Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

How Can We Sleep?

It was my grandmother who asked me, “Why do rabbis always talk about Jonah on Yom Kippur? Can’t they think of some other subject?”  This year, I can’t help but think that my grandmother’s question will eerily parallel that asked by so many sitting in the sanctuaries of our Reform synagogues: Why is my rabbi always talking about racism? Can’t rabbis think of some other subject?

Jonah is ineluctable: he waits for us in the recesses of our afternoon liturgy, hiding in the plain sight of our assigned haftarah.  We could no more escape talking about the reluctant prophet than could the selfsame prophet escape the Divine command to go to Nineveh.  It makes no difference how majestic are our High Holy Day sermons, how compelling or complex are the main messages we fashion over months, how emotionally exhausted and spiritually spent we might be by minchah: we must confront the Son of Ammitai before the Gates of Repentance close.  Weeping may tarry for the night, and joy arrive in the morning, but Jonah is always awaiting us in the afternoon.

Racism is as unavoidable in America as is Jonah in our High Holy Day experience.  Hammering headlines assault us with brutal facts: the police killings of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa; a presidential candidate advocating nationwide adoption of stop-and-frisk tactics; the unabated gun violence in my city of Chicago.  No engaged citizen can avoid the American truth that we do not live in a society of equal justice for all: the only way to continue the pretense of living in a colorblind culture is to bury one’s head in the sand.  The lingering legacy of centuries of institutionalized injustice and systematic prejudice is laid bare before us each day in every news outlet in any city or suburb where we make our homes.  No one with eyes open can avoid confronting America’s racial injustices.

Unfortunately, many rabbis think we can—or maybe should—avoid speaking of the plague of racism this High Holy Day season.  We reason that the more we speak of a single subject, the less congregants are likely to listen.  For those of us who addressed these issues last year, we fear being labeled a ‘one trick pony’, or accused of speaking to social issues at the expense of tending to our flock.  Since racial justice—unlike Jonah—isn’t waiting for us in our fixed liturgy, we imagine we might be able to avoid this difficult subject.  That Jews of Color are still the minority in our own houses of worship allows us to feel as if this is not really “our issue”, and we would be better served leaving it to others. The tragedy of the worldwide refugee situation, the uncivility of our presidential election, and the many issues connected to Israel provide us with a panoply of other topics about which to talk.  Each and every one of us could make it through Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur without ever facing the difficulties attached to speaking about race.

Jonah, too, thinks he can avoid all difficulty.  He runs from his Divine charge, and amidst a tempest salts himself away in slumber.  The storm raged outside: everyone felt its wrath, but Jonah chose to ignore it.  But burying himself below deck cannot last: How can you sleep! Our captain, our tradition, challenge Jonah: How can you sleep?  Rashi takes these words to chastise, “This is no time for sleep!”  Isaac Abarbanel deepens the astonishment at the blind eye Jonah turns to the raging sea, “Do you not understand the difficulty of this moment, and sense the great danger we all face?”  The book that bears Jonah’s name summons Jonah to pay attention, to address the turbulent seas on which he sails.  The haftarah we read in the tiring hours of Yom Kippur afternoon reminds us we cannot sleep soundly in our cabins and ignore the raging storms of society.

The message of Jonah is that we all need to be awakened.  Or, as some might say today, we all need to be woke.  This is a true for exhausted clergy in the twentieth hour of the fast as it is for a congregation worn out with continuing reminders of our responsibility to counter the raging storm of racism in America.  As much as we are coerced to confront this challenging issue, let us take our direction in so doing from the story of our sailors.  They move from asking Jonah, “What have you done?” to looking for concrete solutions: what can we do?  This year, amid the tempestuous season of protests and outrage, may we be moved from delineating the origins of our situation to outlining solutions to end structural racism in America.  May we continue to do so with the great partners of our Reform Movement, and may we continue to build relationships with partners across the lines of faith, class and color until the seas around us subside.  May we, whether weary in our pulpits or in our pews, remain awake and attentive to racial injustice.  May we, in moving from examination and understanding to solidarity and solutions, play our part in bringing calm to America’s shores.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the Chair of the CCAR Justice, Peace & Civil Liberties Committee.

