A Vision of What Prayer Can Be

Mishkan HaNefesh roughly translates as “sanctuary of the soul.”
Mishkan HaNefesh roughly translates as “sanctuary of the soul.”

By Deahn Berrini Leblang

Published September 03, 2015, issue of September 03, 2015.

Tradition will begin anew this new year when several local Reform congregations will change the way they pray. On seats at seven Reform synagogues from Newton to Worcester, worshippers will find a new Mahzor, or prayer book — Mishkan HaNefesh (which roughly translates as “sanctuary of the soul”). In the works since 2010, the Mahzor is the first new High Holiday publication by the Central Conference of American Rabbis since “The Gates of Prayer” in 1978.

The new Mahzor has the enthusiastic support of many local Reform rabbis. Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom of Newton, one of the local congregations that piloted sections of the new book, said that since the Mahzor was “written in the second decade of the 21st century, not in the 1970’s, it contains so much that speaks to a more contemporary Jewish experience.”

Along with updates in language and historical references, one intent being to make the book LGBT friendly, the Mahzor also represents “a new vision of what prayer can be,” said Rabbi Elaine Zecher, of Temple Israel in Boston, who was on the editorial team. “As opposed to a linear movement through a book,” the editorial intent was that “the experience of prayer be dynamic and not static, and not rote.”

Conceived as a companion to the Mishkan T’Filah, the Shabbat prayer book that came out in 2007, the Mishkan HaNefesh is organized in the same manner; the traditional text is on one side, colored white, and then on the facing page, colored gray, are creative interpretations, creative possibilities of the traditional text. This invites the worshipper to read both the modern and the traditional text on his or her own. This also allows the person leading the service to pick and choose from the modern companion pieces. There are also blue pages, with essays for holyday preparation.

Rabbi Zecher explained that in Judaism, prayer contains two parts, the keva, the structure handed down, and the kavannah, the creative intention we bring to the experience.

She pointed out that, although the High Holidays are a time when the community gathers, this community is the collective of the “personal intention of the one who walks through the door. We want that individual to ask: ‘am I going to make these Days of Awe meaningful and have an impact on me? What is the sacred work that I’m going to engage in as a member of this community?’”

Rabbi Gurvis concurred. “Some of the material speaks to me and some does not. Being able to scan the two pages is a plus, because while we’re here for a common experience, if someone is drawn to a different piece than the one we’re reading, it encourages the introspective nature of the holiday.”

Although the piloted sections received a warm reception, the switch is not without its challenges. The Mishkan HaNefesh is two books, where Gates of Repentance was one. While many congregations, aware that the High Holiday book was due out, budgeted for the purchase, the two books may present a storage issue for space-starved shuls.

At Temple Shalom, Rabbi Gurvis had to assure his cantor, who worried about integrating the new prayers, that, musically, “95% of the things you are using will be in the new prayer book.” On the other hand, Rabbi Gurvis noted, having to rework his own entire High Holy Day routine, “highlights and intensifies” his own introspection.

“You speak to the Mahzor, and it speaks back to you, it tells you what you bring to it,” said Rabbi Zecher. “I feel, as one intimately connected to the work of this Mahzor, that this is a rich resource in which to help each individual enter the days of awe.”

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