I remember my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel years ago quoting the adage that "when nearly all Jews prayed, one siddur was enough for all of them. Today, when few Jews pray, we began to produce multiple prayerbooks." The implication was that the problem of Jewish worship lay in the hearts of the worshippers, not in the shortcomings of the liturgy. If Jews would open themselves to the wonder of coming into God's presence, the words that moved and inspired their grandparents would move and inspire them as well.
For years, I believed that critique. My own efforts as a congregational rabbi went in the direction not of explaining the prayers but of explaining the phenomenon of praying. What prayer could mean was not the same as what the words of a given prayer meant. Kol Nidre and the Mourners' Kaddish are the two prayers with the greatest power to reach Jewish worshippers, but their impact is at best tangentially related to the meaning of their words.
And for years, I would examine the new editions of siddurim and mahzorim that emerged from one publishing house or another, with the same sense that, no matter how well they were done, they were answering the wrong question. The best translation would not cure the conviction of the average Jew that praying was a waste of time.
It was with that expectation of "just another rewrite" in mind that I opened Joseph Rosenstein's Siddur Eit Ratzon. It took only a few pages to persuade me that I was wrong. It was an eye-opening, heart-opening exercise. Rosenstein, who is a professor of mathematics and not a rabbi, has succeeded in prying open the familiar prayers of the daily and Shabbat service and exposing the kernel of relevance at its core. Suddenly the text is transformed from "this is what you're supposed to recite to be a good Jew" to "this is something I need to think about but haven't done so until now" or "this is something my soul wanted to say but couldn't find the words for."
Thus, for example, in the birkhot ha-shachar, zokef k'fufim is translated as "You straighten the bent, removing whatever pushes us down." Roka ha-aretz al hamayim is taken to mean "You have made the world a secure place, where Nature is governed by law," and she-asah li kol tzorkhi means "You provide me with skills enabling me to meet all my needs."
In Rosenstein's rendition, the opening lines of the Kedushah would have us saying "We exalt and sanctify Your Name, imagining that we are using the secret language of the fiery angels in Isaiah's vision." And l'dor vador nagid godlekha is translated "May we transmit the message of Your greatness from one generation to another." The reference to tzitzit after the Sh'ma is translated "Tell them: these tzitzit are for you. Look at them regularly so that each time you see them, you will remember all of God's commandments and observe them, and you will not be led astray by your heart and your eyes, for they will seduce you to misbehave."
I can imagine the casual shul-goer opening the pages of Eit Ratzon and saying to himself, "Is that what I've been mumbling without paying attention all these years? This speaks to me." I can imagine the serious novice Jew, perhaps an adolescent, perhaps a recent convert, studying it in preparation for congregational worship and thinking to himself or herself, "Here is what I should have been thinking about but didn't have the words." There can be no greater tribute to a work of liturgy. Professor Rosenstein is to be congratulated for this superb guide to honest worship.
Long ago, the rabbis recognized the need to institute regular prayer service. Without a set time for routine prayer, most people would not do it. But as with anything that is done routinely, the human tendency is to make prayer a habit, something done automatically, without thought or emotion.
The Siddur or Jewish prayer book helps make prayers regular but not necessarily spiritual interesting or challenging says Joseph Rosenstein. “Since the Siddur is the Jewish text people see the most of the time, it should also help one get into the prayers and recover their messages,” he says. “But the traditional Siddur does very little of that. It’s basically the text. Here are the prayers. Say them.”
If the Siddur, itself, makes it difficult for many contemporary Jews to enter into prayer, then Rosenstein reasoned to approach the problem by creating a new Siddur—with a service that allows one to pray, each according to his/her understanding and mastery of the text. So he created the Siddur Eit Ratzon. It’s a prayer book with a four-column layout. You’ve got the Hebrew text, translation, transliteration and commentaries all on the same page. The goal, as any prayer book should be, is to bring G-d into our lives.
Rosenstein will be the Scholar in Residence at Congregation Brith Shalom September 12-14. The theme for the weekend is “Positioning Ourselves for Meaningful Prayer”.
The author, who is also a Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University, is the founder and former chair of the National Chavurah Committee and a founder of the Highland Park Minyan in Highland Park, N.J.
We tend to believe that, generations ago, people really understood what the prayers meant. “But I don’t believe that was really the case,” says Rosenstein. “The good old days weren’t all that good. People went to work barely out of childhood. Most people weren’t learned. How many of our stories that start out ‘there was this poor shepherd or tailor who didn’t know how to pray’? People had little time to pray. And they davened very fast. That’s one of the problems people still have with the service. The pace doesn’t allow time for reflection and the Siddur doesn’t give them the information to reflect on.”
