One day this spring, Arnie Eisen, the new Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, buttonholed me in the hallway. Knowing that I am the editor of the new Conservative makhzor, he was eager to offer his views. “Any new siddur,” he said, “has to have an accompanying commentary.” Arnie was confirming the intuition that our makhzor committee had been implementing from the beginning: we are writing the first liberal commentary to accompany a movement’s High Holiday prayer book.
Our effort is spurred not only by the fact that the overwhelming percentage of participants in High Holiday services are not regular synagogue attendees and therefore do not bring with them a fundamental understanding of the basic liturgy, but equally that those who regularly attend Shabbat services want more from the High Holidays than the operatic play of familiar tunes, remembered prayers — old favorites — of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, and good rabbinic preaching: even those who are the most knowledgeable come wanting to better understand what they are doing. Nostalgia, which may have satisfied a previous generation, no longer moves this one.
The reality is that most congregants come on a personal quest; they want to be touched by what goes on in synagogue but the vocabulary of Jewish prayer is often esoteric, its literary allusion too self-referential, its poetry baroque, and its metaphors representative of the powerful forces at work in other eras. The solution of previous generations of Conservative prayer books was to keep the traditional liturgical text on one side of the page but to translate freely, creating on the other side an English text that read smoothly and that for the most part accorded with contemporary theological sensibilities, though sometimes the English text did not have a direct relationship to the Hebrew.
That aesthetic does not work anymore for a Jewish community that has developed in two opposite directions. On the one hand, Jewish literacy is actually higher for some in this generation than that of their parents whose familiarity with Judaism was intuited but not formally learned, and these congregants want translations to correlate with the Hebrew so that they can move back and forth on the page (if the word “good” appears in the English, where is “tov” in the Hebrew?). And then there are the many others who attend High Holiday services ignorant of even the broad outline of a Jewish service but wanting to be assured that the English (their only entrée to the prayer book and sometimes their only experience of any traditional Jewish text) represents the Hebrew; they want to decide for themselves whether this is something they believe in or not, whether they can buy in or not, so they don’t want to meet a Judaism that is prettified but inauthentic.
Realizing that there had been a sea change in expectations, our makhzor committee embarked on a totally new translation of the received text: one that would be not only more literal, but also gender neutral, and pray-able in English, i.e., cognizant of the demands of English cadences. Somewhat to our surprise, perhaps, we discovered that a more literal translation was frequently more poetic, more interesting, more prayer-full than ones that had been “cleaned up” of theological difficulties and smoothed over to please a contemporary audience. We were also committed to providing an accompanying commentary on a liturgy filled with poems and prayers that are startling and revolutionary re-readings of conventional theological concepts and can often not be understood, let alone appreciated without explanation.
Creating an engagement between study and prayer is found in the Torah service, of course, but also in the piyyutim — where mixtures of direct address to God, literary play, midrashic explication, and biblical allusion testify to the way instruction and devotion were always intertwined in Jewish prayer settings.
Because the prayer book is an historical anthology, where each generation has added its own thinking, its own devotion, we have widened the meaning of prayer with a commentary that offers an expression of our understanding of the ancient and contemporary significance of each devotional moment. This new commentary is not only a necessity for this generation, but can transform the experience of synagogue prayer.