The Jewish Prayerbook
To the editor:
In his paper “Modernizing the Jewish Prayer-book” (April 1954), Theodor H. Gaster subjects various modern prayerbooks—all naturally emanating from non-Orthodox circles, who alone recognize the existence of the problem—to critical analysis. In dealing with Reform, he quite properly utilizes the official Union Prayer Book, as well as a few works by individual leaders of the movement. But in dealing with Conservatism he mentions only the prayerbooks or the Memorial Services published by individual rabbis. He passes in silence over the official Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book (1946) of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of America, which is in actual use in several hundred Conservative congregations throughout the land.
Dr. Gaster’s failure to reckon with this official prayerbook of the Conservative movement is all the more striking as the basic principles he upholds in his article are precisely those which, along with others, guided its editing. Thus, Dr. Gaster objects chiefly to the assumption that a prayerbook must be adjusted exclusively to the contemporary scene, and to the failure to realize that the idiom of ideas is necessarily fluid. Now the guiding principles set forth in the Foreword of the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book emphasize the importance of continuity with tradition, and insist that the prayerbook is ruined when approached in a spirit of literalism.
Dr. Gaster urges the retention of the traditional concepts of Zion, the Messiah, and the Chosen People. This, too, is exactly what is done in this prayerbook. He pleads for the traditional treatment of death and immortality in non-dogmatic terms. This prayerbook preserves the traditional Hebrew text relative to tehiyat hammetim, translating it in such general terms as “Who calls the dead to life everlasting.”
Having served as chairman of the Board of Editors of the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, I am aware it may be criticized for inadequacies, but it should not have been ignored.
In the zeal of his objections to a merely contemporaneous prayerbook, Dr. Gaster overlooks another principle, whch is discussed in the Foreword to the aforementioned volume—the requirement that a prayerbook be relevant to the needs and ideals of the worshipper. Since Judaism is basically non-dogmatic in temper, fluidity of interpretation with regard to the principles of belief is possible, as Dr. Gaster notes. But he has not reckoned with the fact that those who no longer look forward to the restoration of animal sacrifices on Mt. Zion, for example, find it difficult to continue to pray “there we shall offer the sacrifices obligatory upon us.” So, too, there are many moderns who find it difficult to accept the traditional blessing of thanksgiving for not having been born a woman. As a historian of religion, Dr. Gaster should not need to be reminded that the Jewish prayerbook is not a museum piece and that it has undergone extensive changes through the centuries.
Particularly in view of Dr. Gaster’s trenchant criticism of the efforts of others to interpret the traditional prayerbook in contemporary terms, his own attempts in this essay are, I regret to say, disappointing. At times he fails even to recognize that there is a difference between the traditional view and his own humanistic approach. This is true, for example, of his rendering of the morning prayer Elohai Neshamah, which does not “express the idea that the soul will live on in posterity, in memory and in the impact of individual lives and works upon the future.” What the Hebrew says is: “Thou art destined to take my soul from me and restore it to me in the hereafter (leatid labho) .“ Very definitely the prayer does affirm faith in the resurrection. . . .
(Rabbi) Robert Gordis
Belle Harbor, New York