An open letter to the Reform Machzor committee

The background to this is over here. This post is meant as a more succinct–and more correct–version of that post.

To Rabbi Edward Goldberg, Rabbi Leon Morris, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Sheldon Marder and the other scholars of their various subcommittees:

A little bird–an anonymous person on one of your subcommittees–told me that in the course of working out the order of the prayers in the forthcoming Reform machzor, it was suggested that Un’taneh Tokef be appended to the end of Shacharit, totally removed from its context in the Kedushah.

As you know, the most central problem that Reform liturgists encounter when working out the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah is the problem of Musaf. Reform liturgy has long excluded Musaf from its siddurim and machzorim out of discomfort with discussions and remembrances of sacrifice. Yet, on Rosh Hashanah, the most remarkable additions to the service were traditionally found in Musaf–Un’taneh Tokef as part the Kedushah, Malchuyot as part of Kedushat Hayom and Zichronot and Shofarot as their own special brachot within Musaf.

The novel solution to the pull of the special Rosh Hashanah prayers and the push of Musaf put forth by Gates of Repentance and the Union Prayer Book II before it was to include Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot in the grey area of the Torah service (GOR 139-151, 209-217; UPBII 1940 78-84) . Between the Torah reading and the return of the Sefer Torah to the ark, liturgists and prayer leaders often insert all kinds of things. Not only that, but this placement keeps these sections toward the end of the service, preserving the mood of climax created by their traditional place toward the end of the service in Musaf. However, as I will propose, there is a better way to include these sections while also respecting the Reform tradition of excluding Musaf.

Though UPBII excluded Un’taneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah, GOR inserted it as a “Meditation” preceding the Kedushah in the Rosh Hashanah Shacharit Amidah (106, 175).

So the question now is about how the new Reform machzor will handle these sections. My goal here is to offer a solution that respects liturgical structure and the context of individual prayers, while also respecting the Reform drive to leave Musaf out. In doing so, I will propose an order of prayers that includes no material that is not already in GOR, keeping the service the same length.

I propose is to combine the Shacharit Amidah with the special material from the Musaf Amidah into a single Shacharit Amidah. There is a precedent in Reform liturgy for taking material from a Musaf Amidah and putting it in another Amidah. My example is Yism’chu, which comes from Kedushat Hayom in Musaf, but has been offered as a part of the regular Kedushat Hayom by Reform liturgy (Mishkan T’filah 250, 329; Gates of Prayer 328, 343, 359, 375, 385; Ha’avodah Shebalev 120).

Under my plan, the Shacharit Amidah for Rosh Hashanah would proceed in the order of the traditional Musaf Amidah for Rosh Hashanah: Avot V’imahot, G’vurot, Kedushah–with Un’taneh Tokef included as a part of Kedushah, Kedushat Hayom–with Malchuyot included as a part of Kedushat Hayom, Zichronot, Shofarot, R’tzeih, Modim, Shalom and T’filat Halev.

Again, it is important to note that there is nothing in this proposal that is not in GOR in some form already. This is merely a different order that respects the Reform tradition of doing the Amidah once, while also taking care with the structural context of the special Rosh Hashanah prayers that Reform worshipers expect to find in their Rosh Hashanah experience. There is true liturgical power in keeping these four memorable Rosh Hashanah prayers in close proximity to each other, rather than splitting them up with one in one place and the other three in another place.

Of course, there is merit to retaining the mood set by having Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot near the end of the service. However, there is no point in pretending that Un’taneh Tokef is anything other than what it is–a part of Kedushah. If you all decide that the place for Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot is in the Torah service, there are fine arguments–though I don’t happen to agree with them–for doing so.

To remove Un’taneh Tokef from its context is a waste of the subtle point it makes as a part of Kedushah. Every day, the Kedushah is about the nature of God’s holiness and the ways that human beings interact with and communicate with it. On Rosh Hashanah, God takes on a particular role in our lives, that of a sovereign judge. This role is expanded upon in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in Un’taneh Tokef and its most appropriate place is in the prayer that discusses God’s holiness and role every day–the Kedushah.

So please, rabbis and scholars, leave Un’taneh Tokef in its Amidah context. And please also consider what I am proposing for the order of the Rosh Hashanah Shacharit Amidah and the place of Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.

Shavua tov, shanah tovah and tzom kal.


David A.M. Wilensky


7 responses to “An open letter to the Reform Machzor committee

  1. David, you always have smart and informed things to say, but I wonder if sometimes you just suffer from a case of Reform inferiority complex. I doubt more than 1 out of 50 congregants would pick up on what you are saying about the context of the Kedushah, and if that 1 out of 50 might not be happier at a Conservative synagogue. Maybe you would too.

    Strange as it may be to say it, Reform is one of the *traditions* of Judaism at this point about a 200 year old tradition, which in Jewish time isn’t all that long, but isn’t bupkes either. People who can’t recognize that and think it’s just a sort of “lite” Judaism are quite often intentionally misunderstanding it. There’s an anxiety about not being Jewish enough compared to the other streams. To that I say, it’s the largest stream (in America), so who’s authentic?

    I like the traditional liturgy too, but I have no illusions that we would lose membership in droves if we used it for everything. And I agree with one of your other commenters that as a result people are there on time for the most part. But, at least where I live, I’m lucky enough to be able to go to a Conservative synagogue if I’m feeling traditional.

    • I have no Reform inferiority complex. I am always the first to defend Reform from claims that we’re a bunch of uppity ill-informed shit-disturbers who will destroy Judaism and, by the way, the sky is falling etc.

      I love Reform thought. However, when it comes to liturgy, our feelings often precede our minds and concerns of length precede concerns of sense. The fact that perhaps only 1 in 50 will pick up on what I’m talking about isn’t proof that what I’m saying is irrelevant. It’s proof that the new machzor needs a robust commentary to supplement the prayers, in addition to the order I’m proposing. That no one picks up on good things isn’t a reason to not do good things. It’s a reason to point out the good things so that people can appreciate them.

      And again–and again and again–no one is going to run away because of length if what I’m suggesting is implemented. On the contrary, what I’m suggesting is NO LONGER than what is already in GOR.

  2. I still don’t understand what the @#$#! is wrong with having a Musaf Amidah! Why not leave out the korbanot and just say, this is an extra for the holiday?

    • I agree, Simcha. But it will never happen. So I’m proposing something that I think is totally within the realm of possibility.

    • Simcha, you can have it any time you want. Just go to a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue. Reform Judaism is not compulsory , and David’s suggestion for dealing with the parts of the service that in other streams are part of musaf is eminently sensible, even if of little concern to other than specialists.

  3. Pingback: Let the specialists show you something | The Reform Shuckle

  4. Thanks, this is really helpful! I’m putting together a condensed RH service for people who cannot make it to the full version, and was working on how to include elements of Musaf into one Amidah….

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