A Prayer Book For The Ages
Tue, 11/16/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Israeli Knesset member David Rotem, author of a controversial bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions, defended his position recently. In response to complaints from leaders of non-Orthodox movements that the bill discriminates against them, he said, “In my opinion, there’s only one Judaism. There are no three Judaisms.” What he meant was that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate form of Judaism. The other streams don’t count.

I leave it to Conservative and Reform authorities to argue against Rotem’s one-sided bill, as they have done and will continue to do. But it happens that when I read his statement about “one Judaism,” I was in the middle of studying the Mahzor Lev Shalem, the new Conservative High Holy Days prayer book, and was struck by the difference between its inclusiveness and his narrow-minded words. It crossed my mind to send him a copy; perhaps it would help expand his horizons.

Why am I studying a mahzor in November, when the holidays ended in September? Because those days were so filled with preparations and festivities (and a degree of shul fatigue) that it was hard to get a comprehensive view of everything the new mahzor offers. This work took so long to prepare, and holds so much, that I have wanted to delve into it as a book to read, apart from the basic liturgy. Now that I have, I’m thinking of giving it out as a Chanukah gift.

Full disclosure: I served on the editorial committee that prepared the mahzor for almost four of the 12 years of its existence. I left reluctantly when I could no longer spare the time for meetings, so that when the final book came out it seemed altogether new for me. What I remember from my time on the committee was the seriousness of the work. I represented the “lay” point of view, but all the other members were rabbis or cantors, and each had a particular assignment — to write commentaries or search the origins of a phrase or seek a contemporary reading that might enhance the user’s synagogue experience. The entire group then read and discussed each person’s work.

What I remember most are the long deliberations about almost every word translated from Hebrew into English. The committee members asked themselves fundamental questions. Does a translation come as close as possible to the Hebrew while still using felicitous language? In the “Shema” prayer, for example, we are told to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul,” and — in many prayerbooks — “with all your might.” This mahzor uses instead “with all that is yours” for the last phrase, a more meaningful rendition of the Hebrew “b’chol m’odechah.” Or, does the translation capture the cadence of the original? If a Hebrew passage has an alphabetical pattern, for instance, it may be translated alphabetically in English as well. The opening words of the poem “El baruch,” which begin with the Hebrew letters alef and bet, become “Almighty, blessed” here.

To be sure, the translations are all gender sensitive, so that God is not “He” but may be “the Holy One.” And where relevant, the names of the matriarchs appear along with those of the patriarchs. But while the mahzor reaches out to today’s worshiper, it also reaches backward to some of the earliest and most erudite sources.

Rabbi Edward Feld, senior editor and chair of the editorial committee, examined about 50 early mahzorim in planning Lev Shalem. In its layout, he and the committee were influenced by the Esslingen Mahzor, produced in Germany in 1290. Meant for the cantor’s use, that large prayer book has the text in the center and piyyutim, or liturgical poems, on the sides. Over time, new piyyutim were added, while the traditional liturgy remained the same. In the Conservative mahzor, the traditional liturgy also appears in the center. On the right-hand page, commentary surrounding the Hebrew text gives the biblical or Talmudic origins of words and phrases and other information. On the left-hand page, readings and meditations accompany the English translation.

Rabbi Feld also studied the rites of communities in different times and places and drew inspiration from Sephardic and Italian rites that differ from our Ashkenazic ones. He even included a piyyut found in the Cairo Genizah, written by the seventh-century poet Yannai, and not used before in a printed mahzor. The research he did and the mahzor he and his colleagues produced make me think that David Rotem may be right after all. There is only one Judaism. But it’s not his exclusive brand of Judaism.

This Judaism is a broad, eternal one that embraces the past and looks to the future, that allows generations to speak to each other through study and prayer and that remains ever vital by valuing the new along with the old.

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”

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