Another obstacle to prayer: although the people who composed the prayers were very insightful, the language--especially the traditional Hebrew text--is a problem for many American Jews. Siddur Eit Ratzon provides a line-by-line transliteration of the entire Hebrew text. In addition, Rosenstein’s English translation aims to provide an understanding of the prayers’ insights.
“Sometimes I feel the translations are more successful or relevant than other times,” says Rosenstein. “And sometimes, they are insights others might not accept.”
For example, the traditional Hebrew text uses the phrase (describing one of G-d’s attributes) “me’chaiyeh ha’metim” (He who brings to life the dead). “Some people find that’s a deal-breaker,” comments Rosenstein.
So what the author does on that page is to have a discussion of G-d’s powers. That’s because the idea of bringing the dead back to life is one of the aspects of power reserved to G-d in Jewish theology.
“Just changing the text doesn’t change G-d’s power,” says Rosenstein. “When I give an option in the text, I try to explain not simply the mechanics of the option but also the issue that the option is intended to address.”
So what’s a math professor doing writing a Siddur? “I’m not going to answer that question,” responds Rosenstein with a laugh. “That’s the topic of my talk on Friday night.”
Rosenstein will say that he helped form and belonged to an independent minyan for 30 years. The minyan used the Silverman Siddur (the Conservative siddur, commonly in use before Siddur Sim Shalom).
“We kept saying we have to do something about this siddur. We explored various options and we tried to do it by committee. That didn’t go anywhere. So I decided to try to do it. In 1999, some friends published a Friday night service using four-column form. So I had a template for our siddur.”
The first edition of Siddur Eit Ratzon was printed and spiral-bound in May 2000. Rosenstein created two more versions. In 2004, he made a fourth edition that he took public. That version, the current one, was expanded in 2006. It’s a relatively complete siddur with both Shabbat and weekday services. Currently, Rosenstein is in the process of completing a Rosh HaShannah supplement.
“I don’t try to proselytize for my perspective,” says Rosenstein. “I try to lay out what the traditional perspective is and my perspective. One of the nicest complements I’ve received about the siddur was that it’s nice to have a book like this for adults. I assume he meant the people who look at this are thinking people, not children who need moral instruction. I lay out the tradition and other perspectives. People who use the siddur can figure out where they lay when it comes to different perspectives and issues.
“Helping people enter the world of prayer is a very important thing to do.”
A mathematics professor at Rutgers University may not be the most likely author of a new siddur, but Joe Rosenstein of Highland Park came to this project with an abiding connection to Judaism and a pragmatism that may reflect his academic leanings. His approach in Siddur Eit Ratzon is to help people overcome obstacles they may face when trying to pray -- by offering meaningful translations, notes and comments, meditations, and transliterations.
Rosenstein talked about prayer and his new siddur to a crowd of 60 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple on Feb. 19; his presentation was titled "Positioning Ourselves for Meaningful Prayer." Jews come to services on Shabbat for a variety of reasons, said Rosenstein -- to hear a sermon, to attend a family celebration, to enjoy being part of a community, to say Kaddish, among others -- but few come because they want to daven, to pray.
One reason many are turned off, suggested Rosenstein, has to do with how prayers are created. Prayers are usually renderings of an immediate and intense spiritual experience that the prayer’s writer wanted to share. But once that prayer is locked into a siddur, it may eventually lose its potency, leaving its audience unable to access the insight that inspired it.
Rosenstein offers the example of the words at the close of the Sh’ma, "Adonai Eloheichem -- Adonai is your God," followed by the words "emet, v’yatziv," which begin a list of 16 adjectives. Rosenstein interprets the adjectives, which some might label as "boring," as expressing the amazement of the prayer’s writer at the fact that the creator of the universe is our personal God. Here is how Rosenstein begins his translation of this prayer:
is your God ... and that is true! Wow! This teaching is so
amazing, I cannot find enough words to describe it. It is definitely
true and always will be".
Rosenstein suggests several types of obstacles that moderns encounter when trying to pray.
The first has to do with the nature of prayer. Most people think of prayer as petitions to God for help. "In the popular mind, prayer works," he said, "or at least most people think it does." Rosenstein jokes that he even sees this in his students, when they pray to get good grades on their exams. But, more seriously, he sees a serious obstacle between a culture that sees prayer as petitions that God answers and a God who did not answer people’s prayers for help during the Holocaust. This is a theological-philosophical obstacle to prayer.
