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Machzor Blog: Wrestling With God

ShofarOne of my favorite things about Judaism is struggle. We are the People who are destined to struggle with God (Am Yisrael). This is our inheritance—a good thing! That said, when it comes to the High Holy Days, I often wish there were just a little less struggle involved.

The concept of God and the practice of maintaining a meaningful relationship with God are challenging on any day of the year. But the language of the High Holy Days, especially as it defines and describes God, has always added to that challenge for me. As a high school student I was so alienated by God’s roles as presented in U’n’taneh Tokef especially, but really throughout the machzor, that I would simply choose not to attend High Holy Day services. As a late-teenager and early twenty-something, these images of God significantly contributed to my decision to identify as an atheist. I simply could not relate to this anthropomorphic, male, judge. In rabbinical school, no longer an atheist, I spent individual class sessions, seminars, and even an entire semester wrestling with the God imagery of the machzor, not only for myself, but so that I could attempt to support others in their journeys through the Yamim Nora’im.

cairo_genizaLanguage is at the heart of this God struggle. The words used to capture and define an experience as vast as God will of course be inadequate. And, while the original Hebrew of the traditional machzor is an obstacle for me, the English of Gates of Repentance turns a fence into a solid wall. Each year I am more frustrated with our outdated text, and ever more eager for our movement’s new machzor.

This year, our congregation piloted the draft Yom Kippur afternoon service from the new machzor. It turns out that my enthusiasm is not unfounded. I felt immediately more at home in this service than I do in Gates of Repentance. As I do, our new prayer book understand the service experience as a journey—almost a choose-your-own adventure. There are multiple options for different prayers, opportunities for individual reflection, and even guiding questions for small group discussion. I see each of these approaches as a way of helping service participants to overcome the obstacles of accessibility that are, I think, inherent especially in High Holy Day prayer.

And then there’s the language. In an earlier post to this blog (“Faithful Translations”), Rabbi Leon Morris draws our attention to the incredible care that has gone into the translation of Hebrew text. I find these translations infinitely richer and more accessible than their equivalents in Gates of Repentance. But for me, it’s the recognition of struggle that is present in so many of the English alternative readings that really supported me in my own prayer on Yom Kippur afternoon. These readings both honor and elevate the challenges of the big concepts of the Yamim Noraim—forgiveness, starting over, living up to our own potential—as well as of course the challenges of the imagery used to describe God.

A most excellent example of these readings is Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer of Protest, written by Rabbis Janet and Shelly Marder (reprinted in Rabbi Leon Morris’ post to this blog, “How ‘current’ should a prayer book be?”). Avinu Malkeinu is not a prayer that I find too difficult as a result of its presentation of God—thanks, in large part, to the study I did with Rabbi Richard Levy as a rabbinical student!—but by the time we reach Yom Kippur afternoon, we have recited this prayer at every service of the High Holidays, we are exhausted and hungry, and it’s just plain difficult to find the same kavanah [intention] for this final repetition that we may have had for the earlier recitations. This Prayer of Protest was, both for me and for several of my congregants who commented on it afterwards, a shot in the arm as we moved into our concluding services. It reminded us to look around the room and see the people with whom we were sharing this moment. It reminded us of our purpose for being present in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon. And, of course, it reminded us that this process of struggle, this protest, is a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it reminded us of who we are. We are Am Yisrael, the People Who Will Struggle With God.

Rabbi Rebekah Stern is the Assistant Rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame California.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

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General CCAR Prayer

Love and Loss: Leaving the Pulpit

When I walkJewishCenterNWJerseyed to the end of my driveway the day after Sandy, my neighbor across the street was already standing at the foot of hers.  Together we surveyed the huge pile of detritus that lay in the street between us. The winds had uprooted the old maple on my front lawn and caused it to fall on the telephone wires between my house and my neightbor’s.  Two telephone poles had snapped like twigs, pitching the transformers into the street and causing a brief fire to flare in the middle of the road.  We had been lucky, my neighbor and I agreed.  The damage could have been much worse.  The tree could have fallen the other way and landed on my house.

