Inside Mishkan HaNefesh: Doing it Right or Doing it Well?

May 11, 2015 by

Inside Mishkan HaNefesh: Doing it Right or Doing it Well?

At one point in the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore lets Harry know that there will come a time when he has to choose between what is right and what looks easy.  The point he is making is that Voldemort chose the easy over the right; of course Harry should do the opposite.  The right choice is clearly the moral one.

When it comes to the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh, the editors were instructed by Rabbi Larry Hoffman to consider a different choice, but one that will have its detractors on either side.  In short, when it comes to relevant liturgy we have to choose between doing it right or doing it well.  As explained in his piece in the summer 2013 CCAR Journal, rightness is about following the rules.  Doing it well is responding to the experience of the worshiper.  Of course, the alterations from the rules need not be radical.  We don’t need to declare Et laasot l’adonai and for the sake of God overturn everything, but we must practice common sense.

I thought of this as I remembered looking at the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy and omitting countless repetitions of the Thirteen Midot.  Now, I think the Thirteen Midot are about as fundamental a text to the Days of Awe as anything.  I am just okay not having it repeat more than five or six times in a given day.

What are some more subtle examples of how the editors omitted sometimes important prayers in order to privilege more important pieces?  Understanding that there is a limit to how much any given volume can contain, as well as our commitment to an integrated theology along with two-page spreads, the choices were not easy but they were necessary.  So for instance, the Torah services in Mishkan HaNefesh omit some verses such as Ki Mitzion.  We have nothing against this declaration.  We just needed to cut somewhere.  The same was true of Gates of Repentance.  They cut out Genesis 21.  We were not prepared to lose that again.

We also don’t have the full traditional verses of the Sh’ma everytime.  There are many beautiful piyyutim that are not included.  The Torah and Haftarah portions feature very limited commentary.  We would like to offer more in a supplemental book.

Not including things is not easy.  We take comfort in knowing that many congregations will avail themselves of screen technology, if not today then in the future, and omissions can be corrected on the screens, or with the old standby, handouts.  It is not ideal but then we could only produce a sacred tool to help present effective and meaningful worship.  There will never be a “just add water” prayer book.

An old sermon title has a great name: “Steering or Drifting, Which?” The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh wrestled with a different but potent dilemma, “Doing it Right or Doing it Well, Which?”  It is an art, not a science, and we are humbled by the task.

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Laura Joseph

    What an amazingly refreshing, inspiring and oh so “right” way to look at life’s details AND the big picture!! Thank you for sharing your clarity, focus, ease and grace.

Leave a Reply