Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, 12th September 1986.
Days of Awe: the High Holy-day Machzor: Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Oxford University Press, £13.95.
This attractively produced, thoroughly revised edition of the Reform machzor for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur contains, in addition to the prayers and a commentary on them, a study anthology arranged according to themes, so that here Reform is completely traditional in treating learning as equal (in some respects, superior) to prayer.
The problem for compilers of a Reform prayer-book has always been how to give due weight to new ideas without negating or severely diminishing the impact of the old words.
The chief method used by the editors of this volume is to give the Hebrew in its traditional form, but to paraphrase in English in accord with Reform philosophy.
The book deserves more detailed treatment but, for considerations of space, only a few of the translations can be noted.
The statement that the judgments are written down on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur is rendered, in English, as: “On Rosh Hashana we consider how judgement is formed; on Yom Kippur we consider how judgement is sealed” (italics mine).
Bothered presumably by the notion of an actual divine judgement at a particular period of the year, the translators shift the emphasis on to more intense human perception during this period.
The statement about averting the evil decree becomes in English: “Yet repentance, prayer and good deeds can transform the harshness in our destiny,” meaning, one supposes, that these laudible activities enable us to bear our sufferings.
The benediction thanking God for not having “made me a stranger” (nochri, itself a substitute for goy) similarly points, in the translation, more to human psychology than to the divine activity:
When I doubt Your existence our make a god of my desires, let me find You again. Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has not made me a stranger to You.”
Whatever the value of this sentiment, by no stretch of the imagination can it be the meaning of the Hebrew. Again, the opening formula for Kol Nidre – “We (i.e., the court) permit praying with the sinners” cannot bear the translation “We are permitted to pray with each other who have sinned,” quite apart from the doubtful English syntax.
It is a valiant attempt, but it can be questioned whether it would not be better either to have changed the Hebrew in these instances, or to have given an English translation more faithful to the Hebrew, leaving it to the worshipper to grapple with the theological and other difficulties – solving these, perhaps, by recognising that much of the original is poetry.
Occasionally, the striving for relevance results in priggishness or banality, as in the supposedly contemporary confessions “For pushing in queues. For stealing telephone calls. For saying: ‘It’s not fait.’ For saying: ‘Why me?’”
In the very lengthy and moving martyrology, the benediction to be recited by a martyr before being killed is recorded. If this is only given as a reminder of the past, fine. But if, as it seems, it is for recitation by the congregation it cheapens the extraordinary and terrible act of martyrdom by applying the benediction to ordinary worshippers on a calm afternoon of quiet reflection.
This machzor has, I understand, won golden opinions in Reform congregations, and one can see why. The mood has been effectively captured and the editors have produced exactly what contemporary Reform Jews want.
But not every worshipper on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur wants to be contemporary. many of us still prefer to daven out of the old machzor, which, by the very distance between some of its formulations and our more modernistic ideas, provides us on the Days of Awe with the reminder that our religion reaches out beyond any particular era.
Rabbi Dr LOUIS JACOBS