Is the Lord my shepherd? Maybe yes, maybe no
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Is the Lord my shepherd? Maybe yes, maybe no

Reform movement’s new High Holy Day prayer books offer many points of entry

Even though books are the most literal of objects — they are, after all, filled with words, which spell out meanings explicitly — they, like anything else, can transmit nonverbal messages along with the verbal ones.

The Reform movement’s machzor — its High Holy Days prayer book — which made its debut last year, is full of messages; many are in the text and its translation, and the others are in the elements beyond the text — the omissions and additions, the design, the new emphases.

“Mishkan Hanefesh,” the Central Council of American Rabbis’ new two-volume machzor, first was released late last summer. This holiday season will be the first time that most congregations will use it. It follows the Reform movement’s new siddur, “Mishkan T’filah,” which came out in 2007.

“‘Mishkan Hanefesh’ is a logical continuation of the liturgical reform that our movement has been publishing for the last decade or so,” Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and of the New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Association of Reform Rabbis, said.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck will use the Reform movement’s new machzor during this High Holy Day season.
Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck will use the Reform movement’s new machzor during this High Holy Day season.

Rabbi Sirbu plans to use “Mishkan Hanefesh” for the first time this year, beginning with Selichot on Saturday night.

“Mishkan Hanefesh” follows, refines, and in some cases redefines the innovations of “Mishkan T’filah,” Rabbi Sirbu said. (Its editor was Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in  Franklin Lakes.) “It offered transliterations for every prayer on every page, gender-inclusive language, and a variety of theologies expressed in different creative readings,” he continued. “The English readings express belief in God — or some more questioning about belief — in different ways, as well as an emphasis on history and community. There’s a lot of modern poetry, from poets like Yehuda Amichai. The idea was not just to approach the same prayer with different styles of translation, but really to approach it with different styles and philosophies of interpretation.”

Another of “Mishkan T’filah’s” innovations was “a two-page layout, which is present in most of the book,” Rabbi Sirbu added. “And there are notes at the bottom of each page, which we never had in the Reform movement before. And on the margin, there is a progression of the prayers in each section, so you can locate yourself in the service.”

All of these stylistic, theological, and typographic innovations are included in “Mishkan Hanefesh.” “But it’s different, because this is a book that will be used only a few times each year, and it will be used by many people who come to synagogue only those few times, two or three times, each year.

“Those are two related but separate challenges.”

“Mishkan Hanefesh” was in production for quite a few years, “and when I went to CCAR conventions, the most interesting session of each one was to hear the philosophical discussions of the new machzor, and the language they were experimenting with,” Rabbi Sirbu said.

“They started with a blank-page philosophy, which was their way of saying that we know Jews worship on the High Holidays, and we know they need a book, but beyond that we are not going to start with any preconceived notions. No feeling of obligation to any specific prayer. They had a sense that the book had to elevate the spirit of Reform Jews on the holidays, and their challenge was to either find the prayers or write the prayers that would accomplish this goal.

“The things that Reform Jews have always resonated with are still in, and the things that stand out to most Reform Jews are Avinu Malkeinu” — literally, Our Father, Our King. “How do you deal with that? We are looking for gender-inclusive language.

“And the other one is Untaneh Tokef, which talks about who shall live and who shall die. That’s a theology that does not resonate with all Reform Jews.” (Note that the transliterations, including Untaneh Tokef, are not always the conventional ones.)

“The decision was made to keep both of those important prayers in, but also at the same time to give them additional context for the modern worshipper.”

How did they do it? “We use the words Avinu Malkeinu, but they are not translated; they are in Hebrew and in transliteration. There’s an introductory reading that describes God as both a loving father and a compassionate mother. It’s a complicated reading, and the last paragraph says that of the metaphors it uses — God as mother, father, and rock and redeemer — all of them are true and none of them are true.

“It’s a way of expanding and then shattering metaphors, all on the same page.”

What about Untaneh Tokef, the prayer that enumerates various horrifying deaths before saying, in “Mishkan Hanefesh’s” version, “But through return to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree”?

The section on Unetaneh Tokef “begins with three study texts, so if we have time we actually can study,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “We can ask people in the congregation to turn to the person next to them and read the text out loud. In their own ways, each of the three study texts grapples with the difficulties of Untaneh Tokef, which does not show God in a way that resonates with most Reform Jews.”

One of the three study texts is written by Rabbi Edward Feinstein, a Conservative rabbi in California. The next is by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, a New York City-based Reform rabbi, and the third is by singer/songwriter/iconic Montreal-born Jew Leonard Cohen, who is represented by his song “Who Shall I Say Is Calling?”

Other poets whose work is used to throw light from new angles on familiar concepts include Walt Whitman, Marge Piercy, Allen Ginsburg, Hannah Senesh, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Pablo Neruda; other thinkers include the scientist Richard Feynman and the social activist Ruth Messinger.

The book is meant to welcome doubters by acknowledging them. Psalm 23 tells us that “The Lord is my shepherd,” which comforts many Jews, just as we are told that God’s rod and staff comfort them. But it doesn’t work for everyone, so a countertext tells us that “My lord is not a shepherd and I am not his sheep.” Those are strong words, discomfiting for many but water in the desert to others.

“Mishkan Hanefesh” does not use all the traditional Torah and haftarah readings, Rabbi Sirbu said, nor does it use the ones that earlier Reform machzorim had presented. “In the old book, on Rosh Hashanah morning, for example, the only two choices were the akedah” — the binding of Isaac, a story that Orthodox and Conservative services include on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah — “and the birthday of the world,” the beginning of Genesis, which Orthodox and Conservative Jews do not read on either day, although the “birthday of the world” is a traditional understanding of the holiday.

“Now, we have more options,” which the machzor places both in the pages devoted to the Torah service as it falls during the course of the day, and in a section of alternative readings at the back. At Temple Emeth, “we will read the story of Abraham arguing with God, because the key line of it is ‘Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do justice?’

“That is the core message of Rosh Hashanah,” Rabbi Sirbu said.

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