What makes a siddur ‘Liberal’? Having published several siddurim for over 100 years, Liberal Judaism in Britain can readily provide answers to this question. Our first answer emerges from the simple fact that LJ has published several siddurim – or to be more accurate, several prayer books and one siddur – as well as several prayer books for the High Holy Days and one machzor. The change in the designation – from English to Hebrew – also tells us something about what makes a siddur ‘Liberal’. One of our classical Liberal forebears, Lily Montagu, gets to the heart of the matter. In 1899, three years before the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902, Lily Montagu declared:
Together we must sift, with all reverence the pure from the impure in the laws which our ancestors formulated in order to satisfy the needs of the age…
Liberal Judaism from the outset responded to ‘the needs of the age’ – and by definition, the needs of the age change: hence the need for succeeding generations to create new prayer books/siddurim. So, we have our first answer.
Another answer can be discerned in a statement made by the second ‘M’ in the triumvirate, Claude Montefiore. In one of his early sermons at a Jewish Religious Union Shabbat service, Claude Montefiore argued:
Religion needs the mind; it needs thought and study, as well as ardour and love… Where Jewish students, or rather Jewish teachers, so often fail is that they learn the answers of past ages to past problems, but hide their ears and envelop their minds from the questions and problems of today.
Here we find Claude Montefiore reformulating Lily Montagu’s stance in terms of ‘the questions and problems of today’, while drawing out a crucial emphasis in Liberal Judaism on intellectual engagement: ‘Religion needs the mind.’
Of course, it’s impossible to quote from the first two of the three ‘Ms’, without quoting from the third: Rabbi Israel Mattuck:
Judaism cannot for all time be confined in a form given it in the past. It must develop as life changes and human thought grows… Judaism… was always a developing religion. Rabbinic Judaism developed out of Biblical Judaism; the Bible itself records a development of Judaism. Liberal Judaism is its latest development.
Israel Mattuck drew out a third element at the heart of Liberal Judaism: the awareness that Judaism has always been ‘a developing religion.’ Even more important, in referring to Liberal Judaism as the ‘latest development’ of Judaism, he implied that, inevitably, there would be further developments.
The needs of the age have changed since the Jewish Religious Union was founded in 1902 at the dawn of the 20th century. At that moment, the continuing progress of human civilisation seemed assured, and Liberal Judaism reflected that confidence. And so, from the outset, making services shorter, more manageable, comprehensible and modern, the major priorities, the first Liberal prayer books included much more English than Hebrew, departed completely from the structure of traditional Jewish prayer, excluded many of the poems and songs that had been added to the liturgy over the centuries, cut out the ‘additional’, musaf service with its repetition of the t’fillah, the daily prayer, and omitted all references to Temple worship.
As it turned out, while technological and scientific progress continued apace in the 20th century, the spirit of optimism and hopefulness soon exploded in the trenches of the First World War, and subsequent ‘developments’ – the economic crash and the great depression, the rise of Nazism, the Second World War and the Sho’ah – transformed forever the landscape of our assumptions about the inevitability of human progress. These devastating, cataclysmic events also transformed our sense of responsibility as Liberal Jews. After the Sho’ah, and the murder of 6 million Jews and the destruction of tens of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe, responding to the needs of the age, included being more aware of our responsibility to cherish our Jewish inheritance. And then, the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 injected Liberal Judaism, originally sceptical about Zionism, with a new sense of pride and hopefulness. And so, Service of the Heart, published in 1967, included much more Hebrew, drawing extensively on traditional liturgy, and was also very creative in its use of new material. Significantly the section on ‘Prayers and Readings for special Occasions’, included: ‘United Nations Sabbath’, ‘Israel Independence Day’, ‘In Remembrance of Israel’s Suffering’ and ‘National Service’ – in that order.
The needs of the age have changed yet again in the last 49 years since the publication of Service of the Heart. Siddur Lev Chadash, published 21 years ago in 1995, represented the most radical departure from previous liturgies – in both directions. On the one hand, reflecting Jewish tradition, Siddur Lev Chadash, was the first Liberal prayer book to be given a Hebrew name, to be printed from right to left, and to follow the structure of traditional Jewish prayer. Its Hebrew name – Lev Chadash means ‘new heart’ – also reflected an engagement with the new era of feminism and gender equality that had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, using gender inclusive language throughout. At the same time, more than any other previous prayer book, Siddur Lev Chadash is true to Claude Montefiore’s demand that ‘Judaism needs the mind; it needs thought and study…’, and includes a wonderful 248-page study anthology, based on the weekly Torah portions, and including source texts from the Bible, through rabbinic literature, up to the present day.
Siddur Lev Chadash, a magnificent tribute to the formidable erudition and profound soul of the late Rabbi John Rayner, zichrono livrachah, may his memory be for blessing, was a monumental achievement of scholarship, brilliantly combining reverence for tradition with contemporary engagement. How can we possibly be thinking of replacing it? For all the reasons eloquently expressed by the 3M’s with which I began. In recent years, Liberal Judaism has become more sensitive to the need to include and embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, and has produced policies and liturgies to enable the practice of full equality. There is also greater awareness that Liberal Jews come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and interests, and the liturgy we produce needs to reflect that diversity. In addition to the diversification of our Liberal Jewish constituency, technological development, which has been a constant feature since the inception of Liberal Judaism is now advancing at a dizzying pace. These technological developments, reflected in the use of screens for our biennial Shabbat services, have also had an impact on the way in which we create and engage with liturgy. Consequently, as a new editorial team grapples with the creation of a new siddur, issues of form become just as important as issues of content.
So, what makes a siddur ‘Liberal’? Finally, of course, there is something which has remained constant throughout the odyssey of Liberal Judaism and Liberal Jewish liturgies in Britain: our commitment to our core values of respect for the individual and the pursuit of justice for all. The journey towards our new siddur has begun. To celebrate the new journey we have embarked on here at our biennial conference, I would like to share with you a blessing written by the American feminist liturgist Marcia Falk – her formulation of the Blessing of Redemption, Birkat G’ulah, which follows the Sh’ma:
N’vareykh et eyn ha-chayyim
m’kor emunah v’tikvah
ma’yan shirah chadashah
m’kor tikkun olam
Let us bless the source of life
source of faith and daring
wellspring of new song
and the courage to mend.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Liberal Judaism Biennial
2nd July 2016 – 26th Sivan 5776
- ‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today’. Jewish Quarterly Review, 1899. ↑
- Entitled ‘Religious Education’. No date. ↑
- The Essentials of Liberal Judaism. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1962), p. 140. First published in 1947. Rabbi Israel Mattuck left the United States to become the rabbi of the newly-established Liberal Jewish Synagogue in 1912. ↑
- Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1967. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 280-283, 285-294. ↑
- Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1995. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 161-409. ↑
- It may be that Siddur Lev Chadash together with its companion prayer book for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, Machzor Ruach Chadashah, meaning, ‘new spirit’, published in 2003, will be the last hardback, bound, one volume prayer books. ↑
- The Book of Blessings. New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, pp.174-5. ↑