Another obstacle to meaningful prayer has to do with uncomfortable content. A person may not, for example, believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is alluded to in the second blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer in every Jewish service.
To validate these kinds of concerns, Rosenstein deals openly with them in his siddur. On the issue of whether God responds to petitionary prayer, for example, he is straightforward in his belief that "God does not micromanage the universe."
Rosenstein presents prayer, therefore, as a way to recognize the blessings in our lives rather than as a petition to God for human needs. He quoted a passage from his siddur, "We could of course focus on all the things that go wrong, but if we focus instead on what goes right, we come to realize that we have many blessings, and that God is their source. An important prerequisite to prayer is an awareness of all that God provides.... Life, health, strength, courage, faith, security, caring, love, compassion, forgiveness, and many more blessings are God’s daily bounty."
Language also can get in the way -- prayers may seem boring, repetitive, obtuse, or archaic, or they may talk about God in problematic ways. And for people who can’t read Hebrew, a good transliteration and accessible translation of all the prayers is essential.
The last potential obstacle is the absence of the information needed to understand a service. Rosenstein likened confused worshipers to the crowds at the Rochester Red Wings Triple-A baseball stadium where as a vendor he used to shout, "You can’t tell the players without a scorecard." So now he faces helpless worshipers -- who don’t know what is going on globally or locally in the service -- and tells them, "You can’t tell the prayers without a scorecard."
And that’s what Rosenstein has tried to do in his siddur -- provide a "scorecard" that elucidates the spiritual journey through the different parts of the service, the meanings of individual prayers, the movement choreography, and "translations and comments that try to capture the prayers in language that makes sense to the contemporary reader."
Rosenstein was born in England after his parents finally managed to escape from the city-state Danzig the day before Hitler invaded. It was their fourth attempt to leave -- having already been sent back twice from Palestine and once from Sweden.
In 1948, when Rosenstein was eight, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where they had some relatives; the rest, as far as they knew, had been killed during the war.
Rosenstein’s mother came from a religious family and his father from one not so religious, but both were active in Jewish organizations of all sorts -- from the New Americans Club, Pioneer Women, and Labor Zionist organizations to the Yiddish Kultur Council and the Chug Ivri. Both of his parents studied Hebrew by correspondence and got certificates from the Hebrew University attesting to their ability to speak Hebrew.
Rosenstein and his sister had very different types of Jewish education. He was one of three students learning with a rebbe in his 80s who had once had a large cheder, and his sister attended the secularist Peretz Folkschule.
While Rosenstein was at Columbia University, he attended courses several evenings a week at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and subsequently he did a lot of Jewish text study b’chevruta, in pairs or triples.
For many years he has taught courses on all manner of Jewish topics, including prayer, at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Anshe Emeth and at havurah institutes and retreats. Through his teaching as well as guided meditations he began to write to enhance understanding of particular prayers, Rosenstein began to really understand what was in the siddur. "It is hard to do that if you just go in for a service and spend an hour flying through the book," he observed. "I discovered that the authors of the siddur had amazing spiritual insights and if we understood them, we would be the better for it."
But why write a siddur? Rosenstein knew about the Jewish tradition of writing a Torah at age 50, but not being a sofer, or scribe, Rosenstein decided to try his hand at a siddur. At that time, in 2000, the Highland Park Minyan, where Rosenstein prays, was looking forward to the bat mitzvah of Miriam Dorman Langer, and he offered to try to put together a siddur for the occasion.
The enthusiastic responses he got spurred him through five revisions, and now his siddur is being used in over 30 different congregations. About a dozen or fifteen Conservative, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated congregations have adopted it as their primary siddur. Others use it for learners’ services; synaplex, where several services are going on at the same time; and for education programs.
Attendees at the lecture asked a number of challenging questions, some theological in tone. One person asked whether Rosenstein was positing a form of dualism with his assumption that God is powerless in the face of evil but is at the same time the source of our blessings. Rosenstein said he believes that inherent in the blessings God provides are bad things like death and sickness. "It is the way the world is constructed," he said. "The world is a complicated place; you can focus on all the bad things that can happen; but the blessings are all around us and we can focus on them."
