New Machzor offers progressive take on gender equality, LGBT acceptance
From the Reader’s Kaddish to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a new set of High Holy Days prayer books for the Reform movement is filled with an eclectic mix of texts.
“The purpose of the book is to be open to everybody. So if someone doesn’t connect to a prayer, there are many alternatives,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which publishes the machzors.
But the changes in the two-book set, “Mishkan HaNefesh” (Sanctuary of the Soul), go much deeper than the addition of poems, essays, meditations and even artwork to its 1978 predecessor, “Gates of Repentance.” The standard prayers — in Hebrew and English text, with full transliterations — are part of volumes that offer a progressive take on gender equality and LGBT acceptance.
One noticeable difference is the changes when referring to God’s gender. Unlike traditional Hebrew prayer, where God is exclusively referred to as “He,” the new prayer book uses gender-neutral terminology, according to Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of CCAR Press.
“For the most part, we didn’t change the Hebrew text, except for a couple of instances, where we give a version in the feminine,” Person said. “There are places where we used both male and female imagery when referring to God. We’ll also use one image when it works, and another image when that works best. It’s gender neutral except when we’re trying to invoke a certain feeling.”
Also, while congregants traditionally are called up to the Torah by their Hebrew names, which includes being identified as the son or daughter of their parents, “Mishkan HaNefesh” includes a third option. For those who do not identify as “ben” (son) or “bat” (daughter), they can be described as “mi-bayit,” or coming from the house of their parent.
The two-volume machzor includes separate books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They will be used at about 300 Reform congregations in the U.S. this year, as well as in several Hillels and hospitals with Jewish chaplains, according to Eger.
Although officially making its debut now, the book has been in the works for years and has been test piloted by congregations across the country.
“We field tested it with members of our synagogue and overall had such a positive response,” Rabbi Suzanne Singer, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Riverside, told the Journal. “There were a few passages that we didn’t like — we didn’t think they inspired awe, and were [not] uplifting — and when we told them about it, they addressed those concerns.”
The CCAR’s previous prayer book for the High Holy Days featured only Hebrew prayers and translations, along with scattered commentaries. Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Brentwood views the book as a stepping stone for himself and his colleagues.
“[The book] challenged us as clergy to make decisions on how to go from the beginning of a service to the end,” Feinstein said. “There are times when we only use the traditional Hebrew, and there are other times when we also want to incorporate something new, where someone who is having difficulty relating to the text can find another way.”
For those who do not connect with the classical liturgical text, there are counter-texts that argue with the prayer. “A Prayer of Protest,” for example, is offered as an alternative to the prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, which discusses God’s compassion.
“Some of us have cancer. Some of us can’t find work. … Some of us have lost a child,” “A Prayer of Protest” says. “Avinu Malkeinu, why? Avinu Malkeinu, are you there? Do you care? Restore our faith in life. Restore our faith in you.”
“Many people are really struggling and are sitting there angry at God,” Person said. “ ‘A Prayer of Protest’ acknowledges that struggle.”
There is also an alternative for those who have trouble with the frequent standing that the service requires. On the page opposite Asher Yatzar, which thanks God for a healthy human body, it acknowledges one’s physical struggle:
“I can look at my body as an old friend who needs my help,” it says. “Or an enemy who frustrates me in every way with its frailty and inability to cope. Old friend, I shall try to be of comfort to you to the end.”
Despite all of the additions to the machzor, it was a case of subtraction that got the notice of some congregants testing the prayer book at Beth Chayim Chadashim on West Pico Boulevard. Rabbi Lisa Edwards, whose essay on women’s roles in Rosh Hashanah is included in the prayer book, spoke about some members’ concerns on the shortening of some prayers.
“Some people expected the traditional Torah portion to be complete, which it isn’t exactly,” Edwards told the Journal. “We used a prayer book called ‘Wings of Awe,’ which had a bigger Torah portion. By and large, though, I couldn’t be more thrilled about this new book, and neither could our congregation.”
Still, Person said, “The Hebrew text was barely touched, and the Torah portions in this book have more of the text than ‘Gates of Repentance’ did.”
Each volume of two — with covers made from recycled soda bottles — costs $42, but synagogues that purchased them early received discounts. While some congregations asked members to buy their own books, others provided them with the help of sponsors.
Although the covers state that they are for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, some people, including Eger, think they will be of use all year round.
“While on one hand there is tradition, this new book is something very special,” she said. “This is the people’s machzor, and it’s one that you’re going to want to take home and study and enjoy in your free time, too.”