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.

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.

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

A Summer Journey with Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

It was another blazing July afternoon in New York City. Wearing khaki shorts, sandals, and a white linen shirt, I stepped into the sun-drenched West Side of Central Park. I diverged from the path momentarily, stopping near a park bench to check the hours for the Metropolitan Museum of Art on my phone, before trekking across the park to see their Egyptology exhibits. A man seated there in a checkered shirt, jeans, and sunglasses called out to me from behind his newspaper, “That’s a great book! Have you finished it yet?” Nearly dropping my phone, I gazed at him quizzically. He smiled at me. I blinked. He couldn’t have possibly meant the copy of Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh that I had in my hand, could he? “You see, I’m a Native American, but I’m also Jewish. On my dad’s side…” I squinted my eyes in confused disbelief, trying to understand how he could know this book. His appearance, ethnicity, and religious background had no bearing for me whatsoever, but somehow he now seemed perturbed that I would doubt him. “How could you have read this book? It hasn’t been released yet,” I asked. With a slight air of indignation he said, “I’m an author. I received an advance copy from Simon & Schuster. Four months ago…” I stared him square in the eyes and slowly shook my head with an audible “Hmph.” He doesn’t know the book or the publisher and he is clearly lying to me. But why? “Hmph.” he retorted, imitating me, continuing his charade. “I am writing a blog article about the book,” I said, “This one advance copy was given to me by the CCAR, the publisher of the book. So…if you really read it, then tell me, what is it about?” The man coolly responded while returning to his newspaper, “It’s about a journey. Life’s a journey.” With that, I said, “Okay, thanks. Have a great day…” and continued down the path to the East Side.

I passed a potpourri of musicians who were busking in the shaded parts of the park. A diversity of divertissements. There was the accordion player, the classical guitarist, the jazz guitarist, the violinist, the singer-songwriter. I needed a diversion to get the strange encounter I just had out of my head, but I couldn’t figure out why he had lied about the book. As I drifted past Sheep Meadow, the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Loeb Boathouse, and the Conservatory Pond, eventually winding my way up to the Met, my thoughts evaporated in the hot sun. The only thing left of the conversation in my mind were his last words. “Life’s a journey.” I pondered the collective journeys of everyone who visited or worked in the park, who built the park, and who paid to preserve the monuments and buildings. And then I meandered through the Egyptian exhibits at the Met. There were so many things to see, I couldn’t possibly process it all in one day, and I left wishing I had a guide – a Divrei Mitzrayim.DivreiMhN - no crop marks

So I took a break after visiting the museum and sat in a cafe to finish reading through Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. I finished the commentaries, the essays, and then took a look at the indexes and tables. It struck me that there was a lot of incredibly useful and even entertaining information in the book. At times I imagined it was an episode from VH1: Behind the Machzor, only with more rabbinical commentary than music. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little to myself as obscure facts about sources and rationales behind decisions became apparent. The phrases like “The God of Max Janowski is a Zealous God,” as well as naming the sources for many of the traditional prayers the  “Goldschmidt Variations,” made this cantor and Bach aficionado laugh out loud. I looked up from the book slightly embarrassed, as I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to have been laughing or not. After all, this is a clergy commentary on a High Holy Day machzor. It could have been a very dry book of useful information, but instead it revealed a very human quality.

The book made me feel as though I was in the room with the committee, deliberating over something as seemingly inconsequential as one letter, like whether we should say “HaMelech HaYosheiv” or “HaMelech yosheiv,” which in actuality can be a profound difference once it is explained. Reading the commentary and essays helped me to appreciate the incredible amount of scholarship, time, and collaboration that went into producing the High Holiday machzor, as well as the weight and intensity with which they must have deliberated over its details. I was greatly appreciative of my colleague, Cantor Evan Kent, who must have reminded the committee of the impact that changes in the liturgy have on the music and congregational participation for the High Holidays. The voice of the cantor and the importance of the music on the High Holidays was felt throughout the decision-making process. And reading the resonant words of Rabbi Leon Morris and Rabbi Hara Person brought me back to our time working together at my first High Holiday pulpit as a cantorial student in the Hamptons and at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, evoking fond memories of my personal journey.

