For the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.
This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.
So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.
So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.
So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.
[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]