Piyutim, Poetry In Conservative’s New Prayer Book

By Amy Klein

Published September 01, 2010, issue of September 10, 2010.
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How awesome is God?

Not at all, not anymore, according to the new Conservative High Holy Day prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, the movement’s first new prayer book since 1972.

One of the changes made in this 460-page book is an update to archaic terms — such as “awesome,” a traditional translation of the Hebrew word norah.

“Maybe it’s because I’m from California,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom, in Berkeley, one of the eight rabbis and two cantors on the Lev Shalem editorial committee. Alluding to the Valley Girl language that has spread across the country, Kelman said of the word, “It has a connotation on the street that is so much different from the prayer itself. The word has been taken over — it was a perfectly good word, ‘awesome God’ — but the associations are so much different than the intention.”

This is just one example of the many changes in liturgy and style to what might be the most widely read book in the synagogue. Although the Conservative movement updated its siddur, the daily prayer book, in 1988 with the modern prayer book titled Sim Shalom, and its Humash, or Bible, in 2001 with Etz Hayim, the High Holy Day prayer book may get the most attention at a time when many Jews attend synagogue during only this one period.

“We did not use any of the language that is only found in prayer books, like ‘salvation’” said Rabbi Edward Feld, senior editor of the prayer book and chair of the editorial committee. The key questions the committee members asked themselves constantly, Feld said, were: “What does that mean? How does that resonate for people?”

The guiding principle for the committee, which first convened in 1998 and met one day a month (and once a week by conference calls over the past year), was to create a more poetic translation than the literal ones of the past, to use words that are in the common vernacular. So instead of salvation for the Hebrew word geula, the word used might be “help,” or “deliverance” or “victory.”

Lev Shalem, which means “wholehearted,” will print 180,000 copies in two print runs. “Our hope is that this High Holy Day machzor will allow each congregant to engage the world of Jewish prayer in a vital way,” the introduction reads. “In Jewish tradition, study and prayer have always been intimately linked.”

Lev Shalem links study and prayer with four main elements: liturgical Hebrew text, translation, commentary and meditational readings. The language is gender neutral, and the prayers include traditional medieval poetry as well as contemporary American and Israeli poetry, such as Haim Gouri’s “Heritage,” offered as a sidebar during the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah:

The ram came last of all. And Abraham did not know that it came to answer the boy’s question — first of his strength when his day was on the wane.

The old man raised his head. Seeing that it was no dream and that the angel stood there — the knife slipped from his hand…

The committee members hailed from around the country and ranged in age from 30s to 70s. Most were congregational rabbis, Feld said, “so they bring scholarly intent, but also a practical knowledge.” This has impact on their work, said Feld. “[They think:] How do congregations work? What do congregations need?”

What do congregations really need when it comes to prayer on the High Holy Days?

Developing a new prayer book involves toeing the line between the traditional and the new: between appealing to the more observant members, who may attend synagogue consistently, and to the newer attendees, who might be in synagogue for the first time that year — or the first time in their life (for example, an intermarried couple).

“In many ways, this is a more traditional machzor than previous ones,” Feld said, noting that the new publication restored several piyutim, or liturgical poems, from the Middle Ages and incorporated some Sephardic rituals.

On the other hand, he said that the new book is more modern, including a prayer for someone who cannot fast, and a yizkor, A prayer in memory of the dead (in English), for someone who has an abusive parent. (“The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that may be calmed by forgiveness, or a least soothed by the passage of time…” )

“We tried to appeal to a diverse audience; we tried to incorporate diverse theologies,” Kelman said, noting the commentaries from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Martin Buber, Yehuda Amichai, Adin Steinsaltz and Leo Baeck. “You can find the most traditional theologies, as well as materials that question theology.” The High Holy Day Torah portion readings included in Lev Shalem are accompanied by “multi-voice” commentaries so that different ways of reading the text are honored, “making it both alive and fresh, and making it possible for individuals to read it differently,” Kelman said.

Will Lev Shalem make the service longer?

“We’ve given people choices in how to put together the machzor, and the point is that no service reads through straight from the beginning to the end,” Kelman said, noting that rabbis have been given a guide to the new book and services.

In its 12 years of drafting the machzor, in speaking with communities to find what they wanted from a new prayer book, the committee also found many people using the ArtScroll Machzor — the Orthodox community’s High Holy Day prayer book, whose pages are filled with commentary. “People wanted readings and explanations,” Feld said. The scholars responded with a layout that is simpler and easier to read than its predecessor — with an original font — but one that still includes commentary.

The predecessor that Lev Shalem succeeds is the widely used “The Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow and first published in 1972.

Feld said that the “Harlow” machzor was “terrific” and that it made the service very accessible. But “every generation has to produce its own machzor and siddur to fit the needs and the requirements of the time.”

Contact Amy Klein at feedback@forward.com

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