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Union Prayer Book History Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

June 19, 2015

When a prayer book falls to the floor, it is customary to kiss it, because it is considered a special and holy thing--  so one might expect the story of the  creation of prayer books to be very saintly. But in keeping with this week’s Torah portion, Korach, which is about disagreements, the truth is that the creation of prayer books  often comes out of  controversy and not just in recent times.

This evening having brought back the Union Prayer Book newly revised, I’d like to talk a little bit about its history.

In 1847 Isaac Meyer Wise, who is credited with founding the American Reform movement, created a prayer book he called Minhag America, the Custom or Practice of America.  He hoped it would unite all the congregations on this continent. It was a fairly traditional prayer book, including most of the traditional Hebrew along with a clear and faithful English translation. There were some elements of Reform as well. Rabbi Wise shortened the service by removing various repetitions. In addition, in keeping with the optimistic spirit of the times and democratic character of the United States, he removed references to the Davidic dynasty and redemption through a personal Messiah.

In 1892 a revised version of IM Wise’s prayer book was printed and released as the Union Prayer Book. But then it was recalled “at significant expense” by a group of Reform rabbis who were followers of the more radical Rabbi David Einhorn. You may remember him as the Baltimore rabbi who was forced to flee in the middle of the night because of his anti-slavery sermons.

It was Einhorn’s more radical prayerbook Olat Tamid that was the basis of a re-editing of the Union Prayer Book by Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, another more radical reformer, conveniently Einhorn’s son-in-law.

The Union Prayer Book, revised, was published in 1895 and was shortly used by, according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis yearbook, the 55 most prominent congregations in the United States.  

The Union Prayer Book Revised not only eliminated references to a personal Messiah and to the  Davidic dynasty, but also all references to kohanim, priests and sacrifices, including the entire Musaf service, along with references to chosen-ness and to the return to Zion.

Its use was not without controversy.

In 1910 at Temple Emanu-El of New York, the Reform Movement’s flagship congregation, a young associate rabbi gave a sermon on Passover criticizing the prayer book. The resulting controversy resulted in a two column article in the New York Times. It also resulted in this gifted young rabbi going on to an outstanding career with the American Jewish Committee, the New York Kehillah, a forerunner of Federation, and with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ending up ultimately as the first chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. However he did not become the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of NY .

Rabbi Judah Magnes, born in San Francisco, was several generations ahead of his time. His criticism of the UPB as petrified and without spirituality would be heard again in the 1960’s & 70’s.  His call for the reintroduction of the Bar Mitzvah would be heeded by suburban Reform congregations after WWII.

When Rabbi Judah Magnes criticized the Union Prayer book, revised, in 1910 the result was a searing response by its author Rabbi Kaufman Kohler and the convening of an emergency board meeting at Temple Emanu-el covered in great detail, as I mentioned, by the New York times.

Rabbi Magnes’ sermon had not been pre-cleared by the Rev. Joseph Silverman, his senior, or with any board members.  Magnes was highly critical of Temple Emanu-El which he accused of excelling at the “outward trappings” of Judaism without its essence. He supported Reform but urged that old forms and ceremonies be retained when they have strength and beauty. Using strong language, he pointed to the lack of success Temple Emanu-El was having in attracting the next generation.  Magnes had come to Temple Emanu-El with the understanding that, though he was the Secretary of the American Federation of Zionists, he was “not to preach Zionist propaganda from the pulpit.”

The article in the NY times was fascinating, including the previous senior rabbis’ annual salary as well as the amount the congregation had raised from selling pews - $708,575 with receipts for the first year of $1,520.

I don’t have such a great story for the release of the prayer book we used tonight – The Union Prayer Book Newly Revised. Most notably it replaced the word minister with reader. More significantly it included references to the rebuilding of Jewish life in Palestine and other themes relating to peoplehood. These changes reflected the Reform movement’s 1937 Columbus Platform. This was 4 years after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, at a time when the Zionist cause was gaining support in the US. It also reflected 2nd generation eastern European Jews finding their way slowly into Reform Congregations.

This Newly revised prayer book was to carry the Reform movement through World War II and the building of new Temples in the Suburbs in the years that followed. It would not be replaced until the Gates of Prayer was published in 1975. Yet beginning in the late 60’s it was viewed as more and more out of touch with a changing American Jewish community. And so, you will see next week, our story of prayerbook creation will continue.


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