Categories
High Holy Days News

What We Can Learn about Placement from Yom Kippur

As my service as the CCAR Placement Director is winding down and my sojourn in New York is coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on my myriad learnings of this six-year calling. At this season especially I cannot help but connect some placement lessons to the High Holidays and to the viddui’im of Yom Kippur.  We all have taught the steps in the process of teshuvah gemurah: 1) acknowledging wrongdoing; 2) feeling genuine remorse; 3) promising not to repeat the behavior and 4) when confronted with similar circumstances, actually not repeating the behavior. This simple four-step process is precisely what is necessary for a rabbi in rabbinic placement.

The first step for a rabbi in placement is to take an honest and sober assessment of oneself. What are my gifts? What are my challenges? In what situations have I succeeded and in what situations have I fallen short? This degree of chesbon hanefesh in our rabbinic life is perhaps the most difficult: holding the mirror up to ourselves and examining our rabbinates in excruciating detail.

Once we have identified our strengths and challenges, we need to come to terms with them. How has each strength and each challenge benefitted me? Hurt me? Enabled me to craft the rabbinate that I currently have or prevented me from realizing the rabbinate I wish to have? Are these strengths and challenges features of my personality, which is resistant to change, or are these skills, which I can learn and unlearn?

Third, if we really want to avoid repeating behavior that has impeded our growth as rabbis, where can we turn? How can we remedy self-sabotaging behavior or how can we build upon proven successes in our work? There are many avenues today to help fortify our commitment to self-improvement. We could go into therapy, we could engage a rabbinic coach, we could attend CCAR webinars and in-person seminars, we could seek out advanced classes at local colleges and universities. The opportunities to enhance our rabbinates are numerous, but first we must identify our needs and resolve to wrestle with them.

Finally, we know that our teshuvah, our process of self-improvement, is complete when we find ourselves in a situation that would have formerly tripped us up but that now we can negotiate smoothly. Our efforts at introspection and learning have made us better rabbis more content in our own rabbinates. Arriving at an honest appraisal of our rabbinates and the impact our rabbinates have on our communities and their participants is the firmest basis for entering placement.

Recently a synagogue president who sat on a search committee said to me, “The candidates who did best in our search were the ones who were most self-aware.” These aseret yemei teshuvah, done right, can bring deep self-awareness which is an essential step in advancing our rabbinates. I wish you all easy fasts and a Yom Kippur full of insight, discernment, and growth.

Rabbi Alan Henkin serves the Central Conference of American Rabbis as Director of Rabbinic Placement. 

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor

Pulling Out an Old Friend Before the New Year

With the New Year set to begin shortly, I know most of my rabbinical friends are working very hard to craft their sermons and iyunim.  I know I spend time thinking about each and every word and story to shape a meaningful message to my community.

But each year before I begin to write, I engage in my own process of preparation.  I turn to the original Shaarei Teshuvah—Gates of Repentance.  Not our previous machzor-but Rabbi Jonah of Gerona’s book. I use my now well- worn text as my way into preparing myself for the High Holy Day Season. My copy is written in and has dog –eared and paper clipped pages. It still has some of the original book cover. This is a text that I have studied alone in some years and with a chavruta in others depending on the year.

I love re-reading this powerful text on repentance each year.  I deeply hearken to the way it highlights the practical steps to teshuvah.  The text outlines Twenty Principles that help one move from acknowledging the transgressions one has committed to keeping others far from sin.  Many of the principles would be recognizable from anyone who has worked the 12 steps of an Alcoholic Anonymous Program. But Rabbi Jonah goes deeper into each principle helping to lift up the essence of teshuvah with a focus on keeping the person far from sin.

I love reading and re-reading this text as a spark to prepare my heart, my soul, and as a reflection on the process I need for myself at this time of year.  I have found that the preparation I do spiritually-feeding my own soul matters perhaps more than the messages I will deliver from the bima.  Not in some selfish way but rather as a process to lift my intentions higher. The text study and reflection builds in me the spiritual reserve to frame my messages to my community.

But as much as I study and review the Twenty Principles, I love the notes that I have written alongside the text in my book. The sparks of sermon ideas and questions it raised in me through the years are a good review.  My scribbled notes on grammar or vocabulary in Hebrew, my jotted shorthand mentioning another book I may have been reading at the time bring the various years together in one place; the comment of a chavruta partner; all these notes to myself help me to prepare.   And most of all it is a record of my spiritual journey of years when I felt my sins weighed heavy against me or the years when I felt wronged by others.

My preparation for the New Year is not complete without studying with my friend Rabbi Jonah of Geronah.  In these days before the New Year arrives I hope that you feel that you have filled your spiritual reserve enough to share with your family and friends and the communities you lead.

With every good wish for a sweet and fulfilling 5777.

