Years of teaching Judaism convinced Joseph Rosenstein of one thing: The structure and language of many standard prayer books were barriers to meaningful prayer and a connection to God.
The Rutgers University math professor found some of the translations of the Hebrew poetry stilted and inaccessible. In some cases, he believed, people were turned off by concepts that were difficult to grasp; others were not getting all they could out of the service because they did not fully understand why certain prayers were linked or their placement in the service.
So Rosenstein decided to do something about it. In 2006 he wrote the self-published Siddur Eit Ratzon to answer some of his own questions about prayer. The work has proved so successful — it is now used by some 50 congregations of various denominations from New Jersey to California to Canada — on July 31 he published Machzor Eit Ratzon for the High Holy Days.
“I developed the siddur to try and address people’s needs,” said Rosenstein, who was been teaching and leading prayer groups for years as a founder of the Highland Park Minyan and founder and former chair of both the National Havurah Committee and its annual summer institute.
“In a way I’ve been preparing for this my whole life through my studying and teaching of Judaism,” he added. “I listened to the difficulties people had with the siddur.”
The High Holy Days mahzor, which took three years to complete, was a natural based on reaction to the siddur.
Rosenstein said the prayer book went through a number of drafts as he consulted with rabbis and other experts.
He received a traditional Jewish education in a heder as a child, and, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he also took courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then he has been studying on his own or with groups.
The mahzor, he said, “makes it possible for people with a variety of beliefs to daven together by offering options,” said Rosenstein. “Here in New Jersey we can split ourselves up and have a congregation like this and one like that. But in other parts of the country where there are only enough Jews for one congregation, they need something that can accommodate a variety of beliefs.”
Rosenstein described the 412-page work as traditional and said both it and the siddur can be used in conjunction with other prayer books.
What makes his mahzor “unique,” he said, is its four-column design and its integration of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. Evening services for both holidays are grouped together, said Rosenstein, eliminating the need to “flip around.”
The four-column design divides the prayers into Hebrew text, complete transliteration, new translation, and commentary.
“The translation is different than others because it treats the text as poetry rather than prose and, secondly, focuses not on the literal translation word for word but tries to convey the spiritual message,” said Rosenstein. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘For the first time in 50 years I can participate in the service.’”
Included in the fourth column are “guideposts” of commentary “that help people understand what is going on, what are the themes.”
“I discuss at points in the prayer book alternatives for where a reader may have philosophical differences,” said Rosenstein. “If they read something they don’t believe in, it’s going to get in the way of prayer. They are either going to leave or not pay attention. This offers options to what they may say instead.”
For example, some people who have trouble accepting resurrection are put off by the phrase, “God who raises the dead.”
“Instead they can say, ‘God who gives life to all creatures,’ which is in the same ballpark, but doesn’t require you to believe in something you don’t,” said Rosenstein. “Another is the chosenness of the Jewish people, which some people believe in very strongly and some people very strongly don’t believe in.”
The book always refers to God in a gender-neutral term rather than masculine — for example Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) is called “Loving parent, Compassionate ruler.”
It also refers most often to God in the second person. “When you refer to God as God in prayer books there always seems to be a distance. If God is referred to in the second reference, God seems much closer.”
To order the siddur or mahzor or for more information, visit newsiddur.org.