Another person asked how it is possible to pray meaningfully at a very fast-moving morning minyan. First Rosenstein observed sympathetically, "If a service is an express train, it’s hard to make it meaningful." Then he offered some suggestions: reading only every other paragraph or focusing on one word or phrase in a paragraph. "Just because everyone else on an express train doesn’t mean I have to be -- at least not all the time," he explains. "I’m part of a community whose goal is to end at 7:30 [a.m.], because people have to go to work, but spirituality demands that I say the prayers with a certain amount of kavanah."
Rabbi Malamut asked Rosenstein to reflect on being a liturgist, on how exhilarating and difficult it is to compose a prayer. "What makes something work or not work?" he asked. "Why is it that some siddurim coming out have no shelf life and expire the second they are published?"
One issue is currency, said Rosenstein. If prayers are too current or refer to current events, they can quickly lose their power as times change.
"Most people learn to pray superficially," Rosenstein said, "and probably don’t advance far from there because there is no impetus for them to do that." Probably most Jews, and this is true across the spectrum, he said, learn how to read and recite prayers at best and may recognize a few phrases here and there.
For him, it was creating this siddur that made all the difference. "One thing translating a siddur forced me to do was to deal with every word, every phrase and realize “Oh, that’s what that means,” and “Oh, that is connected to that.” Rosenstein offers his siddur as a compendium of the spiritual messages he has learned. "Realizing that most people are not aware of them," he said, "what I tried was to make it more possible for people to catch those messages."
In the eyes of Joseph Rosenstein of Highland Park, every moment is the right time for prayer.
Sitting in a computer room at the Center for Math, Science, and Computer Education on Rutgers University's Busch Campus in Piscataway, where he is a mathematics professor, Rosenstein opened the pages of his recently self-published prayer book, Siddur Eit Ratzon.
"Usually, eit ratzon is translated as 'May this time be an acceptable time for prayer,'" Rosenstein said. "That leaves open the possibility that God may not listen to someone's prayer. The perspective of my siddur is that God is always listening to prayer."
In illustration, he began reading from a passage in the prayer book, which offers his translations, commentaries, meditations, and prayers for the morning service on Shabbat and festivals.
"'In Your eyes, every moment is eit ratzon -- the right time for prayer,'" he recited, quoting from his translation of Psalm 69. "'You receive my prayers with great love, and You respond with true assistance.' That's the perspective here," he said. "That seemed for me to be the appropriate title."
Mathematician and meditation guide, teacher and translator, prayer leader and spiritual seeker, the 63-year-old Rosenstein has spent the past five years writing and refining his distinctive Siddur Eit Ratzon. The prayer book, brightly bound in yellow, is intended specifically for the Highland Park Minyan, the nondenominational congregation he helped to found, and more generally for those who seek a traditional siddur but who are hungry for a spirituality and meaning that often elude them.
"The language of the traditional prayerbook, unfortunately, keeps many Jews away from God," Rosenstein writes in his introduction. "Many find that, for example, the spiritual path is disguised, the prerequisite philosophical commitments are unacceptable, the imagery and language do not resonate, and both the prayer community and God are assumed to be male. In this Siddur, I have tried to be inclusive, to use language that invites all people to come closer and become engaged in our people's prayers.
"This Siddur is thus both a spiritual guide and a theological exploration, and is also an invitation to take another look at Jewish prayer, to find new ways of inviting God into our lives."
Rosenstein brought to that enterprise a lifelong dedication to prayer and Jewish learning. In addition to being a founding member of the Highland Park Minyan, he is a member and longtime adult-education teacher at the Highland Park Conservative Temple and also a founding member and teacher at the National Havurah Committee's Summer Institute.
"What are the obstacles to prayer?" asked Rosenstein. "Very often, the obstacles have to do with the prayer book. People don't understand the Hebrew. The translation is difficult for them. They don't have a guide to what's in it. They don't have a way of making their way through the siddur. What I tried to do is to write a siddur that has a translation that keeps the obstacles in mind and tries to overcome them.
"What I've learned is that for many people, prayer is not a spiritual event," he said. "Whether they're Orthodox or Reform, people tend to recite the words and not to focus on the message the words convey. What I wanted to do is to have a siddur where the messages are important. The spiritual messages of the prayers are highlighted rather than hidden."
In the pages of his prayer book, Rosenstein highlights those messages both graphically and philosophically. Each page is a map of the mysteries inherent in the text. For example, page 9 offers up "Birchot HaShachar" - the Morning Blessings - in Hebrew, in Hebrew transliteration, and in Rosenstein's at once straightforward and inviting translations.