— 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.  

Categories
High Holy Days News

Growing Deep

How to find and offer wisdom in a polarized world?

We live in an uncompromising age, a time of hard edges and bristling polemic.  Our current culture too often confuses strength with bombast, conviction with absolutism, passion with intolerance.   Deliberation and compromise are portrayed as weakness, and unyielding rigidity as power.  Beit Hillel is AWOL.  Rage is all the rage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck wrote:  “And the mind/wants to shine, plainly, as/machines shine, and not/grow deep, as for example, roots.”  In Gluck’s terms, we live in a machine age:  too readily and too lazily, our minds prefer shine to roots.

And then along come the High Holidays, and urge us to be the klei kodesh of a completely counter-cultural message to our people and to ourselves:  slow down and stop shining.  Look within before you shout without.  Stop.  Reflect.  Struggle.  Consider your responsibilities to others.   Create the space for questions that do not have easy answers.   Permit uncertainties that shake you off center.  Allow for regret and change.  Open your heart to new possibilities.  Grow deep.

Consider the sound of the shofar:  ragged, varied, piercing precisely because it’s not pretty.  It is the sound of roots, not shine.

The Mishnah teaches (RH 3:7) that if the shofar is sounded in a pit or a cistern, if one hears the sound of the shofar, one has fulfilled the mitzvah of listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  But if one hears only the sound of the echo, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah.  The Gemara (BT RH 27b) goes on to comment that if the listener is in the pit when the shofar is sounded, then surely the listener hears the sound itself, and has fulfilled the obligation.  But if the listener is standing only on the edge of the pit, then the listener has only heard the echo, and has not fulfilled the obligation.

An interpretation about the opportunity and purpose of these days:  if you stay only on the surface of things, if you do not grow deep, then in fact you have not fulfilled the obligation of these Days of Awe.

None of this is easy.  The sermons weigh on us, the logistics burden us, we apply all sorts of pressure to ourselves, and we get stuck thinking in terms of shine rather than roots.  Unwittingly, we allow the space of self to crowd out the presence of the sacred:  what will they think of me?  Will I be good at this?  How will they react?  We want to get it right and do it well, but it can be hard to distinguish the commitment to calling from the seductions of ego.

Like many of you, I have certain touchstones at this time of year:  passages, poems, teachers on the page who help me stay centered.  For me, the best of these anchoring teachings comes from my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l.  Because he wrote these words for a series of homiletics lectures at HUC-JIR (in 1959), they refer specifically to preaching.  But they are surely about more than that.  They are about what it means to be a rabbi, and what it means to be human.  They are about speaking and living with integrity and heart, at any season but especially this one.  They are about going and growing deep, despite all the temptations to shine.  They are a gift to me each year, and this year I hope, to you:

If you do not love those to whom you preach, you will not preach successfully.  If, secretly, you do not respect those who listen to you, then you will not touch them deeply.  Preaching must be purged of condescension, of a sense of superiority.  If it isn’t, then you will not talk so that people will care about what you are saying.  By the same token, if you have no deep concern, you may be engaged in a homiletical exercise, but not in preaching a sermon.  If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should.  If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside.  If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place. 

May these days be eye-opening, soul-opening.  May the call from the heart of the tradition enter our own.  May we hear it and offer it with courage and strength, and the depth of God’s blessing.  Shana Tova!

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, and is President-Elect of The Central Conference of American Rabbis

Categories
High Holy Days

Blank Pages

At this moment of writing I sit in my study at Temple Emanu-El, the early morning quiet contoured by impending rain clouds that promise a wet Atlanta morning.

The clock on the wall, set above my ordination degree bearing signatures of my teachers before me, softly ticks and tocks with each second.  The sound both soothes and beckons me with potential and with challenge.

And in front of me, a blank page stares back, demanding words to share that are ripe with inspiration, aspiration, and meaning.

Perhaps in the space between the ticking seconds, and through the glaring white page, the metaphor calls out to us, “Yes, it is right here. Open your eyes and be awake!”

The High Holy Days are around the corner.  Each year the weeks leading up to them are heavy with a certain weighted intensity that our Jewish tradition fosters as a positive and necessary experience.  The backdrop of the harvest (yesteryear), the new semester, and a return to the fast- paced workplace after the summer lull is part of the atmosphere. But the real pressure that Judaism prescribes is the proverbial tick of the clock and glaring white pages of our lives still to be lived.  There is a spiritual urgency that stirs in us.

