October 8, 2011

A fresh approach to the machzor

MIAMI — Even for Jews who only attend synagogue during the High Holy Days, there's a certain timeless familiarity to the special seasonal prayer book: the machzor.

MIAMI — Even for Jews who only attend synagogue during the High Holy Days, there's a certain timeless familiarity to the special seasonal prayer book: the machzor.

There are Biblical references, ancient Hebrew prayers, Kabalistic meditations, and the wisdom of revered Jewish philosophers and theologians.

This year, worshippers at 60 Reform congregations around the country found different, perhaps startling, voices joining their Rosh Hashana services last week, courtesy of a new machzor that a Coral Gables, Fla., rabbi is helping develop.

Alongside traditional material meant to encourage reflection, repentance and spiritual growth, there's a passage from John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley," a poem from George Eliot, and words of wisdom from Dr. Jonas Salk.

By 2014, the still untitled machzor, commissioned by the Central Conference of American Rabbis — the organized rabbinate of Reform Judaism — is expected to become the standard High Holy Days text for most of the country's 800 Reform congregations. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, began at sundown Sept. 28 and continued through sundown Sept. 30. The High Holy Days end with Yom Kippur, which began at sundown Friday and will end at sundown today.

It's the peak season for synagogue attendance because it draws Jews who don't go to weekly Sabbath services, much as Christmas and Easter services draw Christians who otherwise don't go to church.

The new machzor replaces the widely used "Gates of Repentance," written in 1978 and to some, stale, stilted and only marginally relevant to 21st-century life and consciousness.

Count Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg among them. Spiritual leader of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, he replaced Gates of Repentance with a machzor of his own creation in 2004: "Renew Our Days." When the Central Conference went looking for someone to captain a writer-editor team, Goldberg 48, was the logical choice. A writer of four books, Goldberg considers himself "an iconoclast (who) wasn't happy with the status quo.... It turns out that the rabbinate hasn't put (a machzor) together from scratch since 1894, just revisions."

But the rabbis acknowledge that a fresh approach to the machzor can be risky — indeed, any liturgical change in a 5,772-year-old religion can't come about without consternation, if not resistance.

An overhaul of the machzor seemed inevitable after the Reform Movement published a new weekly prayer book, or siddur, entitled Mishkan T'filah ("dwelling place for prayer") in 2007, after 25 years of work.

"What we heard is using the new prayer book and going back to (Gates of Repentance) was jarring," said Rabbi Hara Person, publisher of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press in New York.

Person said the new machzor shares many of the siddur's features.

It reads from back to front, like a Hebrew text.

The new machzor suggests that humankind should recognize its ability and responsibility to create its own destiny, rather than relying on divine power — or as Goldberg puts it: "focus more on our accounting of our own souls."

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