From Oats and Empty Pages, to Mystery, Inclusivity and Deep Meaning


There is an old story about a gambler. The man takes a bet, believing that he can teach his horse to pray. So, he hides oats in the pages of the prayerbook and trains the horse to turn the pages. Easy right?

Unfortunately, prayer is one of those things that looks easy, but is really very complex. As individuals we have to find our way into prayer, beyond the oats and the turning of the pages. Prayer is both an intellectual and spiritual pursuit in which the words and themes of prayerbook must mirror the truth and mystery of our modern lives. But all too often there are barriers. Our current High Holiday prayerbook, for example, was published in 1978. The face of American Judaism has changed drastically since the late 70s, but that book has remained static. Fortunatately, our movement has developed a new High Holiday Prayerbook called Mishkan Ha Nefesh, which more accurately mirrors the truth of our lives in 2016. It contains transliteration of every prayer for those who come from other faith traditions, or who were born Jewish but do not yet feel completely comfortable with the Hebrew. In addition, it contains texts which are more inclusive of women and LGBTQ Jews. God is not only referred to in the masculine, but the female images of God which are found in our Jewish tradition are also invoked. Likewise there is a passage that translates the more gender exclusive language of bride and groom’ into the more gender-neutral translation of couple.’ In addition, in one option for the Torah Blessings, gender read out entirely so that transgender people can feel comfortable being called forward for an aliyah. Shouldnt everyone have a voice in Gods choir?To expand on the theme of inclusion, the new book also contains different theological perspectives. Over the years I have had many challenging conversations with people who were alienated from Judaism during the High Holiday services, by prayers like Unetaneh Tokef” which depict God as judge and arbiter deciding “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water.” In Mishkan HaNefesh, this traditional text is juxtaposed with counter texts’ which present alternate Jewish perspectives on prayer themes. In Mishkan HaNefesh, a poem entitled The Power of this Day” is positioned just opposite Unetaneh Tokef” and it reads ...

"An empty page, an open book, nothing is written and nothing is sealed. Flesh and blood, frail creatures, our lives are fleeting and subject to chance. Yet this we possess; the strength to per- sist, to prevail, to comfort one another in the dark. Prayer, right action, a turning toward the good - these give us hope to bear the pain of life." 

A beautiful feature of this new prayer book is just as in Judaism itself, the ancient and modern are set side by side, and many theological traditions are represented.   I am proud that our ritual committee and board have agreed that it is time to update our High Holiday ritual practice and adopt this new book so that we can be more inclusive. In the pages of this newsletter, you will find information about our new campaign to bring Mishkan HaNefesh to our congregation. Since we provide a prayerbook to each member and guest at Beth Chaim, we are raising money to buy over 450 copies of this new High Holiday machzor for our congregation.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all human beings...Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” 

With your help we will bring this new prayerbook to our community. Prayer alienates when it amounts only to oats and the turning of pages. May this new prayerbook allow us to develop an even more diverse and nuanced prayer language, as we enlarge our tent, and invite many more to contemplate lifes surprising mysteries here in our sanctuary.