From the girl who used to read novels during High Holy Day services to an editor of the new, groundbreaking, machzor, Rabbi Janet Marder is now one of the leading names in Jewish liturgy. Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe will be used by over 400 congregations this upcoming High Holy Days. It is time to get to know the editors better. Rabbi Janet Marder shares with us what inspired her in her work on the machzor and what she hopes inspires readers and worshipers.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your background in Jewish liturgy.
A: I didn’t grow up in a Reform congregation – we belonged to a Conservative synagogue until I was a junior in high school – and we were not regulars at Shabbat services. We did go to services every year on the High Holy Days – and I spent quite a number of those services reading a novel, rather than the machzor, feeling quite uninvolved in what was going on. I know what it’s like to be in a congregation, but not really feel like you’re part of it.
Moving to a Reform synagogue was a huge transition – lots of English prayers, quasi-Chasidic tunes, and “creative services.” I really didn’t get to know the Reform siddurim until I was a student at HUC-JIR, and had the chance to study the Union Prayerbook and Gates of Prayer as sociological texts with Dr. Larry Hoffman. I was fascinated by the idea that one could analyze a prayerbook – including features such as typography, page design, relative size and placement of Hebrew and English, choreographic instructions for worshipers, and linguistic choices made by translators – and gain insight into the community for which the prayerbook was developed. I also began to understand the siddur as a document that both expresses and forms Jewish identity, an effort to articulate the values and self-perception of the worshipers. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in how all the elements of worship – words, music, chanting, silence, room design, seating arrangement, lighting, choreography, style of the worship leader – contribute to the experience of prayer.
My primary focus at HUC-JIR was modern Hebrew literature, and after ordination I went to graduate school in comparative literature, specializing in modern Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. I’m fascinated by words and I love a good sentence. I read constantly (poetry, fiction, and non-fiction); I have a deep love for Hebrew, and I care a lot about cadence, rhythm, tone, and word choice in English prayers.
One formative experience for me was serving a gay/lesbian congregation in the 1980s, during the first terrible years of the AIDS epidemic, when many young people were dying and there was as yet no treatment for those who were sick. I experienced profound theological challenges as I tried to respond to my congregants’ questions and to help them find strength to endure suffering. My comfortable philosophy of “live as if there is a God” no longer felt adequate to me. Since then I’ve done a lot of reading and soul-searching, and have actually come closer to faith than I was in recent years. But I’ve also been a congregational rabbi for 26 years, and I have a lot of empathy for agnostics, skeptics, and those who don’t feel addressed by the traditional prayers.
Q: Mishkan HaNefesh is a result of seven years of team work of an ensemble of editors. What was your role in creating the new machzor?
A: I was deeply involved in choosing poetry and readings, and took special pleasure in finding some beautiful poetry that expresses profound religious yearning, doubt, amazement, and anger. I especially enjoyed incorporating the words of contemporary scientists into the machzor, because I’m fascinated by science and love to read about it. I’m also quite interested in modern Jewish thought, so it was great to have the opportunity to draw on the writings of important 20th century thinkers and figure out how to make their work accessible in a liturgical setting. I hope that some of their most significant ideas and most eloquent phrases will come to be familiar to our community in the years to come.
It was fun to create many readings based on traditional midrashim – I love the idea of making this material more accessible and relevant to worshipers. I also wrote quite a number of original pieces for the left-side – including some of the more theologically controversial ones and some that explore the relationship between science and Jewish mysticism. I translated some prayers and wrote many of the sublinear commentaries, seeking to make them not only informative, but also inspiring. I hope people will take time to explore them!
When I was invited to work on Mishkan HaNefesh, I was initially quite apprehensive, because my congregational responsibilities keep me very busy. I agreed when I realized that my husband, Shelly, and I could work very closely as a team. I have enormous respect for his learning, taste, and judgment, so his involvement was very reassuring.
Q: What would you like people to take away from the experience of using Mishkan HaNefesh at High Holy Day services?
A: I really wanted Mishkan HaNefesh to be a teaching book – one that would enrich the worshipers’ understanding of, and connection with, Judaism’s “big ideas.” I wanted it to provoke deep thought and questions, rather than rote recitation. I wanted it to open people up to the possibility of faith, and also to help worshipers understand that doubt and anger are time-honored Jewish modes of theological engagement. Most of all, I wanted people to feel personally addressed by the language of the prayerbook – I hoped it would speak directly to the minds and hearts of worshipers. The challenge is to offer this material in a way that is inviting and conducive to personal reflection. That’s why I hope that worship leaders will be selective when they design worship services, rather than choosing too much material and having to rush through it. I like Heschel’s counsel: “To pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word.”
Rabbi Janet R. Marder serves Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA. She is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, and a contributor to Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor.