Over at New Voices, my review of two new machzorim, pluralist Machzor Eit Ratzon and Conervative Mahzor Lev Shalem, is now available. Below is a much longer version with more detail about liturgical minutiae and aspects of their designs.
A Reform rabbi I know tells the story of a man who came into the synagogue in the day of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. The man saw shelves and shelves of an unfamiliar blue siddur called Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement’s 1973 prayer book. He picked one up and began to flip through it, wondering what it was. The rabbi saw that he had come in and came over to greet the man. Before the rabbi could say so much as “Shabbat Shalom,” the man asked, “Rabbi, what is this book? Where’s the red one?” The red one he was referring to was Gates of Repentance, the blue siddur’s companion machzor, used only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
New siddurim, however surprising an unfamiliar one may have been to the man in the story, are a dime a dozen. New ones come out every year, ranging everywhere from unique siddurim that record the practice of one individual congregation to new siddurim from one of the large movements that will come to be used in congregations all over.
However, machzorim–those heavy-as-a-brick, byzantine volumes full of liturgy both strongly evocative and totally unfamiliar, used only twice a year–are another story. The birth and publication of a new machzor is a rare event indeed. This year is twice times blessed then, to see the publication of two new ones. Both the Conservative movement’s new Mahzor Lev Shalem and Rutgers University math professor Joseph G. Rosenstein’s new machzor, Machzor Eit Ratzon, a companion to his 2003 Siddur Eit Ratzon, are out in times for the High Holy Days.. While Conservative ideology, or Conservative demeanor at least, may be familiar to many, Eit Ratzon’s traditional egalitarian approach will be new to most. The cover reads: “A traditional prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with new meditations, commentaries, translations, and prayers.”
They are as remarkable for their similarities as they are for their differences. Both are clearly the products of their creators, Lev Shalem is a Conservative creation through and through, and Eit Ratzon, a product of an independent chavurah in New Jersey, is eccentric as you would expect a machzor from such an environment to be. Both have hefty commentaries, as different as they are enlightening. Lev Shalem has a surprising visual beauty to it, while Eit Ratzon’s design has a rigid utility. Lev Shalem was created by a committee of the Conservative movement’s top scholars, while Eit Ratzon is the labor of love of a single lay-person.
Physically, they could not make more different first impressions. Lev Shalem’s physical beauty is nearly stunning. It is a rectangular volume, bound in a creamy brown faux leather, its title impressed in gold and metallic red. The cover material makes it soft to hold. Eit Ratzon, however, is square, its hard cover bound in a coarse blue cloth, its title impressed in a less smoothly reflective gold than Lev Shalem’s. They are both over 400 pages and both utilize a double page numbering system, such that each two-page spread has one page number. In other words, there are two version of page 18, and they face each other.
Looking at Lev Shalem’s cover, the reader imagines that they are in for a machzor that is elegant and easy on the eye. The inside does not disappoint. It was designed by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, who has also created a brand new Hebrew font for the siddur. (You can read some hefty extra comments on the design from Kosofsky himself over at Typophile.) The font itself is an elegant refinement of the Hebrew text from the siddur you grew up with, while bringing a new visual sharpness and clarity to the words. Important passages of text and lines to be read only when the one of the holidays falls on Shabbat, are rendered in a deep red print reminiscent of a similar design feature in Gates of Repentance. Eit Ratzon, on the other hand seems to have been entirely designed by Rosenstein himself. The font is nothing special. What makes the internal layout of Eit Ratzon great is its unique format.
Machzor Eit Ratzon is a companion to Rosenstein’s 2003 Siddur Eit Ratzon, itself a Shabbat morning siddur modeled on the unique innovative design of Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael, originally created by the now-defunct Progressive Chavurah Siddur Committee of Boston. Chaveirim Kol Yisrael was remarkable for its strict four-column layout for every spread, a feature carried forth into this new machzor. The central columns of the spread are Hebrew text of the prayers on the left of the spine and the English translation on the right, so that both the Hebrew and the English seem to flow out from the center of the page. This feature may have seemed revelatory when the recent Orthodox Koren Sacks Siddur employed it, but Chaveirim Kol Yisrael predated Koren by several years.
On the left edge of the page a third column has a full transliteration for every single prayer in the entire machzor. On the far right edge, the fourth column is a robust running commentary. This layout is rigid and holds true on every single page, though it is occasionally interrupted by shaded boxes across the bottom of the page that include meditations created by Rosenstein. There is rarely any of the white space that has typified recent prayer books on every end of the spectrum, from the Orthodox Koren to the Reform Mishkan T’filah. This does not mean that the pages are cluttered, but that Rosenstein has found an orderly way to keep any space from going to waste.
