Archive | August, 2010

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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A tale of two ma(c)hzors

Over at New Voices, my review of two new machzorim, pluralist Machzor Eit Ratzon and Conervative Mahzor Lev Shalem, is now available. Below is a much longer version with more detail about liturgical minutiae and aspects of their designs.

A Reform rabbi I know tells the story of a man who came into the synagogue in the day of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. The man saw shelves and shelves of an unfamiliar blue siddur called Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement’s 1973 prayer book. He picked one up and began to flip through it, wondering what it was. The rabbi saw that he had come in and came over to greet the man. Before the rabbi could say so much as “Shabbat Shalom,” the man asked, “Rabbi, what is this book? Where’s the red one?” The red one he was referring to was Gates of Repentance, the blue siddur’s companion machzor, used only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

New siddurim, however surprising an unfamiliar one may have been to the man in the story, are a dime a dozen. New ones come out every year, ranging everywhere from unique siddurim that record the practice of one individual congregation to new siddurim from one of the large movements that will come to be used in congregations all over.

However, machzorim–those heavy-as-a-brick, byzantine volumes full of liturgy both strongly evocative and totally unfamiliar, used only twice a year–are another story. The birth and publication of a new machzor is a rare event indeed. This year is twice times blessed then, to see the publication of two new ones. Both the Conservative movement’s new Mahzor Lev Shalem and Rutgers University math professor Joseph G. Rosenstein’s new machzor, Machzor Eit Ratzon, a companion to his 2003 Siddur Eit Ratzon, are out in times for the High Holy Days.. While Conservative ideology, or Conservative demeanor at least, may be familiar to many, Eit Ratzon’s traditional egalitarian approach will be new to most. The cover reads: “A traditional prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with new meditations, commentaries, translations, and prayers.”

They are as remarkable for their similarities as they are for their differences. Both are clearly the products of their creators, Lev Shalem is a Conservative creation through and through, and Eit Ratzon, a product of an independent chavurah in New Jersey, is eccentric as you would expect a machzor from such an environment to be. Both have hefty commentaries, as different as they are enlightening. Lev Shalem has a surprising visual beauty to it, while Eit Ratzon’s design has a rigid utility. Lev Shalem was created by a committee of the Conservative movement’s top scholars, while Eit Ratzon is the labor of love of a single lay-person. Continue Reading →

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Selecting a siddur for your Hillel

Crossposted to New Voices

I received an email today asking about siddurim for Hillels. I’ve anonymous-ized the email here:

I’ve followed your blog for a while–love it, by the way!–and read your post about Mishkan T’filah for Travelers.  Right now, I’m working for the Hillel at the [University of XYZ], and this is one of the siddurim we’re thinking about ordering for students.

I was wondering, after reading your post, what you think about using Mishkan T’filah in a Hillel setting.  I like it because it’s smaller and paperback, plus cheaper.  Plus I think MT allows for great flexibility for each service leader to do what s/he wants.

But I would welcome feedback!  Also, if you have any other suggestions for a Hillel siddur, that would be amazing!

There are plenty of reasons that Mishkan T’filah is the wrong choice and that the choice, in particular, of the travelers edition is a bad idea. And there are even more reasons to use another siddur in particular, which I’ll get to in a bit

If you order use MT in a Hillel setting, you’ll turn a lot of people off. Anyone who looks down their nose at Reform liturgy–and there are many–will not be enthused to see it in use. It’s true that it allows for great flexibility and it’s easy for an inexperienced service leader to use it, but MT’s lack of commentary explaining services are the way they are encourages service leaders with relatively little knowledge of liturgy to make bad decisions.

The travelers edition is a bad idea in particular because it is so flimsy. Unlike most siddurim of similar size–such as small versions of Koren Sacks, Artscroll and Sim Shalom–MT for Travelers is not made with a sturdy back for repeated use. It is made with a cheap cover of thick, glossy paper that will not last long. It may seem cheaper now, but you’ll waste money replacing them in a few years.

Luckily, there is Siddur Eit Ratzon, the creation of Rutgers math professor Joe Rosenstein. Eit Ratzon has a liberal mindset that will satisfy Reform students and a table of contents that will please students who prefer Conservative services. It is harder to use for leaders than MT, but it has such wonderful articles on prayer in the introduction and such an informative commentary, that a little bit of reading in Eit Ratzon will catch an inexperienced leader up in no time. It is fully translated and transliterated and it have the best commentary available on any liberal siddur anywhere.

The 2003 edition, with a yellow cover, is a Shabbat morning-only siddur. The 2006 edition adds services for other occasions, including Friday night. Hillels generally have much more going on on Friday night that Saturday morning, so the yellow version may be of limited use. But if you want it, Joe told me he will sell copies of the yellow Shabbat morning edition for cheap to Hillels and military groups. He also sends test copies out for people to try out.

Eit Ratzon‘s website is here and you can contact Joe at joer[at]dimacs[dot]rutgers[dot]edu.

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Your semi-annual David’s mood indicator. And the mood is good.

Life is good. So sit on the toilet and drink some gin.

I try to keep this blog on topic, posting only about liturgy and Reform here. But a few times a year, I do a little David mood indicator post. And as my summer winds down and I get ready to head back to Drew in a couple of weeks, I thought it was time for one of those.

And the mood is good.

Despite the fact that The Acorn has, apparently, no news editor going into the fall, my relationship with the paper has never felt better. I’m gonna be Features Editor, and my weekly column, which is the most fun I’ve ever had with anything at school, marches on.

A few months back I told New Voices Editor Ben Sales that his twitter was fucked up. Now I’m writing and editing for him and we’re calling this Editor at Large. And I’m gonna start getting a stipend for continuing to do the things I’m already doing. Ben and I just started a new blog feature called The Reading List, a daily round-up of news and links from around the Jewier corners of the web.

And here’s the coolest bit. Larry Yudelson from Ben Yehuda Press noticed that I had been blogging quite a bit about the ADL’s recent spasm about the thing that is neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero. So he asked me if I’d like to write about that as a part of a new series of extremely short books he’s going to publish on a wide range of Jewish topics. By short, I mean 8,000 words. So really short. But it’s a book nonetheless. And he’s going to pay me in real money.

Last night I used the phrase “my publisher” and almost shat myself.

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Brand new look, same great taste -or- Why does a blog need a mezuzah?

I had been waiting for a new theme for a long time. I wanted something similar to the old look, clean, simple and black and white. But I was frustrated with having only one sidebar. So when this new theme, Coraline, debuted on WordPress yesterday, I got to work remodeling. I’m curious to hear what regular readers think.

In a comment today, one of my most regular readers and favorite commenters, Larry Kaufman, asked:

Kudos on the new look (or am I supposed to say Word?) I spotted GOP and UPB in the masthead photo, but no MT. Is that a statement or a happenstance?

Glad you like it, Larry. There is no happenstance in that picture. And there is, in fact a Mishkan T’filah. I thought about leaving it out, but instead left in the edition I take with me when I go to Reform shuls these days. (Which is actually two pictures.)

From left to right:

  • A set of Moroccan bongos
  • Haavodah Shebalev (Israeli Reform siddur)
  • Seder HaTefillot (UK Reform siddur)
  • Two contemporary Italian rite siddurim
  • The JPS Tanakh I bought before my semester in Israel that now goes with me almost everywhere
  • Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco LGBTQXYZetc Reform siddur)
  • Gates of Prayer (the previous American Reform siddur)
  • Siddur Sim Shalom (American Conservative siddur)
  • NFTY Convention 2009 pocket Mishkan T’filah
  • Koren Sacks Hebrew-English (Israeli-British-American Modern Orthodox siddur)
  • Siddur Eit Ratzon (Mostly traditional egalitarian chavurah-ish siddur by a Rutgers math professor)
  • Union Prayer Book (Oldest movement-wide American Reform siddur)
  • Gates of Understanding (Guide to why Gates of Prayer is the way it is)
  • Siddur Rinat Yisrael (Israeli official government-endorsed Orthodox siddur)
  • The Amidah volume of My People’s Prayer Book
  • The Shabbat Morning volume of My People’s Prayer Book
  • An old sukkot machzor my mother picked up in Prague (I think)
  • A cowboy boot

I had planned to adapt the old logo and digital mezuzah banner for use in the new design, but I had this idea and ran with it. The second picture, which begins after the boot has:

  • The Lone Stars of David (glossy coffee table history of the Jews of Texas and a high school graduation present)
  • Another edition of the Union Prayer Book
  • Union Haggadah (American Reform Haggadah from the same era as the UPB
  • The door way into my room
  • The new glass mezuzah I bought in Italy earlier this summer

The mezuzah is still there for the same purpose as my bizarre old attempt at a digital mezuzah. It’s an attempt to define cyberspace as real space through a ritual object. I do this because we can do many of the same interpersonal things on this blog that we can do in a real physical space.

