A Stirring New Prayer Book for the High Holidays
By DIANE COLE
When services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begin on Wednesday evening, Sept. 8, more than 150,000 congregants in synagogues throughout the U.S. and Canada will turn a new leaf—literally—as they open a brand new High Holidays prayer book, "Mahzor Lev Shalem."
Edited and published under the auspices of Judaism's Conservative movement and its Rabbinical Assembly, this attractive and accessible volume aims to welcome and involve as broad a community as possible during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which attract the largest gatherings to synagogues each year.
Indeed, as many as 90% of those attending High Holidays services are not regular synagogue-goers, estimates Rabbi Edward Feld, the prayer book's senior editor. So it was not easy to assemble a "mahzor" (the traditional name for the High Holidays prayer book) that engages the regulars but will also appeal to those sitting in the pews who have little or no connection to Judaism the rest of the year. Ideally, on these most solemn days of the Jewish calendar, the prayers will inspire all who hear them to connect with Judaism with the "full heart" (Lev Shalem's meaning in English) that the book's title suggests.
With that kind of pressure, maybe it's no wonder that it took a team of rabbis 12 years to complete the new prayer book. By every measure, though, the result is a remarkable volume that overflows not only with the spiritual richness of the liturgy, but with wide-ranging commentaries and perspectives on the holidays in Jewish history, tradition and theology.
Yet the question remains: Can it help encourage a return visit before another New Year rolls by? The challenge arises at a time when synagogue membership seems generally headed downward, and when the Conservative movement, which not so long ago was the largest Jewish denomination in America, is now outnumbered in terms of synagogue members by the Reform. (Of the three largest denominations, Orthodox is most strict in its observance; the Reform is the most liberal; and the Conservative movement straddles the two, adapting aspects of traditional observance to contemporary life.)
Indeed, at the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly convention held this past May in New York, a key theme was the need to re-define the mission of Conservative Judaism for new generations of Jews in a contemporary climate that some observers have begun to describe as "post-denominational."
What does "post-denominational" mean? The broad-based approach of the new prayer book—in which supplementary readings range from Hasidic sages to Gilda Radner, and from devout medieval Jewish Spanish poets to Israeli poet and professed atheist Yehuda Amichai—is in some ways reflective of this "post-denominational" style that blurs lines between the different movements.
Its senior editor, Rabbi Feld, who is affiliated with the Conservative movement, might himself be described as having a "post-denominational" background. He has been the rabbi at university Hillel Houses, which by their nature as centers for Jewish life on college campuses accommodate every denomination and level of observance.
Even the Conservative movement itself can also be said to be post-denominational in the sense that it bills itself as a "big tent," able to accommodate all comers, regardless of their degree of knowledge, observance and belief.
The point is that regardless of the movement label you choose (or eschew), whether you're a synagogue regular or not, this prayer book is sophisticated and scholarly but entirely user-friendly at all levels. Prayers appear in the original Hebrew, for those who can read Hebrew, as well as transliteration in the Roman alphabet, for those who don't. For those who just want to know what those prayers mean, there are newly updated, more contemporary sounding, English translations.
Accompanying commentaries on each page help explicate the intent and origins of those prayers, many of which are hundreds of years, or more, old. The ritual blowing of the shofar (or ram's horn) is given additional contemporary resonance by a description of the distinctive short, staccato notes that are sounded as "broken," and the longer sustained notes as "whole," thus providing a metaphor for the spiritual quest of the High Holidays as a journey from brokenness to wholeness.
To further address modern-day concerns, new prayers are included for those unable to carry out the customary fast on Yom Kippur; for those in need of healing; and for their caregivers, too. To honor the role of women in Jewish tradition (and in contemporary egalitarian services), a liturgical poem was expanded to include mention of Biblical heroines as well as heroes.
There is even a meditation for victims of abusive parents—it appears in the "Yizkhor" (memorial) service, under the title, "In Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful." As for issues of sexual orientation, the prayer book offers an alternate Torah reading to substitute for the traditional selection on the afternoon of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 18) about permitted and prohibited sexual unions. An additional commentary places the traditional passage in the historical and Biblical context and invites the reader to decide on his or her own interpretation.
Comprehensive and informative, traditional and contemporary, this full-hearted prayer book speaks eloquently to the mind and soul.
Ms. Cole is a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report and author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor