Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh

Jun 20, 2016 by

Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh

Creating a new prayer book requires managing competing priorities. Should translations reflect the literal meaning of the Hebrew, or evoke its more poetic and idiomatic features? Should the historic machzor text take priority, or should newer voices enter the conversation? Should the liturgy emphasize personal transformation, or communal complicity?

These questions capture the essential challenge of dialectics: balancing competing values in pursuit of progress. Consider tradition and innovation, the quintessential question of Reform Judaism. These values are not mutually exclusive; rather, they co-exist in dynamic tension. It’s like steering a canoe: if you only paddle on one side, you’ll just go in circles. Only by alternating strokes on both sides will the boat move forward. Similarly, dialectics requires thoughtful attention to a small universe of values.  To paraphrase Hegel, it is by interrogating — but not necessarily resolving — apparent contradictions in values that we can arrive at a higher truth.

The editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh confronted this small universe of values at every step throughout its seven-year process. The ultimate goal? To guide each worshipper along the path to t’shuvah and to invite the community into a space of sacred transformation.

That is easier said than done. It is easy to get lost in the machzor’s wealth of content and creative possibilities. It can be difficult to even know where to begin! Recently I started reading the forthcoming Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. It is a sort of “midrash on the machzor,” a guidebook for community leaders and sh’lichei tzibbur, and it is incredibly usefuI. I love this book because it opens a window into the editorial process. It explains decisions and indexes content in a way that contextualizes this vast project, making it much more accessible. I may not personally agree with every decision, but understanding its grounding philosophies will allow me to use the new machzor more skillfully. In particular, its editorial essays suggest myriad ways the machzor can serve as an invitation into some of Judaism’s most worthy conversations.

And that brings me back to dialectics. Consider the ‘right side/left side’ layout, which, according to the editorial vision statement, “encourages diversity, choice, and inclusion of many ‘voices’; the use of counter-text; and a stimulating balance of keva and kavanah.” Those familiar with Mishkan Tefilah will recognize the format immediately, but the machzor takes the philosophy even further by including many surprisingly subversive texts opposite the more traditional versions.

The most dramatic example is the depiction of God. The God of the High Holy Day liturgy can seem distant and punishing; even terrifying. But that is not the whole story. Avinu Malkeinu, a sort of anthem of the High Holy Days, voices the dialectical dilemma of divinity. Even when we speak in hierarchical terms, we conceive of God as both a sovereign and a parent. Both roles evoke accountability and intimidation in their power differential, but they also draw a contrast: the political ruler is distant and largely theoretical. The parent is intimate; a bedrock of our immediate reality. But we hope that both will exercise compassion and patience even though they must govern and discipline. If these concepts all inhere in one terse phrase from our liturgy, how much more nuanced are the many Jewish conceptions of God! By inhabiting the richly-layered world of Jewish dialectics, Mishkan HaNefesh presents a challenging and complex theological atlas. In subsequent entries of Ravblog I will examine a few specific ways the editors approached their work, highlighting their own words from Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. Ultimately, wrestling with these values both honors our multi-vocal tradition and opens doors that many in our communities might otherwise find locked and barred.

Order Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

Danny is a CCAR rabbinical intern and a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.

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