Rediscovering Prayer with the New Reform Movement Machzor

This is the time of year that rabbis and cantors are busy preparing for the High Holy Days. Time taken not only to write sermons, but to review liturgy, musical settings, and more. For many of us, we are asking questions about how the keva – the structure of the prayer service – can best serve our desire that our congregants be able to find their way to the kavannah of the liturgy – the intention that might enable us all to tap into something transformative and deeply reflective.

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This year, congregants in over 300 congregations in the Reform movement will be holding a new prayer book in their hands for the High Holy Days. Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul) provides clergy with a dynamic opportunity to revisit how we help our congregants journey through these days and pray together. In an Op-Ed in The Forward, Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of the CCAR Press (the publishing arm for the Reform rabbinate), describes the opportunity found in these new books as a kind of “choose-your-own-adventure” approach to prayer.  What she means by this is that these books contain a plurality of options of how to engage with almost every moment of the prayer service. Want a deeply traditional service? You can pray that with these books. Wrestling with your theological beliefs? You will find your questions and challenges mirrored back to you in some of the alternative texts, along with expressions of spirituality and theologies that might speak to you. Seeking information on the origins of some of the central prayers of each service? Historical notes are provided, along with contemporary re-interpretations that can help us take medieval language and transpose it in ways that resonate in the 21st century.

All of this choice means that my preparations for the High Holy Days this year have been even more extensive than usual. In my congregation, we offer multiple morning service options to accommodate our community, and I am able to use the plurality of options in the prayer book to meet different needs – we have one minyan that is more traditionally-oriented, another that needs the service to be condensed and adapted for families with middle-school aged children, and another that is rich in musical choices.

In past decades, congregational prayer in Reform congregations has often been the opposite to what the new machzor now makes possible; it has been all about traveling in unison. That unison is what has given a sense of decorum to Reform congregational services, historically. There can be a certain kind of majesty to it, but it also is a very top-down, frontal way of doing communal prayer; it makes it much harder for the individual congregant to have their own prayerful experience in the midst of the communal experience.

For me, as I grappled with all the ways that I could use our new machzor to lead our community, it became clear to me that the leader need not and, in fact, should not, be the arbiter of all the choices. Instead, when we have assigned reader parts for members of the congregation to participate in leading, we’ve offered them the range of pages from which their part of the service will be drawn, and have asked them to choose the texts that most speak to them. Furthermore, we’ve created more expansive periods of quiet time, which can be used for personal reflection and teshuvah, or used to read and reflect from among the many texts in the book without the distraction of a lead voice where one text has been chosen to read out loud.

There is much to explore in Mishkan HaNefesh but, perhaps more than anything else, I believe it will enable those who come together on these holiest of days to re-discover the path to a personal prayer experience that is accessible and meaningful.

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