Lev Shalem, as the first major liturgical release from one of the liberal movements, is a pleasant first sign that the overly airy, blank space-infested Mishkan T’filah was an evolutionary dead end in siddur design. Instead, Lev Shalem takes its cues in terms of layout from its recent Conservative predecessors, as well as from Koren, to a lesser extent. Like Koren, Lev Shalem indicates points at which users should bow through a special typographical character. In this case, it is a a bent, looping line with a firm base that is suggestive of the profile of a bowing person. Also like Koren, some prayers are rendered with a subtle, artful differentiation of spacing and size around key words or phrases.
The right side of each spread features the Hebrew text of the prayers in the middle two thirds of the page, extending on most pages to and inch or two from the bottom of the page. Surrounding the Hebrew on the right edge of the page and in the extra space between the Hebrew and the bottom of the page is a system of commentary at least as robust as the one found in roughly the same part of the spread as in Eit Ratzon. This layout for the commentary is most taken from the layout of Or Hadash, Reuven Hammer’s acclaimed 2003 commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom, the current Conservative siddur, making this machzor truly a successor to the Conservative liturgical tradition.
The left side of the spread in Lev Shalem, despite being just as elegantly designed as the right, is somewhat disappointing. This side is dominated by an English translation, which is occasionally interrupted by a transliteration. The left side also has some commentary on some pages. While Lev Shalem inherited one of its forbear’s best features, its sturdy commentary and layout, it also inherited its forbears’ worst features–a penchant for telling you what you need to know and what you do not. The argument that excluding transliterations encourages worshippers to learn Hebrew is understandable. Nevertheless, Conservative liturgists are fooling themselves if they think their two-day-a-year customers are going to learn Hebrew by being deprived of transliterations in the machzor. Even more senseless is the fact that there are some transliterations, but only for things the editors have deemed it likely that the congregation will be called upon to say out loud. The Conservative movement’s shrinking market share can be partially attributed to the elitist attitude reflected in these decisions about transliterations.
Almost laughably, a JTA article about Lev Shalem quotes Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly as having said, “It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it.” The RA is fooling themselves if they think that this is a machzor for the liberal masses.
Eit Ratzon stands in stark contrast to this approach, with a complete transliteration running in visual parallel with the Hebrew and the English translation throughout the entire machzor.
Perhaps Eit Ratzon’s most important innovation is its order. Most machzorim, Lev Shalem included, are arranged in two sections–one section for Rosh Hashanah and one section for Yom Kippur. Eit Ratzon, however, has a unique solution that avoids as much repetition as possible and much of the flipping back and forth during the service that has characterized previous liberal machzorim. Eit Ratzon presents the services in the order of when they occur in the day. So, somewhat counterintuitively, Kol Nidrei, which comes before the evening service at the beginning of Yom Kippur, is the first thing in the siddur. After that, there is a single evening service with all of the pertinent material for both days, all of it clearly marked as belonging to the correct holiday. The end result is that some things that may have appeared in another machzor tow or three times appear only once and the user constantly moves forward through the machzor during the day. It will be interesting to see if this innovation will have an impact on future machzorim, such as the forthcoming Reform Mishkan T’shuvah.
In terms of physical elegance and artful layout, Lev Shalem is clearly the superior machzor. However, the rigid four-column layout of Eit Ratzon is useful and easy to follow. And if an individual worshipper or an entire congregation is concerned about the potential accessibility that extensive transliterations provide, there is no contest–Eit Ratzon clearly wins out in that regard.
As we have come to expect from liberal siddurim, there are some changes in the wording of some prayers, especially regarding gender. Eit Ratzon, however, goes further than that. It also offers alternatives to some lines that may be troubling to progressive Jews, such as lines dealing with worldly punishments for sin, a personal messiah, the chosen nature of the Jewish people and resurrection of the dead. Almost all such examples of alternatives in Eit Ratzon are presented in brackets alongside the older version of the text. Avot is the exception, transformed here into its Reform counterpart, Avot V’imahot, so that it includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah in addition to the patriarchs.
Surprisingly, Lev Shalem, like its more recent Conservative predecessors, still does not make the addition of the matriarchs standard, instead offering a version with them and a version without in parallel.
One of the most difficult sections of the liturgy of the season for modern audiences is Avodah service. Toward the end of the morning in Yom Kippur, this piece of the liturgy is an extensive account of what went on in The Temple on Yom Kippur. Both of these machzorim deal with this trying section in new ways. Eit Ratzon features a long, original first person narrative in English, written as though the speaker had been present in The Temple, telling the congregation what he had witnessed there on Yom Kippur. This narrative is periodically interrupted by sections of the traditional text. The approach of Lev Shalem is typical of the Conservative tradition, in that it attempts to make the unpalatable more palatable through commentary and proper framing. In this case, the Avodah service is preceded by a sermon from the play The Dybbuk, by Yiddish playwright and ethnographer Saul Ansky. The sermon is a Chasidic teaching on the nature of what went on in The Temple on Yom Kippur. It is well chosen for its purpose. The text of the Avodah service itself is bracketed by commentary that explains what is going on. It notes that every geographically distinct Jewish community in the world has significantly different words for this section. In an effort to reflect that, Lev Shalem’s version of this part of Yom Kippur is comprised of three sections, one from a 5th century Land of Israel poet, one from the 10th century preserved in Italian liturgy and a third one, also from the tenth century, that is common in the Ashkenazic rite.
