Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh Pt. II

In my previous entry I discussed Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, a new commentary on the CCAR machzor. I also described some of the dialectical issues facing its editors — those tensions that arose as they navigated competing values throughout the seven-year editorial process. This time, I will focus on God.

Judaism yearns for God in endless shades of metaphor, and Mishkan HaNefesh honors that theological breadth. Rooted in sources from antiquity to modernity, the many depictions invite us into a nuanced theological conversation at a time when God can seem especially harsh and distant.

Liturgy is where the rubber hits the road for most Jews, theologically speaking. The editorial team seized the opportunity to offer new access points to worshipers. The sources they included expand notions of God and the human-divine relationship far beyond traditional prayer language. Some of these most powerful dialectics include: Faith and doubt; din and rachamim (judgment and compassion); and divine power and human agency.

Faith and DoubtIMG_0555

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes, “Theological doubt and struggle, or outright unbelief,” p. 133; “Science and scientists,” p. 132; and “Scientific language in poetry,” pp. 132-133. 

Doubt can be an act of reverence; proof that we spiritual seekers are taking our search seriously. Alongside the many pronouncements of faith, Mishkan HaNefesh makes room for serious questions about divine power and the nature of evil — questions based in Jewish tradition. Editor Rabbi Janet Marder cites the reading “Who is like you among the silent?”[1] which presents a powerful counter-text for Mi Chamocha, in which the addition of a single Hebrew letter turns eilim (gods) to il’mim (the silent [literally, mute] ones) — transforming a prayer in praise of God’s redemptive power to a cry of anguish, denouncing God’s silence in the face of human suffering.[2]

The phrase comes directly from the M’khilta, and the tone of enraged protest was inspired by medieval Jewish poetry from the crusader period. While certainly subversive, this reading is also authentically Jewish: it voices the sorrow, doubt, and sense of abandonment of generations of oppressed Jews.

Notably, the new machzor reaches out to those who struggle with faith. Some readings express skeptical curiosity; others, outright doubt. Rabbi Marder writes:

Some readings are drawn from the writings of scientists who express their own spiritual longing, sense of wonder, or moral convictions. These words… are placed in dialogue with the liturgy — a juxtaposition that conveys the clear message that science and religion may fruitfully co-exist. This machzor also includes contemporary poetry that celebrates the grandeur of creation in quasi-scientific language…Finally, many readings and poems directly articulate theological ambivalence, difficulty with prayer, anger, struggle, and the search for truth.[3]

Din and Rachamim

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes,”’Recognizing the good’ and self-forgiveness,” p. 132.

Mishkan HaNefesh urges us to consider the attributes of judgement and mercy in new ways. In particular, readings concerning hakarat hatov (recognizing the good) direct us toward the laudable deeds of the past year in addition to the regrettable ones. (See YK pp. 93, 312, 313, 424, 425, 659, and 667). These good deeds “Serve as a counterweight to the liturgy’s intense focus on scrutiny of one’s own wrongdoing. They also highlight a damaging moral failing — quite pervasive but usually not acknowledged in the prayer book: the inability to regard one’s own behavior with the same gentleness and forgiveness we are expected to offer others.”[4]

When worshipers consider the full range of their actions and emotions as part of heshbon hanefesh (spiritual self-audit), they affirm a point of connection between humanity and divinity. Like God, we have infinite potential for good, but we make mistakes. Like God, we have the ability to forgive. And for many of us, forgiving ourselves is the most difficult forgiveness of all.

Divine Power and Human Agency

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes, “Theology of human empowerment”, pp. 133-134

Many familiar liturgical metaphors of the Yamim Nora’im are quite grim: humans as sheep passing under God’s rod and staff; or as guilty children subject to the discipline of a strict parent. Mishkan HaNefesh retains these images, but supplements them with a variety of rabbinic, medieval and modern sources that reframe the power differential.

Take the iconic and terrifying Unetaneh Tokef. This piyyut (liturgical poem) envisions God as judge and arbiter of all creation, deciding (in gory detail!) the fates of every soul. Mishkan HaNefesh retains the piyyut, but includes a “counter-text” immediately opposite:

Left Side (“counter-text”) Right Side (translation)
Let us embrace the day and its holiness,

For this day is a throne of goodness and power.

When the people of Israel do God’s will,

They strengthen God’s power on high.

But when the people of Israel fail to do God’s will,

They weaken — if one might say it —

God’s great power on high.

So let this day recall Your power — and ours.

Let us proclaim the power of this day —

A day whose holiness awakens deepest awe


In truth,

You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness.

The right side affirms the familiar hierarchical theology of the Yamim; the left side challenges it. The covenant is still hierarchical, but humans have some agency; some role to play in the relationship and in the world. The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh deem this the “theology of human adequacy.”

It is a theology thoroughly grounded in rabbinic literature. One of my favorite examples — also from the machzor — comes from the Midrash:[5]

Said the Roman Procurator Turnus Rufus to Rabbi Akiva: “Whose Acts are greater, those of human beings or those of God?”

Rabbi Akiva answered: “The deeds of human beings are greater.”


Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus wheat stalks and cakes, raw flax and fine linen. “The wheat and the flax are the work of God,” said Akiva, “but the cakes and the linen were made by human beings. Are they not superior?”

So our Sages taught: “All created things require refining and improvement. The mustard seed needs to be sweetened; the lupine needs to be soaked; the wheat needs to be ground, and the human being still needs to be repaired. The world that is given into our hands is still incomplete. Go forth, then, and work to make it better.[6]

In Mishkan HaNefesh, this midrash appears on the left side of the spread in nisim b’chol yom  as if to suggest that just as we thank God for the wonders of our world, we also acknowledge our roles as partners in the work of creation.

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


[1] YK p. 197

[2] DMhN, p. 72

[3] DMhN, p. 81

[4]  DMhN, p. 71

[5] Tanhuma, Tazria 5; Genesis Rabbah, 11.6

[6] YK p. 163

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