Book reviews Conservative Jewish liturgy

Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays
Avram Israel Reisner, The Rabbinical Assembly & The USCJ, 2002
Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays

This is a revised, improved edition of “Siddur Sim Shalom”, one of the official prayerbooks for Conservative Judaism. It only has weekday prayers (not Sabbath or festivals.) Many of the translations are nearly identical to the original 1985 edition, but there have been a number of changes.

It uses gender-sensitive translations of the names of God, and presents a more literal translation of a number of key prayers. It presents the option to use the Imahot (matriarchs) in the Amidah (Shemonah Esrah). This edition also restores a few traditional Ashkenazic prayers that were not in the 1985 version.

Based on reader feedback, and the popularity of the (Orthodox) Artscroll Siddur, this edition incorporates many helpful new features: an easier to follow layout and table of contents; many pages have notes explaining the background and meanings of the prayers; guidelines and instructions on the content, choreography and continuity of the service. There is an increased use of transliteration.

Mahzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Hardcover – 2010
by Senior Editor and Chair Rabbi Edward Feld, Rabbi Leonard Gordon, Rabbi Stuart Kelman , and Rabbi Alan Lettofsky. The Rabbinical Assembly, 2010
Mahzor Lev Shalem

About once a decade a major new edition of the mahzor – the prayerbook for the Jewish high holy days – comes out. Orthodox mahzorim tend to be “complete”, in the sense of having as many prayers from disparate Jewish communities across Europe as possible – as long as only prayers written before 1700 are concerned. They also tend to ignore half of the Jewish community (women!), the emergence of the State of Israel, or allow for much in the way of new liturgy in the past couple of centuries (despite the fact that the traditional, historical Jewish practice was to constantly add new prayers, and occasionally remove older ones.)

In the early 1970s Rabbi Jules Harlow, of the Rabbinical Assembly, edited the now common “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Freeing itself from Orthodox constraints, it removed many old prayers that were felt to be outdated (which has its advantages and disadvantages) and allowed for the addition of newer material. There was little commentary or instruction; instead, the editors focused on the translation, feeling in most places it would be sufficient. It has somewhat fewer poems than other traditional and conservative machzorim. The translations are more poetic and less literal.

However, the Rabbinical Assembly in 2010 published a totally new replacement “Mahzor Lev Shalem.” This new Mahzor presents a complete liturgy, restoring many traditional prayers that had not been included in the Silverman or Harlow editions of the mahzor, yet it also offers options to use the creative liturgical developments presenting the theology and gender-equality of non-Orthodox Judaism. It contains a variety of commentaries from classical and modern-day rabbis, gender-sensitive translations, and choreography instructions (when to sit, stand, bow, etc.)

It offers more literal translations of the prayers than previous non-Orthodox mahzorim. English transliterations are offered for all prayers and lines recited aloud by the congregation. The page layout surrounds prayers with a variety of English commentaries and readings, as one finds in classical rabbinic commentaries.

In a first, this book was designed to be used by Conservative, non-denominational and Traditional-Egalitarian synagogues and chavurot. By leaving out certain texts and choosing other included options, it also can be used in Modern Orthodox or Reform congregations.

Truly a masterpiece, I hope this finds a place in the pews of synagogues of all denominations.

Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, Ed. Rachel Anne Rabbinowicz, USCJ Book Service, 1982

The Feast of Freedom Passover

This is an official (not “the” official) haggadah of Conservative Judaism. Why the distinction? There never has been any one, authoritative version of the haggadah for any movement. For those who are into Jewish books, it’s interesting to note that the original version of this haggadah was edited by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author of the famed “The Jewish Catalog”. After publishing this work for all members of the Rabbinical Assembly for discussion, Rachel Anne Rabinowicz came on board next as editor of the project. She brought the work to its final form. This haggadah follows the traditional Hebrew text, with an accurate, modern English translation. Along the way, as with haggadahs in the past, some sections were dropped (especially the ones felt to be obscure) and replaced with other rabbinic texts, as well modern writings. The editors took care to link the Exodus to events in our own day, including the Holocaust, the persecution of Jews in foreign nations, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Through a judicious choice of texts, the role of women and men in Jewish history, and the seder itself, is made clear. The center of every page has a Hebrew text and English translation. A terrific feature is that this is surrounded by an English commentary, elaborating and elucidating the text, without disrupting the flow of the service. Clear instructions and explanations take the reader through all of the Seder.

Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary Imitation Leather – August 1, 2000 by David L. Lieber (Editor) Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly have created a new Torah commentary for the 21st century. They signed an agreement with the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) to use the five volume JPS Torah Commentary to serve as its basis. Etz Hayim features:

* the complete Hebrew text of the Torah, and the complete JPS English translation, using the latest revisions.

* The readings are arranged for aliyot, and annual readings, as well as the CJLS approved triennial cycle readings.

* There are two levels of commentary; one level presents the p’shat of the text, while the second presents a d’rash.

* The p’shat commentary is a summary of the JPS five volume Torah commentary, edited by Chaim Potok.

The JPS five volume Torah commentary is based on
*the meforshim, traditional rabbinic commentators
*the Mishna and Talmud
*The midrash literature
*Modern day literary analysis, comparative Semitics and linguistic analysis
*intertextual commentary relating each book to other biblical books
*evidence from modern archaeological discoveries.
The d’rash commentary is an original work edited many rabbis including Rabbi Harold Kushner, Shoshana Gutoff, Reuven Hammer, Jack Riemer, Ben Scolnic and David Wolpe. In the 1994 “Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly” Rabbis Harold Kushner and David Lieber wrote an article, “The Projected Humash Commentary” They wrote there that the goals of this Torah commentary are:
* To separate academic truth from spiritual truth, while identifying both as equally true.
* To define the Shabbat morning service as a confrontation with the Torah portion as a source of ethical readings.
* The commentary will not only share homiletic insights; it will try to respond to questions that a modern thinking man or woman will ask of the Torah reading.
* To identify the teachings of contemporary rabbis as Torah, as much as the words of the Tannaim or the Hasidic masters are.
* It will seek to convey the notion that Torah is a living organism, and the Oral Torah, like the Written one, is a product of our people’s desire to understand God’s purpose and will.

It has an original commentary on the hastarot by Professor Michael Fishbane. Etz Hayim has been designed to differ from the official Torah commentary of Reform Judaism, which was edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut and his UAHC colleagues. Kusher states: “Many of us are familiar with the UAHC Torah commentary….It too has significant merits. But first, as a friend of mine put it, we should be suspicious of any Torah commentary where the commentary is in larger print than the words of the Torah. Secondly, it is not set up for synagogue use! You can now get it opening from right to left, but it is still not arranged by parshiyot, let alone aliyot. But my main problem with the Plaut commentary is that it suffers from what I sometimes think of as the Original Sin of the Reform movement – the inclination to judge the Torah rather than to open oneself up to be instructed by it.”

The halakhic materials are written by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, a member of the RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and Dr. Judith Hauptman, Professor of Talmud at JTS. Dr. Adele Berlin, an authority on biblical poetics, compose some 25 new literary introductions to the larger units of the text.

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