Siddur  B’Chol L’vav’cha: With All Your Heart, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York: 2008) and Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco: 2009).

 

 

In mid-1970s, I was privileged to know and teach three young women who were determined to write a feminist prayerbook that would embody feminist consciousness but still adhere to the basic structure of traditional Jewish liturgy. Their work, Siddur Nashim: A Sabbath Prayerbook for Women, by N. Janowitz and M. Wenig (Providence, RI: 1976), broke new ground in the area of contemporary liturgy. The authors changed the metaphors we use for God, they changed the pronouns, they wrote new material, they even wrote a controversial prayer on menstruation. At the decision of its authors, the Siddur Nashim was never formally published and is still available only in copies from Rabbi Maggie Wenig <mwenig@huc.edu>.

 

Siddur Nashim was followed by much innovation in liturgy. The Conservative and Reform movements undertook revisions of their prayer books with special attention to the place of women. Compilations of prayers and essays on life cycle rituals for women were published. The two most notable efforts (in my opinion) were the revisions of the Reconstructionist prayer book, Kol Haneshama (The Reconstructionist Press, Wyncote, PA: 1993, 1996) and the very bold and beautiful The Book of Blessings by Marcia Falk (HarperSanFrancisco: 1996).

 

As these new forms of liturgy were evolving, feminist consciousness grew to include consciousness of the other, all the others, particularly gays and lesbians.[1] In the Jewish community as elsewhere, this group had remained marginal. Even the most well-intentioned of us were, then, mildly-to- severely homophobic, the biblical prohibition against such relationships remaining strong even as other prohibitions were weakened. Gradually, however, the gay community gained fuller acceptance in society as a whole and in the Jewish community as well. There is now a widespread recognition of the situation of gay and lesbian Jews. Even the Orthodox community, the most resistant element in Jewish society, has become sensitized (see the film on the subject entitled, Trembling Before God [New Yorker Videos, New York: 2003]).

 

Gays and lesbians, meanwhile, gathered and drew up their own prayer books. I think the first congregation to formally publish a prayer book acceptable to the gay community was the Beth Simchat Torah community in New York. They published the first edition of Siddur B’Chol L’vav’cha in 1981 and a subsequent revision in 2007. Now, the synagogue, clearly labeled “An LGBT Synagogue for People of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities,” has published a new edition (2008). Congregation Sha’ar Zahav of San Francisco followed suit with Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (1982, 1994, 2000, and now 2009). I would like to comment on these two prayer books but, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I am heterosexual with a wife, three children, and five grandchildren. I am also a traditional Jew with rabbinic ordination as a Conservative rabbi though I belong to a modern Orthodox, Young Israel, community. I am also a professor of Jewish Studies and have taught and written Jewish liturgical texts (see Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest [Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY: 1993] 265-99).

 

Siddur  B’Chol L’vav’cha is a very beautiful book. It is very clear that its authors are learned in Jewish and secular culture, as well as spiritual and poetic human beings. The Siddur stands out in three areas.

 

The Siddur  uses inclusive language. Examples: The traditional Amida (Silent Devotion; 106) evokes the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs. I am particularly pleased that the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, have been included; our father, Jacob, went out of his way to see that the children from these marriages would not be discriminated against although their mothers were not full wives. The Bar’chu (Call to Worship; 78) contains grammatically correct forms with feminine endings as well as the usual masculine endings. The greeting in L’cha Dodi (the poem receiving the Sabbath Queen; 68-70) substitutes “Like [sic] a heart rejoices in love” for “as a groom rejoices over his bride” and “crown of God” for “crown of her husband.” In an even broader inclusiveness, the Alenu (Adoration; 140) and the Ata v’chartanu (holiday insertion into the Amida; 268) offer alternative inclusive language alongside the exclusivist chosen-people language of the original.

 

There is wonderful new material that the authors share with us: There is a beautiful alterative to the Amida (Silent Devotion; 124-25), two thoughtful prayers for our country (176-77), and poems by Walt Whitman (together with Naomi Shemer’s Hebrew translation; 240-41), Agnon, Adrienne Rich, and others. There is also Debbie Friedman’s beautiful prayer for the sick (133) plus new prayers for the sick that, thoughtfully, include addicts, the emotionally ill, and the caregivers (130-31). And then there are poems in Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

 

There are, to be sure, also prayers especially for gays, transgendered persons, and others: The new Al ha-Nissim (prayer for miracles inserted into the Amida; 114-15, 256-57) is particularly bold because it follows the traditional form while introducing new content for Gay Pride Shabbat. There are also prayers for those suffering from HIV-AIDS, for those who are coming out, for those who have died, and special prayers for AIDS Day and Gay Pride Shabbat (200-05, 256-63). These prayers are important, not only for their poignant beauty, but because they bring gays and lesbians into the synagogue, into the liturgy of the Jewish people, and into the presence of God.

