This year the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly released its new High Holy Days prayer book — Mahzor Lev Shalem — featuring expanded English translations, new commentary, exposition, poems, meditations, and alternative readings. Like any new prayer book, it is being greeted with both enthusiasm and trepidation.
Negotiating between “tradition” and “change” is never easy, especially in a religious community. Traditionalists worry that change erodes values — values that can’t be abandoned merely to make the rituals seem “fresh” or modern. Proponents of change worry that, to quote Carmi Wisemon, “no matter how sweet, good, or true the Jewish experience, with time any ritual or system can appear monotonous, tedious, and eventually outdated.”
In its commentary on Zihronot, the Rosh Hashana “Remembrance” passages, Mahzor Lev Shalem raises questions about change and tradition for both the individual and the community: “What ought we try to remember? Jewish tradition asks us to hold on to those memories that will guide us in the future, those that have the power to give direction to our lives. What have we done or heard that might instruct us? Which memories of events in our lives, which behavior of ours has something to teach us: about the care with which we relate to others, about our truthfulness, about our doing what is right, or of our using our talents to bring about a better world?”
The commentary understands that the central theme of the High Holy Days is the tension between Tradition and Change — Return and Renewal. We seek to change as individuals and grow as communities, without sacrificing our identities and histories along the way. Change is good and often necessary, but not if it alienates us from our pasts.
The poet Joel Rosenberg suggests that the Hebrew word for year — “shana,” as in Rosh Hashana — is based on a root meaning both repetition and difference. When we wish each other a “Shana Tova,” we’re really wishing one another a year of return and renewal, a year of tradition and change.