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Machzor Blog: How ‘Current’ Should a Prayer Book Be?

Machzor Page-spread

There are those who look to a prayer book to reflect – in language and in tone – the lives we aspire to live.  The words of prayer should uplift, sanctify, and elevate.  For others, when confronted exclusively with such language, they feel as though the prayer book is irrelevant, that it has nothing to real say, that it is, at best, a relic.

The 2-page spread format for this new machor, like Mishkan T’filah, enables us to do both.  Or at least to try.  And sure enough, many respondents to pilot versions of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur draft services responded by saying things like, “I found my own voice in this prayer book,” while others were offended by the very same readings.

Calibrating this balance between the real and the ideal can be tricky.

Just a single word can make a reading seemingly inappropriate for a prayer book, as the editorial team is learning from piloting feedback.  In a pilot version of Rosh HaShanah morning, a left-side reading from the Orthodox theologian, Yitz Greenberg, offered an alternative on the part of Emet v’Yatziv  (the blessing after Sh’ma that speaks of redemption) this reading:

Where does Israel get the strength –

The chutzpah –

To go on believing in redemption

In a world

That knows mass hunger

And political exile

And [refugees]?


How can Jews testify to hope and human value

When they have been

Continuously persecuted,





Out of the memories of the Exodus!

(Where does Israel, “Jewish Courage in the Hope for Redemption,” Irving Greenberg, in Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation, Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights, 2010, p. 68.)

Many respondents commented that they didn’t want the word “chutzpah” in their prayer book, and suggested that it was chutzpadik for us to put it in there.  The word is too colloquial, too irreverent, they said.

On the other hand, there are cases where the language was perceived as so lofty, indeed so “highfalutin”, that it was experienced negatively as well.  For example, opposite Mi Chamocha, we put the following by William Blake:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on, ‘tis all in vain!

You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.


And every sand becomes a Gem,

Reflected in the beam divine;

Blown back they bling the mocking Eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.


The Atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s Particles of Light

Are sand upon the Red sea shore,

Where Israel’s tends do shine so bright.

This poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, was placed opposite Birkat Avodah (the “R’tzei – the fifth blessing of the festival Amidah).  Some felt it to be too racy to be read aloud in a synagogue, and it was removed from the second draft.

Like a woman who knows that her body entices me,

God, You taunt me:  Flee if you can! But I can’t flee.

For when I turn away from You, angry and heartsick,

With a vow on my lips like a burning coal:
I will not see You again –

I can’t do it,

I turn back

And know on Your door

Tortured with longing

As though You had sent me a love letter.

(Like a woman who knows, Uri Zvi Greenberg, translated and adapted by Chaim Stern, in Gates of Forgiveness, CCAR, 1980, p. 30.)

Some didn’t want the prayers to make them feel sad.  A reading and a poem about Alzheimer’s disease that paralleled the Zichronot section of the Rosh HaShanah morning service were disturbing to some.  In the reading, we included the following text:

 Let us use our gift of memory to remember all who are affected by illnesses that cause dementia, along with loved ones, friends and caregivers.  Let us find ways to share God’s message of love and blessing.

A poem by Donna Wahlert, entitled, Here Let Us: Late Middle Alzheimer’s Disease accompanied the text in the first draft of the service.

Here let us sit together

under the weeping beech

here let us talk about milk glass

chifforobes and elderberry wine

here let us sooth your ankles

swollen with childhood memories

we won’t remind you that your mother

has been gone for thirty years

that the house you want to go

home to is no longer there

that your children are drown and gray

that you are the last of your friends

here let us drink our wintergreen tea

and talk about this primrose

the thing spaghetti you had for lunch

the nurse who brings you Hershey bars

here let us not dream about the days to come

here let us sing you your mother

here let us sing you your children

here let us sing you home. 

(Here let us sit, Donna Wahlert, “Here Let Us: Late Middle Alzheimer’s Disease,” in The First Pressing: Poetry of the Everyday, iUniverse Inc., 2003, p. 123.)

There are readings that feel too raw to some.  Take, for example, Linda Pastan’s poem The Bronx, 1942

When I told him to shut up,

my father slammed on the brakes and left

me like a parcel in the car

on a strange street, to punish me

he said for lack of respect, though

what he always feared was lack of love.

I know now just how long


forgiveness can take

and that is can be harder than respect

or even love.  My father stayed angry

for a week.  But I still remember

the gritty color of the sky through

that windshield, and how, like a parcel

I started to come apart.

(The Bronx, 1942, Linda Pastan, Carnival Eve­ning: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998, NY: 1998, W.W. Norton, p. 274.)

Or, how about this alternative reading entitled, “Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer of Protest”

Avinu Malkeinu –

Hear our voice:
Some of us have cancer.

Some have lost strength of body; some have lost memory and speech.

Some of us are in pain.

Some can’t find work.

Some of us bear the marks of human cruelty – inside, where the scars don’t show.

Some live with depression; some battle addiction; many feel alone.

Some have known shattered marriages, trust betrayed, hopes destroyed.

Some of us have lost the ones we love, far too soon.

And some of us have lost a child.

All of us have seen suffering in our midst.

All of us know the ravages of war – for which there are no words.


Avinu Malkeinu, why?
Avinu Malkeinu, are you there?  Do you care?

Avinu Malkeinu, hear our pain.

Hear our anger. Hear our grief.

Avinu Malkeinu, here is our prayer:
Give us the strength to go on.

Give us reasons to get up each day; give us purpose and persistence.

