WSJ: Pray for prosperity: There's no business like the prayerbook business

We've been impressed by the new edition of the Koren siddur that has appeared this summer as our previous posts indicated. The appearance of that new edition continues the spate of prayerbooks published in recent years. It bodes well for the future of that important religious publishing niche.

We are going to be paying more attention to prayer this fall, for reasons to be revealed soon enough.

So here is a summer rerun of a November, 2007 account of what was new in spiritual tomes at that juncture from an unlikely materialist source, the Wall Street Journal.

And yet, according to the Times, religion is a primary source of seeking new wealth these days, cf. "Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich" and account of the Gospel of Prosperity.

Our advice, pick any edition and pray for prosperity. It can't hurt.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP People of the Book(s)

Last month, the Reform movement, the largest synagogue denomination in America, began shipping its long-awaited new prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah" to congregations. More than two decades in the making, "Mishkan T'filah" (literally, "A Dwelling for Prayer") is billed by its editors as the first prayer book "of the people." And the people have definitely had a say in its production, having tested out various incarnations at synagogues across the country and at several national conventions. If "Mishkan T'filah" is accepted as the standard prayer text in the movement's 900 congregations, it could affect how more than a quarter of American Jews pray.

"Mishkan T'filah" replaces "Gates of Prayer," released in 1975, which in a nod to the movement's ethos of personal choice contained 10 different worship services from which individuals could choose. The new book offers only one. Its principal innovation is its design, a two-page layout in which each prayer is accompanied by a translation from the Hebrew, a transliteration, a commentary and a "spiritual reading" -- all aimed at appealing to multiple orientations within the context of a single service.

The architects of Reform Judaism in 1885 formally rejected the idea that Jews are obligated to perform ritual observances like eating kosher food and keeping the Sabbath; over time it has fallen to individuals to heed their own conscience in deciding what, and whether, to observe. Today the movement is reaping the fruits of that decision. Reform Judaism covers such a vast territory of theological conviction and religious practice -- it includes classical Reform Jews who still conduct Sabbath services on Sunday as well as a younger generation more open to traditions once shunned as inconsistent with the movement's liberal theology -- that it's sometimes hard to see what ties it all together. The editors of "Mishkan T'filah" hope the new book will keep the movement's 1.5 million adherents quite literally on the same page.

If the book does find broad acceptance, it won't be for a lack of alternatives. A number of new prayer books have been or are about to be released that, taking a different tack from "Mishkan T'filah," cater to diverse perspectives rather than joining them together under one rubric.

"Shaarei Simchah: Gates of Joy," the first contemporary Orthodox prayer book authored by women, aims for gender-inclusive language, though within the limits imposed by Orthodox Jewish law. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a rabbinical student is at work on a prayer book for "anusim" ("forced ones" in Hebrew), descendants of 15th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to escape the Inquisition but continued to practice Judaism in secret. And next year, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay-friendly synagogue in New York, expects to publish an updated version of its own prayer book that does away with liturgy that, they worry, appears to privilege heterosexual marriage. In the Amidah prayer, for example, the new text references Jacob's quasi-wives, Bilhah and Zilpah, an acknowledgment of the role of partners of lesser legal status in child-rearing.

The proliferation of Jewish prayer books is itself nothing new. Prior to the printing press, individual communities had no choice but to develop their own liturgies, which reflected their particular religious and cultural sensibilities. Today, with our raucous religious marketplace, those sensibilities have multiplied, and with them, the desire for ever more particularistic forms of prayer. Around the country, smaller prayer communities have sprung up to satisfy the diversifying needs of the religious market, each committed to an ever more nuanced religious and spiritual outlook. Many experiment with new ways to balance the often conflicting demands of egalitarianism and tradition. Others place particular emphasis on music or the arts, or on social justice or participatory worship. The new prayer books reflect this fragmentation.

But seeing prayer books as a means to satisfy, and thereby validate, this diversity begs the question of whether the function of prayer is to affirm the individual's personal religious outlook. Perhaps worshipers should be encouraged to wrestle with traditional texts, even problematic ones, rather than edit them out of existence.

At the moment, the former view is ascendant, particularly in more liberal precincts. But it wasn't always this way. In the Reform Hebrew school where I used to teach some years ago, the instructors encouraged students to see prayer as one of the great unifying forces in Jewish life. We justified the hours spent mastering the prayerbook -- whose broad structure has been essentially static since the second century -- as an exercise in kinship with Jews world-wide, equipping students with knowledge such that they could visit any synagogue anywhere in the world and feel at home.

The very notion of a niche prayer book threatens that idea, a concern that the editors of "Mishkan T'filah" likely had in mind when deciding to consolidate 10 services into one. It is, of course, important that prayer resonate with a person's core beliefs. But the cost of achieving such a resonance, in an era when the colors of belief come in near-infinite shades, is high.

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