May 27, 2009

Groundbreaking, Part 2

Part 2: Prayer Books, Gender and Sex

“Groundbreaking” as dialogue across the spectrum?

Innovations in Prayer Language

The siddur Shavat va-Yinafash [“Rest and Be Renewed”], published in 1991, offers English and Hebrew text that is “gender-neutral in reference to God and gender-inclusive with respect to people.” It was developed by and for Bet Mishpachah (Washington, DC), a 35-year-old congregation “for Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Jews and all who wish to participate in an inclusive, egalitarian and mutually supportive community.”

Siddur Birkat Shalom similarly offers Hebrew and English that is egalitarian “for both God and humans.” Published in several iterations over more than a decade, it also encompasses a “greater variety of God images” and “new perspectives on Jews and non-Jews, good and evil, reward and punishment, and hierarchy.” This prayerbook was developed by Havurat Shalom (Somerville, MA), one of the oldest egalitarian minyanim [fellowships] in the U.S., with input from others, including Zoo Minyan (Washington, DC).

These siddurim are used beyond their authoring congregations, but they have not been highly promoted, as far as I know, or caused the stir that some other innovative prayerbooks have (see below). The innovations represented in these prayerbooks have had a wider impact, however.

For example, when Temple Micah (a Reform congregation) introduced feminine language for God in the blessings of Torah Service one Shabbat several years ago, many participants commented that the single, one-time change made them reconsider their views of God and prayer language. A Kol Isha workshop on the Psalms, which included more feminine language for God and prayer raised many questions for participants…. not necessarily “converting” anyone to using the siddur, but offering new perspectives on the ways we talk to and about God.

So, one response to innovative prayerbooks across the spectrum could simply be to find a copy and give it a chance to offer some new perspectives — being grateful for whatever is helpful and leaving alone what isn’t.

Innovations in Prayer Perspectives

For another siddur using innovative prayer language, see both Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha [“With All Your Heart”] — recently released by the non-denominational Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (NYC)– and
A Gay Synagogue in New York — published in 2002 and including a description of the years of study and practice behind the new volume.

Ben Harris, of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, reviewed this siddur, along with Sha’ar Zahav [Golden Gate], published by a San Francisco congregation of the same name. (I have not seen them myself.) He notes that each encompasses a number of additions and changes to the traditional text meant to make them more inclusive and supportive of kavanah [intention] within a more diverse community.

Among the changes of perspective which he notes in Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha is an addition to the Amidah [“Standing Prayer”]. Zilpah and Bilhah — maids to Leah and Rachel and, therefore, “partners of lesser legal standing” — are included among the Avot/Imahot [Ancestors]. (Working versions of Siddur Birkat Shalom also make this change; I don’t know about the most recent final version — or which other prayerbooks use it.)

Harris quotes Rabbi Nosson Scherman, the editor of the ArtScroll (Orthodox) siddur, saying that this is “in effect, rewriting the Torah itself.” (The same argument has been used as an objection to including the Matriarchs in the traditional Amidah.) Many Orthodox Jews would not, following this logic, be comfortable using B’chol L’vav’cha in the context of obligatory prayer. Perhaps the siddur can still serve to highlight, as in Harris’ review, the importance of recognizing “partners of lesser standing.”

Sha’ar Zahav [Golden Gate] (Reform) offers — again according to Harris’ review — several alternative Amidah prayers, including one that reads, in part: “God of oneness, infinite and eternal, how queer of you to have created anything at all.” Harris places this kind of change within “a growing body of liturgical innovation to emerge in recent years from the progressive wings of the Jewish community”:

Gender neutrality is now standard practice in Conservative and Reform prayer books, while the new siddur released last year by the Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, also includes multiple services in recognition of the community’s diversity.

Sha’ar Zahav and B’chol L’vav’cha are extending this practice by using language that embraces lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community members, including non-believers, Harris says.

In addition, Rabbi Camille Angel — rabbi to Sha’ar Zahav — says the new siddur is meant to serve those who “know how painful it is to hide the truest elements of our identity,” by bringing previously invisible experiences “out into the open to be celebrated and commemorated, to be shared with each other.”

The Jewish Outreach Institute’s “Big Tent” program notes, for example

The Jewish community is continually evolving and discovering innovative ways to reach out and make sure everyone can find meaning in Judaism. We believe such progress helps strengthen our community…

The mere existence of these resources will be of some benefit. But the volumes can only “make sure everyone can find meaning in Judaism,” if they are available. And this remains a challenge.

Some new additions to these siddurim — blessings for a first kiss, an HIV test, etc. — would seem useful to a fairly wide audience, and both volumes undoubtedly offer new perspectives on the service that could be useful to all. But Jews outside the LGBTQ community may not see a pressing need for these siddurim.

It seems unlikely that congregations without a special focus on outreach to the LGBTQ community will invest in large quantities of these resources. And some congregations and individuals, as noted above, will not find B’chol L’vav’cha and Sha’ar Zahav useful for regular prayer.

So what, if any, response to these siddurim is appropriate from those who won’t likely be using it?

Even leaders most supportive of Judaism’s welcoming of LBGTQ individuals balked at some of the additions to Sha’ar Zahav, finding them un-Jewish in one way or another. R. Angel’s article (mentioned above) was prompted by some of this criticism.

Is it necessary or useful to condemn changes contrary to a practice and belief on a different part of the spectrum?

Is it possible, instead, to focus on the “Torah within” siddurim which appear to raise difficulties in some way?

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