In a column to the right of the prayer text, a "Guidepost" grounds the reader in the rituals surrounding the prayer. Below that, the "Kavvanah," or Intention, suggests an interpretation of the spiritual meaning of the prayer. And below that, Rosenstein suggests alternatives to the prayer through chanting or meditation. For those who wish to savor the latter, "Meditation, Surrounding Ourselves with Your Light," at the bottom of the page, offers a soulful spiritual journey into the heart of the lines from Psalm 36: "For with You is the Source of Life, / in Your light we see light."
"I made the prayers much more in the second person," Rosenstein said, "and that solved another problem -- the gender problem of prayer. If you use the word 'you,' you don't have to use 'he' or 'she.'
"I wanted to have a prayer book where the translation spoke to people in a language people can relate to," he said. "People are looking to have a closer relationship with God... so I tried to make it more personal."
Rosenstein said that he had a number of goals in compiling Siddur Eit Ratzon . "One very important goal is that I wanted to create a siddur our group could daven from," he said, referring to his 50-family havurah, which meets on Shabbat mornings in the annex of the Highland Park Reformed Church. "The traditional siddur was not meeting our needs."
"Another goal was to create something other people could use as well," he said. "The third goal was outreach. My sense is that there are many people who are not connected to the Jewish community and therefore are not involved in any prayer setting. For them, this may be an entr�e book in order to revisit Jewish prayer. It's an invitation to prayer."
For example, Rosenstein said, he gave a copy of his siddur to a relative and received back an interesting note. "He said, 'I was reading your book in the subway station and I found myself davening for the first time in 15 years.'" Rosenstein related with pleasure. "That means this kind of prayer book could touch him. I expect there are many others out there who could be touched by this."
Ultimately, Rosenstein said, he hopes his siddur will help readers recapture the spiritual "Wow!" that inspired Jewish visionaries to write their prayers in the first place.
"Basically, the people who wrote these prayers had visions of reality, and those visions are very important in the prayers," he said. "If you just read the text of the prayer without thinking about what led to the prayer, then you're missing something important.
"What I tried to do in these meditations is to bring out the experience the authors had that led them to these words," he said. "They had some kind of spiritual experience, and I've tried to capture it with words."
Joseph G. Rosenstein may have tapped the fountain of spiritual youth in "Siddur Eit Ratzon," his new prayer book for the morning service of Shabbat and festivals.
The third paragraph of the Shema [sic], for example, dances with a sense of discovery: "Wow! This teaching is so amazing, I cannot find enough words to describe it. It is definitely true and always will be. It provides reliable direction to my life. I love it - it is dear and precious and pleasant to me. It is awesome and powerful. It is sweet and beautiful. It is true!"
This sense of wonder reflects the journey of discovery Rosensteinexperienced over the eight years it took to complete the prayer book, from the first glimmer of the idea in 1995. "There were many moments, as I went through the siddur, where I said to myself, 'Oh! That's what it might mean! How come I didn't notice that before?'" recalled Rosenstein.
The "Wow!" moments over the course of translating the prayers were a common occurrence, he said, explaining that the insights about the third paragraph of the Shema [sic] started with noticing the sequence of adjectives.
"Why is that sequence of adjectives there?" he wondered. "Why would anyone write that?"
As he reflected on the phenomenon, Rosenstein realized that the ancient author was trying to capture the "wow" experience that "the God of our ancestors who did these amazing things is also our God, has an impact on our lives as a people and as individuals. "I tried to capture that excitement," said Rosenstein.
The sub-heading of the siddur states the goal clearly: This is "a traditional prayer book designed for those who seek spirituality and meaning beyond what they have found in the traditional prayer book."
While basically following the traditional service, Eit Ratzon moves beyond the traditional through its flowing translation and unique style of commentary.
Even the cover - designed by Rosenstein's wife, Judith - reflects the vision. An inviting canary-yellow cover glows with energy, accented by a charming line-drawing of creation.
A founder of the Highland Park Minyan, which has been around for more than three decades, Rosenstein tried out early versions of the siddur for feedback from the minyan. "It has been fun, educational, and inspiring being involved in the evolution of this siddur," said David Goldfarb, who has been a member for 15 years. He grew up Conservative, primarily in Israel until age 15.
The debut of the pilot version of Eit Ratzon was four years ago, at the bat mitzvah of Miriam Langer. "There had been about two years of photocopies before that," said Jerry Langer, involved in the minyan since 1986 and whose background is Conservative. He is also a member of Highland Park Conservative Temple and Center.
