here is no higher moment in synagogue life than the High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These Ten Days of Repentance invoke the deepest spiritual call to order in Judaism. Unlike the festival holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, or the minor holidays of Chanukah and Purim, the High Holy Days are not days of national celebration, or of celebration at all. Rather, they are days of intense individual introspection. This self-examination is said to call for a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Jews are commanded to undergo a painful process of acknowledging and confessing sins and misdeeds, to make a personal plea for forgiveness from those they have harmed, and to undertake a day-long fast and supplication ending in a final grant of divine mercy and forgiveness.
The proper analogy is to a criminal trial. On Rosh Hashanah, each Jew is judged; on Yom Kippur, the sentence of each individual is sealed. The Yom Kippur experience in particular is so overwhelming that it calls for the discipline of self-denial, inasmuch as it is essentially an out-of-body, wholly spiritual experience for Jews. We Jews are to become like angels, living in a realm of elevated spiritual supplication. And so, for 25 hours, we are to deny ourselves food, leather shoes (invoking the image of the body’s comfort), sexual relations, washing (in order to smell pleasant), and anointing with oil (for the same reason).
And to these High Holy Days is attached a liturgy that, while fixed by the standards and rubrics of “ordinary” Jewish worship and prayer, has grown in creative complexity over the millennia.
The regular daily and Sabbath liturgy is found in a Siddur—the Jewish prayer book. It establishes the standard form of each religious service. Three times each day, Jews are called to worship, recite preliminary prayers and psalms, and declare God’s singularity (in the Shema, recited in the morning and evening). Jews then stand for the Amidah—a series of formulaic blessings that serve as a place marker for the sacrifices brought to the now-fallen Temple in Jerusalem.
On the High Holy Days, this liturgy is significantly enhanced and adumbrated. Rosh Hashanah’s themes of kingship, creation, judgment, and remembrance and Yom Kippur’s themes of confession, repentance, and renewal are woven into a series of tapestries. These include the ritualized sounding of the ram’s horn (shofar), an ancient means of signaling immediate communal danger and need for undivided attention; stylized public confessions of long litanies of sins; and an accumulation of liturgical poems (piyyutim) written for and recited only during these days.
There is a separate prayer book for the High Holy Days, the Machzor (literally, “cycle”). It has had its own fascinating history. Over time, several piyyutim that seem to have been included largely because of their linguistic trickery have been retired. Others have not only remained but have themselves become a central declaration of awe and abject spiritual surrender. That is especially the case with the ever-controversial U’ne Taneh Tokef. This hauntingly deterministic medieval prayer declares during the High Holy Days that God will decide who shall live and who shall die and in what manner. It is so dark that many congregations and most Sephardic Jews do not recite it.
Early Reform leaders trimmed what they believed were excesses of the services in an effort to restore awe and drama in a shorter spiritual interlude.
It is a brilliantly conceived spiritual drama, and a difficult one. The Jewish movement known as Reform has had quite a history of its own reckoning with it.
he Reform movement emerged from the European Enlightenment as a parallel intellectual quest to cleanse religion of superstition. It was also an expression of a desire to re-articulate Judaism (in the late 18th and 19th centuries) as a rational appeal to virtue and righteousness. The purpose was to transcend the baggage of tribalism, the faith’s focus on a Messiah-led return to Israel, and the supposedly anachronistic centrality of rites and rituals only performed millennia earlier at the ancient temples (the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e., the second by the Romans in 70 c.e.).
To achieve these changes, early Reform leaders sought to prune Judaism of its meandering and undisciplined synagogue liturgies. They trimmed what they believed were the accumulated excesses and the persistent repetitions of the services in an effort to restore awe and drama in a more enlightened—and shorter—spiritual interlude. The radical alterations of the liturgy were also justified by the need to extirpate the lingering anti-scientific references to angels and demons, not to mention what was seen as the pedantic exploration of Talmudic logic.
In the 1890s, the Reform movement issued the Union Prayer Book, first of its siddurim. It was revolutionary. The Union Prayer Book expunged Musaf—an additional service on the Sabbath and other days on the Jewish calendar during which added sacrifices took place at the Temple—as well as all references to a restored Zion and a rebuilt Temple. It discarded all Talmudic references. And it elevated the declaration of God’s uniqueness, Shema Yisrael, as the essential high note of the synagogue service rather than the Amidah. Its High Holy Day services eliminated the piyyutim, repetitions, and Talmudic references, drastically paring down the liturgy to a core text.
The 1970s saw the retirement of the Union Prayer Book and its replacement by Gates of Prayer and its High Holy Day companion, Gates of Repentance. In these volumes, the Amidah, still unnamed, was partially restored. But the very form of Gates of Prayer revealed the Reform movement’s inability to achieve any kind of clarity or unity of design. It featured 10 different Sabbath service texts, for example, each representing a different spiritual or political priority.
This Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, is clearly the most traditional prayer resource ever produced by the American Reform movement.
This proved to be the impetus for yet another generation of liturgical volumes. A new Siddur was published in 2006: Mishkan Tefillah (“Tabernacle of Prayer”). Now, the movement has issued Mishkan HaNefesh (“Tabernacle of the Soul”), a new Reform High Holy Day prayer book. Without question, this Machzor is the most traditional prayer resource ever produced by the American Reform movement.
