New prayer book tries for accessibility and inspiration

The Lev Shalem High Holidays prayer book, left, and the new Israeli Masorti siddur aim to speak to the Jewish community at large. (Sue Fishkoff)

The Lev Shalem High Holidays prayer book, left, and the new Israeli Masorti siddur aim to speak to the Jewish community at large. (Sue Fishkoff)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — This Rosh Hashanah, worshipers in Conservative congregations across North America will find themselves using a new machzor.

More than 150,000 copies of the High Holidays prayer book, Machzor Lev Shalem, have been pre-sold, representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 affiliated congregations.

The strong interest might stem from “dissatisfaction with all previous machzors,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the committee that produced the prayer book.

Lev Shalem in one sense is a response to two oft-heard criticisms of the Conservative movement: that it is too elitist and too intellectual.

For starters, the entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and parts that might be said aloud are transliterated to allow those without Hebrew knowledge to participate in group call and response.

“It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative body that produced the book.

For experienced worshipers who want a Hebrew text unencumbered by directions indicating where one should stand and sit, subtle signals like the icon of a bowing man offer what Conservative leaders hope will be a rich, free-flowing davening experience.

Commentary and exposition fills the right side of each double-page spread. The left side is for poems, meditations and alternative readings.

Ten rabbis and cantors spent 12 years putting together the machzor, meeting twice a month for more than a decade.

Each of 10 regular contributors took one or two assignments, and the entire group read and commented on each other’s work. Kelman wrote the commentaries for the evening and morning Sh’ma and its blessings, for example, while Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre outside Philadelphia wrote the commentary for Kol Nidrei and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

The groups also translated the Hebrew text into English and read it aloud to make sure it flowed, so those who cannot “feel” the meaning of the Hebrew can use the English for real prayer.

Some who saw early versions of the machzor, which was tested in six congregations, say it answers a need articulated by Conservative laypeople as well as clergy.

“There is a cadre of congregants that is really looking for spiritual connection,” said one Conservative rabbi, Geoffrey Haber of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in a YouTube video that is being used in an unusual PR campaign to promote the prayer book. “Oftentimes our movement can be focused on the intellectual rather than the spiritual, and people are really thirsting for that. I think this machzor speaks to that.”

Along with the content modifications, Lev Shalem is aesthetically pleasing. It weighs less than 2 pounds., is printed on fine paper and uses a typeface that has been specially designed and copyrighted.

Like the new daily and Shabbat prayer book released concurrently by the Israeli Masorti movement (see sidebar), Lev Shalem is being presented as a prayer book for all Jews rather than as a Conservative text.

“We’ve got everyone from [the late Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai to the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said committee chair Rabbi Edward Feld of Northampton, Mass., senior editor of the project. “It does not represent any single theological perspective.”

Feld spent weeks poring through the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary, mining more than 60 old prayer books for long-forgotten piyyutim, or liturgical poems, to include along with modern meditations.

On one page is an 11th-century poem on the new year by Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain. On another is “For the Sin of Destroying God’s Creation,” JTS Dean Daniel Nevins’ environmentally sensitive version of the Al-Chet, the traditional confessional list of sins recited during Yom Kippur services.

The way the texts are put together is in keeping with Conservative values, Feld said.

“We include myriad Jewish voices, allowing them to be in conversation with each other,” Feld said. “In that sense it’s a deeply Conservative text because the movement at its best is about the conversations that can take place between tradition and a 21st-century sensibility.”

The entire traditional text is included, with a few modifications. The matriarchs are included as an option on the same page as the traditional Amidah prayer that refers only to the patriarchs. Kelman says that’s progress from the most recent Conservative prayer book, which relegates the matriarchs to a separate page.

The Conservative leadership hopes the new machzor will help worshipers deepen their synagogue experience. Those who produced it, however, have less lofty expectations of their first encounter with the book from the other side of the pulpit.

“In all likelihood,” Kelman said, “I’ll be looking for mistakes.”

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