Unique to Eit Ratzon among modern machzorim is Rosenstein’s inclusion of Hallel, the set of pslams recited in the morning on joyous holidays. Rosenstein notes in the introduction that Rosh Hashanah was considered a joyously holiday in ancient times and that Hallel was likely recited. “Hallel is included in Machzor Eit Ratzon, and any congregation that wants to be the first to recite Hallel on Rosh Hashanah in 2000 years is welcome to claim that distinction,” Rosenstein writes.
As with Eit Ratzon’s approach to the Avodah service, its approach to translation is more poetic than Lev Shalem’s. The best way to demonstrate is to show their approaches to the most well-known piece of liturgy for this season, Kol Nidrei.
Eit Ratzon translates it like this:
“All the vows, all the commitments, all the oaths that we take upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur–may this be a good year so that this statement is vacuous–we express our regrets in advance for making any such vows, and we announce that they are null and void. They cannot be upheld or enforced. These vows are not vows. These commitments are not commitments. These oaths are not oaths.”
Sounding less poetic and far wordier, Lev Shalem puts it like this:
“All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next–may it approach us for good–we hereby retract. […] Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations, [etc].”
Occasionally, in order to convey what he believes to be the feeling of the passage, Rosenstein translates more creatively, veering far from the literal meaning of the Hebrew. At each of these times, he offers a more direct translation in the commentary.
As with the translations, the commentary in Eit Ratzon focuses more on poetry than that of Lev Shalem. Rosenstein is not only a poetic translator, but excellent at explaining liturgical poetry. His explanations of the poetry of the liturgy, from the grand sweep of the service, to particularly cryptic lines are enlightening and do a lot to recommend Eit Ratzon. He strikes a hard balance between accessibility for those unfamiliar with the liturgy and offering insights that will be of interest to those who know the prayers by heart. The only shortcoming is that almost all of the commentary is from Rosenstein alone.
Lev Shalem, however, offers an incredibly diverse selection of commentators, including everyone from Chasidic masters to Abraham Joshua Heschel. However, far less of the commentary in Lev Shalem will be as accessible as the commentary in Eit Ratzon. Another way in which Eit Ratzon surpasses Lev Shalem is its introductory essays in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which give full histories of how both holidays have been perceived and observed throughout history.
Both machzorim, Lev Shalem and Eit Ratzon, are fantastic. Both have aspects of their very different design to recommend them. Both are tackling hard questions about how to relate to arcane pieces of liturgy. And, most impressively, both feature wonderfully informative commentaries. However, the issue of transliteration and the issue of accessibility of the commentary by Jews of all levels, leaves me recommending Eit Ratzon in the congregation context. If it were my task to choose a new machzor for a diverse liberal synagogue or minyan, I would choose Eit Ratzon. Not only is it the more accessible of the two, but the meditations throughout, though I have no need for them, make the machzor appealing to widest possible range of people.
However, I have personally no need for transliteration and I prefer a more intellectual, advanced commentary for myself. I also love the elegance of Lev Shalem. Though I would not foist it on a large group, it seems like a good fit for me. Perhaps for a prayer group that has an evenly expert fluency with the liturgy, Lev Shalem would be the better choice as well.
For the connoisseur of siddur design, Lev Shalem may be the best choice, though Eit Ratzon will still be quite intriguing. For the user already highly literate in Jewish liturgy, both will provide from commentaries, though Lev Shalem’s is more erudite. However, the diverse contemporary synagogue will find more points of access for more members in Eit Ratzon.
Machzor Eit Ratzon, without the support of a large movement, will certainly go the way of its companion, Siddur Eit Ratzon, being adopted by a surprising, if small number of synagogues and smaller groups. Rosenstein’s website lists about 60 groups currently using his siddur. On the end of the spectrum, 150,000 copies of Lev Shalem have already been ordered, “representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 [Conservative] affiliated congregations,” according to this article from JTA. There is no doubt that it will shortly become the most influential new machzor in many years. The Reform movement, a bellwether of liturgical change, began work this year on a new machzor, tentatively titled Mishkan T’shuvah. It will be interesting to see how these machzorim influence it. However, both Eith Ratzon and Lev Shalem are excellent entries into the market for their own reasons, and both well worth a look as we prepare for the High Holy Day season.