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The Indictment Reeks

The Ninth Man

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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 It's been replaced by a New Improved product, as if it were a dishwasher detergent.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.

The profound readings come across as profoundly shallow. At least the ones in English do; not even fast-changing Reform Judaism dares change a word of the Hebrew Scripture. Which is something else to thank God for on this beautiful Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the English doesn't get the same, preservationist care. As if English could not be a sacred tongue, too, every jot and tittle waiting to be fulfilled.

How sum up this new prayer book's prose style - sleek contemporary? Safely ecru? I'm reminded of what Robert Alter, the Biblical translator, once said: The problem with the King James Bible is that the translators' Hebrew was shaky; the problem with every translation since is that its English is shaky.

It's clear that this latest revision of the prayer book is supposed to be a step back towards tradition, yet it retains much the same Choose One from List A, Two from List B quality. It is full of optional readings and sweet little poems in no tradition but Hallmark's.

It's a testament to the archaic yet never dated Hebrew of the Sabbath service that not even this new edition can disguise its awesome power. The worshipper is not only led but confronted. The ancient words strike to the core - like a childhood rhyme that one realizes in old age means a lot more than a childhood rhyme.

The old prayers put together so long ago - whether in Babylon or over the course of many an exile and homecoming since - still admonish and forgive, cast down and raise up, fill one with sorrow and hope. Age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite power; they only increase the appetite they satisfy.

In the end, as the rabbis say, the two most difficult things about studying Scripture are entering it and leaving it. It's taken me a while to get to services, I realize, but now that I'm here, I'm going to hate to leave. No wonder we all linger over the bread and wine afterward.

I realize now that I've brought the world in with me, that I'm still in it, that I've not come here as a desperate petitioner throwing himself on the mercy of the court, a patient who needs to be healed, a sinner who wants to be made clean and whole again. Instead, I've dropped in like some tourist in a museum, passing superficial judgments on the exhibits right and left rather than entering into the art. Which is one more sin to be confessed.

Ahvenu Malkeynu, Our Father, our King, forgive us for the sin of judging, always judging. (How would you translate that ancient cry - Our Father! Our King! Forgive Us! - into the latest gender-neutral prayerbook prose? Our Parent, Our Ruler, don't be judgmental?)

Out of habit I look around and silently count the sparse attendance this Saturday morning. Jewish tradition frowns upon counting people. It's associated with taking a census, and whenever a census is taken, it's seldom been good for the Jews. A census means another tax, another restriction on where we may live outside the ghetto or mellah or Pale of Settlement, another increase in the number of Jewish conscripts for the czar's army, another order to report at dawn for Resettlement in the East. So I count to myself. There are only eight of us today, not even enough for the traditional minyan, the quorum of 10 worshippers traditionally required for communal prayer. I'm sent back to childhood, to those times when evening prayers might be held in the back of my father's shoe store because another shopkeeper on the street needed to say Kaddish. That's the prayer recited on the anniversary of a loved one's death - a parent, a spouse, a brother or sister, or, God forbid, a child. When there weren't 10 men present, I'd be dispatched to spread the word that we needed a 10th.

Everyone I asked would invariably put down whatever he was working on and come. It was a good deed, an honor, a special blessing to be the 10th man, the one who made the service possible.

Actually, we might need an additional two or three to make a minyan, but my request wasn't entirely misleading. Just because we needed an 8th or 9th man, too, didn't mean we didn't need a 10th. It occurs to me that I've been sitting here only a few minutes and already I'm thinking like a Talmudist.

Just as we begin the service, we're joined by one more worshipper - the 9th. Well, I think, we almost made it. Close but no minyan.

Then I think again: Isn't it a greater thing to be the 9th rather than the 10th worshipper, to be the unrecognized worker who lays one more brick in the edifice unheralded, rather than he who sets the capstone to much ado? Isn't it better to join the common effort for its own sake, even if it does not succeed, perhaps especially if it does not succeed, rather than wait for the honor of completing it?

Blessed be the 9th man.

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