Time for an upgrade: Innovation meets tradition in new Reform machzor

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At more than a dozen Reform synagogues around the Bay Area this week, Rosh Hashanah worshippers may have noticed something different as they sat down for services: a new machzor in place of the old High Holy Day prayerbook, which Reform communities have used almost universally for nearly four decades.

It is a once-in-a-generation event, when Reform Judaism overhauls its liturgy in response to changing views, new times and new ideas. This current cycle of renewal began in 2007 with the release of a new Shabbat and daily prayerbook, and wrapped up at the start of this year’s High Holy Day season with the official debut of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new machzor.

Its predecessor, Gates of Repentance, came out in 1978 and was a product of its time. “One of my problems with working with Gates of Repentance is that it was just showing its age,” said Rabbi Dean Kertesz of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond. “You could really tell it was written in the ’70s. You can hear the echoes of the anti-Vietnam War movement, civil rights movement and the movement to free Soviet Jews.”

Kertesz’s synagogue was one of many across the country to pilot a near-final draft of Mishkan HaNefesh last year, an experience that convinced his East Bay congregation to make the permanent switch this year, one of 15 Bay Area synagogues to do so.

“It’s a new century,” said Rabbi Sheldon Marder, chaplain at the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Marder was one of the book’s four top-level editors, as was his wife, Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. “Every step of the way, from the very beginning, every day working on [Mishkan HaNefesh] we asked ourselves, ‘Who are the people today who are going to be using these prayerbooks?’ And we certainly want it to be used well into the 21st century.” (To that end, an iPad version of the machzor is available, too.)

The chatter about the new prayerbook was audible after Beth Am’s Rosh Hashanah service at the Flint Center in Cupertino. Congregant Janice Weinman was captivated by the machzor and said she spent an hour in her car in the parking lot poring through the readings and poems.

“I was enthralled with it,” said Weinman, who lives in Palo Alto’s Moldaw Residences. “The poetry was exquisite, just beautiful. … It enhances your experience of the Days of Awe.”

Weinman also called the list of sources at the back of the prayerbook “remarkable,” with citations from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Yehuda Amichai, Henry David Thoreau and others.

Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael also appreciates the changes. “Our old machzor was wonderful for the last 30 years, but our new machzor speaks to our Jewish community today, so it’s important to adopt it and embrace it,” she said. “Even though in the ’70s we were an open tent, we’re a more open tent than ever [now], in terms of gender language, interfaith families, LGBT communities. We’re a dynamic community. We don’t stay static, and neither should our prayerbooks.”

Rabbis Janet and Sheldon Marder

Press coverage of Mishkan HaNefesh — which means, roughly, “dwelling place of the soul” — has focused on its progressive elements, including LGBT-friendly changes in language; radical liturgy, such as prayers of protest; and commentary and readings from a diverse range of thinkers, writers and poets.

That’s what attracted Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley. “We were early adopters of Mishkan T’filah,” the Shabbat and daily prayerbook released in 2007, said Diana Zankowsky, co-chair of the synagogue’s religious committee. “We’ve been waiting a long time to get rid of the masculine God language” used in previous machzors, she said. “That was a driver, the gendered language. We’ve been waiting to move on past that ever since we moved on to Mishkan T’filah.”

Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder spoke of a similar motivation. At his synagogue, Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, which also uses Mishkan T’filah, he saw an “opportunity for our High Holy Days to match the feel of the rest of the year.”

“Mishkan T’filah spoke to where the congregation was at theologically,” he said. “It’s creative, it’s inclusive, it’s got alternative readings, it’s got transliterations for people who want to say the Hebrew but are still learning — and then you get to the High Holy Days, and [Gates of Repentance] feels out of step.”

Yet, as Milder pointed out, along with the creativity, Mishkan HaNefesh also includes the restoration of some traditional liturgy — words, phrases and other elements long excluded from Reform worship.

For example, early Reform liturgy excised all mentions of King David and his messianic line. Some of that language has now been restored, Milder said. “We don’t see this now as a literal prayer for restoration of the monarchy,” he said, “but as a metaphorical longing for a messianic age. We’re in a postmodern era where we can deal with that language on a metaphorical level.”

There are also other more traditional structural elements. “For example,” Kertesz said, “the Amidah [in Gates of Repentance] used to be really broken up, with lots of places where the congregation would sit, then stand, then sit again; or parts where it would be out loud, silent, out loud again. Now the Amidah is structured pretty much the way it was traditionally,” offering more flexibility so congregations can shape it to their liking and needs.

Another key example of traditionalism in Mishkan HaNefesh is the presence of all three paragraphs of the Shema and Ve’ahavta prayer, including one paragraph, “V’hayah im-shamoa,” long excluded from Reform liturgy for its theology of divine reward and punishment — but now back for its focus on ecology. If the Jewish people obey God’s commandments, it says, God “will grant rain for your land in season.”

“One thing we’ve done is include many more traditional piyyutim [liturgical poems], usually in English translation, than we’ve had in Reform prayerbooks in the past,” Sheldon Marder said. “So we’ve made a definite effort to return to tradition, and I think we’ve done so in creative ways.”

