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Machzor Blog: “I’m Not A Sheep”

IMG_0361“Please Dad, tell them I’m not a sheep.” Those were my teenage daughter’s parting words to me as I attended the first “Think Tank” in 2008 for creating a new machzor for our movement. All invited to that meeting were asked to reflect upon what we wanted to see in our new High Holy Day liturgy and convene congregants in advance to glean ideas as to what was meaningful and problematic in their worship experience.

What a challenge it is for the machzor editors to be responsive to numerous perspectives, while being faithful to Jewish tradition and creative in the spirit of Reform Judaism! Based upon the pilot editions, I believe they are definitely on the right track. Our congregation experienced both, the Rosh HaShanah morning service during a mock Yuntif service in April, serving apples and honey for flavor and we incorporated the Yom Kippur afternoon service into our actual worship this past fall. Many of the suggestions from that original Think Tank are incorporated into the draft editions. Let me be more specific.

Our congregation enjoys Mishkan T’filah. Having the traditional prayer, transliterations, creative alternatives and commentaries to enhance our High Holy Day GalaApplesHoney2
worship experience was desired. One of my members offered that just as a child likes to hear the same story read repeatedly, as a comforting part of bedtime ritual, he/she also likes different books. So too, our machzor needs to offer customary spiritually nurturing opportunities, whether through spoken word, Torah text or musical expression. Faithful translations that attempt to be literally and poetically correct invite access to tradition, along with creative alternatives, which add perspective. There is still a challenge to be careful lest a “contemporary” prayer be appropriate for 2013, but irrelevant 20-30 years from now. I am recalling the “coal miner’s prayer” from the UPB and Vietnam War era references in Gates of Repentance.

All will agree that Avinu Malkeinu is one of the central prayers of the High Holy Day experience. The cadence of reading and the melody that Moshe Rabbeinu whispered to Max Janowski are expected by our worshippers. Offering paths to the familiar, along with creative expressions is critical and our editors have done that.

But altering the Shofar service by scattering its three sections strategically throughout the service? What’s that all about? Going into the process, my members looked forward to creative, perhaps even radical thinking in the spirit and tradition of Reform Judaism to be part of the process. Much to my surprise, when we piloted Rosh Hashanah and experienced the new format, it met with almost universal positive reaction. Should this change become permanent, the first year will be a shock. The second year will be a bit disconcerting and by the third it will be Reform tradition.

Annually as the Holy Days approach, colleagues on line ask about Yom Kippur afternoon alternatives to Gates of Repentance. So I was delighted to pilot the service in that time slot this past year. Though we did not read Torah, a simultaneous study group, led by Rabbi Barbara Metzinger resonated to the teachings in Leviticus 18, which suggests that our people are open to Torah text diversity. One desire expressed by my members from 2008 was to focus on Jewish values. Having the middot allowed us to learn and grow, as well as creating the feel of what is typical during Shabbat. The two worship experiences should be different, but not completely.

 Our group wanted the editors to deal with the word “sin.” I know they are still struggling with how to best translate chet. So far they are not wrong, but may have missed the mark.

Finally, there are many theological issues to creating a liturgy that leaves room for the spectrum from customary beliefs to extreme doubt, as reflected by my microcosm of the movement. Some reject the words of Unetaneh Tokef and no matter how much you provide in teaching or metaphorical form, it does not fly. Still, others embrace it. Alternative theological opportunities abound in the early editions. But, alas my dear daughter, “We are Your flock; You are our shepherd.” is still to be found, but maybe, if you ask nicely, the rabbi may elect to read the Nelly Sachs poem on the other side of the page.

Bob Loewy is rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA since 1984, currently serves as Program Vice President for the CCAR and grew up in the Reform movement.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email


2 replies on “Machzor Blog: “I’m Not A Sheep””

I believe that the greatest challenge of our time, with liturgy, is that we tend to be metaphorically-impaired.

Truth be told, if I took the siddur or machzor literally, sheep would be the least of my problems. I’d have to give up on at least 98% of the tradition. But I don’t, because I wrestle to find ways to read it metaphorically–which is, I believe, how the authors intended.

But there’s a problem, which is that our culture in general does a poor job teaching us how to read metaphorically. One hundred years–even fifty years–ago, students regularly learned and memorized poetry. And people actually read poetry outside of academia. Today, most people fear and dread poetry. This fear and ignorance is lethal to us, because if our people cannot read and embrace the liturgy as poetry, they will reject it.

I am not opposed to contemporary readings and new metaphors. But I believe that when in doubt, when faced with either changing the liturgy or educating those using it, we too often go the lazy way and change the liturgy. We give up on the harder but more essential task of teaching our people, and ourselves, to read poetically.

Again, there are times when we need to change metaphors. Perhaps we are too urban to “get” sheep and shepherds, even when we read metaphorically. There is room for change.

But when prayer becomes prose, it fails. If we cannot present it as poetry, and help our people to read it as such, we will lose them.

Though I have not seen the galley proofs, I can say that “scattering” the shofar soundings throughout the services is more in line with traditional practice. Our Reform way was a return to the Ur-practice before changes took place long ago. I recommend that anyone interested in this subject consult Isaac Klein’s entry on shofar in “A Guide To Contemporary Jewish Practice,” a concise and comprehensive treatment. You will learn how the number of tekiot grew to 100 and how the tradition distributed them on Rosh Hashanah. . .

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