 

Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, published in San Francisco, is also a beautiful book. The same three areas focus the work of this prayerbook.

 

The Siddur uses inclusive language. Examples: There is a twofold Baruch She-amar (Introduction to the Psalms of praise; 194-95), a twofold Ein Kelohenu (concluding hymn; 472-75), and an alternate version for the prayer for nature in the evening service (146-48; though none for the blessing which follows on chosenness). In an attempt to reach out even more inclusively, this Siddur uses three versions of the blessing of the Shabbat candles (masculine, feminine, and Marcia Falk’s ‘fountain of life’ language; 104), four versions of ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride’ (Lecha Dodi; 130), and three versions of ‘and the children of Israel shall observe’ (Ve-shamru; 171) and ‘how good it is for brothers to dwell together’ (Hineh mah tov; 99). Even the woman’s interpretive version of the Amida, however, does not include the concubines (258-59).

 

There is some very beautiful new material that the authors share with us: There is a fine series of prayers dealing with “Relationship” which includes, among others, prayers for the end of life, for surrogate mothers, and for the childless (25-38); prayers for those who are ill, recovering, and caregivers (39-42); and prayers for life cycle events (47-52). There is a very reflective Interpretive Amida (Silent Devotion, 298-301), a bold new version of what was once the prayer for the restoration of sacrifices (246), poems in Yiddish and Ladino (including one with the Judeo-Spanish text in Hebrew characters, 476-79), and artwork. There is even a meditation in place of the Amida for non-believers (266-67) and a multiple-orientation and historically informed list of guests for the Sukka (390-91).

 

There are, to be sure, also prayers especially for gays, transgendered persons, and others scattered throughout the book, including personal prayers (18-24) and prayers for Gay Pride Shabbat and HIV-AIDS Day (442-43). There is even a Queer Amida (260-62).

 

There are three problems that bother me with both these prayer books. First, the translation of Psalms: Here, to my mind, the educated, spiritual, and poetic authors have failed because most psalms contain many voices that alternate as the text develops. Psalms 27, 30, and 91 are among the best examples of religious poetry in which the voice of the poet changes every few verses, giving us a wide range of this religious imagery and emotion. The translations before us simply do not reflect this range of voice. They seem, rather, stilted; written in two line insets or four line stanzas perhaps for congregational reading. (This is true of the translation of some of the medieval Hebrew poetry too.)See, by contrast, my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, 57-192; or my website, http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/index.html, under Student Work, for examples of how I think Psalms need to be read in the multiplicity of their inner voices, as well as together with the voice of the reader.

 

Second, Siddur Zahav includes a wonderful short interpretation of “on your heart” by the Chasidic Rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (227). This brief paragraph contains very deep psychological and spiritual insight into how to recite that line. Modern prayer books need much, much more of this: directions on how to recite the liturgy, on how to give meaning to a pre-existing text. I’m not sure we need more inclusive language or more examples of prayers, however good, written by others. It used to be the case that Catholic schools included instruction on how to recite the Lord’s Prayer though my students tell me this is no longer the case. I do not recall any such instruction in this during the long years I spent in religious schools, including a rabbinic seminary. Again, see my website, under Articles, for my attempt to do this.

 

Finally, though this is minor, I do not understand including, in a modern prayerbook, invocations of the magical names of God though they do occur in the traditional prayerbook (e.g., just before Lecha Dodi). Nor do I understand prayers to ‘ameliorate dreams’ though dreams can certainly be frightening.

 

The new editions of Siddur  B’Chol L’vav’cha and Siddur Zahav are fine additions to the liturgical literature of modern Judaism. Their learnedness, sincerity, beauty, and boldness are to be praised. There is, however, work still to be done in our effort to make prayer an important part of our spiritual lives.

 

David R. Blumenthal

Emory University



This review essay appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 17:3 (2010) 341-44.

[1] The situation of intermarried persons and that of children of such couples, as well as the situation of race and mixed racial couples, also became foci as what had been feminist consciousness grew to include more of the other.