In addition to traditional poems, both Marders are proud of the many modern Israeli poems included in the book. “We have probably close to 60 Hebrew Israeli poems in there, which for us constitutes a kind of body of piyyutim alongside the, mostly medieval piyyutim taken from traditional machzorim,” Sheldon said.

The focus on Israel is a statement of sorts. “In a time when Zionism is so under attack, we want to be really clear that we’re Zionists,” Sheldon Marder said.

Traditionalism aside, the hallmark of so much Reform liturgy over the years is here, too: socially progressive changes designed to make the traditional text fall more in line with the inclusive, liberal attitudes of Reform Judaism. Giving women and men more equal weight has been a concern for decades; this time around, progressive changes are about making the liturgy less heteronormative and de-emphasizing the gender binary.

For example, where Gates of Repentance referred to the joy of a “bride and groom,” Mishkan HaNefesh refers to “rejoicing with couples under the chuppah.” The machzor also adds a third, nongendered 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.”

Mishkan HaNefesh “provides many doorways into the tradition,” Janet Marder said. “It provides pathways in, even for people who struggle with and feel alienated from the tradition. There are a number of readings written from a place of protest, which is a very old part of the Jewish tradition, going all the way back to Abraham pleading with God about Sodom.”

One prayer of protest is a new English composition offered as an alternative to U’netaneh Tokef — to many, a perennially troubling prayer with its famous musing about who shall live and die, who by fire or who by water. The new prayer alternates between frank expressions of doubt and lines from the traditional liturgy:

“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.”

Then there is the extensive commentary throughout, much of it written by the Marders. Among other things, they use it to address contemporary concerns, such as the environment. “We quote a number of scientists,” Janet Marder said. “There’s a real effort to engage with both science and environmental theology in this book.”

Two volumes: gold for Rosh Hashanah and silver for Yom Kippur

There are visual elements to the book’s innovations as well. The designer, Scott-Martin Kosofsky, created Hebrew typefaces for Mishkan HaNefesh, something he also did for Mahzor Lev Shalem, the 2010 Conservative machzor. For the Reform prayerbook, Kosofsky designed a font called Shlomo, which is named after King Solomon, father of the biblical King David; the new font is based on the modern Hebrew font David, which is used throughout Mishkan T’filah.

The machzor also includes a number of original pieces of abstract art by Joel Shapiro, who works primarily in sculpture. For Mishkan HaNefesh, Shapiro created a series of abstract, moodily impressionistic wood-block prints in black, gray and blue.

The new machzor is actually two books, one volume for Rosh Hashanah, another for Yom Kippur. That is common for traditional machzors, but a first for America’s left-of-Orthodox denominations. (For a timeline of major machzors throughout American history, see sidebar.) The Rosh Hashanah cover is gold, while Yom Kippur’s cover is silver. In a post on RavBlog, the Central Conference of American Rabbis blog, Milder wrote, “The gold represents the theme of

God’s sovereignty, which is reaffirmed on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. Silver suggests the white of Yom Kippur, the cleansing of sins, the purification of the soul.”

Some Reform congregations have no plans to switch over to Mishkan HaNefesh. Finances might motivate that decision. “It’s a very expensive book to produce,” said Rabbi Hara Person, publisher of CCAR Press. A single set of the two volumes is $42, and purchasing a full set for a synagogue is “definitely a significant expense,” she said. “It could be, depending on the congregation, a $10,000 investment, or even $20,000 or $30,000.”

About 300 congregations across the country plus a handful of Hillels purchased nearly 170,000 copies by summer’s end, according to the publisher. In the Bay Area, synagogues reported different ways of dealing with the cost. A few were lucky enough to have a donor offer to foot the bill, while others sought smaller donations from individual congregants, ordered early when prices were lower, or simply planned ahead by building it into their annual budget.

Some congregations chose not to buy the book for other reasons — Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a historically LGBTQ synagogue in the Mission District, for example. Though Mishkan HaNefesh has been widely touted as being highly LGBT-inclusive, Sha’ar Zahav does not plan to adopt it — at least, not in full. Instead, the congregation sought the publisher’s permission to adapt the book’s Kol Nidre service. For all the other services, Sha’ar Zahav will continue using the machzor written by the congregation in 1983.

“Among our founding principles, we have a very strong commitment to egalitarian, gender-inclusive language,” said Larry Wexler, ritual committee chair. “The new machzor meets those requirements,” he said, but Sha’ar Zahav congregants still want to preserve parts of their homegrown service “that are part of our minhag,” or local tradition.

For example, they have used a version of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) since the 1980s that alternates lines that begin “Avinu, Malkeinu” with lines that begin “Imeinu, Malkateinu” (“Our Mother, Our Queen”). Though the new machzor includes gender-inclusive versions of the same prayer, Sha’ar Zahav’s rendition is one of the traditions the congregation will maintain by not completely switching over.

“It’s a Sha’ar Zahav service, not a [Union for Reform Judaism] service,” Wexler said. “And we want it to feel like our own.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky