“I want to be written again/in the Book of Life, to be written every single day/till the writing hand hurts.”
Like the call of the shofar, those last lines of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “I Walked Past a House Where I Lived Once,” herald the coming Days of Awe.
Several new books, including collections of essays and a new mahzor, or holiday prayer book, from the Conservative movement emphasize the themes of the holidays: new possibilities, new meanings and the resiliency of human beings and, at the same time, the very fragility of life.
The Conservative movement’s new prayer book, “Mahzor Lev Shalem” (Rabbinical Assembly), is striking in its presentation. The volume is beautifully produced, with sensitive attention to layout, design and typeface, and a new Hebrew font. The style of the pages is inspired by illuminated manuscripts of old, recast with modern sensibilities.
The Hebrew text is set in uninterrupted style with adjacent commentaries on the right-hand page, while the facing left-hand page features new English translation reflecting the original Hebrew, along with poems, quotes, contemporary and traditional readings drawn from chasidic stories, the Talmud and the Zohar, and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, poet Kadya Molodowsky and many others. Many classical piyyutim, or liturgical poems, featured here are appearing in a Conservative mahzor for the first time.
The title phrase, which translates as “complete heart,” as explained by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, was “used by Solomon in a prayer of dedication for our First Temple in Jerusalem” and “evokes images of a person who comes to worship bearing a desire to integrate his or her life experiences into a meaningful unity, and who is further shaped by worship into a person of even greater wholeness.”
Twelve years in the making, the new mahzor was composed and compiled by a committee of rabbis and scholars chaired by Rabbi Edward Feld.
The refrain “Tikleh,” which appears in Hebrew, English and transliteration, taken from a Rosh HaShanah piyyut in the Sephardic liturgy, “May this year’s troubles end, and a year of blessing begin.”
In “Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah,” (Jewish Lights), Dr. Louis E. Newman explores a central teaching of Judaism in its many dimensions. The author, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., approaches questions of repentance as a historian of Judaism with a long interest in Jewish ethics; his reflections are both academic and personal.
He lays out the path of teshuvah, focusing on the principles of truthfulness, responsibility and humility, and takes readers along it step-by-step, although it is a path that is neither short nor straight. To do teshuvah requires authentic turning, returning and responding. His voice is wise and encouraging, positive and practical, cautioning against despair, underlining the hope that the past can lead to a better future.
“Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights) provides an in-depth analysis of the traditional Ashkenzi prayer said on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with commentaries by Jewish thinkers across the denominations. The essays look at the powerful liturgy with its memorable, even haunting tone, in all its fullness — its history, authorship, legend and layers of meaning, as well as its drama and poetics.
Rabbi Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and author of many books, provides the context of the original story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, and offers his own translation of Sefer Or Zarua, a 12th-century work by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna. Rabbi Amnon was asked to convert by the local bishop. When he failed to appear, he was brought by force to the bishop, who ordered that his toes and fingers be hacked off. Rabbi Amnon was brought to the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, where he recited this prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, that none had heard before, and then died. A few days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshulam, to teach him the prayer and encourage him to spread it.
The prayer, as translated here by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, reads, “…And You will open the book of memories/And it will be read from:/Everyone’s signature is in it./And a great shofar will be sounded/And a thin whisper of a sound will be heard./” The book’s title appears a few lines later, “How many will pass on and how many will be created./Who will live and who will die./Who at their end and who not at their end./Who by fire and who by water…”
Some of the contributors write of the theological challenges of the prayer. Dr. Marc Brettler offers a biblical perspective and Rabbi Daniel Landes shares a halachic understanding; Dr. Erica Brown recognizes God as a writer, and all of us as “authors of our own future.” Rabbi Ruth Durchslag shows how the prayer reminds us to heed the “voice of silence” and Rabbi Sharon Brous shows how the liturgy can encourage us to search for greater meaning and purpose in the life we have. As she writes, “The annual High Holy Day encounter with death is designed to unsettle our routines, break us free from stagnation and shock our system out of it instinctive selfishness and indulgence.”
“Jewish Theology In Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations & Future of Jewish Belief,” edited by Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove (Jewish Lights), includes essays that are deceptively brief, as many are groundbreaking and powerful in presenting deep theological concepts. The tone is sophisticated but not academic, geared to a lay reader. Contributors include Rabbis Shai Held, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Naamah Kelman, Leon A. Morris, Asher Lopatin; Professors Eitan Fishbane, Benjamin Sommers, Marc B. Shapiro and others. Many are essays to read and reread.