Tablet Magazine ran an article earlier this week that I suspect drew quizzical looks from readers. Titled “Black Jewish Temples Get Their Own Prayer Book, After Nearly a Century,” the article is as much a short history of the Black Israelite movement as it is about the siddur itself.
Let’s bracket the kinds of historical concerns that we might bring into play discussing the Black Israelite movement. They’re not relevant to this post, because what I want to talk about is one reaction I saw on Facebook to the article. That reaction (paraphrased): “why do Black Israelites need their own siddur“?
The answer: because liturgy matters. Again, reader: bracket your historical arguments, your theological positions, and your arguments about the legitimacy vel non of claims to Jewish identity.
Suppose, if you will, that you are Jewish, of Eastern European descent. Your community, over successive generations, has endured significant historical traumas: expulsions, slaughter at the hands of Crusaders, limitations on where you could settle your families, etc. When it comes time to remember past tragedies, you want to remember those that have occurred not only to all Jews, but also to your community, as these tragedies loom large in your community’s memory.
This is how Yizkor services have come to include mention of massacres at Mainz and Worms in the 11th century. The response to persecution is also what inspired many of the piyyutim that are now viewed as essentially mandatory parts of an Orthodox Jewish prayer service.
Simply put, it’s natural for a community’s liturgy to reflect its history, its values, and its sense of self. It’s why the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Rewenal Movement siddurim reflect changes to the texts of traditional prayers. It’s why Artscroll issues two different versions of the nusach Ashkenaz siddur–the regular Artscroll version and the Rabbinical Council of America version. The difference? The RCA version includes a different introduction and prayers for the State of Israel and the IDF: Zionism is not always a given in the haredi world, but it is in the Modern Orthodox world represented by the RCA, and there are theological and halakhic differences between the Modern Orthodox and the haredim.
So, to turn the question back, why shouldn’t Black Israelites have their own siddur? If your answer is that it makes you uncomfortable because there are already siddurim out there, I’m not sure you’ve got a good answer to the question.