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Prayer Unbound

A Wikipedia-style siddur is revolutionizing the world of prayerbooks

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(Prayer books by goldberg / Joe Goldberg; some rights reserved.)

In his 1954 book Man’s Quest for God, theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, bemoaning what he saw as a post-Holocaust religious malaise, took aim at those who chose to blame the prayerbook for Judaism’s woes. “The crisis of prayer is not a problem of the text,” he wrote. “It is a problem of the soul. The siddur must not be used as a scapegoat.”

Heschel would probably not approve of a recent trend in American Jewish life: niche siddurim, prayerbooks that reflect ideological differences on traditional ideas such as messianism (Lone Star Siddur ), homosexuality, and even the concept of serious prayer (Comic Book Siddur). But the most recent example may also be the most radical: a Wikipedia-like project called Open Siddur, which allows users to create their own individualized prayerbooks.

The aim of Open Siddur is to catalogue the vast breadth of Jewish liturgy and commentary, allowing all Jews access to all prayers, from the ancient to the new-age, in a sort of museum-cum-buffet. While still in the process of compiling a database of liturgy and in need of transcribers, translators, and programmers, Open Siddur’s creators hope it will allow individuals or groups to peruse a vast array of liturgical material culled from libraries, publishers, and individuals, and create prayerbooks that suit their specific needs and interests, which they can then print out as PDFs or have bound.

In a religion that places a high value on communal prayer, these developments are prompting a reevaluation of the very concept—if we all worship as Jews, but say different things, are we still praying “together”?

There are those who say no, or at least, not quite—from this perspective, a siddur that would be unrecognizable to any Jew is a siddur unworthy of its duties. But Aharon Varady, one of Open Siddur’s founders, says that the project promises to take what has become a modern mainstay—the synagogue prayerbook committee—and “expand it across the entire world.” Indeed, rather than looking at the recent influx of niche siddurim as emblematic of a “crisis of prayer,” Varady—along with co-founders Efraim Feinstein and Azriel Fasten—say they see a crisis only of logistics, and an opportunity to use the web to universalize the vast canon of Jewish liturgical ideas.

Not everyone is as hopeful. A number of critics argue that Open Siddur’s “choose your own adventure”-style of Judaism is in conflict with the communal essence of the tradition. “Even if you don’t feel bound by the law,” says Rabbi David Berger, head of the Jewish Studies department at Yeshiva University, “the siddur has emerged as a very important source of Jewish unity, in that its essentials are the same worldwide, so that I could go into a synagogue of Egyptian Jews and pray there in a way that is not entirely unfamiliar to me.”

But Feinstein argues that the idea of a “communal standard” of prayer is misleading. “The idea that there are really only three viable texts is relatively new,” he says. “I don’t see Open Siddur as anything divisive.” By “relatively new,” Feinstein means the era before the advent of Conservative and Reform movements in the 1800s. And while there may have been a wider range of accepted texts in this pre-modern past, the variety was mostly a result of organic changes that came about because of geographic and ethnic differences, while there remained remarkable consistency in the core of the prayer service. But with the advent of Web 2.0, our concepts of community and even the idea of “organic” change, are shifting enough that we may see an enormous degree of variety develop, in spirit much the same way that inconsistencies between, say, Mizrahi and Hasidic Jews did in the past.

Berger acknowledged that people feel disconnected from certain parts of the siddur but says he’s comfortable with the age-old practice of simply skipping over them. “There was a comment by [rabbi and scholar] Yitz Greenberg: ‘The difference between the Orthodox and Conservatives when it comes to some of morning prayers is that the Conservatives leave them out of the siddur and the Orthodox just don’t say them,’” Berger says.

But this is precisely the sort of thinking that frustrates Varady, who argues that it compromises one of the values of traditional Judaism, all the dearer in a rapidly changing landscape: kavanah, or intention, a deep spiritual connection to one’s prayer ritual. Varady argues that the siddur’s “symbology,” removed from spiritual and legal significance, has the tendency to alienate those who struggle with prayer—and there’s little comfort in knowing that you could experience that same alienation in any synagogue in the world.

But even some who are naturally sympathetic to Open Siddur’s mission, including Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, have reservations. “When people are not satisfied by traditional prayer service, is it the words or the performance of the prayers that’s tripping them up?” asks Kaunfer, who says that the independent minyanim he has seen “by and large use traditional prayers,” but experiment with the format of services. “What these guys are betting on is that the words are holding people back,” says Kaunfer.

In fact, though, it may be that words and performance are not as separate as one might think. While many of the new minyanim may pray with traditional texts, their radically altered service structures often involve unconventional inclusions, from moments of silence for the plight of Sri Lankan textile workers, to poems about atheism, to entreaties for the continuing safety of ultra-Orthodox settlers in Israel. The Open Siddur team welcomes the possibility that people will feel moved to upload their original work, or relevant passages from literature, along with little-known songs and melodies from disparate communities. More than being simply “post-denominational,” Open Siddur’s founders say it seeks to transcend numerous boundaries, from geographic to political to aesthetic, and promote “all the beautiful traditions that are inherent in the geographically disperse communities, and sometimes made very obscure by historical siddurim that many people don’t have access to.”

