Balak - weekly Torah portion

How fair are you tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel. מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. This ancient reading from this week’s portion of the Torah is found in some of the earliest known prayer books, as early as the ninth century Seder Rav Amram Gaon, and later on, by Rashi at the eleventh century. The siddur was not a static creation and it developed over time and even orthodox prayer books have changed over time. One obvious change was the addition of the prayer for peace and safety of the State of Israel. Yet another, somewhat earlier, was Lecha Dodi of the sixteenth century. Still, it is fair to say that the orthodox Sidur is a slow moving document, with little attempt to reflect change, other than some of the melodies used.

By contrast, Liberal, Reform and Progressive Jews in general, and rabbis and cantors in particular, viewed this issue differently. The Jewish bookshelf is large and has a wealth of new and old texts that should and ought to be represented in the Sidur. It would reflect better the current needs and the people making use of the Sidur and making it an integral part of their lives. Simply reciting the words, understanding or not, was simply not enough. It is not the ability to recite that is of interest but rather what influence these words have upon a person.

People are praying from the new Sidur at the Reform Movement biannual

Ha’Avoda SheBalev, the Heart’s Worship, is the Sidur used by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, was first published some thirty six years ago. While obviously including מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב it also included modern texts and alternative texts, selected from the Torah, and from the poetry of the likes of Rachel, Leah Goldberg and Bialik, just to name a few. A text for the blessing after lighting the candles was written by the late Avital Ben-Chorin, wife of Prof. Shalom Ben-Chorin, mother of Rabbi Tuvia, and grandmother of Rabbi Golan. The question for our Movement now is if it is time to have a newer Sidur for our Movement in Israel.

Some may not realize it but our Movement does have roots that go back some many decades with the Har-El Congregation of Jerusalem, celebrating this year its sixtieth anniversary being the veteran of all. My home congregation, “Natan Ya”, is entering its fiftieth anniversary. Today there are already over fifty communities affiliated with the Movement, from Rosh Pina in the far north of the country, all the way to the Arava, at Yahel and Lotan. It is not anymore a small corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If you want to get to know the Israeli Movement there is some serious travel that needs to take place. Or, you are also welcome to attend out next biennial, in Israel, June 5-6, 2020, and join some one and a half thousand attendees.

We have become quite a diverse community, with many younger congregations and newer forms of gatherings. With that comes the time where it is necessary to develop an updated Sidur. I do not suggest we refer to it as NEW, because it is well entrenched in tradition, our movements’ own varied traditions and some which were laid aside in the previous Sidur, and now included, such as a full Mosaf prayer. However, it also reflects the society that we currently are and that we would like to be. If four decades ago it was obvious that we would take the Ashkenazi versions for the Sidur, this is not the case anymore. In our congregations you will find many faces, different traditions, all kinds of melodies, many of which do not reflect western Chazanut. Therefore it includes very modern texts as well as learnings from congregations and movements worldwide.

The work on a Sidur does require discipline on one hand but also vision and reflection on the other hand. This complex task is in the hands of Prof. Dalia Marx and Rabbi Alona Lisitza (PhD) as chief editors. Dalia emphasizes that this must be a team work, listening to the different voices, gathering opinions from many round tables led by rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and congregation members. The Sidur, she hopes, not only reflects the voices of today and those of yesteryears, but is also able to go beyond that, and be a forward looking collection of religious texts that can reflect the voices of the future. It brings the voices of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, as well as brothers and sisters who came from Ethiopia, it includes contemporary poetry that is alive in Israel today, it reflects our strive for an equal voice of pluralistic Judaism and that gives a clear voice to all. And we hope it will become inspiration to those who follow.

When we recite מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב we should not be constrained to physical dwellings. We reside not only in houses, and synagogues, and tents, we also live in the books, in the music, in the art, in the nature. If we really aspire to have fair tents we must continuously work about them to make them better. And the better they are the better we can become.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, Chairperson IMPJ, 30 June 2018, 17 Sivan, 5778

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