Seeing the Light

Winter 2020 Bulletin Article

In English, when a new book enters existence, we simply say, “It’s published”. Sometimes we use an idiom, along the lines of “The new Margaret Atwood is finally in print,” or, in more librarian terms, “the updated Dictionary is now in circulation”. Hebrew itself has no single word for “publish”; in fact, the only way to talk about a book’s publication in Hebrew is by idiom. The Hebrew phrase for printing a book is hotzaah la-or, literally meaning a new book “has been brought into the light”.

This is a long way of explaining that, by the time you read this bulletin, our newly updated and revised prayerbooks [siddurim] will be published. On Friday night, December 6th, we will worship from our new Chicago Sinai Congregation Union Prayer Book III for the very first time. Especially for those of us involved in its preparations and editing, it seems fitting to celebrate that our new siddurim are finally coming into the light. It is this story of our UPB III being brought into the light of publication that I want to share with you.

Four years ago, we learned that we were running out of copies of our current Sinai Edition, Revised of the Union Prayer Book. We had just enough books on hand for shabbat worship, but no more volumes available either for sale or for gifts to members of the congregation. We had the choice of spending the proceeds of the previous prayerbook on a new print run, or reinvesting in a new edition. Either way, we knew that if we were to embark on a minimum print run of thousands of books, we were committing ourselves for ten years to whatever decision we made. Given that, roughly, a ten year span separated the first and second versions of our prayerbooks, it seemed fitting that we invest in a new edition that continued our liturgical evolution even as we preserved our past.

In preparing for this new UPB, we did take our time. Two years ago, I taught an extended adult education course on the structure and messages of our prayer service so that we could all be better educated on the history and meaning of Jewish worship. From the over forty Sinai members who learned together in that class—along with a handful of other “regulars” at Sinai services—we assembled last summer an editorial committee of almost 20 people to collaborate on this important project. The core group of that editorial committee met diligently every other week from last fall through this summer as we did the work of preparing our new Prayer Book. We even tested “beta” versions of our new shabbat services all summer long, and received helpful feedback from congregants and guests that strengthened the final product. It was a true team effort.

We didn’t want our new book of prayers to be haphazard, and so we took the time to think of guiding principles that would lead us in our task. We identified the following as principles that would guide us in the creation of our prayerbooks:

  1. For Sinai, by Sinai
  2. Better Balance of Sinai’s Pillars
  3. Open Theology
  4. Wider use of liturgical creativity
  5. Fixing inconsistencies
In the remainder of this article, I want to explain each of these guiding principles, and share some examples of how these principles come to light in our new UPB III.

For Sinai, By Sinai. When our Revised UPB was printed in 2012, we had high hopes that we were creating an alternative to the prayer book Mishkan Tefillah that is used in the vast majority of Reform congregations. Such national aspirations led us to widen the focus of the book beyond only how we worship at Sinai; the most notable expressions of this impetus to have national appeal are the many instances in our Revised UPB where we encounter the word “or”, intended to give choices to other congregations according to their own style. However, in praying from our UPB here at Sinai, these many choices are often distracting, leading to interruptions, announcements and repeated liturgy. With our new UPB III, we decided that we were creating a book of prayers for how we worship at Sinai. Others may admire it and wish to use it, but we wanted to create a prayerbook ideal for our own Sinai practice. You will notice that there are no longer lines like “for those who include the Reader’s Kaddish” or photographs of other synagogue’s sanctuaries. More substantively, we also created new services that meet our current needs. In addition to a Saturday Morning Service that works well for our weekly chapel service, we also created a Service of Becoming B’nei Mitzvah that not only has readings better suited for 13 year-olds, but also has more responsive reading to keep a congregation of strangers more engaged in the experience. Our commitment to be a prayerbook for our congregation today also led us to our next guiding principle.

Better Balance of Sinai’s Pillars. Since Sinai was founded in 1861, we have been committed to bringing our community together through meaningful education, worship, and social action. Today, we call these pillars: Learn, Act, Worship, and Engage. Our traditional siddur contains standing liturgy that focuses on all of these: our commitments to Torah, to community, to justice, and to prayer. However, our Revised UPB [2012] placed a preponderance of the focus on worship, exclusively. Therefore part of our editorial effort was to find suitable English versions of our traditional Hebrew prayers that brought all our pillars to light, in better balance with each other. You will see this when we turn to page 502 for our concluding prayers. Our Aleinu, or Adoration, absolutely is about worship: adoration is its very title! But this prayer also contains the only mention in Jewish liturgy of the phrase tikkun olam, repairing our world. That reference to tikkun olam was absent from our previous prayerbooks, and in our UPB III we restored it to its important place. You will be able to sing it every shabbat.

Open Theology. Our previous books of prayer were filled with a marked certitude about God: “Trust in God alone and do not rely on your own limited understanding,” “Through God’s power alone has our people Israel been redeemed from the hand of oppressors,” and “Fervently we pray that the day may come when all people shall be guided by your teachings,” express a triumphant theology of our perfect God in whom all must place faith, over and above our own thoughts and deeds. Almost exclusively, our UPB Revised [2012] presents an image of a providential God into whose hands we place our faith to take care of things for us. This doesn’t seem to fit our 21st century outlook, where certainty and assuredness in God are harder for many to find. Therefore our editorial committee sought to create space in our worship experience for people with different theologies all to feel at home; we searched for passages that would allow different people with different perspectives on the divine to find themselves represented in our worship experience. Rather than portray one articulate theology, we allow for a variety of perspectives on our understanding of and relationships to God. In fact, the name for God printed most frequently in the UPB III is “Eternal One”, a phrase as intrinsically Jewish as it is open to multiple understandings, from the triumphalism of our current prayerbooks to a wide range of theologies.

Wider use of liturgical creativity. Our previous prayer books were based on the beloved Union Prayer Book, first published in 1894, and most widely known from its final 1942 printing. While much of our inherited UPB liturgy carries over to our new UPB III, over ten other liberal prayer books were consulted in the creation of our new publication. In fact, every member of our editorial committee had a “winter break assignment” of reading an entire prayerbook and highlighting passages that might be fitting for use here at Sinai. [When was the last time you read a prayerbook on a beach vacation?] Our committee considered countless candidates from all these other siddurim in making our UPB III as liturgically rich as possible.

Fixing Inconsistencies. This might be a minor point, unless you’ve tried to follow a congregational reading that is missing a period, scratched your head as we skip a series of pages in Service II, or wondered why certain prayers are said some Friday nights and not others. Especially because in our adult education class and subsequent committee learning, people were taken by the intentional architecture of Jewish worship, we were guided by the commitment to preserve that thoughtful progression in all our services. You will see this reflected not only in the titles of prayers you will see on each page (that can help you understand the thematic movement of Jewish worship), but also in the short essay on the structure of Jewish prayer in the introduction to the prayerbook.

Even though I have said a lot about our new prayerbooks, there is so much more I could share. I could talk about our group editing sessions where the committee struggled to find precisely the right words; I could explain how congregational feedback helped us realize certain passages we hope would express Sinai’s commitments instead fell flat on the head and the heart. I would love to write about the places we wanted to make sure we were using language inclusive of all genders, and of other instances where we wanted to telegraph our love and support for those in our congregation who are not themselves Jewish. But, as I wrote in my introduction to the UPB III, in place of sharing such details, I instead invite you to turn the pages of our new prayerbook and discover its delights for yourself, starting on Friday night, December 6th. I hope to see you there.

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