What will we do with our time to make the very most of the days that we have left? (tick… tock)

In the Book of Life (Sefer HaChayim) where we implore God to inscribe us each new year, what will we choose to write on that glaring blank page?  For the pen is in our hands, as are the stories, words and deeds…

These questions form the backbone not only of our High Holy Days, but of our collective lives.

The stakes presented in these existential questions are far from hypothetical, but rather are intensely personal.

For this reason, The High Holy Days are often referred to as the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, for it is with ‘awe’ that we are cautioned to approach the honest assessment we are asked to make of ourselves and our lives.  Our liturgy calls this a Heshbone HaNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel helps us understand the concept of ‘awe’, and our approach to it, by asking us how we might approach the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you have been there.  Imagine standing right on the edge, looking out and down.  It is vast.  It is truly incredible.  It makes us simultaneously feel insignificant and luminous.  With our toes on the edge of the precipice, we gaze into the abyss, all the while knowing that our feet rest on firm and unshakable ground.  That is ‘awe’, a mixture of elation and fear.

Elation for what we could yet achieve with our lives, our relationships, and our ability to appreciate the invaluable worth of each moment.

Fear of falling far short of our potential, squandering our relationships, and closing our eyes to the beauty and meaning that permeates our precious days.

On Rosh HaShanah when we pray to be inscribed in the book of life, we are not just praying for more time on earth, but we are jolting ourselves awake to really, truly live!

אב’נו מלכנו כתבנו בספר ח”ם טוב’ם

Avinu Maleinu, kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim.

Our benevolent God, inscribe us (and may we have the courage to inscribe ourselves) in the Book of Lives Well Lived.

May our congregations everywhere, and our congregants be blessed; and in turn bless one another.

And may this year be a sweet year for us all.

Rabbi Spike Anderson serves Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, Georgia.

Categories
High Holy Days spirituality

High Holy Day Self-Care: A Rabbinic Primer

My ex-boyfriend used to joke: I love you every week of the year, except for the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Oh, and the day before Rosh HaShanah. I find it challenging to love you then too.

I get it, and I bet you (and your significant other, or kids, or cantor, or assistant, or all of the above) do too. As a Rabbi’s kid, who’s herself worked for some very anxious senior Rabbis, I can attest: the high holy days often make us crazy. And not just crazy but angry, unpleasant, overtired and sometimes even nasty. My mom (who, strictly speaking, as a pediatric surgeon had a far more stressful job than my father) used to say, “I just try to stay out of your dad’s way during the month before the holy days.”

The irony is, of course, this: ‘tis the season of cheshbon hanefesh, of checking ourselves, apologizing to others, and guarding, a bit more closely, our words and actions. It’s what we preach from the bima, but far, far too often fail to practice in the lead up to the days of awe.

So, in the summers leading up to Elul, I’ve gone above and beyond to set aside some time to prepare myself – not just with cues and sermons and music – but spiritually, emotionally, and physically, for the chagim.

A few suggestions, based on trial and error:

1) The next time you’re agonizing over a sermon, or impressing your biggest donors with your Yom Kippur appeal, or figuring out the perfect balance between the political and the pastoral, stop. Literally. Stop it. Get out of your office. Step away from your computer. Put down the David Wolpe or Jonathan Sacks sermon you wish you’d written, and go for a walk. Get a massage. Hug your kids. Pick up Annie Dillard, or Wendell Berry, or Brene Brown, or Mary Oliver’s new book of poetry, or Yehuda Amichai, or whatever, whoever, inspires you. And then forgive yourself for not being able to produce utter brilliance in one sitting. If you have a creative hobby outside of the rabbinate, do it. Paint. Go to a yoga class. Go for a hike. Walk the dog. Give back to yourself so you have something to give to others.

2) Take your own preaching to heart, and forgive. Forgive the temple president who drives you crazy, the assistant who forgot to mail out the yahrtzeit notices, and yourself, for everyone you’ve failed – knowingly, and unknowingly this year. Be like God: balance your judgment of yourself – and everyone else – with mercy, compassion and gentleness. And then, once you’ve forgiven, apologize to those you need to apologize too. And don’t yell at anyone during the ten days, or you’ll have to do it again. (Yes, even you, Rabbi.)

3) Daven, just a little, just a bissel, every day of Elul. For me, this means mindfulness meditation. For others, it means selichot – prayers of forgiveness. For still others, it’s a niggun that connects us to our hearts. Because if you can’t give to yourself spiritually, or connect with what brought you to the Rabbinate in the first place, you can’t give to your congregants, or your students, or your patients.

