In Need of New Language

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) needs new God-language and is asking for input. Here are two cents, which I hope will be useful to the CCAR and all who happen upon them.

Searching for Reform perspectives on the Amidah, I stumbled upon a “RavBlog” post relating to one of the blessings. Rabbi Leon Morris, a member of the editorial team for the Reform movement’s inchoate machzor, asked: How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?

His post raises a number of questions, ones I’m not sure the author intended but ones the CCAR — and the rest of us — would do well to consider.

In Search of New Language

The CCAR is developing Mishkan HaNefesh: A Machzor for the Days of Awe, with a projected release date of 2015. For the new volume, they “seek metaphors and images of God that will speak to our time,” creating a liturgy that works for those who “resonate with traditional views of God” as well as those who “find it hard to believe in God at all.”

Among issues the editorial team aims to address is “gender language for God”:

Ours will be more than a superficial “He said, She said” approach; gender is far more profound and complex than substituting one noun or pronoun for another. We look forward to an exploration of gender that leads Reform Jews to encounter and experience God in interesting, meaningful ways.
— from the CCAR “Vision Statement for a New Reform Machzor”
Available on the Machzor HaNefesh webpage

Gender and God images are particularly prominent challenges at the high holidays: So much of the traditional language is about kingship (masculine and hierarchical) and judgement (masculine, hierarchical, and centered on themes of reward and punishment which the Reform movement has long eschewed). Moreover, many Jews who rarely see the year-round Mishkan T’filah will hold Mishkan HaNefesh.

But the basic issues of God- and worship-language are not specific to the time of year. And one of the examples that Morris shares strikes me as particularly instructive: An adaptation of “Like a woman who knows” by Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981), was removed after the machzor‘s first draft because “some felt it to be too racy to be read aloud in synagogue.”

The poem’s adaptation, selection and de-selection, raise a number of important questions about God and gender. As I see it, though, these have little to do with how “racy” or “current” the poem may be.

Change of Address

The original poem is a reflection with God as third person: “Like a woman who knows that her body entices me G-d taunts me: Flee if you can!…”

The version adapted by Chaim Stern, z”l, uses second person, direct address: “Like a woman who knows that her body entices me, God, You taunt me: Flee if you can!” See text in Morris’ post, but note typo: it should read “I knock on Your door.”

Stern’s version is copyright 1980, a year before the poet’s death, so presumably Greenberg approved the adaptation. Still, there is a big leap between speaking about feelings in a relationship — with God or with an individual — and speaking to the object of those feelings. Even an individual harboring exactly the feelings expressed in “Like a woman who knows” would probably express those feelings differently in direct address. So, perhaps it is the ill-advised adaptation that prompted the objection as much as its specific (“racy”) content.

I also wonder if the content would be as objectionable if placed somewhere else. Morris notes that it was “placed opposite Birkat Avodah (the “R’tzei – the fifth blessing of the festival Amidah).” This is, according to my research, the point where worshipers are begging that our words be accepted and preparing to step back out of the meeting with God.

…Angst-ridden reflections, as in the original poem, might arise at any point in a relationship; choosing to directly address such words of ambiguity and pain after a substantial communication, however, would nullify what went before, insulting both parties and damaging any long-term relationship. Davka [how much more so] direct, second-person address to God, following the substance of the Amidah. Expressing misgivings before the encounter — even aloud in direct address — is one thing, but flinging such expressions on the way out the door, so to speak, is quite another….

Moreover, changing the address of the poem presents another challenge that is not mentioned in Morris’ blog.

Assumptions Unchallenged?

Stern transformed Greenberg’s poem substantially for liturgical use, but he did not change the first line. Even 30 years down the road, apparently, no one thought to alter this to something more gender- and orientation-neutral (Something on the order of “Like a lover aware of the body’s enticement…”).

Without adaptation, the first line reinforces a “woman as temptress” trope — and, if the CCAR is seeking images that “speak to our time,” this is one they might endeavor to ditch!

In addition, using a passage like this for congregational recitation asks everyone reciting it to identify with a particular kind of attraction. We are not given specifics, but the objection(s) Morris reports is about the adaptation’s “racy” nature, not the liturgy’s accessibility to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Moreover, the CCAR vision for the new machzor speaks about “gender language for God.” It says nothing about the gender of the worshiper or presumed orientation behind many sexually-based metaphors.

Morris closes his blog with a set of questions:

Can the Machzor simultaneously inspire, while speaking to the reality of our everyday lives? Is there a place for sadness, regret, sensuality, anger, and doubt within the pages of the prayer book? What do we lose by including such readings, and what do we gain? What would be lost if we left them out? We’re interested in your thoughts.
— “How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?” on CCAR’s “RavBlog”

My question, in turn, is this: Is the editorial team carefully examining its assumptions about “the reality of our everyday lives”?

Final notes: CCAR, are you listening?

The independent Siddur Birkat Shalom is unique, to the best of my knowledge, in insisting on language that is egalitarian “for both God and humans.” The siddur adapts the Shema, e.g., in both Hebrew and English, so that a female worshiper hears herself addressed grammatically by God.

Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings uses first person plural, active voice for blessings — “Let us bless” — rather than the standard (and passive), “You are blessed.” Her focus is away from “dead metaphors,”patriarchy and hierarchy. (See, e.g., her Avodah [worship] blessing.).

Falk’s approach is so different, in fact, that Ira Eisenstein, z”l, wrote:

…for some, this may not be considered “prayer” at all; after all, how can it be prayer if it does not address God as a “Thou”? …[This approach] can be understood as “passionate reflection” and need not be addressed to a “Thou.”
— from discussion in The Reconstrutionist Spr/Fall 1997

Other siddurim published in recent decades have developed a variety of approaches to inclusiveness in gender, sexual-orientation, and other areas. (For more, see “Ground-Breaking.”)

The paths taken by Havurat Shalom, Marcia Falk, and others are not directly applicable to Mishkan HaNefesh. But they still have much to offer in “an exploration of gender that leads Reform Jews to encounter and experience God in interesting, meaningful ways.” And, while cross-denominational exploration has not always seemed apparent in previous Reform publications (see New ‘Ball of Fire’?), here’s hoping the editorial team is exploring these riches.

The National Blog Posting Month [NaBloPoMo] theme for December is “more/less.” I am participating in December, more or less.


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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