A new prayer book for a new year

A new prayer book for a new year

Reform congregations adopt new machzor

The new Reform High Holidays prayer book adds a third option to the traditional formula calling worshippers to the Torah to reflect the experience of individuals who don’t identify as male or female. (David A.M. Wilensky)
The new Reform High Holidays prayer book adds a third option to the traditional formula calling worshippers to the Torah to reflect the experience of individuals who don’t identify as male or female. (David A.M. Wilensky)

As the new year began, many Reform Jews prayed from a new holiday prayer book, or machzor, called Mishkan Henefesh.

Mishkan Hanefesh was published this summer, after years of editorial work. It replaces Gates of Repentance, published in 1978. And several area congregations have adopted it.

Its title, roughly translated as “sanctuary of the soul,” also refers to the portable sanctuary, or mishkan, that the ancient Israelites carried with them during their desert wanderings.

Some of the changes in the new machzor didn’t require a close reading to notice.

For starters, where Gates of Repentance had one volume, with prayers for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Mishkan Hanefesh is two volumes, one for each holiday, totaling more than 1,000 pages. (Not to worry: “Services won’t be twice as long,” promises Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, whose Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah is using the new volumes.)

Like the Reform movement’s 2007 Mishkan T’filah prayer book for Shabbat, the new machzor features transliteration alongside the Hebrew and translation. Gates of Prayer included transliteration of Hebrew prayers — but in the back.

“Having the transliteration alongside the Hebrew makes it look accessible,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

Rabbi Mosbacher said the transliteration is particularly important for congregations like his, which use a lot of Hebrew in their services. When Mishkan T’fila came out with Hebrew transliteration on the page, “the volume of participation increased dramatically in the Hebrew prayers,” he said.

Another visually obvious change is that the left page of each two-page spread contains alternative readings, poetry, and commentary.

“We would have these handout sheets offering ways to reflect during services,” Rabbi Frishman said. “We didn’t need to print them out this year, because this machzor is so wealthy in spiritual support and guidance that we didn’t need any additional resources.”

The new machzor includes poems from Israeli poets, teachings from chasidic rabbis, songs from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman, and writings from across the Jewish spectrum, including a piece by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond of Teaneck, a professor at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Frishman said her congregation was “chomping at the bit” for the new machzor.

“People were so fully ready to move on from Gates of Repentance,” she said. “Theologically, Gates of Repentance is a very narrow machzor. In any given worship setting you have so many different theologies represented by different individuals. There are people with a personal sense of God, people who believe in a transcendent God, and people who don’t believe in God. A true communal prayer book needs to offer everyone an opportunity to engage.”

A more subtle change is the way the Mishkan Hanefesh hews more closely to the traditional structure of the liturgy found in Orthodox and Conservative services.

Where earlier Reform prayer books made the shofar blowing one event, “The shofar service now reflects more the traditional model” of three separate sets of blasts: Malchuyot (what the machzor calls the Voice of Sovereignty), Zichronot (the Voice of Remembrance) and Shofarot (the Voice of Hope).

“The editorial team decided it was valuable to break it up for all sorts of reasons, and worked hard to convince the clergy that this is a good move,” Rabbi Frishman said.

Similarly, the new machzor includes a fuller version of the traditional prayer Unetaneh Tokef, which is recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and asserts that “On Rosh HaShanah this is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: How many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it; who will live and who will die; who will reach the ripeness of age, who will be taken before their time; who by fire and who by water.”

“I think the prayer is misunderstood,” and in part because it had been abridged in earlier Reform liturgies, Rabbi Frishman said. “The misunderstanding is that it’s saying you better watch out, a Santa Claus theology. The reality is that it’s about powerlessness. What do I have control over in my life, how am I going to live my life, how is God like a shepherd to me, how will I be guided and shepherded in the year ahead?

“It’s an extraordinary prayer. Some of the traditional language is terrifying. In the new machzor you have alternatives that help you to access it. Instead of feeling threatened by it, you can feel empowered by it in a spiritual way,” Rabbi Frishman said.

Rabbi Mosbacher said the text in and around the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one of the highlights of the machzor.

“For me and many other people, Unetaneh Tokef is the crux of the High Holidays and also the spiritually most challenging,” he said. “Do I really believe in a God who is counting my deeds on two sides of a ledger and if I’m good I’ll live and if I’m bad I’ll die? People say, ‘I know this is the high point of the service but I’m not sure I believe this.’ The editors of the machzor recognized that people struggle with it. They didn’t take it out; they left it in and offered additional texts for inspiration and alternative readings so that people who might be struggling with its theology might find themselves and their theology.”

One of these readings was described by Rabbi Hara Person, the executive editor of the new machzor, as a “prayer of protest.” The new prayer alternates between frank expressions of doubt and lines from the traditional liturgy.

It reads:

“I speak these words, but I don’t believe them

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth.

Clearly there’s no scientific foundation

You know how we are formed;

You remember that we are dust.”

Rabbi Person said worshippers should feel free to explore the new volume to find what speaks to them.

“We’re saying, yes, absolutely you don’t need to be on the same page as everyone else,” she said. “You don’t need to be on the same page as the rabbi and the cantor. If you find something that inspires you, that moves you, that speaks to you, go for it. That’s fine, especially on the High Holidays, when we’re supposed to be reflecting, meditating.”

Rabbi Frishman said that bringing in the fuller text of Unetaneh Tokef and balancing it with the dissenting readings is the essence of Reform Judaism. “Whenever we do something new or innovative we always look at the entire tradition, based on where we are, to see what enables us to be both inclusive and authentic,” she said.

The new machzor continues the movement’s tradition of inclusivity, replacing a line from Gates of Repentance that referred to the joy of a bride and groom with “rejoicing with couples under the chuppah.” The machzor also adds a third, non-gendered, option to the way worshippers are called to the Torah, offering “mibeit,” Hebrew for “from the house of,” in addition to the traditional “son of” or “daughter of.”

The prayer book features the voices of female writers and uses language more reflective of the LGBT experience. But the volume also signals a return to gendered language for God in Reform liturgy, including a version of the iconic High Holidays prayer Avinu Malkeinu that refers to God as both “Loving Father” and “Compassionate Mother.”

“We will never get bored with this machzor,” said Rabbi Mosbacher, who was on the committee that drafted some of the book’s study materials, including general background on the prayers. “There are a lot more opportunities for people to engage in a lot of different ways.

“But if you’re relying on the machzor to make or break your entire prayer experience, you’re investing your emotional and spiritual energies in the wrong place,” he said.

David A.M. Wilensky/JTA Wire Service contributed to this story

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