Paul Greenberg

Confession is good for the soul: It'd been a while since I'd been to services. More than a little while. In fact, I was surprised the rabbi remembered my name. The other day, the computer tech who's been overhauling my laptop told me it would take some time because the software had been corrupted. Just like my soul, I thought.

It'd been so long since I'd been to temple that they'd changed the prayer book on me. Again. Whoever's constantly revising the Reform Jewish prayer book keeps moving the spiritual furniture around, redecorating the hallowed old rooms, and generally refurbishing the sacred. And then they wonder why people don't feel at home.

The English of the old Union Prayer Book, dating back to about 1922, wasn't the most inspiring to begin with, but repetition and age gave it a certain dignity. Because the Reform denomination held to it for so long, the businesslike words accumulated emotional power over the years. They became custom, tradition, home.

To this day I'll run into an old Sunday School pupil of mine who can recite favorite phrases from the old prayer book like a protective charm, or at least with a certain nostalgia for childhood. Time hallows.

But these regular revisions of the prayer book don't give time a chance to work. Each new version seems to come out just when you've finally got used to the last one. About the time you've learned your way around the new prayer book, it's the old prayer book. It's been replaced by a New Improved product, as if it were a dishwasher detergent.

Somebody really ought to get the word to the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Stop! Or as my father, who used the same old Hebrew siddur all his praying life, in the old country and new, might say: Enough new prayer books already!

How strange. Jews, of all people, with our long immersion in time, should be immune to the call of fleeting verbal fashion, yet we fall for each one in fast turn. Each of these shiny new prayer books has the look and feel of the latest word, but not necessarily The Word. They offer a faith for our time, but maybe only for our time, which, like every other, is fast-fleeting.

The newest prayer book has the glossy, untouched feel of the new. No pages are dog-eared, crumpled from frequent use, torn at the edges. There are no celebratory wine stains, no sign anyone ever wept over these never-used prayers. The English translation and asides are up-to-date, degendered, politically correct, smooth as glass, tractionless. I don't imagine much of it will stick.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.