Reading Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh also made me look forward to the High Holy Days this year. We at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue are rolling out our new Mishkan HaNefesh machzors for the first time this fall. While I was initially impatient and disappointed not to have gotten the machzor when it was published last year, in retrospect I am glad that we waited so we would have the opportunity to read Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh and be able to put more thought into our decisions, just as this machzor committee did. Like the ancient ruins of Egypt that had old blocks of granite that were reused to create the cornerstones of newer structures, the committee gave deference and respect to the old volume of Gates of Repentance while charting a new course. They recognized that the process was a human endeavor and that in the end there will likely be mistakes that are spotted and later corrected. In their long journey to create the commentaries and essays they recognized the humanity within themselves as well as the diversity of the Reform movement, and teach us lessons not only on why they did what they did, but how we too may collaborate as clergy and lay people to create meaningful new experiences that build upon the best of our past.

I never asked the man in the park why he was lying. He may have hoped to impress me. Perhaps he was lonely. Or trying to divert my attention from my phone. Or eager to connect with someone. I will never know why. But I know that the strange little journey I took that day, as if back in time to our days of captivity in Egypt, made me contemplate the journeys we all take and how the people who we encounter along the way have the capacity to alter our perspective and enrich experiences with as little as one book, one word, or even one letter.

Cantor Daniel A. Singer serves Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. He has served on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors for two years. 

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh Pt. II

In my previous entry I discussed Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, a new commentary on the CCAR machzor. I also described some of the dialectical issues facing its editors — those tensions that arose as they navigated competing values throughout the seven-year editorial process. This time, I will focus on God.

Judaism yearns for God in endless shades of metaphor, and Mishkan HaNefesh honors that theological breadth. Rooted in sources from antiquity to modernity, the many depictions invite us into a nuanced theological conversation at a time when God can seem especially harsh and distant.

Liturgy is where the rubber hits the road for most Jews, theologically speaking. The editorial team seized the opportunity to offer new access points to worshipers. The sources they included expand notions of God and the human-divine relationship far beyond traditional prayer language. Some of these most powerful dialectics include: Faith and doubt; din and rachamim (judgment and compassion); and divine power and human agency.

Faith and DoubtIMG_0555

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes, “Theological doubt and struggle, or outright unbelief,” p. 133; “Science and scientists,” p. 132; and “Scientific language in poetry,” pp. 132-133. 

Doubt can be an act of reverence; proof that we spiritual seekers are taking our search seriously. Alongside the many pronouncements of faith, Mishkan HaNefesh makes room for serious questions about divine power and the nature of evil — questions based in Jewish tradition. Editor Rabbi Janet Marder cites the reading “Who is like you among the silent?”[1] which presents a powerful counter-text for Mi Chamocha, in which the addition of a single Hebrew letter turns eilim (gods) to il’mim (the silent [literally, mute] ones) — transforming a prayer in praise of God’s redemptive power to a cry of anguish, denouncing God’s silence in the face of human suffering.[2]

The phrase comes directly from the M’khilta, and the tone of enraged protest was inspired by medieval Jewish poetry from the crusader period. While certainly subversive, this reading is also authentically Jewish: it voices the sorrow, doubt, and sense of abandonment of generations of oppressed Jews.

Notably, the new machzor reaches out to those who struggle with faith. Some readings express skeptical curiosity; others, outright doubt. Rabbi Marder writes:

Some readings are drawn from the writings of scientists who express their own spiritual longing, sense of wonder, or moral convictions. These words… are placed in dialogue with the liturgy — a juxtaposition that conveys the clear message that science and religion may fruitfully co-exist. This machzor also includes contemporary poetry that celebrates the grandeur of creation in quasi-scientific language…Finally, many readings and poems directly articulate theological ambivalence, difficulty with prayer, anger, struggle, and the search for truth.[3]

Din and Rachamim

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes,”’Recognizing the good’ and self-forgiveness,” p. 132.

