When Rabbi Sheldon Marder talks about finding the essential meaning in the traditional service and then innovating to make it relevant to the 21st century, he talks from years of expert experience. As one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, Rabbi Marder played various roles, including taking on a lead role in the masterful translations. We asked him to tell us about his journey in becoming an editor of the new machzor, the process of working on the prayerbooks, and his favorite parts of the liturgical texts.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your background in Jewish liturgy.
A: My background in Jewish liturgy begins with the Union Prayer Book, my siddur from 1955 – 1975 (from first grade through my third year at HUC). In the late 1960s, my mother co-wrote a pamphlet for rabbis: a guide to degenderizing the prayers in the UPB, which was distributed to Reform rabbis by the UAHC. Her passion for the prayerbook made an impression on me. But, to my disappointment, the premise of the pamphlet—that the exclusive use of male language for God erected a false barrier to the already-difficult task of praying—was rejected by the liturgy committee that created Gates of Prayer in 1975. Nonetheless, I considered Gates of Prayer a great achievement for the Reform movement and enjoyed using it for thirty years.
In 1973 I began studying with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who exposed his students simultaneously to the primary liturgical sources (Mishnaic, Talmudic, Geonic, etc.) and to scholarship in the social sciences to enhance our understanding of ritual, culture, and belief systems (Mary Douglas, Edward Hall, and Gregory Bateson come immediately to mind); and at the same time I was exposed to contemporary trends in Jewish liturgy and spirituality (e.g., the 1972 feminist issue of the journal Response). By far, my most important—indeed, formative—experience in rabbinic school was the thesis I wrote under the mentorship of Rabbi Hoffman. It was a project that involved research into many dimensions of the medieval world of Jewish liturgy; it focused on primary sources: liturgical manuscripts from the Mediterranean region, where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews met, mingled, and interacted. The main manuscript’s instructions were in Arabic, which added to my appreciation and understanding of the culture in which the document was created.
My liturgical skills and concerns have been deepened by reading, studying, reflecting, and teaching about two areas of great interest and meaning to me: Biblical poetry—the book of Psalms in particular; and modern Hebrew poetry. These interests go back more than forty years, but have increased in intensity and depth over time.
Every setting in which I have worked as a rabbi has had a liturgical/worship component. Early in my career, I had a job in which I recruited, trained, and supervised Jewish volunteers to lead services in sixty nursing homes in the Los Angeles area. This was a profound learning experience. On a human and practical level, nothing has been more important.
Q: Working on Mishkan HaNefesh was a seven-year process. What made you want to take part in this project?
A: The work seemed to bring together and draw on many things that I enjoy: prayer, poetry, Jewish study, and creative writing. I felt that I had not studied the liturgy of the High Holy Days deeply enough; this would be an opportunity to do some serious work in that area. At the same time, as I thought about all of the other prayer books I’ve used and seen (probably hundreds of them), I was humbled by the overwhelming feeling that this was beyond me…. In any case, I decided to do it because I would be part of a team and, especially because the team of four editors would include my wife, Janet. My mother – mentioned above – talked me into it! And my participation in the CCAR’s machzor Think Tank in late 2008 whetted my appetite for the work.
Q: What was your role in the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh?
A: There was no aspect of the machzor that did not interest me. I wrote faithful translations for the traditional liturgy, the Torah and Haftarah portions, medieval piyutim, and some of the modern Hebrew poems. Through my work on the machzor, I experienced translation on intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels. It became, for me, a form of prayer. The machzor gave me the gift of developing a personal philosophy and method of translation. I wrote “sublinear” commentaries—and especially enjoyed blending historical, linguistic, and literary approaches into comments that ultimately have a spiritual message and purpose. I wrote original prayers, creative readings, interpretations of prayers and midrashim, and essays that introduce services, liturgical rubrics, and the Torah and Haftarah portions. I enjoyed the creative work of conceptualizing several services for Yom Kippur afternoon. It was an incredibly meaningful experience to bring to life, in a new way, traditional services like Avodah, Eileh Ezk’rah, and Yizkor; it was very gratifying to bring new meaning to them.
Q: What is your favorite part of the books, and what would you like readers/worshipers to take away from the experience of using Mishkan HaNefesh this High Holy Days?
A: I think the afternoon—from Minchah to N’ilah—is my favorite part of the two volumes because in those services – in addition to everything else – there was the aspect of finding the essence – the essential meaning – in the traditional service and then innovating to make it relevant to the 21st century. Avodah, the theme of which is “discovering the holy,” is a good example; or Eileh Ezk’rah which is thematically a counterpart to Minchah: the first focuses on tikkun olam (repair of the world) and the second focuses on tikkun midot hanefesh (character development and self-improvement). I also really enjoy looking at the pictures! (Joel Shapiro’s art). I enjoyed weaving contemporary themes and ideas throughout the books – for example, our relationship to Israel; the urgency of saving our environment.
I would like Mishkan HaNefesh to provide people with significant, serious religious experiences and, perhaps, inspire them to study and pray more often and more regularly. And I hope it will lead people to the most important tasks of the Days of Awe: Cheshbon HaNefesh (self-reckoning and self-examination) and T’shuvah (repentance and return to the right path).
Rabbi Sheldon Marder is the co-editor, translator, writer, and commentator of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, published by CCAR Press in 2015. He is also the contributor to other publications, such as Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, published by CCAR Press in 2016; and CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2013 issue. He is currently the Rabbi and Department Head of Jewish Life at the Jewish Home of San Francisco.