For starters, two Pittsburgh congregations, Rodef Shalom and Temple Sinai, piloted the book’s Yom Kippur morning service this year. Temple Sinai also tried the morning Rosh Hashanah service; and Rodef Shalom, the erev Rosh Hashanah service.
Two rabbis from western Pennsylvania are involved in its production: Leon Morris, originally from Connellsville, is a co-editor, while Elaine Zecher, of Pittsburgh and the daughter of the late Chronicle General Manager Albert Zecher, chairs the Machzor Advisory Group.
Also, two readings in the Yom Kippur service refer to Pittsburgh or are written by a Pittsburgher.
“Mishkan HaNefesh,” which will eventually replace the long-used “Gates of Repentance” prayer book, is slated for publication in 2015, according to Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of the CCAR Press, which is coming out with the new machzor. The book has been in development since 2009.
“The editors are working service by service, which means that as each new service gets created and then piloted, the feedback on that service goes into the creation of the next service,” Person said. “In the next year, the editors will go back over each service and revise and update the whole thing.”
Morris, a pulpit rabbi from Long Island, said the editors of the book have been in touch, either in person or by Internet or phone, almost daily six days a week for nearly four years working on the new machzor.
Each editor brings to the process his or her own view — from traditional to creative — of the liturgy.
“This is the most traditional prayer book ever published by the Reform movement,” Morris said, and it’s also the most creative prayer book published by the Reform movement. That’s a function of the left side, right side relationship.”
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Some 300 congregations are piloting services from the draft of the new machzor, including Rodef Shalom and Temple Sinai.
“We have had only anecdotal feedback thus far — all positive,” Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom said. “I can tell you that people appreciated both the availability of a more traditional liturgy and the presence of commentary, poetry and prose. Several people told me that they felt there was ‘too much’ to really spend time with, but I would consider that a positive.
“On erev Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the book and instructed people to either follow along with the service ‘or totally ignore’ our directions, and read or pray as they were so moved,” she continued. “A number of people took me up on that suggestion. Also, I was able to preach about several of the new aspects of the machzor, including a section immediately following the vidui (confession) part that was called “Hakarat Hatov," which reminds us to remember and acknowledge the good that we do. I, and the congregation, were moved by this notion.”
Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai said he and members of his congregation found the services both “promising” and “challenging.”
He singled out as challenging the presentation of the shofar calls in the Rosh Hashanah morning service. The three sets of shofar calls — Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot — are interspersed throughout instead of grouped together as one sub-service.
“That is decidedly a change,” Gibson said, and a lot of us are deciding how comfortable we are with that.” For his part, Gibson said he would like to experiment more with the new design.
Morris explained the editors’ reasoning for breaking up the shofar calls.
“The central experience of the Rosh Hashanah morning service is hearing the shofar,” he said, “and if we really want people to leave with a take away that is the main aspect of Rosh Hashanah morning, then we shouldn’t put it all at the end when people are restless and getting ready to leave.”
He admitted the idea is garnering mixed reviews.
“It may be that the final version allows congregations to do it in a variety of different ways.”
Among the promising aspects of the machzor, Gibson noted the Al Chet (confession of sins) has been reinterpreted to resonate with today's lifestyle and that his congregants found the revisions “moving and relevant for our time.”
“It doesn’t simply repeat the traditional formula, which I happen to like, but then again I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Gibson said. “So I think the new [Al Chet] is very promising.”
The prayer book contains an alternate Al Chet including sobering confessions such as:
• Eating in my car and at my desk, mindlessly and without blessing;
• Letting my emotions run roughshod over the needs of others;
• Hiding love, out of fear of rejection instead of giving love freely; or
• Not being generous with my time, with my words, or with my being.
The “Mishkan HaNefesh” editors placed the Confession of Sins at the end of the morning service.
“We wanted to emphasize it,” Morris said, “and it was another stronger take away to put it at the end here, so that would be the note Yom Kippur morning would be ending on, with the Vidui.”
Finally, Gibson said he appreciates the “holistic approach” Mishkan HaNefesh is taking to prayer. He said it is asking worshippers to examine their goals for their repentance prayers instead of just modernizing specific readings.
“It is much more important for us to examine the purpose of our prayers in the first place than simply to update the liturgy,” he said. “We need to ask, how these prayers will move us to teshuvah? How do we honor our own searching for repentance and for God?”
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Beyond the book’s spiritual value, “Mishkan HaNefesh” has Pittsburgh flavor.
One of the alternate readings in the morning Yom Kippur service is influenced by words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, printed as a footnote: “We are impressed by the towering buildings of New York City. Yet not the rock of Manhattan nor the steel of Pittsburgh, but the law that came from Sinai is their ultimate foundation.”
The same service contains contains an interpretation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov by Rabbi Abraham Twerski.
Morris said “Mishkan HaNefesh” does considerable “creative reclamation” of traditional “formulation of prayers.”
That said, “I think someone could pray a service from this and say, ‘oh my goodness, this is so traditional,’ and someone else could say, ‘this is more creative than any other service I’ve had in a Reform synagogue.’ That may be it’s greatest strength because it achieves both.”
Ultimately, though, he said the new machzor will be a success if it touches the individual who is reading from it.
“I hope people will find their voice in this book,” Morris said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)