“Our own personal theology does not need to be reflected on each page of the prayer book,” argued Rabbi Leon A. Morris, executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York City, in a recent article tackling the subject. “Rather, our evolving theology can emerge from the encounter with the siddur and its words. ‘This I hope to be true but am skeptical.’ ‘This I have real problems with.’ ‘This I understand in my own way.’” But many Jews may be turning away from religion for the very reason that they don’t want to make room in their personal spiritual practice for ideas they find problematic, outdated, or incomprehensible.

And perhaps the best argument in favor of Open Siddur is the fact that, as Kaunfer points out, “You have people who weren’t connecting anyway. What American Jewish society needs is a dose of ‘let’s get invested in the fight.’ If you love the aleinu, then this site forces you to articulate what it is about the aleinu that’s important to you. That’s what people are thirsting for.”

Correction: This article originally stated that the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning was in Los Angeles. It has been changed to reflect the organization’s correct location, New York City.

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Excellent article. Hadara, please follow up and keep us all informed how the sidur project is working out and being implented. Much depends on the details.

I was disappointed in the comments that were made by those individuals, active in religious Jewish life, who were interviewed by Ms. Hadara during the course of her research for her article “Prayer Unbound”. None of those who responded pointed to the true problem with praying from the traditional Siddur. It is the failure of Jewish schools including most Orthodox Rabbinical Academies to teach the Siddur page by page, line by line in the same manner in which they teach the lines of the Bible, the Prophets, the Mishna and the Talmud. It is ironic that the book that so many Jews hold in their hands at least three times a day is not viewed as a text worthy of study. That is why I established the Beurei Hatefila Institute and began publishing a weekly e-mail newsletter in which I have been tracing the origin of the words and structure of the Jewish prayer book. I have completed my review of the daily morning, evening and night prayers, the prayers of Friday night and am now studying the Shabbos morning prayers. It is my hope that my materials becomes the handbook that schools use to teach the Siddur. All of my newsletters are available for downloading at no charge from the Institute’s website: http://www.beureihatefila.com.

Let me give one example of how understanding the structure of the prayerbook helps understand a prayer. Most are familiar with the Bracha of Baruch Sh’Amar. It is considered the opening Bracha of Pseukei D’Zimra, the section that includes verses of song primarily from Psalms, that precede Kriyas Shema. After studying early versions of the Siddur that were used in Israel in the Gaonic period, it appears to me that Baruch Sh’Amar is actually the ending Bracha of a section of the Siddur that the Ashkenazic community does not recognize; Tefilat Ha’Shir. That explains why on Shabbos those who follow the Sephardic Siddur recite many chapters of Psalms before reciting the Bracha of Baruch Sh’Amar while Ashkenazim do not.

Let me give one example of how understanding one word opens the door to two models of Jewish prayer. That word is “Modim.” Most translate the word “Modim” to mean: to thank. Based on that definition, many view Jewish prayer as consisting of three elements; praise of G-d, request from G-d and then thanking G-d. But the word has a second meaning; i.e. to bow. That is why Jews bow when they say the word “Modim.” It happens to be that the Kohanim bowed as they completed each part of the daily service in the Temple. We bow when we complete “Shemona Esrei” (the eighteen Benedictions). We bow because we have completed the prayer that represents the substitute for the service in the Temple. Based on the definition of the word “Modim” as bowing, some view the model of Jewish prayer as being a substitute for the Temple service. In that model it would be inappropriate to interrupt our prayers to make personal requests of G-d. Instead, personal requests are left to be made after completing our service.

Those are two of the many little secrets that lie hidden in the words and the structure of the Siddur. The answer to “Prayer Malaise” is not to fashion new prayers but to study the ones we and our forefathers have been reciting for nearly two thousand years.

In the Jewish tradition, prayer has always involved a balance between individualized expression and communal unity. That fact is part of its nature, and is not a problem at all. The Open Siddur isn’t an undertaking of radical individualism, nor is it anti-institutional. It can serve as a resource to individuals who want to individualise their prayer, and for communities – both new and established – that want to preserve and share their unique practices.

@evanstonjew The entire development process is taking place in public on the web (http://opensiddur.net for the overview, http://wiki.jewishliturgy.org for the technical details). Many of the planned implementation details are public. Those that aren’t are private only because we haven’t had the chance to write them up. If you have any questions, comments or concerns about the implementation, you are welcome to voice them on our email discussion list.

@Abe Katz I don’t believe that there is a single “true problem” in praying from a traditional siddur. In fact, not everyone has a problem praying from one or more of the traditional siddurim! For people who want a traditional text, we hope to offer access to an accurate text at a level only achievable in an online environment. For those who want to add something to the traditional text, or who want to combine contemporary works with historical liturgy, we provide the opportunity for that too. The traditional siddur itself is a compilation of works whose histories span from the biblical period to the modern period. Which works are included in contemporary published prayer books is a combination of design, historical accident, and the choices made by publishers. There is no reason to close the canon. Imparting a better understanding of traditional texts is certainly a worthy goal, and is one of the goals of our project as well. In fact, once our commentary section is ready, your essays would make a wonderful addition to the Open Siddur’s archive if you choose to release them under a free license (please, talk to us!).

Disclosure: I am the lead developer on the project.

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Prayer Unbound

A Wikipedia-style siddur is revolutionizing the world of prayerbooks

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