"Joe would work on it, circulating it to various people or bringing it to the minyan in the photocopy version," said Langer. "A group of people here and elsewhere gave comments and criticism - but Joe had set the deadline to produce the first version by the bat mitzvah." So in May of 2000, a young version of Eit Ratzon had its first public showing in the hands of Miriam, her family, friends and community.
"I was honored to be the sh'liach tzibbur for P'sukei d'Zimrah (the preliminary portion of the Shabbat morning service) when we debuted the siddur at Miriam Langer's bat mitzvah," said Goldfarb. "I've also very much appreciated the opportunity to assist in editing the siddur over these past few years as well as make suggestions on what to add, leave out, or modify in the text. It was an enriching experience, and for it I would like to thank Joe and wish him kol hakavod!"
The people at Miriam's bat mitzvah loved the siddur, said Langer. "We also got a lot of positive comments from out-of-towners," he said. "They enjoyed the line-by-line transliteration, some read the notes, commentary, reflections; they enjoyed the layout."
The newest version of Eit Ratzon was available in time for Langer's daughter LeeAnn, who celebrated her bat mitzvah this May. Many guests, using this siddur for the first time, expressed enthusiasm, said Langer, including those from Highland Park Conservative Temple and Center and Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park. "It's a tool to go deeper into what prayer is about and how one can approach these wonderful texts," said Langer. "I think Joe really did produce something of value to a wide community."
Joyce Leslie, who has been involved in the minyan about 20 years, described feeling "close to the siddur." "We all feel a lot of pride and affection for the siddur," she said, "which you wouldn't have if you picked one objectively. It's 'in the family' so to speak."
Leslie's background was non-religious. "My parents were Jewish communists, didn't believe in God," she said. "I followed tradition - and rebelled. My children go to day school." Leslie's daughter, Daliah, used an earlier version of Eit Ratzon for her bat mitzvah. "My children do two ceremonies," said Leslie, "one with the (Highland Park) Minyan, then another with Neve Shalom in Metuchen. Daliah brought Joe's siddur to the cantor (at Neve Shalom). He made one tape for her service with the minyan and another for the synagogue."
Several members of Neve Shalom also daven at the Highland Park Minyan and Neve Shalom's Rabbi Gerald Zelizer was so impressed with Eit Ratzon that he plans to use it in a course this winter on aids to prayer.
"People bring to shul occasionally other siddurim to assist them with the siddur of their respective movement," said Zelizer. "Joe's siddur enhances the spiritual part of the mechanical davening."
Rosenstein, professor of mathematics since 1969 at Rutgers University, stands in the tradition of non-rabbis of the Middle Ages who edited siddurim, said Zelizer. "You don't have to be a rabbi to be moved in prayer," he said. "Joe is very serious about the Jewish community and prayer experience. As a rabbi I'm always willing to gain insight to davening. He's a modern version of what was done in the Middle Ages. "Joe makes a conscious effort to inject feeling into formal prayer," Zelizer added. "The emotional aspect is conscious on his part. I'm not saying you can't do this with a standard siddur, but you have to drag it out of yourself. Joe helps you. Occasionally when I want to beef up my own davening at home I've used Joe's siddur personally. It's injected me with a lot of feeling for the morning prayer."
Highland Park Minyan member Bruce Birnberg said the siddur has wide appeal, as he discovered a few years ago at the bat mitzvah of his daughter, Maggie Violette-Birnberg.
"We had a number of non-Jewish guests and guests from all over the Jewish spectrum," said Birnberg. "My mother's cousin wanted a copy. He's ordained Orthodox and worked for various Jewish organizations. Someone else wanted a copy who was a committed secularist, with nothing to do with religious Judaism. It touches a lot of people."
The title of the new siddur, "Eit Ratzon," is from Psalm 69:14, a verse recited at the beginning of morning prayers: "As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, eit ratzon."
The phrase "eit ratzon" has been translated "favorable time" (The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh), "opportune time" (ArtScroll Siddur), "auspicious time" (Sim Shalom) and "a time of joy and favor" (Gates of Prayer).
Rosenstein has translated the verse: "In Your eyes, every moment is the right time for prayer." This reflects the view of this Siddur:
"Whenever we call out to God, God is present," explained Rosenstein in the "User's Guide" to the prayer book.
This theological perspective is woven throughout the siddur in sidebar "Perspective" notes. At the end of the Amidah, for example, is a brief prayer, the Oseh Shalom: "May the One who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us, and for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth."
