My Two Shekels! How should Jewish prayer evolve to reflect the modern world?

My Two Shekels! How should Jewish prayer evolve to reflect the modern world?

Rabbi Pete Tobias talks us through the evolution of the role of prayer in the modern world.

Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall
Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall

We HAVE often been referred to as the People of the Book. It’s a reference to the wealth of literature that underpins our tradition: the Talmud, the Codes and, at the heart of it all, the Hebrew Bible which begins with the Torah.

The book we’re most likely to use in our everyday – or, for some, every year – practice of Judaism is a prayer book. But words recited, chanted or sung from a prayer book have not always been the sole means by which Jews seek to communicate with God.

The earliest form of human communication with the Almighty was sacrifice. Our ancient ancestors adopted that practice, but with one significant adjustment – they removed human beings from the list of offerings.

It was only once the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans that sacrifice came to an end and words were used instead to express the deepest Jewish yearnings and aspirations.

It was several hundred years before the order of the liturgy became fixed and, in the centuries that followed, other elements were introduced.

The words were put to music, giving a new dimension to worship, while others used what was in the prayer book as a basis for mystical contemplation.
After the end of the 18th century Reform and Liberal Judaism emerged, changing and adapting not only the prayers but also the environment in which they were voiced.

The liturgy was rewritten to remove references to Temple worship and accompanied by instrumental music.

The layout of synagogues was altered: the central Bimah of Orthodox tradition was removed, and rabbis addressed congregations in their everyday language from pulpits.

In the 20th century, Progressive developments included mixed seating and regular reworking of the language and expression of prayer.

Now we must continue to evolve a form of worship suitable for the 21st century, seeking new ways to make prayer relevant and meaningful by using new ideas and technology.

As the use of language changes, so does theological understanding and the religious perceptions and spiritual needs of thoughtful congregants – and our Jewish worship must change with them.

All of this will be considered at the forthcoming Liberal Judaism Biennial Conference, as we consider what might come next in the on-going development of the Jewish relationship with God.

At the same time as investigating the possibilities of a new siddur, delegates at the Biennial Conference will also be contemplating other ways we can worship. It’s time to think outside the book.

• Pete Tobias is rabbi at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree and a former chair of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference

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