“Someone was watching over you,” said my neighbor.  Another neighbor came by, picking his way over the fallen wires. He stood looking with us for a moment before observing, “Someone was watching over you.”   What terrible theology, I thought to myself. Does this mean Someone wasn’t watching over the people whose houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point? Or the people down the Jersey shore who had lost everything to the storm surge? The thing about being in the rabbinate all these years is that you see sermons in everything, including morning-after storm damage.  I didn’t feel a need to share my theological disagreement with my neighbors because I knew I had a place to express my ideas.  Assuming the upcoming bat mitzvah would go on as scheduled, I could easily make a linkage between my neighbors’ theological conclusions and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Do you really see the hand of God in these so-called Acts of God? How do you understand the damage done to the innocent?  This would all dovetail nicely with the d’var Torah the bat mitzvah had already prepared.

And this reaction would have come and gone routinely were I not leaving my congregation this coming June.  Instead, a new and painful feeling intruded itself: “What will I do when I no longer have the pulpit as a forum?”  Most of the time, the idea of retiring from my congregation after 19 years (33 total years since ordination) seems more theoretical than real.  As I look at next September’s calendar, I note with gratitude that I won’t have to spend yet another August writing sermons for an obscenely early high holy day season.  As I read the newspaper, I automatically reach to cut out an article that seems like a good idea for a high holy day sermon, then remember  that I won’t be writing those sermons next year.  I usually allow myself an awareness of the prospective gain but not the loss.  But as I stood looking at my tree in the road, a moment of anticipatory grief had leaked through.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis BlogAs much as I have complained over the years about not having the time to write sermons, not having any ideas, feeling uninspired, having other things that felt more pressing, I confess that I have come to enjoy preparing sermons for this particular congregation. I have worked in congregations where people came to services like critics to a Broadway show, but not this congregation.   They come not as critics but as students, open to what I have to say and interested in taking something away with them.  Sermons are just another piece of our relationship.  And it is that relationship I will miss.  When a 9th grader says to me accusingly, “How can you not confirm me? You named me, you bat mitzvahed me,” the loss – both hers and mine – lives for a moment between us.  When a congregant says, “Next year, you can still lead our Sisterhood retreat because you will be our Rabbi Eminence [my very favorite corruption of Emerita],” I silently react defensively.  Does she really think I am leaving the temple so I can come back and lead a retreat, I ask myself?  But in the next moment, I let my armor slip and share in her conflict,  accepting that this is just her way of holding on when she doesn’t want to let go.

When the Board emailed the congregation about my leaving, they used the word “retirement.” I balked for a moment. This isn’t really retirement for me.  It is just leaving the synagogue so I can devote more time to my private practice and experience weekends without work. The word “retirement” just makes my leaving them more palatable. But on second thought, I realized that  they are correct that this is my retirement. I am not interested in another pulpit.   If I wanted to continue in the congregational rabbinate, I would stay where I am. But I know the time has come for me to go.

When I told one of my sons about that pang of loss at not writing sermons, he replied unsympathetically, “So you’ll start a blog.”  Thank you, CCAR, for this invitation.

Rabbi ElleBlog-RabbiEllenLewisn Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org).  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at rabbiellenlewis@rabbiellenlewis.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.

 

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Books General CCAR Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: The Rhythm of the Page

The rhythm for the conversation was clear to me from the start.  As we began to pilot the new CCAR machzor, my congregation’s diverse volunteer group would discuss specific passages and the general tone. Topics would include the positioning of the Hebrew on the page and the very numbering of the pages.  I could predict the conversation’s rhythm, but not that our attention would be drawn to the very rhythm of certain pages.

The setting of the Al Cheit prayer was among those very pages.  Considering the list of sins in this prayer, we knew we would discuss content, but we also found ourselves pondering layout.  My congregants have been impressed equally by the machzor editors’ openness to considering items as diverse as the translation of Al Cheit Shechatanu and of the very rhythm of that prayer’s page.

Currently, most Reform synagogues use Gates of Repentance, first published in 1979 and updated in 1986.  I have had the honor of worshipping in over a dozen synagogues over the years, as a child, student, rabbi, and even just an adult worshipper.  The style of these synagogues has differed greatly in the music, the balance of Hebrew and English, and the general level of formality.  However, all of these Yom Kippur services have followed the basic rhythm for reciting Al Cheit, and some other prayers.  We have alternated the two languages

HEBREW

ENGLISH

HEBREW

ENGLISH

continually down the page.  We have followed what I would call the “rhythm of the page,” whether we have read, sung, or alternated our way through Al Cheit. Sure, other prayerbooks, including the Reform Judaism’s earlier Union Prayer Book, don’t have this alternating rhythm.  Sure, there are Reform synagogues that don’t move back and forth between the two languages.  However, clearly what I have experienced is not uncommon.  Reform congregations tend to work our way through the prayer’s pattern by following the rhythm of the page.