The "Perspective" note explains: "Although we ask God to make peace in the world, we know that God gives us the tools to do so. It is up to us to ensure that the cosmic harmony is truly reflected in our world."
The siddur can be used for prayer services, individual prayer, study and spirituality. A journey through one prayer, the Shabbat Amidah, serves to illustrate the siddur's approach. For starters, finding the Amidah is very easy. Along the bottom margin of each page - in Hebrew on the left-hand page and English on the right - is the section description, "Shacharit Amidah for Shabbat and Festivals."
The facing pages are treated as one four-column page -in this case the Amidah begins on page 58 (both the left and right pages are page 58).
From left to right the columns are: Transliteration, Hebrew, English translation, commentary. This format was developed for "Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil," as Rosenstein explained.
Goldfarb, who is fluent in Hebrew, enjoys the four-column format. "I very much like the sense of flow in the siddur," he said. "There's typically very little jumping around necessary from page to page - yet one could easily shift from column to column. The English translation, though not necessarily literal, is accessible, meaningful, sensitive, and 'davvenable' - and I very much appreciate all that Joe put in to making it so. Joe's translation is a quantum leap from that in the Silverman siddur the Highland Park Minyan was using up until four years ago, and has facilitated my revisiting the Hebrew text in a deeper, more meaningful way than before."
The fourth column on the siddur page - the commentary - falls into seven main categories: "Guideposts" discuss the prayers; "A Guide to the Spiritual Journey of the Morning Prayers" indicates key transition points; "Perspective" flags the reader at points where this siddur is distinctive from traditional siddurim; "Alternatives" offer texts of the prayers and ways to conduct the service; "Comments" provide insights on prayers and verses; "Kavvanot" help to focus prayer; and "Meditations" help the spiritual journey.
An index in the back of the book lists the Guideposts, Perspectives and Meditations. A glossary at the back of the book also helps the reader.
Back to page 58, and the Amidah, the commentary on this page includes two "Guideposts" and one "Alternative" in the last column. Across the top of both pages, a spiritual journey guide box orients the reader within the larger context of the morning service.
"The spiritual aim of the morning prayers is to bring us to the realization that God, however understood, can make a difference in our lives," the guide explains.
"Now that we have completed our preparations, we are ready to begin the Amidah, to build on that realization, to move ourselves into God's presence." The guide briefly explains how the earlier prayers act as preparation for this "audience" with God, and how the encounter itself has four phases - introductions, substance, gratitude and leave-taking.
The transliteration is based on modern Sephardic Hebrew and North American English, includes stress marks over accented syllables and is in a very clear font. Syllable divisions are indicated with unobtrusive dots. A pronunciation guide on the last page of the siddur provides easy reference.
The Hebrew font is similarly clear and follows both the transliteration and translation line by line, in meaningful phrase divisions. The English translation is original. Much of the prayer service is woven of biblical passages, and Rosenstein indicates this by placing parenthetical citations at the end of such quotes.
Additionally, Rosenstein attempted to make the English "davenable" - possible to say or chant.
The egalitarian perspective of the siddur is immediately apparent in the first blessing of the Amidah which, in Hebrew as well as English, blesses "Our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekkah, God of Rachel and God of Leah."
An asterisk alerts the reader to a related Guidepost, which explains, "You are the 'God of our ancestors,' but You are also 'our God,' whom each of us has struggled to understand and accept."
Continuing with the first blessing, one sees philosophical alternatives bracketed in the body of the text: "You remember the loving acts of our ancestors, and will lovingly bring [a redeemer / redemption] to their children's children, for redemption is Your essence."
The "Alternatives" commentary explains, "Judaism traditionally understands God's redemptive promise as being personified in a Messiah, here referred to as a redeemer (go-eil). We may instead focus on the process, interpreting the promise as redemption (g'ul-lah), and affirm that through our partnership with God, the Jewish people, indeed the whole world, can be redeemed, and that better days lie ahead."
The first blessing concludes, "You are a Ruler who helps, saves, and protects [and remembers]. We bless You, Adokai, Who protects Abraham and [helps / remembers] Sarah."
Unique to Eit Ratzon is the option of including a new additional petitionary prayer. This prayer is placed after "Mikaddesh HaShabbat" and before "R'tzeih." The "Perspective" explains: "The traditional Shabbat Amidah does not include 'petitionary prayers,' although they appear in each weekday Amidah, since the Rabbis of the Talmud thought it inappropriate to petition God on the Shabbat. Our ancestors, by and large, said the Amidah each and every day, so this was not a problem."