The books were chosen because I either like them, find them particularly interesting or because I use them a lot. There was also some attempt to make a diverse set of books.

UPDATE: JaneTheWriter jumped on what I’m now calling the blozuzah bandwagon and affixed one to the sidebar of her blog as well. Check it out.

UPDATE UPDATE: Newish Jewish added one too!

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Orthodox women leading Kab Shab, for and against

A couple weeks ago or so, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man responsible for the far left Orthodox enclave in Riverdale called Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (as well as for the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz and the left-wing seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah that the OU won’t recognize), announced that he would be permitting a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat.

To be clear about what he means by this, he does not mean Friday night services as this term occasionally means in more liberal streams. Weiss was saying that he would be allowing a woman to lead the collection of psalms, songs and piyutim that may make up the not strictly obligatory preliminary service for erev Shabbat.

Very interestingly, a commenter identified only as Josh left the following comment, which I found very enlightening:

First off, Weiss is not going from the Tanach on this- this is pure rabbinic Judaism going on here. Also, this conversation is uniquely Orthodox, which I find interesting.

The issue is as follows, from the Orthodox perspective, and very superficially: Women do not have an obligation for public (e.g. minyan) prayer. Therefore, they cannot lead public prayer. Those prayers that typify public prayer are called divrei shebikdushah. They include barchu, kaddish (not mourners), and the repetition of the amida. Kabbalat shabbat is not obligatory prayer in a loose sense- it was adopted from a kabbalistic tradition of saying prayers to welcome Shabbos. In fact, in some congregations, boys under the age of 13 lead this service.

So why can’t women lead this service? The answer seems to be along a couple of different lines:

1) This is a break from mesorah (tradition) and therefore is in and of itself a bad thing to do.

2) Probably the most compelling reason (to the extent that any of them are) is kavod hatsibur, which is “honor of the congregation”. This reason is also generally the one that disallows women from getting aliyot/reading torah.

3) We’ll be like the conservative and reform movements.

For more on this, see

Don’t shoot the messenger on this: I’m perfectly fine with a woman leading kabbalat shabbat, just trying to explain what’s at play. The fact is that Orthodox Judaism is at its weakest explaining why women can’t lead KS (as opposed to, say, Shacharit).

My only quibble with Josh is that there is anything even remotely compelling to the notion that a congregation the minimizes the participation of women has any more honor than any other congregation. But other than that, very well put.

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“My tradition is more real!” “No mine is!” “Nuh-uh.” “Yeah-huh.”

Crossposted to Jewschool

As noted at Jewschool:

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.

So then Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi wrote a post at his blog, the thrust of which was, “Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on ‘Torah true Judaism'” because, Miller says in the post, Orthodox Jews change things too.

In response to that–its moments like this that make me love blogging, re-blogging, posting, responding, etc–Hyim Shafner, an Orthodox rabbi and contributor to the blog Morethodoxy, wrote–and I paraphrase liberally here–“Yeah, we change. But we know the Shulchan Aruch better. So we’re Torah True.”

It’s notoriously hard to figure out what the Torah really says.  But here it’s not even clear what Torah we’re talking about. In our tradition, Torah can mean, most narrowly, the Five Books of Moses. It can also mean the whole Tanach. And sometimes is refers to all of Jewish law.

So when Miller says that things change, he’s cluing us into the fact that things that may seem sacrosanct now were once innovative. Monogamy and the daily requirement of prayer are innovations that do not come from the Five Books of Moses, just as a woman leading Kab Shab at HIR is an innovation for that community–and definitely not an issue that the Torah directly says much of anything about.

But when Shafner says, “Yeah, but no”–again, I’m paraphrasing here–what he means is that it’s narrow and ignorant for a rabbi–like Miller–to claim that Torah is just Torah. Torah is also the broad, sprawling body of work that is Jewish law, writ large.

There’s plenty more to be said about this, but it’s my bed time. So I’ll end by saying this:

It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when people claim that something is any more or less legitimately what that something is because it has or has not changed over time. It drives me nuts when we talk about Jewish practice, the Constitution of the United States and just about everything else. Change is the only constant, friends. Now that’s miSinai. Good night.

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