The Al Cheit is a great window into the creative process of our editors.  At one early moment, we faced a very different rhythm of the page.  The page’s layout challenged our worship.  We could read or sing the Hebrew and then read or skip the English, but it was awkward to alternate in our familiar pattern.  My volunteers immediately understood one of the issues at play.  Our current machzor includes just Hebrew and English.  The pilot book juggles Hebrew, English, and transliterated Hebrew.  At one stage, the page presented itself as

HEBREW       TRANSLITERATION

HEBREW       TRANSLITERATION

ENGLISH

ENGLISH

though in fuller form.  How might we balance these three aspects of the prayer on one page? How might we honor familiar modes of Reform Jewish worship? Yet, how might we challenge ourselves to pray in new ways?

How pleasant it was to discover a different, yet more familiar, rhythm of the same basic prayer in a later version of the machzor.  Here, all three versions of the words are included.  We preserve a layout that enables us to pray as we have for decades.  We are granted the opportunity to recite these prayers in other ways, if we so choose.  There is nothing sacred about a rhythm of

HEBREW       TRANSLITERATION

ENGLISH

HEBREW       TRANSLITERATION

ENGLISH                                     

However, there is something beloved and familiar.  Reform Jews have a remarkable ability to critique our very manner of worship.  Yet, those same worshippers enjoy a certain level of comfort in the practices of our synagogues.  A new machzor will encourage exciting new approaches and tones to our communal and personal prayers.  However, the editors of the ever-evolving CCAR machzor clearly are valuing the touchstones that shape our services. 

We can’t just talk about layout when developing a new machzor. We must also discuss the choices of what to include and how to translate each passage.  However, layout matters.  My congregation and I have learned that we are in search of a certain rhythm of a page, the very layout itself, that will enable us to connect and consider our lives as we recite Al Cheit and other prayers.  The machzor’s challenge is clear, yet even broader, because other prayers might call for other rhythms on the page.

Rabbi Andrew Busch serves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information on piloting the machzor, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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News Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: A Sin By Any Other Name

11505867Folks out there – colleagues and laypeople alike – feel quite strongly about the use of the word “sin” in the new machzor. Or so it seems from the feedback we’ve heard in the piloting process.  But these strong feelings about the word “sin” fall into two opposite camps.  There are those who object to the English word sin because of its Christian overtones, the sense it carries of permanence and of somehow being stained.  Others suspect that our decision to largely use other words (though not exclusively) such as “wrong” reflects a kind of moral relativism where nothing can be catagorically labeled as, well, a sin.

 The three words that are predominately used in the Torah and in our liturgy are cheyt, avon and pesha.  According to a baraita cited in Tractate Yoma 36b, each of these words refers to a distinct kind of sin.    Cheyt refers to inadvertent sins.  Avon references deliberate sins.  Pesha, the most severe, refers to sins committed as a way of rebelling against God.

 In our Kol Nidre service, these terms are translated in one place as “wrongs,” “act of injustice,” and “moral failures.”

The word most often used throughout the liturgy is cheyt, and the translation utilized by the new machzor most often is “wrong.”  This word seems to address both those who are looking to the machzor to provide clear moral standards, as well as those who fear that the word “sin” doesn’t carry with it the possibility for change.

Here is how the Vidui Rabbah is translated in the Kol Nidre pilot draft, page 47a:

 For the wrong we have done in Your presence by the spoken word,

And for the wrong we have done in Your presence through insincere promises….

 In the draft for Yom Kippur Minchah, we introduced a very different translation of the word cheyt.  Drawing upon the oft-cited etymology of the word as derived from “missing the goal” the pilot draft, page 50a and b, offered this translation:

 For missing the mark in Your presence through a selfish or petty spirit,

And for missing the mark in your presence through stubbornness.

 Maybe it was the absence of a commentary or explanation below the line, but this creative way of translation cheyt was viewed as highly objectionable, and laypeople and rabbis alike told us that this translation simply will not work.

Even the best translation and the most insightful commentary below the line cannot fully unpack the notion of sin, or wrong, or failure.  In the same 300px-Kol_Nidrei-2Talmudic sugya referenced above the Rabbis are bothered by the fact that the order of the three primary words for sin in High Priest’s confession doesn’t make sense in light of their own definitions.  For the Rabbis, the order to sin, in increasing severity, should be cheyt, avon, and pesha.  This therefore should be the correct order of the High Priest’s confession.  But Leviticus 16: 21 prescribes that the sins transferred to the scapegoat by the confession are avon, pesha, and cheyt.  Likewise, in Exodus 34:7 (the verse that forms the basis of our selichot prayers), God is described as nosei avon, va’pesha v’chata…

The Talmud solves the problem in an ingenious way. Rabbah bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: The halakhah follows the view of the Sages. Moses was saying before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, at a time when Israel sins before you and then repents, transform for them their deliberate sins into inadvertent sins.”

In other words, the order of sins in the Torah comes not to teach us the order of the High Priest’s confession, but rather to teach that repentance has the power to change the order of what we’ve done, to transform even deliberate and rebellious sins into less severe inadvertent sins.

With regard to our translations then, might we say that teshuvah can turn “sin” into “wrong,” or even in to “missing the mark.”

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

 

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Machzor Blog: Piyyutim and the Machzor

There was a time, more than century and a half ago, when piyyutim were seen largely as a kind of cultural burden to be cast aside in order to make the service shorter and more meaningful.  Early liturgical reformers argued that the siddur and machzor had grown too lengthy and no longer inspired modern Jews.  Piyyutim – medieval poetic extensions of the traditional prayers, with allusions incomprehensible to the average congregant – were first on the chopping block. The irony, however, lies in the fact that the piyut was itself a sort of liturgical reform.  While earlier generations of Jews were unable to change the statutory service itself, piyyutim allowed for an imaginative embellishment of that service.  It highlighted and expanded particular parts of the liturgy.  It added additional opportunities for congregational singing.  It was, in short, an early version of the “creative service.”

Over the past decade, there has been a growing phenomenon in Israel centered around the rediscovery and revival of medieval piyutim – not just in the synagogue (in fact, largely not in the synagogue), but rather in the cultural realms largely controlled by self-defined “secular” Jews.  Once seen primarily as an impediment for the modern worshiper, piyyutim are now being studied and sung by local “kehillot sharot” / singing communities that gather weekly in homes and community centers.  These groups combine community building, ethnomusicology, history and text study.  New CDs by popular artists are constantly being released with new musical settings to these piyyutim. Piyyut festivals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have drawn hundreds of people of all ages.  The interest in reviving piyut is fueled in part by the small but significant programs and projects that driven by native-born self-described “secular” Israelis rediscovering the Jewish bookshelf, and reclaiming Jewish heritage on their own terms and in their own way.

There is an amazing website that has a staggering collection of recordings of piyyutim from dozens of different communities, explanations of the piyyut’s authorship and history, and the lyrics.  One piyut alone might have a dozen recordings made from paytanim, chazanim and congregations.  The most robust part of the site is in Hebrew only, but a significant selection of materials is available on the English language part of the site.  Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York convened a conference a few years back aimed at bringing the piyyut phenomenon to America, and some materials that emerged from that effort are also on the English language part of the site.

Creating a new Reform machzor that will be used for the next 30-40 years requires us to pay attention to this growing piyyut revival. From these creative efforts, our congregations may find new models for re-introducing this classic poetry to the Reform synagogue.

The new openness to expanding the number of piyyutim is found in several places within the machzor, but most especially with the selichot prayers of Yom Kippur, particularly the most fully developed version in Kol Nidre.

So here are two piyyutim that we have included in the draft of the new machzor, and a link to one traditional and one contemporary recording of each.  Enjoy.

Here is Yonatan Razel singing Adon HaSelichot (Chatanu lifanecha.)

Here is the same piyyut sung in the traditional style of Jerusalem Sefardi community.

Here is Meir Banai singing his arrangement of Aneinu.

And the same piyyut sung by the Cochin Jews of India.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

 

 

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Machzor Blog: Faithful Translations

Some Rabbinic texts suggest that the first translation of the Torah into Greek received a kind of divine imprimatur by the Holy One himself (or, herself).  Seventy translators each produced an identical translation, a miraculous feat!  In contrast, other Rabbinic sources explicitly assert that the day the Torah was translated into Greek was as disastrous to the Jewish people as the sin of the golden calf.  So, for the past 2,500 years, translation has been fraught with danger and also with very strong reactions. And so, too for our machzor.

