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.” 

Wave of new holiday prayer books changing the ways to worship

New Jewish prayer books typically come in waves, the rarest of which bring new High Holidays prayer books, or machzors.

The current wave has seen five new machzorim in a one-year span. Following on the heels of last year’s release of the official Conservative machzor and a popular chavurah machzor are the first Hebrew-English machzor from the Israeli publisher Koren, a revision to Hillel’s “On Wings of Awe” and pilot tests of services from the forthcoming Reform machzor.

The Conservative movement’s “Mahzor Lev Shalem” was a surprise hit—insofar as a prayer book can be such a thing—selling more than 120,000 copies. More congregations are expected to adopt it for the High Holidays this year.

The chavurah “Machzor Eit Ratzon” from Joseph Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers University and a founding member of the Highland Park Minyan in Highland Park, N.J., is a companion to his “Siddur Eit Ratzon.” Though “Machzor Eit Ratzon” is not in use on the same scale as “Lev Shalem,” it merits inclusion here as a popular new independently published machzor.

Both are heavy on commentary. “Lev Shalem” includes diverse commentaries and readings from sources ranging from Chasidic masters to Abraham Joshua Heschel to contemporary poets. Though not entirely transliterated, “Lev Shalem” includes more transliteration than previous Conservative efforts.

In “Machzor Eit Ratzon,” each two-page spread is laid out in a strict four-column format, with one column each devoted to the Hebrew, Rosenstein’s translation, a robust commentary and a full transliteration.

This year the wave continues with Koren Publishers releasing a Rosh HaShanah-only volume. Its Yom Kippur companion will follow next year.

The venerable Israeli publisher built its reputation on the elegant fonts and layouts of legendary designer Eliyahu Koren. The machzor emphasizes type size and arrangement most strikingly in the machzor with the giant type used at one point for the word “melech”—king—to impart the seasonal liturgy’s stress on the theme of God’s kingship.

Commentary by British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks is featured, as it was in Koren’s first Hebrew-English siddur that propelled the publisher onto the English-language siddur market in 2009.

In cooperation with Hillel, Ktav has published a major revision of the 1985 release “On Wings of Awe.” The original was released with a number of transliterations, which was rare at the time. The new version includes a complete transliteration in keeping with the trend outside the Orthodox world toward increasingly extensive transliteration.

Perhaps the most anticipated material of the wave, the drafts of new Reform Rosh Hashanah services, will not be a true release at all.

According to Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of CCAR Press—the largest publisher of Reform movement liturgy—some 70 to 100 Reform congregations will test the draft services. It’s a considerable sample size considering the Union for Reform Judaism’s membership of 800 congregations.

Person noted that it will be the first new American Reform machzor since “The Union Prayer Book II” was published in 1925. The Reform movement’s current machzor, “Gates of Repentance,” was adapted from the High Holidays prayer book of its counterparts in Britain’s Liberal movement.

Work on the new Reform machzor began in 2008 following the success of the movement’s new siddur, “Mishkan T’filah,” in 2007. Like “Mishkan T’filah,” the new machzor will feature a layout that includes Hebrew, translation and transliteration on the right side of each spread, while the left side is devoted to commentary and a range of interpretative readings connected with the prayer to the right.

“One of the challenges is how do you do a machzor that’s a companion to ‘Mishkan T’filah’ for people who aren’t really familiar with ‘Mishkan T’filah’ because they only come on High Holidays,” Person said.

The Rosh Hashanah morning service was piloted earlier this year in some congregations. Person called the response “very positive.”

“People were really excited that we’re doing this and that they can be part of the feedback process,” she said.

One challenge faced by Reform liturgists is that the most evocative Rosh Hashanah prayers are in musaf—a section the Reform movement did away with long ago. In the draft, these sections of the musaf service—shofarot, malchuyot and zichronot—have been distributed throughout the service.

“When people heard about that, a lot of them were aghast at it,” Person said, adding however that the approach proved popular among the groups that tested the service.

“By breaking it up, there’s this sort of ongoing crescendo, different peaks throughout the service, and that makes it more meaningful,” she said.

Person emphasized that the project is still in an early stage.

“The Torah service isn’t even in the morning service yet because we haven’t really touched it at all,” she said.