MIAMI — Even for Jews who attend synagogue only during the High Holy Days, which end at sundown Saturday with Yom Kippur, there's a certain timeless familiarity to the special seasonal prayer book: the machzor.
There are biblical references, ancient Hebrew prayers, Kabalistic meditations, and the wisdom of revered Jewish philosophers and theologians.
But courtesy of a new machzor that a Florida rabbi is helping develop, worshippers at 60 Reform congregations around the country found different, perhaps startling, voices joining their services during the High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at sunset Sept. 28.
Alongside traditional material meant to encourage reflection, repentance and spiritual growth, there's a passage from John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, a poem from George Eliot, and words of wisdom from Dr. Jonas Salk.
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By 2014, the still untitled machzor — commissioned by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organized rabbinate of Reform Judaism — is expected to become the standard High Holy Days text for most of the country's 800 Reform congregations.
The new machzor replaces the widely used Gates of Repentance, written in 1978 and, to some, not indicative of 21st-century life and consciousness.
The Reform Judaism congregation in Lexington, Temple Adath Israel, is not one of the pilots for the new machzor and continues to use Gates of Repentance, Rabbi Marc Kline said.
"The one we use is a good attempt to modernize an old tradition," he said of Gates of Repentance, adding that he's not sure whether his congregation would adopt the new machzor.
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg, the spiritual leader of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Fla., replaced Gates of Repentance with a machzor of his own creation in 2004 called Renew Our Days.
When the Central Conference of American Rabbis went looking for someone to captain a writer-editor team, Goldberg, 48, was the choice. A writer of four books, Goldberg considers himself "an iconoclast (who) wasn't happy with the status quo. ... It turns out that the rabbinate hasn't put (a machzor) together from scratch since 1894, just revisions."
But the rabbis acknowledge that a fresh approach to the machzor can be risky — indeed, any liturgical change in a 5,772-year-old religion can't come about without consternation, if not resistance.
Eddie Ginsburg, a member of Temple Judea's worship committee, said the editing team had an extremely difficult task melding the ancient and the modern.
For instance, take the traditional notion that a Jew's fate for the coming year is determined on Rosh Hashanah and then sealed on Yom Kippur, when the Book of Life is closed.
"That concept is difficult for me to accept," said Ginsburg. "I believe in God, but I also believe in free will, that we have choices. How are they going to deal with that in the new prayer book? Or are they even going to touch it? It's such an embedded tradition."
The text seeks to connect with worshipers at various stages of life with contemporary language, music and imagery. It follows a spiritual arc that begins with humility, soul searching and doubt, and ends with renewal, hope, and determination to help repair the world.
Each page offers a variety of options on a common theme, so that the worshiper has choices in prayer and meditation.
There are different versions of each prayer in a two-page spread. The right-hand page shows the prayer in Hebrew as well as a transliteration and English translation. The left-hand page offers poems or meditative passages, and commentary that provides additional context about the text or its author.
It's gender-neutral and replaces the arcane verbiage of some old prayers with progressive, more accessible language.
"It is egalitarian," said Rabbi Andy Gordon of the Scarsdale Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., another pilot congregation. "There are different metaphors for God. The image usually used is 'God is our father,' or 'God is our king.' But the book allows for a broader expression of God's presence in our lives. He's a nurturing presence. He's a source of insight and understanding. He's an intimate soul companion."
Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Beth Emeth in Teaneck, N.J., also a pilot congregation, thinks the language could be "challenging. Some of the Hebrew is different. The metaphors for God are different."
He pointed to Psalm 15, which uses female God language.
"While people are open to that, they are not used to that," Sirbu said.
An overhaul of the machzor seemed inevitable after the Reform Movement published a new weekly prayer book, or siddur, titled Mishkan T'filah ("dwelling place for prayer") in 2007, after 25 years of work.
"What we heard is using the new prayer book and going back to (Gates of Repentance) was jarring," said Rabbi Hara Person, publisher of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press in New York.
Person said the new machzor shares many of the siddur's features.
It reads from back to front, like a Hebrew text.
The new machzor suggests that humankind should recognize its ability and responsibility to create its own destiny, rather than relying on divine power — or as Goldberg puts it: "focus more on our accounting of our own souls."
The machzor does some noteworthy rearranging. Normally, the shofar, or ram's horn, is blown late, in the end of the service. In the new, format, it's blown throughout, to make the most of its "iconic" status, Goldberg said.
The rabbis acknowledge some might miss Gates of Repentance, so even pilot congregations using the new text for one particular Rosh Hashanah service will use the old book for their other services.
Goldberg said the 60 congregations will send feedback to the editing committee, which will use it to refine the work. He also expects direct input. "I'm sure I'll hear a lot about it on the receiving line."