The fresh, poetic translations found within the new Machzor are perhaps the very first thing that pilot congregations have noticed.  The philosophy that our primary translators, Rabbis Shelly and Janet Marder, have embraced is to achieve a faithful translation that is the equivalent to the original Hebrew, but not identical to it.  Shelly writes in the introduction to the pilot for Rosh HaShanah morning: “We want to replicate the beauty, the poetry, and the richness of imagery and metaphor that the Hebrew prayer presents.  That is all but impossible if one translates word for word or phrase for phrase; to replicate beauty, poetry, and richness we must translate ‘idea for idea’ and ‘feeling for feeling.’”

Our own discussions about translation find some surprising parallels within the Catholic Church.  The English-speaking Catholic Church recently introduced a new missal for the Mass.  It chose English words that reflected a more “accurate” translation of the Latin.  But such a philosophy of translation ran counter to the wishes of many laypeople and clergy.  You can read more about this here.

In the pilot machzor, Shelly writes, “We strive here for English renderings that are as pleasing to heart, mind, soul, and ear as the original prayers are in Hebrew.”

Here are 3 renderings of the prayer, Hayom Harat Olam compiled by Shelly.  Though they differ from one another, the translations below are considered by their authors to be faithful renderings of those Hebrew prayers.

Gates of Repentence (1978, Reform)

 This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You, whether

as children or as slaves. As we are Your children, show us a parent’s compassion; as

we are slaves, we look to You for mercy: shed the light of Your judgment upon us, O

awesome and holy God.

 

Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010, Conservative)

 Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether

as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with

us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You

expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us, and as day emerges from night

bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.

 

Our forthcoming Reform machzor (a work in progress)

 This day, the world is born anew, and all creation awaits Your judgment.

We are Your daughters; we are Your sons —

So love and remember us in the way of mothers and fathers.

We are Yours in service —

so let there be light to guide us in the corridors of justice and on the path of holiness.

 And here are 3 different translations of Areshet S’fateinu:

 

Gates of Repentence (1978, Reform)

 O God Supreme, accept the offering of our lips, the sound of the Shofar. In love and

favor hear us, as we invoke your remembrance.

 

Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010, Conservative)

 May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns,

considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast. Lovingly accept our offering

of verses proclaiming Your remembrance.

 

Our forthcoming Reform machzor (a work in progress)

 Taste the sweetness our lips sing to You, God Most High. You are knowing and

attentive, watchful and aware when we call out: T’kiah! Lovingly, favorably receive

our Service of Zichronot!

 

What strikes you most as you compare the three translations of each prayer?

What is most important to you about the English translation of a Hebrew prayer?  What are the qualities about a translation that you value most?

 [Find out more about the new CCAR machzor.]

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Books Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: How ‘Current’ Should a Prayer Book Be?

Machzor Page-spread

There are those who look to a prayer book to reflect – in language and in tone – the lives we aspire to live.  The words of prayer should uplift, sanctify, and elevate.  For others, when confronted exclusively with such language, they feel as though the prayer book is irrelevant, that it has nothing to real say, that it is, at best, a relic.

The 2-page spread format for this new machor, like Mishkan T’filah, enables us to do both.  Or at least to try.  And sure enough, many respondents to pilot versions of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur draft services responded by saying things like, “I found my own voice in this prayer book,” while others were offended by the very same readings.

Calibrating this balance between the real and the ideal can be tricky.

Just a single word can make a reading seemingly inappropriate for a prayer book, as the editorial team is learning from piloting feedback.  In a pilot version of Rosh HaShanah morning, a left-side reading from the Orthodox theologian, Yitz Greenberg, offered an alternative on the part of Emet v’Yatziv  (the blessing after Sh’ma that speaks of redemption) this reading:

Where does Israel get the strength –

The chutzpah –

To go on believing in redemption

In a world

That knows mass hunger

And political exile

And [refugees]?

 

How can Jews testify to hope and human value

When they have been

Continuously persecuted,

Hated,

Dispelled,

Destroyed?

 

Out of the memories of the Exodus!

(Where does Israel, “Jewish Courage in the Hope for Redemption,” Irving Greenberg, in Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation, Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights, 2010, p. 68.)

Many respondents commented that they didn’t want the word “chutzpah” in their prayer book, and suggested that it was chutzpadik for us to put it in there.  The word is too colloquial, too irreverent, they said.

On the other hand, there are cases where the language was perceived as so lofty, indeed so “highfalutin”, that it was experienced negatively as well.  For example, opposite Mi Chamocha, we put the following by William Blake:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on, ‘tis all in vain!

