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Rabbis’ Manual Offers Prayers for Life’s Tribulations, Mitzvahs

Nowhere is it more obvious that religious life has changed in recent decades for many American Jews than in the new Conservative manual for rabbis.

The 688-page, two-volume set — which is three times as long as the last edition, published in 1965 — is full of rituals for life’s threshold moments that had historically remained unmarked by formal Jewish prayer.

The new Morch Derech, or Rabbis’ Guide, issued this week by the Conservative movement, reflects clearly how Jewish spirituality and liturgy have become much more personalized than they were in the past.

Now, when a baby with disabilities is born, a teen enters college or an older person retires, the Conservative movement has a prayer to mark the occasion.

There are different supplementary blessings for couples being married — the one for younger couples includes mention of children, and the one for older pairs focuses on companionship.

Three variations of a ritual to mark a baby’s adoption are presented, as are three different naming ceremonies for girls. For boys, the traditional ceremony for brit milah, or circumcision, is included.

Also included are a prayer to mark a miscarriage, including immersion in a mikvah afterward, a prayer to help cope with infertility, and a ceremony to aid a couple or woman following an abortion.

Another new element is a grieving and burial ritual after the death of a newborn, still-born or premature baby.

Until now, there were no widely disseminated guidelines from the Conservative movement to offer comfort to people in any of these circumstances.

All of the English translations are rendered in gender-neutral language.

"That has been a feminist issue but it’s also one of the maturity of the Jewish community in general. It’s not a deviation from the past, but a confirmation of Jewish theology, which has always regarded God as beyond gender," said Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, one of the manual’s two editors.

More than a decade ago, when the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly began work on the new manual, the goal was to revise slightly what already existed.

But "it became clear that we needed more. The Jewish community had changed, had become more open to tradition, was more aware of Israel, and women were coming into the rabbinate," Rank said.

In the end, more than 100 different Conservative rabbis were involved in the endeavor, about 10 of them female.

Information about conversion to Judaism has been expanded, Rank said. Conservative movement practices around conversion haven’t changed over time, but there was a desire to make sure the practices were standardized.

"Our motivation was to make sure everyone was on the same page in our movement," said Rank.

"When our Orthodox colleagues pick up the manual, they will see how strict we are about maintaining a traditional ceremony for conversion," he said.

There were some ardent debates during the editing process, Rank said.

One occurred over the level of detail that should be included in the ritual after an abortion. Its author, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, has created four distinct rituals — which she uses in her own work — tailored to the different circumstances under which women terminate pregnancies.

"We weren’t ready for that kind of specificity," Rank said. "We distilled the most fundamental aspects of the ceremony and expect the rabbi to adapt it to the circumstance."

Also illuminating is what was left out, in this version, which had been included in the 1965 rabbis guide — specifically a lengthy groundbreaking ceremony for new synagogues.

"In the 1960s, we were building buildings. In the 1990s, we are building communities. The focus has changed," Rank said.

In the newer version, there is more focus on Torah study in shiva homes and other circumstances — another reflection of changing times, he said.

"It shows that Jews are seeking solace through traditional sources and have an openness toward study," Rank said.

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