Help us to fend off fear and to hold on to hope.

Help us to be kind.

Don’t make us bow or grovel for your favor.  Give us dignity and give us courage.


Avinu Malkeinu –

Show us the way to a year of goodness.

Renew our belief that the world can be better.

Restore our faith in life.  Restore our faith in you.

(Copyright © 2012 by CCAR Press.  All rights reserved)

Can the Machzor simultaneously inspire, while speaking to the reality of our everyday lives?  Is there a place for sadness, regret, sensuality, anger, and doubt within the pages of the prayer book?  What do we lose by including such readings, and what do we gain?  What would be lost if we left them out?  We’re interested in your thoughts.

Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY. 

[Find out more about the new CCAR machzor.]

By Rabbi Leon Morris

Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY.

5 replies on “Machzor Blog: How ‘Current’ Should a Prayer Book Be?”

I think this is a challenge across the board, though may be a particular one in today’s Reform movement, where we are likely to be serving people with a broad and diverse set of understandings of what prayer is and specifically what Reform Jewish prayer is. I’ve joked with colleagues that what we really need are iPads for everyone in the shul, so that liturgy can evolve and be updated perennially without the need for new bound editions — though I also recognize the variety of reasons why that’s not actually a workable plan! For my own part, I tend to love traditional Hebrew and I tend to love contemporary poetry, so I am always happy to have both of those at my fingertips when I daven. But I know that they’re not what everyone most needs.

Poetry packs an emotional punch (if it is good poetry). The difficulty with some of this poetry that you’ve quoted is that it is very specific – evoking very particular experiences and emotions. I think the less specific the better for a siddur – it allows for many more responses and can be experienced differently year after year.

Of all that you included, I like the Blake and the Avinu Malkeinu best.

Great questions.

I’m going to try and respond on two levels.

First, in terms of the title of your post: One of the challenges of pray is to connect the kevah text with the kavanah. As I get older, the text itself becomes more and more important. I am more and more aware of teachings by Heschel and others that what matters is not my desire to pray, but God’s desire to have me pray – God’s desire to have me say particular words at a particular time. Part of the journey that many of us take is to somehow take ownership of the kevah text, to get to the point where we can pray the Hebrew text, with full understanding of its meaning, and to somehow relate that to the spirituality inside us. For me, as a lay person, that journey has only happened because I put in the work to learn Hebrew, to wrestle with the text, and to study lots and lots of teaches (and alternate readings about the prayers). Now, I can pray the kevah text and, and I can still remember the right teaching in the back of my mind.

So how current should a prayer book be? Very current. All of the interpretations and protest prayers should be there. I will learn from all of them,and hopefully, I will continue to find meaningin the kevah text.

It’s the questions at the end of your article that really interest me. People are going to being all sorts of emotions to the High Holidays – self-blaming, anger at God, anger at signifcant people in their lives. People have been bringing those feelings to High Holiday services for years. But Gates of Repentance and other machzors don’t recognized those feelings.

I think that we need to recognize those feelings in the new machzor. If nothing else, including these readings will help people experience God as the One who hears prayer. But I think that there are bigger questions. If you walk into High Holiday services and you’re angry at God or angry at your father, what does it mean to find teshuvah? If someone walks into a High Holiday services and they’re depressed or filled with anger, how to we want the service to affect them? Other than feeling heard, other than feeling that their feelings have been recognized, what do we want for them? What are we helping them to return to? If they go into the service feeling angry, do we want them to spend the day reading prayers of protest? Or do we want them to be transformed, to feel more centerred, to somehow feel like they’re returned to God and returned to the community?

It’s been a year since I’ve seen a draft. You may have solved all of my concerns. But here’s an exercise that you might want to try: create an imaginary person. Write a life story for them – how they’ve been hurt, how they’re hurt others, how they feel about God. And pretent to pray the machzor from their point of view. What resonates with them? How do they change over the course of the holidays? How do they find some sense of teshuvah.

Thanks for all the work.

I think the committee has a real challenge and commend you for your work so far. There are always going to be some people who do not resonate with a particular reading. The question is which readings speak to a significant minority, at the very least, to be included. I, for example, found the Alzheimer reading very powerful in the context of Zichronot, while others were disturbed by it (but isn’t that what we are supposed to do, at least to some extent?). Also, with regard to the word chutzpah, in my last congregation we put together a Hagaddah and one member wrote a reading for Karpas that spoke of “spring-induced chutzpah.” At first it was quite jarring, but then I realized that it was an appropriate way to speak of the Israelites courage in leaving Egypt, so we kept it in.

I stumbled upon this post seeking Reform perspectives on the Amidah. Our study group (Temple Micah, DC) has been looking at the Avodah (Rtzei) blessing in particular, so I was interested in the poem adaptation declared “too racy.” Maybe it’s too late and you’re no longer seeking input. But if you are still interested, there is now a detailed response on my blog — In case the link doesn’t work: “In Need of New Language” posted 12/8/13 on “A Song Every Day” (

IN SHORT: I believe “sadness, regret, sensuality, anger, and doubt” all belong within the pages of the prayer book. I think, however, that A) you need to exercise caution regarding gender/sexuality assumptions; B) you need to seriously reconsider the idea of turning a reflection like Uri Zvi Greenberg’s poem into direct address to God; and C) you need to review the flow of the service.

No way, e.g., did Greenberg’s poem, adapted or not, belong with Birkhat Avodah — so maybe pilot users are reacting to something other than what you think, or telling you something other than what you’re asking.

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