Last week my congregation had the opportunity to help the Reform movement beta-test its forthcoming new machzor (high holiday prayerbook.) This is an early version in draft form; the best reports I've heard hold that the new machzor might be finished in 2014, so it's not coming out anytime soon! Anyway, we held a Rosh Hashanah service last Thursday night, using the new machzor as our roadmap for the service. It was surreal on many levels: praying the morning liturgy in the evening after nightfall, davening this liturgy which I so strongly associate with late summer in these cold, sleety days of not-yet-spring, davening with an intimate crowd a service which I associate with our sanctuary being packed to the gills, and maybe most of all, singing melodies which are intricately woven into one time of year at a different time of year altogether.
One of the things I love best about the way Jewish liturgy works is our system of melodies. There are a couple of melodic modes for weekday prayer, and another for Shabbat. (In many liberal congregations, the traditional Shabbat melodic modes have been largely replaced with what I'd call "tunes" -- composed melodies, written for various pieces of liturgy -- but the older tradition is to daven the Shabbat prayers in the Shabbat musical mode, as distinct from the weekday ones.) And it's not just a matter of weekday and Shabbat. There are melodic modes for different liturgical times of year, like High Holidays and Shalosh Regalim (the once-upon-a-time pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.)
Ten years ago I was almost entirely unconscious of this. But one of the happy side effects of 5+ years of rabbinic training is that I'm much more steeped, now, in liturgy and its attendant music than I used to be. I love the way that the different melody-systems play off of each other and the way they are distinct from one another. Shabbat prayer is meant to sound different from weekday prayer; festival prayer is meant to sound different from Shabbat prayer. Each one shines against the backdrop of the others. And each one feels connected with the particular time of year when it takes place -- which is why preparing to lead High Holiday liturgy, using the High Holiday melodic mode, at a time of year when the sleet and slush are piling up outside and I'm starting to think ahead to Pesach, just feels weird! But it gave me an opportunity to think about prayer in an interesting way.
One of the staples of the DLTI experience was co-leading services with my fellow students. And after services, we would "workshop" what we had done. After morning prayer had ended, for instance, the service-leaders might be called back up to the front of the room to run through some particular part of the service again, and our teachers would encourage us to take risks, try new things, or maybe try the same things we'd already done but with different intention or posture (physically and spiritually.) One of the things they would stress was that when we entered into a service again in that way, we were davening "in realtime" -- we weren't pretending to pray, we were re-entering the flow of the actual service and re-entering that moment of prayer as though it were happening for the first time right now.
That's how I thought about our "Rosh Hashanah in Adar" service. It wasn't a "mock" service; I didn't want to be merely pretending to pray this liturgy, even if the liturgy and its attendant tunes felt out-of-season. It was weird, re-entering the emotional and spiritual headspace of the Days of Awe in this moment just before Purim, but it was an opportunity to re-inhabit teshuvah (repentance / atonement) and to remember the joy of a new year beginning. In truth, teshuvah is something we're meant to be doing all year 'round; and every moment can be a new beginning if we're open to seeing it in that way.
It did feel good to run across prayers and melodies which are like old friends to me. And as far as the beta-test itself went, there's much that I enjoyed about the new Reform machzor... though they also made some decisions which I'm uncertain about. I'll be curious to see what form the machzor eventually takes; I'm guessing that by the time it reaches print, it may look pretty different from what we used in our davening. Anyway, it was a fascinating experience. Thanks, Reform movement, for giving me an opportunity to pray-test the new liturgy.