I have always wrestled with the siddur. However, I thought I had reached my peace with it, until I was asked to write Mishkan T’filah for Children.
My HUC year in Israel was the first time that my Hebrew was good enough to actually understand the prayers that were ingrained in my memory. The first time I read the familiar Hebrew words and understood their translations, I found myself unable to pray. The God that I believed in wasn’t the all-powerful “Male Sky God” that the rabbis seemed to know – a God who is “King of the Universe,” who is “High and Exalted,” and who we beseech to “rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.” This was not my God.
Like many of us, I would decide that the words didn’t matter as much as the people and the places. I wasn’t the first Jew to not believe the words in every prayer, and I surely will not be the last. I teach prayer and encourage students to grapple with the words. I lead prayer and find ways in my introductions and chosen melodies to explain and add meaning to the text. And I pray, often turning off my mind to let my spirit soar. And for me, it worked.
That was, until Rabbi Hara Person reached out to me and asked if I would consider writing Mishkan T’filah for Children, a siddur intended for grades k-2 and me. Though I teach prayer, and lead prayer, writing a movement prayer book was a very different prospect. I had read enough Sasso and Kushner to know that children’s books could provide diverse images of God, but could a children’s prayerbook successfully do the same? Was there a way to show those varying theologies while still staying true to Reform Movement prayer? What was the balance between keeping the words of our tradition, and encouraging different ideas and concepts to emerge?
I have to give credit to my husband, Rabbi Joel Abraham, for his help at this point. “Why does God have to be the “Creator of Peace,” he asked. “Why can’t God just be the “Peace”? Indeed why not?
How many different classes and programs have I taught where we explore the many different images of God that are part of the Jewish tradition? Why can’t a prayerbook for children share that variety? Indeed, a key component of the “regular” Mishkan T’filah is its inclusion of different English readings that give a variety of God images. Even the traditional siddur, with in the limitations imposed by the culture that created it, reaches for diverse images of the Divine.
And so, I began to work. We would still refer to God as “Ruler of the Universe,” but find places where God was also the Light, the Peace, or the Artist. I added images of God “tucking us in” and “helping us be strong and brave,” and kept images of God as “Creator of Miracles” and “Giver of Live.” We would praise God for being holy, and also recognize the Holy Spark with in each of us as God as well.
It is an incredible gift to have your theology challenged. The process of writing Mishkan T’filah for Children was just that for me – not only my own voice, but the voices of parents, children, and clergy loud in my mind, questioning each word that I chose. Did this image of God to too far? Should I be more daring and go farther? I teach my students that we are Yisrael – the Ones who Wrestle with God. It is an incredible gift to be invited to engage in the struggle.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, is the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ. She is also the author of numerous Jewish curricula and children’s books, and works extensively as a consultant for a variety of Jewish Summer Camp grants and projects. Most recently she served as the Jewish Educational Consultant on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator.