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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.]