For only the third time in the last 70 years, the Conservative movement has published a new High Holy Days prayer book, or machzor, just in time to ring in 5771.
But initial acceptance of the new prayer book in the Pittsburgh area is slow, with just one Conservative congregation buying and using the books for this year?s High Holy Days.
A committee of 10 rabbis and cantors, chaired by Rabbi Edward Feld, met twice a month over the last 12 years to put together “Machzor Lev Shalem” (full heart), a prayer book intended to speak to “contemporary sensibilities,” while maintaining and expanding upon traditional texts, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which published the machzor.
“We are very excited about the introduction of “Machzor Lev Shalem.” We see it as sort of a breakthrough prayer book for the Jewish community,” Schonfeld said. “It has the traditional texts with an artful, but literal translation, and heretofore unparalleled insightful commentaries, from ancient to modern.”
Weighing in at less than two pounds, it is almost hard to believe how much is contained inside this new machzor’s covers.
The entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and portions that are typically said aloud are also transliterated so that those unable to read Hebrew can participate in communal recitations.
Like the Conservative movement, the machzor itself strives to be inclusive, according to Schonfeld.
“We wanted to create avenues into the tradition and create the greatest number of open doorways, to get closer to G-d, the community and ourselves,” Schonfeld said. “There is a place for everybody. Nobody is outside the tent.”
This concept of inclusiveness is also apparent in innovative additions to the service, such as a yitzkor prayer for an abusive parent, and a meditation for someone who is unable to fast on Yom Kippur.
“There is an overarching need in the community that the Conservative movement uniquely fills,” Schonfeld said. “Bringing tradition forth while incorporating contemporary concerns is part of that.”
The prayer book also has responded to the desire of many Conservative congregations for egalitarian liturgy. The machzor has incorporated a more gender-neutral translation for G-d, and has included the matriarchs as an alternative on the same page as the traditional Amida prayer that references only the patriarchs.
More than 150,000 copies of Lev Shalem were presold, representing orders from about 130 of the 650 congregations affiliated with the Conservative movement, according to a JTA report.
Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill recently purchased 1,200 copies of the new machzor, taking advantage of a pre-publication price of $15 per book, as opposed to its $30 cover price.
Even with the half-price deal, replacing a congregation’s machzurs is a massive undertaking. Beth Shalom is the only area Conservative congregation that has taken the plunge so far.
“It’s still very expensive, even at half price,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow of Beth Shalom. “We’ve been working hard to fundraise for the machzors since back in January. We’ve been getting donations from congregants, purchasing machzors in memory of loved ones.”
Although Beth Shalom committed to purchase the machzors mostly sight unseen, the congregation had been provided sample sections of ‘Lev Shalem’ prior to last year’s High Holy Days, and incorporated some of the English readings into the services, with a positive response, Werbow said.
“The English is done with an eye toward making it read well, but be true to the Hebrew translations,” Werbow said. “There are some translations (in other prayer books) that are poetic, but not true to the Hebrew. Here, they worked to find a balance.”
Commentary and exposition fill the right side of each double-page spread, while the left side is for poems, meditations and alternative readings.
“There is so much, it can’t all be used in one year,” Werbow said. “But actually, that’s a very nice thing, to have choices of what to incorporate.”
The Conservative movement has published three official machzors since it was founded in the early 1900s. The first was based on the 1939 version edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, and the second was the 1972 version edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow. Although it is not considered an official Conservative machzor, in 1995, two Conservative rabbis edited “Machzor Hadash,” which provided an egalitarian alternative and a more contemporary approach.
Beth Shalom will use the new machzor in its sanctuary service, which had previously used the Silverman version, as well as in its ballroom service, which had been using the Harlow.
“I think the biggest advantage is that it will speak to the modern Jewish language and approaches that the modern Jew can connect with,” Werbow said. “The thys and thous are gone.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)