Mishkan HaNefesh urges us to consider the attributes of judgement and mercy in new ways. In particular, readings concerning hakarat hatov (recognizing the good) direct us toward the laudable deeds of the past year in addition to the regrettable ones. (See YK pp. 93, 312, 313, 424, 425, 659, and 667). These good deeds “Serve as a counterweight to the liturgy’s intense focus on scrutiny of one’s own wrongdoing. They also highlight a damaging moral failing — quite pervasive but usually not acknowledged in the prayer book: the inability to regard one’s own behavior with the same gentleness and forgiveness we are expected to offer others.”[4]

When worshipers consider the full range of their actions and emotions as part of heshbon hanefesh (spiritual self-audit), they affirm a point of connection between humanity and divinity. Like God, we have infinite potential for good, but we make mistakes. Like God, we have the ability to forgive. And for many of us, forgiving ourselves is the most difficult forgiveness of all.

Divine Power and Human Agency

See Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh Index of Themes, “Theology of human empowerment”, pp. 133-134

Many familiar liturgical metaphors of the Yamim Nora’im are quite grim: humans as sheep passing under God’s rod and staff; or as guilty children subject to the discipline of a strict parent. Mishkan HaNefesh retains these images, but supplements them with a variety of rabbinic, medieval and modern sources that reframe the power differential.

Take the iconic and terrifying Unetaneh Tokef. This piyyut (liturgical poem) envisions God as judge and arbiter of all creation, deciding (in gory detail!) the fates of every soul. Mishkan HaNefesh retains the piyyut, but includes a “counter-text” immediately opposite:

Left Side (“counter-text”) Right Side (translation)
Let us embrace the day and its holiness,

For this day is a throne of goodness and power.

When the people of Israel do God’s will,

They strengthen God’s power on high.

But when the people of Israel fail to do God’s will,

They weaken — if one might say it —

God’s great power on high.

So let this day recall Your power — and ours.

Let us proclaim the power of this day —

A day whose holiness awakens deepest awe


In truth,

You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness.

The right side affirms the familiar hierarchical theology of the Yamim; the left side challenges it. The covenant is still hierarchical, but humans have some agency; some role to play in the relationship and in the world. The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh deem this the “theology of human adequacy.”

It is a theology thoroughly grounded in rabbinic literature. One of my favorite examples — also from the machzor — comes from the Midrash:[5]

Said the Roman Procurator Turnus Rufus to Rabbi Akiva: “Whose Acts are greater, those of human beings or those of God?”

Rabbi Akiva answered: “The deeds of human beings are greater.”


Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus wheat stalks and cakes, raw flax and fine linen. “The wheat and the flax are the work of God,” said Akiva, “but the cakes and the linen were made by human beings. Are they not superior?”

So our Sages taught: “All created things require refining and improvement. The mustard seed needs to be sweetened; the lupine needs to be soaked; the wheat needs to be ground, and the human being still needs to be repaired. The world that is given into our hands is still incomplete. Go forth, then, and work to make it better.[6]

In Mishkan HaNefesh, this midrash appears on the left side of the spread in nisim b’chol yom  as if to suggest that just as we thank God for the wonders of our world, we also acknowledge our roles as partners in the work of creation.

Danny Moss is a CCAR rabbinical intern and a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.


