Introducing SiddurWiki

by Brian on November 18, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

When my father died in March, I posted an article on how it has been difficult for me to say Kaddish on a regular basis. Instead, I proposed to sponsor a series of events that over the course of the 12 months of mourning would serve the goal of “ilu’i nishmato” – to “elevate the essence of who he was.”

The first of those events was held in June in Jerusalem. It was evening of stories and song” in honor of my father.

I’d like to now announce the second “event” – this time a virtual one in which everyone can participate.

Most people know about Wikipedia – the online encyclopedia that the Internet community as a whole can write and edit. But you can use the same Wiki software to create any kind of collaborative web project.

My contribution is SiddurWiki, which aims to apply a “wisdom of the crowds” approach to collaboratively create a more humanistic, non-supernatural commentary to the traditional prayers in the siddur. The goal of SiddurWiki is not to rewrite the prayer book itself. Rather, I want to identify specific themes within each prayer in order to augment the mainstream meanings with a less theistic interpretation.

This approach isn’t an entirely foreign concept to traditional Judaism. Does God need human prayer? Or sacrifices? Many commentaries say no. Rather, the real reason for prayer is to reflect the praise being given to God back on the person praying, to make that person a better human being and the world a better place. SiddurWiki aims to take out the “middleman” – to learn from the prayers without it needing to boomerang on an external supernatural being.

How does this serve the goal of “ilu’i nishmato?” My father was someone who I would have called a “devout” atheist. He never related to prayer – nor do I think this project would have changed those views – but I believe that he would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of participating in SiddurWiki.

Indeed, during the last 7 years in which I have written This Normal Life, my father frequently sent me emails to ask questions or challenge what I’d written. SiddurWiki would have elicited a similar response, I’m sure, as well as a sense of quiet pride that his son was working on a project that furthered his own beliefs in the vigilance of rational thinking in all areas…including religion.

I also must admit that there is a very personal aspect to SiddurWiki. I hope that, as I continue to struggle with prayer myself, the new interpretations formulated here will help me maintain a connection with community and with at least semi-traditional synagogue practice.

I’ve built the SiddurWiki framework. So far it covers the Friday night service, customs at home, and “big” concepts like God, blessing and tikun olam. I’ve added my own thoughts in many places, plus interpretations from Marcia Falk, Mordechai Kaplan, Tzemach Yoreh (who wrote the “Atheist Siddur”), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the Reform movement’s siddur Mishkan Tefilah, among others. There are more far flung contributions as well, such as Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God” and the NPR science program Radio Lab.

Now I’m inviting you to participate. Go to the SiddurWiki website. Click any link and you’ll see a section at the bottom of the page reading “Share Your Thoughts Here.” There is a link to the right that says, “Click here to edit.” Do that, type in your ideas and click Save. That’s all there is to it. You have now contributed to a Wiki!

Those of us who will participate in this project may not be rabbis or biblical scholars. That’s the point of putting the collective wisdom of the Internet into play.

Even if you don’t want to add to the Wiki itself, please take a look and let me know what you think. And tell your friends. A Wiki is only as good as the people who partake in its creation.

Ultimately, I plan to create a PDF printable version of SiddurWiki that can be taken beyond the walls of the web.

Most of all, I hope that the resulting work will be inclusive; that it will be of value for both atheists and hassids, and everyone in-between, who want to enhance their prayer experience. And if I achieve even 1% of that goal, I believe that this project will have served in some small way to elevate the essence of my father – “ilu’i nishmato.”

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