On a Shabbat morning this past April, members of my congregation test-piloted the Yom Kippur Morning Service for Mishkan HaNefesh. By design, we did not read Torah or Haftarah in order to maximize our time together to explore aspects of the service that were unfamiliar to congregants. I tried to minimize my own instructions and commentary about the prayers (not an easy thing for me to do!) in order to allow the service to unfold without my serving as a filter between the service and the worshipper.
Immediately following the service, and before we broke for lunch (deliciously transgressive on “Yom Kippur”) congregants broke into four groups, enabling participants to respond to a series of questions posed by the editors of the machzor.
The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Comments included:
The poetry moved me to tears.
We liked that the poetry was drawn from a variety of writers, especially women!
The classic Hebrew prayers were kept but people liked that the accompanying readings were different and uplifting.
The new machzor did a good job modernizing the text.
The service also included readings from people other than rabbis such as Richard Feynman, a physicist.
There were multiple points of view which resonated for different people.
Even someone who was not Jewish found a universal message in the machzor.
The readings made the congregation participate rather than act like an audience.
The Un’taneh Tokef commentaries made it more meaningful.
Mishkan HaNefesh felt much more flowing than Gates of Repentance, which seems very rigid. This new machzor is more personal and engaging.
Not surprisingly, there were also critical comments about the service. Some criticisms were superficial, relating to the page lay-out that undoubtedly will be corrected in the final version. Other comments were more substantive, expressing disagreement with the content of some of the poems and translations.
Following our piloting of Mishkan HaNefesh’s Yom Kippur Morning Service, one congregant plaintively asked me, “Do we have to go back to using Gates of Repentance?” Talk about a hunger for meaning and substance during the High Holy Days! Clearly the vast majority of my congregants welcomed the spiritually focused, contemporary language and interpretations offered in Mishkan HaNefesh.
On a personal note, I was thrilled with this new service. I had not piloted any of the previous services from Mishkan HaNefesh and I am thoroughly convinced that the language, poetry, interpretations, and theological dimensions contained in this new machzor will inspire my congregation. I look forward when in 2015 the final edition of our new machzor will offer Reform Jews a deeper embrace of the transformative power of the Yamim Noraim.
Avi Schulman is the Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor. For more information about participating in piloting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.