When a couple in his congregation told Rabbi Gordon Freeman of their infertility and asked for spiritual help, the rabbi confessed that he had not realized all of the ramifications.
“They said they wanted to deal with it in a ritual manner,” recalled the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, Calif. “They wanted to know how our tradition could help them deal with it. They had already gone to therapists.”
The “Rabbi’s Manual,” which contains prayers primarily for life-cycle events, was of no help. Published 33 years ago by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, it did not contain even a hint of how to deal with this issue. So together with the couple, the rabbi wrote a service.
“We looked for psalms that would be appropriate,” said Rabbi Freeman. “Because they said they felt they were not perfect, we looked for psalms that dealt with issues of perfection. And I learned that when a woman is infertile, she has a list of other physical problems that go along with that. So we added prayers for healing, and we created new prayers.
“We did the ritual and it was very powerful. They said it gave them comfort and made them feel they were part of the Jewish people even though they couldn’t have children. As it turns out, they later adopted.”
The service they wrote has been included in the RA’s updated “Rabbi’s Manual” unveiled this week. The new manual, the first since 1966, includes so many new prayers it has been published in two volumes. The first consists of about 250 pages, compared with the original manual’s 222 pages. The second volume has about 300 pages. Like the original, they are black and small.
Written in modern English and gender sensitive (it includes the matriarchs along with the patriarchs in blessings), the manual is designed to help rabbis reach out to congregants, many of whom are seeking a deeper sense of spirituality at century’s end. Many of the ceremonies include sections to be read by family members, not just rabbis.
Until its publication, rabbis have been forced to create their own ceremonies for everything from welcoming a new convert into the congregation to naming a newborn girl. The old manual had a single prayer for naming a girl; its successor has three alternative ceremonies and includes readings for the grandparents. The ceremony surrounding a brit similarly includes a reading for the grandparents.
“What we’ve found is that the rabbi is being asked to be involved in people’s lives more and more,” said Rabbi Perry Rank, co-editor of the manual. “Although not everything is amenable to a public ceremony, there is a spiritual response [to events].”
Rabbi Freeman said the new manual “breaks new ground by saying we’re about hope and that … God cares about you no matter what you are doing in your life. Unless people feel that tradition is speaking to them — to their intimate personal lives — Judaism is meaningless. These prayers not only bring people closer to God but God closer to them.”
rayers allow rabbis to “do something beyond counseling that is of a spiritual nature,” Rabbi Rank said. He noted that although some “tend in our modern world to dismiss this sort of thing,” studies have found that “mind matters in the healing process. Prayer works.”
The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, said the manual is designed to “help rabbis make ritual and life-cycle events more sacred and involving for the entire community.”
Said Rabbi Freeman: “The book reflects a merger between tradition and people. We don’t see a dichotomy between Judaism and what people go through in their daily lives. Every act becomes a moment for a potentially sacred moment.”
Among the new prayers in the manual: for retirement, a special birthday, when a young person goes off to college and when a child goes to sleepaway camp for the first time. Also, prayers for making one’s home kosher, returning to Judaism after having converted to another religion and after receiving a Jewish divorce. There are suggestions as well for prayers at an interfaith Thanksgiving service.
Rabbi Freeman said the manual also contains a section devoted to the “birth trauma. No one has ever marked it before in any culture.”
Two women rabbis, Amy Eilberg and Nina Cardin, who held a retreat for other women rabbis to determine what to include, edited that section. What they came up with were prayers to be recited after the birth of a child with disabilities or special needs, after a miscarriage, after a neonatal death and after the termination of a pregnancy.
A different rabbi, who was asked to gather material from his colleagues across the country, edited each section of the manual.
“We called upon our colleagues and said, ‘You are on the scene, what do you need to transfer life-cycle events into sacred moments?’ ” said Rabbi Freeman.
Rabbi Rank, of Temple Beth Ahm in Springfield, N.J., said it took 10 years to compile the material. Some of it was met with criticism. For instance, the draft version included a change-of-name ceremony for the gravely ill. Dating back to the Talmudic period, the rite is based on the belief that adding a name may alter the evil decree. The prayer asks that the “evil decree be changed from severity to compassion, from death to life, from sickness to health.”
The publications committee struck it.“They said, ‘This is the Conservative movement, we don’t do it,’ ” Rabbi Rank recalled.So he removed the ceremony. But when the rabbi showed the manual to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, “They said, ‘where is it, put it in.’ That’s one of the reasons why it took 10 years to produce this book.”
While that ritual made the manual, the prayer for when a young person gets his or her driver’s license did not fare as well.“That’s a time of anxiety for the parents and the driver,” Rabbi Rank said, “but it ultimately did not make it because there were a number of objections raised by those on the publications committee who worried about the dignity of the book.”