Rosenstein includes the weekday Amidah in this siddur, at the end of the book. "Many of us, on the other hand, say the Amidah only on Shabbat and thus rarely recite petitionary prayers," the "Perspective continues. "How can we become engaged in the practice of bringing God into our lives, of speaking to the One who hears prayer, of tapping into the strength of the One that is the source of all strength? It is time to acknowledge this reality and reinstate the opportunity for petitionary prayer in the Shabbat Amidah."
The prayer opens, "Creator of the Universe: We acknowledge Your influence in our lives by bringing before You our needs and our hopes, our concerns and our aspirations." Then follows a poetic series of hopes: "When we are perplexed, help us find clarity - for You grace us with understanding. ... When we have lost our way, help us find direction - for You guide our steps. ..." These conclude with acknowledgement of God and praise to God - without using the Name of God which is used in the weekday version of this blessing - "for always being receptive to our prayers, for compassionately listening to all of our prayers."
The traditional Amidah continues and a boxed "Meditation" on gratitude is offered within the "Modim." The 5- to 10-minute meditations are designed so that they work as silent, individual meditations, or as guided meditations led by the prayer leader. A meditation on Shalom follows the closing blessing of the Amidah, "Sim Shalom."
Addenda to the siddur include a guide for the meditation leader and a sample meditation service - along with a guide for leading a traditional service.
At the end of the Amidah, a boxed "Closing prayer" serves to reflect on the spiritual journey made in the morning service, from the very first prayers through the Amidah. In English, the prayer includes a stylized Hebrew graphic ("Shiviti") of the opening words, "Help me keep Your presence directly in my field of vision at each and every moment.
Shiviti is also the name Rosenstein chose for the publishing company of the siddur.
Judy Richman, who grew up Conservative, joined the Minyan when she moved to Highland Park this year. "I so love the egalitarian model and the loving, caring, supportive community," she said. "I taught myself how to lead Shacharit this year, and had the opportunity to do that in the encouraging environment of the Minyan." Eit Ratzon has enhanced that experience. "I especially love the painstaking, thoughtful translations, kavvanot and guided imagery superimposed on Joe's understanding of the underlying spiritual journey of Shabbat morning services," Richman explained. "For me, this siddur is a wonderful blend of keva (formal prayers) and kavannah (focusing thoughts), both traditional Hebrew t'fillot (prayers) and beautiful kavannot and commentary."
What's next for Rosenstein? He will continue working with "Eit Ratzon" - perhaps with an eye to tweaking it for adult education or for use as a companion to other prayer books.
His next big project, however - which was put on hold as he finished the siddur - is a series of guided meditation tapes based on different Jewish prayers. Such meditations appear in abridged form in the siddur, but the tapes will be for half-hour long meditations. One tape is already available, with meditations on Psalm 23 and Psalm 27.
Rosenstein also is active in his "day job" - professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. For the past 15 years his focus has been on K-12 mathematics education. Rosenstein recently received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to create and direct "MetroMath: The Center for Mathematics in America's Cities." "This is a center for learning and teaching, a collaborative effort involving Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, the City University of New York," Rosenstein explained.
MetroMath centers are in Philadelphia, Newark, Plainfield and New York City. "The goal is to find out what are the critical things that need to be done to improve math education in the cities and to develop leaders," said Rosenstein.
He also has been active in Jewish learning and teaching all hislife. He is founder and former chair of the National Havurah Committee and its annual summer institute. When asked about the connection between his interest in mathematics and in the study of prayer, Rosenstein thought for a moment.
"As a mathematician I learned to ask questions," he said, "and to search for answers, not to be satisfied with quick answers. I learned to think a lot. "And I learned to go back and forth between the big picture and the small picture."
The "Wow!" experience of discovery that Rosenstein felt as he translated the siddur is available to anyone, he said. "The notion of personalizing prayers is important to our tradition," he said. "What each person might do is write their own prayers, based on the themes of traditional services. This applies to people wherever they are in the spectrum of Jewish observance.
"On the one hand each prayer should be meaningful, focused - kavvanah," continued Rosenstein. "On the other hand, since the Rabbis wanted prayer to occur, they talked about the importance of praying at prescribed times - keva. The challenge is to make keva kavvanah.
"We tend to go the other way around," he said. "We tend to routinize our lives - we are conservative (small 'c') creatures. The challenge is to make prayer meaningful, exciting.
"Translating or writing a prayer for oneself is very much within our tradition - try it!"