High Holidays | Local

New, inclusive prayer book wins local fans

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

Congregation M’kor Hayim will start the new year with a new High Holidays machzor, or prayer book, recently published by the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The two-volume machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, should “add new energy and meaning to our High Holidays services,” says Rabbi Helen Cohn.

Among Tucson’s other Reform congregations, Temple Emanu-El plans to purchase the books next year and Congregation Chaverim will consider incorporating parts of the text into next year’s High Holidays liturgy.

“Mishkan HaNefesh is thoughtful, inspiring, and speaks to our contemporary sensibilities,” Cohn told congregants this summer in a letter announcing the M’kor Hayim board’s approval of the change.

The title “means something like ‘dwelling place of the soul,’ although it sounds more poetic in Hebrew,” says Cohn.

While the new prayer book has been touted as LGBT-friendly — for example, a prayer that traditionally referred to a “bride and groom” now names “couples celebrating under the chuppah (marriage canopy)” — Cohn says this aspect didn’t particularly stand out for her, because “the entire orientation is toward inclusivity in many ways.”

The new machzor includes a “respectful yet fresh approach to tradition … unwavering commitment to the equality of men and women … faithfulness to the ethical and justice-seeking dimension of Judaism,” says Cohn, citing the editors’ intention. Perhaps most significant, the editors say, is “its effort to deal with the tension between the historical theology of the High Holy Days (God’s sovereignty and judgment) and more contemporary beliefs, such as the theology of human empowerment.”

Alongside the Torah texts, the book features “countertexts” and poems from a number of sources, including such voices as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Pablo Neruda.

Each member of M’kor Hayim will receive a personal copy of the new two-volume machzor “as a gift,” says Cohn, who explains that the congregation had donations left over from a drive last year to purchase a Torah scroll. The board and congregation agreed to spend that money to purchase the books.

“I am thrilled that we are able to do this, because I believe everyone should have their own siddur and their own machzor.  Of course, we will also have copies for our guests to use at the services,” says Cohn.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

At Temple Emanu-El, says Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, the ritual committee has reviewed Mishkan HaNefesh and “found it an agreeable improvement on the fine but somewhat dated Gates of Repentance machzor we have used for many years.”

Cohon notes that one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, Rabbi Leon Morris, was on the “Too Jewish” radio show in June 2014 talking about the process of developing and publishing the machzor.

“Our plan is to use this year to develop the resources to adopt Mishkan HaNefesh for the 5778 High Holy Days, which will require changes in our service structure, music, and many other elements of the preparations for the High Holy Days,” says Cohon. “We have received a lead gift towards purchasing the approximately 1,000 copies we will need to purchase, and expect to have the support necessary in place to complete this change by next Rosh Hashanah.”

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron explains that Congregation Chaverim has never exclusively used the Reform machzor, The Gates of Repentance, instead creating its own prayer book for the High Holy Days using “the Reform machzor, Days of Awe edited by Rabbi Richard Levy, The New Machzor, Tikunay Nefashot and various other siddurim and original writings. We will definitely be perusing the new Reform machzor and consider incorporating it into our liturgy for the Days of Awe next year.”