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Prayer Unbound

A Wikipedia-style siddur is revolutionizing the world of prayerbooks

Hadara Graubart
December 03, 2009
(Prayer books by goldberg / Joe Goldberg; some rights reserved.)
(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 siddurand 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.

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.