For the first time, all three paragraphs of the traditional Shema declaration are presented, intact. Elsewhere, an instruction allows a user to choose whether to speak of God (in Hebrew) as having the power to “give life to the dead” or “give life to everything”—the former long an “anti-scientific” bugaboo of Reform rabbis and liturgists. The morning services contain the full traditional blessings that accompany the Haftarah, verses from the Hebrew prophets that are read following passages from the Torah. Editors of non-Orthodox prayer books often include alternative prayers that are designed to reflect present-day life more precisely or to give those easily offended by traditional passages a more politically correct text to read. Previous Reform Machzorim either deleted traditional Haftarah blessings or made the “alternative” version the preferred text. In the new prayer book, the traditional version is the preferred text.
The Machzor’s agenda of reclamation is clearest in the Yom Kippur sections. In an unprecedented act, the new book restores to its traditional location and number the classical description of God as having 13 divine attributes of mercy. This passage, from the rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 34, is contained in a Yom Kippur evening section, Selichot (“penitential appeals”). These attributes are recited to assuage the pain of confession with the assurance of the responding mercy of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and the reliability of His forgiveness—and, as is traditional, are recited three times. (The traditional prayer for healing is also restored to its language and location, in the Torah services.)
The Avodah service, long a source of Reform consternation because it clearly and deliberately attached Yom Kippur to the Temple, has been reinstated. Avodah had been part of the Gates of Repentance liturgy, but it was almost always entirely skipped or replaced in toto by American Reform congregations.
The Yom Kippur Torah readings, with some departures, are also of a piece with a reclaimed tradition. The new book reintroduces Leviticus 19 to the Reform service—a passage the rabbis inserted to make the point that the ritual and ethical aspects of Judaism are essentially intertwined and cannot easily be separated like wheat from chaff (again, long a Reform conceit).
In another break with the Reform past, the Yom Kippur Mincha service begins, as in Jewish tradition, with the Torah reading. It also incorporates the official prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, as published under the auspices of its (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate, complete with its reference to the state as reishit tzmichat g’ulateinu (the “first flowering of our redemption”). The Yom Kippur commemoration here ends with the exclamation L’shanah ha bah b’Yerushalayim! (“Next year in Jerusalem!”). This unvarnished appeal for the coming of the Messiah had been another longtime Reform bugaboo.1
Still, the volumes are not without jarring oddities, notably the revision of the shofar service. The traditional version is a carefully conceived call to repentance with three charter themes: Malchuyot (“Kingship”), Zichronot (“Remembrance”), and Shof’rot (“Shofars”). These themes are biblically based and have shaped the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah since the earliest days of rabbinic Judaism.
Alas, the new Machzor has taken the shofar service, broken it into three pieces, added another three calls from the ram’s horn for good measure, and spread them throughout Rosh Hashanah. So instead of one service for the sounding of the shofar, there are now six. Perhaps this is intended to spread the drama of the shofar throughout the day; it makes little sense otherwise.
Most notable, perhaps, is the discomfort the Machzor displays with the word sin (chet in Hebrew). The word does appear in various locations and is plainly explained in a footnote as having a clear etymology of meaning “to miss the mark” as in a straying arrow, shot from a bow. But when it comes to the extraordinary litany of sins that are recited several times on Yom Kippur—Al chet sh’chatanu l’fanecha, “for the sins which we have sinned in front of You”—the punch is pulled. The words the editors use instead are “the ways we have wronged You and harm we have caused in Your world.” They shift the focus and intensity from a mirror held up to the self to a Google-scan across a vast and cruel, unredeemed world. Since when is having “caused harm” a proper standard for the impact of sin and the concomitant individual responsibility of confession and repentance?
The other classic litany (Ashamnu) is here translated in the present tense (“we betray, we scorn, we act perversely”), which stands on its head the Hebrew text’s clear acknowledgment and confession of recalled and identifiable past deeds. The use of the present tense softens the blow to a mere passive observation, thus stripping the litany of the contrition and shame that are its central purpose.
Some of the “alternative” lists of confessed sins the editors provide here are astonishingly silly—as in the appeal to God’s forgiveness “for the sin I have sinned before You…[by] eating in the car and at my desk.” Even more surprising in a litany originally concerned with the ways in which expressions of sexuality violate God’s law, we are directed to ask for atonement for not “giving love freely,” for not being “pliant and flexible.”
The alternative Vidui (confessional) on Yom Kippur calls for us to seek atonement for having “assaulted our planet in countless ways,” including the sins of blaming others, exhausting irreplaceable resources, ignoring signs of change in our climate, mocking “those who love creatures,” “over-populating cities,” “questioning and doubting” evidence, and the worst of all: doing all of this for the sake of “industrial ugliness…personal gain and corporate profit.”
As ludicrous as these passages might be, these are alternative readings and are therefore by definition of secondary status. They detract only a little from the way in which this new Machzor reflects the journey the movement has taken from radical reform to return and reconstitution.
The issuance of Mishkan HaNefesh has come at a moment of crisis for the movement. Data from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans paint a devastating picture of a denomination deeply alienated from Jewish tradition and Israel—and one that is hemorrhaging followers. Self-professed Reform Jews who are not formal members of any Reform synagogue far outnumber those who are. These Reform Jews may not be converting to Christianity or to any formal alternative ideology, but they are dropping out of Jewish practice altogether at an alarming rate.
Mishkan HaNefesh is a historic corrective, and in parts a brilliant one. But to what end? Will it serve to provide new sustenance to Reform Jews who have felt cut off from the ancient and enduring traditions of their people? Or is it just too late?
1 It is striking that commentaries accompanying the prayers that justify many of these restorations are included by the likes of erstwhile fierce opponents of Reform, such as the 19th-century German sage Samson Raphael Hirsch and the present-day Orthodox scholar Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.