentance, our High Holy Day prayerbook.

So, what shall we do here at Temple Beth-El?

Our Religious Practices Committee has been deliberating the matter for some time, beginning with the pilot study and continuing this year. The group we honor tonight, our members of fifty years or more, has been most honorably represented on this committee by Jane K. Dreyfus, Hattie Lee Gleichenhaus, and Jesse Wulfe.

Temple Beth-El will not be among the first to adopt Mishkan T’fillah, despite the strong desire of some of our congregants that we do so. Our congregation must remain united, and we need to appreciate the appropriate pace of change for this unique Temple.

At the same time, we have adopted an interim solution, to begin after the High Holy Days. We shall unify with one prayerbook for all Temple Shabbat services, the aforementioned “Gates of Gray.” Unfortunately, some in our Temple have the mistaken impression that this small gray volume is an “alternative” prayerbook, because we have prayed from it previously only at the Early Shabbat Service. The truth, as our Religious Practices Committee unanimously discovered, is that it will work equally well for a Classical Reform service at 8:00 P.M. Many people will appreciate that the Rabbis will read what is written in the prayerbook, rather than changing the words on the basis of gender language. Others are happy that the prayerbook is small and light. Many will rejoice that it’s still available English-opening.

Parenthetically, I think it important to note that we don’t need to purchase many new copies of “Gates of Gray” at all. The few that we need to buy are being underwritten by a generous donor. Those who have donated inscribed prayerbooks can rest assured that we will direct those funds only to purchase prayerbooks that are intended for long-term, not interim, use.

I suspect that very few will mourn the loss of Gates of Prayer, now widely referred to as “Gates of Blue.” The big, light blue prayerbook offered relief to many in the mid-1970s, but never gained the beloved status of its predecessor.

Nevertheless, the change to Mishkan T’fillah will be more difficult than was the mid-1970s switch to Gates of Prayer, not only here in San Antonio, but throughout our Reform Movement. We live in an era vastly different from the 1970s. Many people feel that the world is changing at a pace that is far too fast. We yearn to hold on to the familiar. Especially in our synagogue home, we hope that we will always feel comfortable, never foreign or out of date. Mishkan T’fillah is creative and prayerful. It is also very different.

Ultimately, I suspect, Mishkan T’fillah will become the prayerbook at Temple Beth-El. The process may take some years, and we may experience other interim steps. We will be urged on by our youth; Mishkan T’fillah is already the prayerbook that they have come to know and love at youth conclaves. The future is already familiar to them. Indeed, as concerned as we may be about explaining change to our long-time members, our youth will demand explanations of why we haven’t kept up with the times.

In the long run, Temple Beth-El will regard itself as it is, a founding member of the Union for Reform Judaism, a mainstream Reform Temple. As different as it is from the Union Prayer Book we are using tonight, Mishkan T’fillah will be the new “Union” prayerbook. It will be the prayerbook that will unite Reform congregations in the 21st century. In the end, Temple Beth-El will not want to stand alone.

Our Rabbis have taught, “Kol hathalot kashot,” “All beginnings are difficult.” Moving to a new prayerbook, and even to our interim solution, will involve some dislocation. We will all need to be sensitive, listen to each other and hear one another, through times of change.

Our Rabbis also taught, “Al tifros min hatzibbur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community.” These words, engraved on the cornerstone of our Phillips Community Building, remind us that we will not long want to be apart from the Reform Jewish world throughout North America, in which Temple Beth-El has been such an important role since 1874.

May we proceed with patience, and with courage, in search of unity, as once again, one prayerbook gives way to another.

Amen.