You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.

 

And every sand becomes a Gem,

Reflected in the beam divine;

Blown back they bling the mocking Eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

 

The Atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s Particles of Light

Are sand upon the Red sea shore,

Where Israel’s tends do shine so bright.

This poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, was placed opposite Birkat Avodah (the “R’tzei – the fifth blessing of the festival Amidah).  Some felt it to be too racy to be read aloud in a synagogue, and it was removed from the second draft.

Like a woman who knows that her body entices me,

God, You taunt me:  Flee if you can! But I can’t flee.

For when I turn away from You, angry and heartsick,

With a vow on my lips like a burning coal:
I will not see You again –

I can’t do it,

I turn back

And know on Your door

Tortured with longing

As though You had sent me a love letter.

(Like a woman who knows, Uri Zvi Greenberg, translated and adapted by Chaim Stern, in Gates of Forgiveness, CCAR, 1980, p. 30.)

Some didn’t want the prayers to make them feel sad.  A reading and a poem about Alzheimer’s disease that paralleled the Zichronot section of the Rosh HaShanah morning service were disturbing to some.  In the reading, we included the following text:

 Let us use our gift of memory to remember all who are affected by illnesses that cause dementia, along with loved ones, friends and caregivers.  Let us find ways to share God’s message of love and blessing.

A poem by Donna Wahlert, entitled, Here Let Us: Late Middle Alzheimer’s Disease accompanied the text in the first draft of the service.

Here let us sit together

under the weeping beech

here let us talk about milk glass

chifforobes and elderberry wine

here let us sooth your ankles

swollen with childhood memories

we won’t remind you that your mother

has been gone for thirty years

that the house you want to go

home to is no longer there

that your children are drown and gray

that you are the last of your friends

here let us drink our wintergreen tea

and talk about this primrose

the thing spaghetti you had for lunch

the nurse who brings you Hershey bars

here let us not dream about the days to come

here let us sing you your mother

here let us sing you your children

here let us sing you home. 

(Here let us sit, Donna Wahlert, “Here Let Us: Late Middle Alzheimer’s Disease,” in The First Pressing: Poetry of the Everyday, iUniverse Inc., 2003, p. 123.)

There are readings that feel too raw to some.  Take, for example, Linda Pastan’s poem The Bronx, 1942

When I told him to shut up,

my father slammed on the brakes and left

me like a parcel in the car

on a strange street, to punish me

he said for lack of respect, though

what he always feared was lack of love.

I know now just how long

 

forgiveness can take

and that is can be harder than respect

or even love.  My father stayed angry

for a week.  But I still remember

the gritty color of the sky through

that windshield, and how, like a parcel

I started to come apart.

(The Bronx, 1942, Linda Pastan, Carnival Eve­ning: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998, NY: 1998, W.W. Norton, p. 274.)

Or, how about this alternative reading entitled, “Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer of Protest”

Avinu Malkeinu –

Hear our voice:
Some of us have cancer.

Some have lost strength of body; some have lost memory and speech.

Some of us are in pain.

Some can’t find work.

Some of us bear the marks of human cruelty – inside, where the scars don’t show.

Some live with depression; some battle addiction; many feel alone.

Some have known shattered marriages, trust betrayed, hopes destroyed.

Some of us have lost the ones we love, far too soon.

And some of us have lost a child.

All of us have seen suffering in our midst.

All of us know the ravages of war – for which there are no words.

 

Avinu Malkeinu, why?
Avinu Malkeinu, are you there?  Do you care?

Avinu Malkeinu, hear our pain.

Hear our anger. Hear our grief.

Avinu Malkeinu, here is our prayer:
Give us the strength to go on.

Give us reasons to get up each day; give us purpose and persistence.

Help us to fend off fear and to hold on to hope.

Help us to be kind.

Don’t make us bow or grovel for your favor.  Give us dignity and give us courage.

 

Avinu Malkeinu –

Show us the way to a year of goodness.

Renew our belief that the world can be better.

Restore our faith in life.  Restore our faith in you.

(Copyright © 2012 by CCAR Press.  All rights reserved)

Can the Machzor simultaneously inspire, while speaking to the reality of our everyday lives?  Is there a place for sadness, regret, sensuality, anger, and doubt within the pages of the prayer book?  What do we lose by including such readings, and what do we gain?  What would be lost if we left them out?  We’re interested in your thoughts.

Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY. 

[Find out more about the new CCAR machzor.]