[1] YK p. 197

[2] DMhN, p. 72

[3] DMhN, p. 81

[4]  DMhN, p. 71

[5] Tanhuma, Tazria 5; Genesis Rabbah, 11.6

[6] YK p. 163

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Falling In Love All Over Again With Mishkan HaNefesh

I want to begin this post by sharing with you that I have a deep and true love of Mishkan HaNefesh.  My congregation used the Reform Movement’s new machzor last year, and as a rabbi and as an individual, I found Mishkan HaNefesh to be inspiring and moving.  On Erev Rosh Hashanah, after months of preparation, I stood on the bimah and led my community through our first service with Mishkan HaNefesh.  I watched as my congregants encountered and appreciated the beauty of our new machzor.  I noticed when they lingered over a prayer that moved them and when they held their books to their chests as they sang words that were so familiar that their books were completely unnecessary.  I could see that their hearts were opening to the words and to the experience of praying with Mishkan HaNefesh, and I knew that even as we lived through the inevitable difficulties that that always accompany the first services with any new prayer book, our community had accepted and embraced the opportunity to create new memories with our new prayer books.

Recently, the CCAR Press released Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor.  Reading the detailed commentary and the essays included in Divrei reminded me just how much I love Mishkan HaNefeshDivrei is meant to be a “midrash on the machzor” and offers both very practical advice for using Mishkan HaNefesh as well as high level insight into the book’s creation.  There are many, many valuable pieces of information included in Divrei that will undoubtedly enhance the experience and understanding of both congregants and clergy.

Mishkan HaNefesh Discussion 07-29-2015 00

Last summer, my congregation was lucky enough to have Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of the CCAR Press, join us for an evening forum about Mishkan HaNefesh.  In a couple of hours, Rabbi Person explained to us how Mishkan HaNefesh had come into being while also introducing us to some of the innovative features of the new machzor.  This program provided us with invaluable insight into our new prayer books, and as I read Divrei, I felt like I was experiencing an expanded version of Rabbi Person’s wonderful class.

While I found the commentaries at the beginning of Divrei to be enlightening, I thought that the behind-the-scenes information in the essays was really fascinating.  I especially enjoyed reading Rabbi Janet R. Marder’s, “Praying in Captivity: Liturgical Innovation in Mishkan HaNefesh,” because she addressed at length my favorite aspect of Mishkan HaNefesh– the beautiful readings and prayers that Rabbi Marder explains are either, “…recovered from the tradition itself… [or] presented in a boldly contemporary idiom.” (p. 72)

bearman 2When I sought feedback after the holidays last year, I heard more about the new readings and prayers than any other aspect of our services.  I heard over and over again from congregants who looked chagrined as they told me, “I loved the readings so much!  Sometimes I wouldn’t follow along with the service because I wanted to stay on a page that really spoke to me.”  When I replied that I thought it was wonderful that they had connected so deeply with the prayer book, they immediately grew animated as they shared exactly which texts had affected them.  More often than not, the readings that grabbed their attention are what Rabbi Marder calls “counter-texts.” (p. 72)  For my congregants and myself, these counter-texts and their relationships to the canonical prayers were and continue to be incredibly powerful.
As I prepared for the High Holy Days last year, I spent hours reading both volumes of Mishkan HaNefesh like novels– approaching each page with a pencil in hand, filling the margins with notes about how I felt about each text, and drawing stars next to my favorite readings (full disclosure- there were a lot of stars). bearman 3

Early on in my preparation, I decided to share my enjoyment of Mishkan HaNefesh through social media.  My posts and tweets helped create a sense of anticipation and excitement in my community and let my congregants know how deeply I connected with our new machzor.

As I prepare for my second High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh, I find myself eagerly anticipating the choice of which prayers and readings I’ll include in this year’s services.  I’m looking forward to incorporating what I have learned from both last year’s High Holy Days as well as the resources included in Divrei as I seek to create and lead meaningful services for my community.  And, when the choices seems too difficult, I’m going to comfort myself with what I think is one of the most important messages in Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh– namely that,…what matters is not ‘mastering’ the book, but rather allowing the book to help us experience transformative, sacred moments.” (p. 2)

Rabbi Rachel Bearman serves Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut.

