Reform Jews to close the Gates of Prayer

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — The Gates of Prayer will be slammed shut when the new Reform movement prayerbook is published by 2005.

Now being composed, the still unnamed volume will be radically different from the Gates of Prayer, say those in charge of its publication.

Though still in the earliest stages of composition, the new book will likely reinstate several elements of traditional Jewish prayer that were long ago discarded by the Reform movement, such as the second and third paragraphs of the Sh'ma, and references to the Messiah, they said.

In fact, the book is being referred to by its creators as a siddur, the traditional Hebrew word for prayerbook.

The main goals for the new siddur are "to both move toward tradition and away from tradition, to take seriously the feminist critique and to create a siddur which truly speaks to the variety of ways in which prayer is taking place in the Reform movement," said Rabbi Peter Knobel.

He is chair of the siddur editorial committee and of the liturgy committee for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement's rabbinic arm.

Like its predecessor, the Union Prayerbook, which was first published in 1895, the Gates of Prayer radically reformed traditional Jewish prayer for the Sabbath.

Published in 1975, the Gates of Prayer, provided 10 separately themed Sabbath services: One essentially echoed the service from an updated version of the Union Prayerbook, two were oriented toward children and one omitted any reference to God.

Today, leaders of the Reform movement are urging Judaism's traditional practices and a more unified approach to synagogue worship.

The editors of the new prayerbook are designing it with that in mind.

Because of the strong traditionalist elements expected to be included, "I'm certain it will be controversial within the movement, which is not a bad thing," said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, co-editor of the new prayerbook and a congregational rabbi in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

With the new traditionalist approach, "there's always the possibility of alienating part of the Reform movement," said Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, who was the longtime chair of the liturgy committee and oversaw the publication of Gates of Prayer.

"I don't know if all these changes are called for, but there's certainly a degree of resistance along with a large degree of acceptance," said Dreyfus, adding that the disapproval might be a quiet one.

"People who disapprove tend simply to stay away."

Frishman and her co-editor, Rabbi Judith Abrams, founder and director of the Maqom School for Adult Talmud Study in Houston, were formally appointed in March, although a committee has been discussing a new prayerbook for several years.

Frishman and Abrams are the first all-female editing team in any of Judaism's central movements to put out a major prayerbook.

"It's a wonderful sign of the degree to which we've really evolved, to simply not regard this as an issue," Frishman said.

One of the editors' big challenges, Frishman said, is addressing the feminist critique, which points to the solely masculine God language in traditional Jewish prayer, and advocates integrating a female voice.

A forthcoming Passover Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell of Philadelphia, will be published by the Reform rabbis' organization in the spring.

The book will include both the traditional Baruch Atah or masculine form of addressing God in blessings, and Brucha At, or the grammatically feminine version.

That is a route that the new prayerbook editors are choosing to avoid.

"While it's important to respond to the feminist critique, we don't want to have a book that will feel dated in five years," Frishman said.