Reform Jews to greet year with new prayer book

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Mockups of the new Reform High Holidays prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, on display at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Philadelphia, March 17. Photo by David A.M. Wilensky
Mockups of the new Reform High Holidays prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, on display at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Philadelphia, March 17.
Photo by David A.M. Wilensky

The Soviet Jewry Haggadot of the 1970s and 1980s, once so relevant and emotionally charged, seem quaint today. That’s how the Reform movement’s new High Holiday prayer book, or machzor, might seem in 40 years, said Rabbi Jonathan Roos of Temple Sinai in Washington.

But that’s just what will make it so meaningful to Reform worshipers this fall.


“It contains all the things that are on our minds today. It’s important for this moment. That’s what makes it so exciting,” he said.

Mishkan HaNefesh replaces the machzor that the Reform movement first published in 1978. It will be rolled out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 2015.

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The editors of Mishkan Hanefesh (the name means “Tabernacle of the Soul,” or “Spirit”) sought to direct their work toward “the people in our pews today,” said Rabbi Hara E. Person, managing editor
of the project. “We were trying to be as inclusive as possible.”

To reach the diverse congregation in the pews and draw them in, the prayer book uses feminine language, often referring to God as “she” as well as “compassionate mother.”


With a recognition of same-sex relationships, the machzor replaces “bride and groom” with “couples.”

In poems like “For those Who Cannot Rise,” the prayer book recognizes various physical abilities and includes them in worship.

“It’s not about certain kinds of bodies being acceptable bodies,” Person says. “All sorts of bodies – and backgrounds – are welcome. We’re trying to break down some of those binaries.”

The pages offer a number of doorways into Jewish worship, she says.

First, there are the Hebrew prayers themselves, and the ancient traditions which they represent. There is the translation, a kind of modern interpretation; and poetry, “which addresses many of the same themes as the prayers,” she says. A commentary at the bottom of the page is “more intellectual.” Artwork may inspire in ways that the text may not.

The machzor also reflects the religious doubt – and even anger – of worshipers. It includes “counter texts” that challenge the traditional writings on “things that are difficult for us as modern people to accept,” Person said.

One such phrase reads: “God is not my shepherd and I am not a sheep.”

Ambivalence is at the core of the prayer “In memory of a parent who was hurtful,” and of another that begins, “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them.”

Mishkan HaNefesh also brings the movement’s high holiday worship in line with services during the rest of the year, Roos says. The daily Mishkan T’filah prayer book, published in 2007, contains updated language that worshipers will recognize in the new machzor.

Even though his congregation will not read aloud every text in the prayer book, worshipers will find themselves with countertexts at their elbow as they follow a more traditional prayer aloud.

“I think it’s going to help those people to know that there’s room for them in Jewish worship.”

Temple Sinai tested out a portion of an earlier version of Mishkan HaNefesh two years ago. Like a number of other congregations that piloted the prayer book, the temple’s members offered feedback on the sections they tried out.

One other detail of the prayer book is absolutely 2015: The book covers, which Person said “feel luxurious,” are made from recycled soda bottles.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “and we like the fact that it’s actually green.”

[email protected]
@davidholzel

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