Books High Holy Days Mishkan haNefesh

Lest Our Preparation for Prayer be Willy-Nilly

Lists, as we know, play a key role in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy.  Be it Avinu Malkeinu or Al Cheit, our High Holy Day liturgy is laced with lists.  Mishkan HaNefesh’s lists greatly overlap the collections found in Gates of Repentance, but they do differ.   I can think of multiple ways of approaching these differences when preparing to lead services.

The first would be simply to ignore the old order and simply roll through the lists as presented in Mishkan HaNefesh.  However, this approach strikes me as too willy-nilly.  Certainly, we wish to understand these changes in some of our most poignant prayers.

A second approach to preparation might be to place one’s machzorim next to each other on a table and construct one’s own charts, using post-its  and scratch paper for clarification.  This detailed approach enables the prayer leader to map out the differences and consider the expanded options presented by our new machzor.  However, why choose to work in the dark?  Why not have some additional tools before us as we consider the possibilities presented in the evolution of our Reform Jewish liturgy?

Thankfully, Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh provides us with some lists and other resources that can help us approach the High Holy Days in an organized fashion.  We needn’t proceed willy-nilly or with just our own charts.  This book’s obvious lists come at the end in the “Indexes and Tables.” [p.130] It is helpful to have these organized lists of poems and passages, authors and citations. However, when facing the altered lists of Avinu Malkeinu, Al Cheit, etc, I found it first helpful to turn to the “Table of Readings Related to Key Liturgical Rubrics.” (p.168) I dearly hope no rabbi ever uses that title from the bima, however this table can help us contemplate the crucial lists from across our High Holy Day liturgy with a sense of the breadth our editors have presented.  As we consider how to frame our prayers, we are easily presented with the broad range of possibilities.  Al Cheit might be framed on Yom Kippur Morning by Yehuda Amichai or on Yom Kippur Afternoon with a selection from Gates of Repentance itself.  This tool gives a broad snap shot that might help organize the prayer leader’s thoughts.Divrei Image

Even more helpful, is the annotated list described simply as “commentary.” (p.12) Certainly, the insights presented here don’t read as a mere list.  We are provided helpful insights into the choices the editors made in shaping the machzor’s two volumes.  This Commentary is enlightening in comparing different services and considering the range of choices. It is especially helpful when presenting those prayers composed as lists themselves.

Mishkan HaNefesh allows for the melodies many congregations likely use, as we read “every time Avinu Malkeinu appears in the machzor, the words used by Janowski are presented together.” [p.19] With some humor, this grouping is explained.  Further, we learn that the editors “have also added traditional verses to Avinu Malkeinu not found in Gates of Repentance” [p.19] with some further explanation of the editorial selections.  This mini-essay continues with an interesting explanation of the translations offered with Avinu Malkeinu, and thus other prayers.  We are reminded, “Avoiding the word “sin” in the maczhor is not easy, since the Hebrew word cheit is universally recognized as “sin.” [p.21] Later on that page, we learn the reasoning behind rendering “the final declaration of Avinu Malkeinu as ‘our deeds are wanting’ and not ‘we have no merit.”

Actually, Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh’s lists don’t operate in isolation. The insights of that paragraph are more fully explained in Janet Marder’s essay, in a paragraph that reads, in part, “The goal of cheshbon hanefesh (moral inventory), after all, is not self-condemnation but an honest, realistic assessment of both our weakness and our strengths, our right and wrong actions.” [p.72]  Together this string of insights allows us to both understand the editors’ approach and to consider our own choices in constructing our services.

In the end, there is no substitute for a prayer leader working his or her own way through the machzor itself.  We will each react differently to Mishkan HaNefesh’s various lists of Avinu Malkeinu or Al Cheit.  Decisions will be based on community, melody, minhag, or the prior year’s selection. Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh offers helpful lists and insightful essays that can help us understand and shape our approach to our worship using our new machzor.

Rabbi Andrew Busch serves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.  He serves on Reform Judaism’s Commission on Worship, Synagogue Music and Religious Living and as an officer of the Baltimore Jewish Council.