4) The morning of Erev Rosh HaShanah, if you can, take an hour, or maybe even two, for yourself. Do something that gets you out of your head, out of your neuroses, and into your body. Last year, I woke up early and went surfing for two hours, which put me (very small person) in perspective (a very, very big ocean). (How important could my own mishegas about everything going off without a hitch be in a world so big?) This year, I’ll go for a trail run. Whatever it is that nurtures you (maybe even watching your favorite comedian for an hour), get out of your anxieties and fears and into a place of joy, and contentment, so that when you’re on the bima, welcoming the new year with all the joy, and excitement that a new year deserves, you mean it. The Jews in the pews can tell when you mean it.

5) Once the moment comes, try to enjoy it. Try to pray while you’re leading services. Try to set aside all of the madness that led up to the moment when tefilot begin and simply be present to the birthday of the world. It’s the climax of our spiritual year, the peak of the arc of our Jewish yearly lives and too often we’re too busy looking for our next cue or trying to make eye contact with the cantor to take it all in. So take an extra breath when you’re facing the ark, or pause for just a heartbeat, and remember what a tremendous privilege it is to lead hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jews in letting go, starting over and beginning again. Even when it makes us crazy, it’s still the best work in the world.

Oh, and finally: Shanah tovah u’metukah – may it be a sweet, happy, healthy and meaningful new year for all of us.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Adventure Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.

 

Categories
Books High Holy Days spirituality

What is God’s Relationship to Suffering and Evil?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

I imagine that God weeps at the sufferings of the whole disharmonious natural world. If God does weep with us, it is with a heart that we wrote into the story. We invented God’s heart, our greatest contribution to God’s tale.

I cannot know why suffering and evil exist. No work of fiction is free of it. It is the stuff of timeless story. However, our greatest spiritual resistance to suffering is metaphor and interpretation. To interpret is divine. God breathed that ability into us.

LITFXXX_Page_1A traditional Jewish ritual response to nightmares is called “the Amelioration of a Dream” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55b). The ritual requires three friends to declare that the dream be interpreted for good. The text explains that all dreams have a hint of prophecy; however, all dreams can be interpreted positively. In fact, the prophecy of the dream lies partially in its interpretation. The dreamer says three times, Adonai shamati v’yareiti—God, I heard what You made me hear and I was frightened. Three friends respond with the prescribed words, “Choose life, for God has already approved your deeds. Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

We dream, but we are also dreamt. We are written, and within that story, we write. It is said in Torah and our liturgy: U’vayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash, “On the seventh day God ‘rested.’” Translators struggle in translating vayinafash, suggesting, “On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.” Vayinafash, however, literally means God “ensouled.” On the seventh day God rested and created spirits. Out of God’s dark, void chamber before Creation, God suddenly dreamed a dream/nightmare and based on that dream/nightmare, the world was sketched and animated in full color. We are the dream/ nightmare. We have little control over the outcome except to interpret it for the good.

A congregant had a double mastectomy and did not know how to love herself afterwards. She would stand before a mirror naked, seeing herself as grotesque. We sought a metaphor that would help her to see herself in a new light. We imagined her body as a sacred altar and that her breasts were the sacrifices that redeemed her life. Years later she told me that now when she stands before the mirror, she thinks “sacred altar” and has found a love for herself inside that she thought had disappeared. She reinterpreted her nightmare through metaphor.

Rabbi Zoe Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Reform Judaism

One Is Silver and the Other’s Gold: Precious Gifts of Mishkan HaNefesh

“Make new friends, and keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” We all heard and likely sang that ditty as children. We were not thinking of prayer books, but about friends.

For many people, though, a prayer book is an old friend. I recall an older Temple member, who was ill and unable to attend services here on the High Holy Days. When I visited, she showed me the prayer books that she and her family had used for a private service on Rosh Hashanah eve, and planned to use again on Yom Kippur: Union Prayer Book, of course.

I suspect that those High Holy Days were the most meaningful of that family’s life, as their matriarch neared the end of her life, but still able to celebrate and enjoy her family. Only immediate relatives were present, with one friend: that prayer book, which had been a part of their lives for generations, linking them to all who had come before, and to their memories of Rosh Hashanah in the Temple that has been their family’s synagogue home for a century and a half.

For many, Union Prayer Book was and remains a friend. Though a generation or more has passed since that book was used for regular High Holy Day services here, many return to its special place in our homes, to seek comfort and guidance.

Gates of Repentance was a hip, contemporary friend for its era. That decade, the 1970s, was characterized by low regard for anyone over 30; and Union Prayer Book was far older than that. Radical change was in the air in the years immediately following the moon landing and Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of Women’s Liberation. While young adults of that era embraced the change, throwing off archaic language – you know, all those thee’s and thou’s – offering more accessible English for a new generation, others mourned the loss of an old friend.MhN Standard - RESIZED FINAL

The 21st Century is sometimes called post-modern, meaning in part that we embrace advances without throwing away the gems of the past. Mishkan HaNefesh preserves more of Jewish tradition than any previous Reform prayer book, while also embracing more of our Reform heritage than Gates of Repentance.

On the one hand, Mishkan HaNefesh includes more traditional Hebrew than its predecessors. On the other hand, the Hebrew is all transliterated on each page as it appears, making it more accessible, as we have become accustomed with Mishkan T’filah.

Another example of embracing both traditional and Reform practice is in the scriptural readings. Those of us who’ve been Reform for as long as we’ve been alive, or at least for as long as we’ve been Jewish, may imagine that the Binding of Isaac is the traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah morning. That’s only partially true. In traditional synagogues, that section is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Mishkan HaNefesh offers choices. This year, for example, we will read the traditional selection for the first – and in our case, the only – day of Rosh Hashanah, which is about the birth of Isaac. Then, we will immediately turn to a Haftarah designated by our Reform forbears, a selection from the Book of Nehemiah about an ancient Rosh Hashanah.

The evocative English of Mishkan HaNefesh is its greatest strength, whether in translations of traditional prayers or in the more interpretive sections on the left side of the page. We may find inspiration in prayer and poetry that is mostly new to us, and then turn to a reading that has brought meaning to Reform Jews since the first edition of Union Prayer Book.

The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh solved some nettlesome problems with grace. For some years, we have been awkwardly changing the words when Gates of Repentance refers to God as “He.” As with Mishkan T’filah, that problem has been solved in ways that are never noticeable.

The most important words on the High Holy Days are Avinu Malkeinu, previously translated, “Our Father, our King.” The solution in Mishkan HaNefesh is a thing of beauty: “Avinu Malkeinu, Sh’ma Koleinu, Avinu Malkeinu – Almighty and Merciful – hear our voice.” “Almighty and Merciful” is evocative alliteration, reflecting the opening “a” and “m” sounds of Avinu Malkeinu. More significant, the meaning is conveyed, even if not literally. We call upon Malkeinu, our Sovereign, to acknowledge God’s power to judge us when we have sinned. We call upon Avinu, our loving heavenly Parent, asking the Holy One to be merciful when we have gone astray.

Most creative is the placement of the shofar ritual. In Orthodox synagogues, the shofar is sounded during the mussaf service. Mussaf means “additional,” and it refers to a repetition of prayers, duplication eliminated by our Reform founders. Reform prayer books placed the shofar after the Haftarah reading, since traditional mussaf follows the Torah service. The shofar ritual has three parts – the first, emphasizing God’s sovereignty; the second, asking God to forgive us by recalling the merit of our ancestors; and the third, pointing toward amessianic, future. When the entire shofar ritual is compressed into one part of the service, whether in mussaf or after the Haftarah, each part loses its significance. Mishkan HaNefesh liberates us both from a tradition that is no longer meaningful to us and a decision of our 19th century Reform founders. We now separate the three sections, giving each its own special place in the service.

One is silver and the other’s gold. Mishkan HaNefesh enables us to make a new friend while keeping the old. It preserves our birthright, the old friends that are our Jewish tradition and our Reform heritage, with prayers from the ancient and medieval High Holy Day machzor and words from Union Prayer Book. It provides new poetry, a new friend, inviting our spirits to soar. Mishkan HaNefesh is art in our hands. The look and the feel of these gold and silver volumes are classic wonders, worthy to be cherished for generations, even in a future when these are the beloved old books on the shelf from a previous era.

We have received a magnificent gift, from our editors and from our Conference. Let our hearts, full of gratitude, find precious gems in the silver and in the gold.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Learn more about Mishkan HaNefesh.

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Meet the Editors of Mishkan HaNefesh: Rabbi Sheldon Marder

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.MhN Standard - RESIZED FINAL

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 Mishkan HaNefeshdeeply 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.

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Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Meet the Editors of Mishkan HaNefesh: Rabbi Janet Marder

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.MhN Standard - RESIZED FINAL

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.