New Conservative Prayer Book Includes Judaism’s Foremothers
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New Conservative Prayer Book Includes Judaism’s Foremothers

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Eight years after the Conservative movement sanctioned the inclusion of Judaism’s foremothers alongside the recitation of their husbands’ names in worship, the change has now been incorporated into a prayer book.

But while the matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — are included along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the term “emoteinu,” or our mothers, which includes them all, is not incorporated alongside “avoteinu,” or our fathers.

The language in the new edition of Siddur Sim Shalom is “gender sensitive,” but not “gender neutral,” said Rabbi Leonard Cahan, chief editor of the prayer book, jointly published this week by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

The first revision of the siddur in 13 years also changes the language used for God. Instead of “Lord,” “Father” and “King,” the prayer book uses language its editors considered more neutral, like “Sovereign” and “Guardian.”

Some say that the changes made in the new edition are so minor that they are virtually irrelevant. In fact, some Conservative congregations already include both the names of the biblical mothers and the word “emoteinu” in practice.

“That it took them so long to deal with this incredibly minor change of adding the matriarchs, which their own rules committee allowed, is preposterous,” said liturgist Marcia Falk, who grew up in the Conservative movement but now identifies herself as non-denominational.

“Now to quibble over adding `emoteinu’ is an incredible denial of what people’s experiences and needs are out there. The changes were so minuscule, why even bother? It belies a lack of serious confrontation with the tradition, with the religion. It’s not a real wrestling and real grappling” with the meaning of prayer, said Falk, whose 1996 book, “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival,” was a rewriting of the traditional liturgy.

Cahan said the editorial committee’s decision was based on its understanding that “avoteinu” means “our ancestors,” both male and female. “Those who advocate `emoteinu’ just don’t understand Hebrew grammar,” said Cahan, who is the spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom, in Potomac, Md.

Still others think that the changes were too radical.

Rabbi Jules Harlow, who edited the original Siddur Sim Shalom, which was published in 1985, wrote in the Winter 1997 edition of the journal Conservative Judaism that changing the wording of worship breaks the connection between the language of the Bible and the language of the prayer book, “a close connection which is a basic feature of Jewish liturgy.”

Harlow was involved in the new edition for the first two years of the committee’s work, but he resigned when he retired about five years ago, and since then has distanced himself from the new edition.

Cahan acknowledged that after Harlow “left, the committee we made decisions more radical than some of the things he would have liked.”

During the seven years that the editorial committee worked to re-translate the prayer book, its members referred to previously published Conservative prayer books as well as ones issued by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements.

“We wanted to try and do the kinds of things that will appeal to a very broad spectrum of the movement,” he said. “Conservative Judaism has always been very much a coalition of traditionalists and much more radical liberals, but that spectrum has in recent years become somewhat broader.”

What impact the new siddur will have on individual congregations is not clear.

It generally takes many years for any new liturgy to gain widespread use and buying several hundreds of new prayer books is an expensive proposition for any congregation.

Indeed, despite its now-archaic language, at least 300 of the roughly 820 affiliated Conservative synagogues are using the Silverman prayer book, which was published in 1946.

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