God may still be a He, but He is no longer a Lord, Father or King. For the second time in 13 years, the Conservative movement has overhauled its official prayer book, Siddur Sim Shalom, changing some of the prayers, but not all, into “gender-sensitive” language — God is now a Sovereign, a Guardian.
The new Sim Shalom features larger type and spins off the weekday prayers into a separate volume for easier handling and navigation. For example, there is now one table of contents for 400 pages, improving on the previous edition’s four separate tables of contents dispersed over 989 pages.
But the most radical change regards the Amidah, the centerpiece of every prayer service. In the new edition, edited by Maryland’s Rabbi Leonard Cahan, there are parallel Amidahs: one is the time-honored text, the second amends the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.This is the first time the Amidah has ever appeared this way in any official prayerbook outside the Reform movement.Similarly, those matriarchs and Miriam, Deborah and Ruth are invited in the official text of ushpizan (the recitation and welcoming of honorary guests) to the sukkah.Asked to compare the old and new volumes, Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor of the previous edition of the Sim Shalom, preferred not to directly comment. However, he sent as a reply an essay published in the journal Conservative Judaism in which he writes: “Each of us is entitled to formulate his or her personal prayers.
However, “My concern is that changes based upon gender language referring to God disrupt the integrity of the classic texts of Jewish prayer, drive a wedge between the language of the Bible and the language of the prayerbook, and often misrepresent biblical and rabbinic tradition
As for the Amidah, he says “No sensible person denies the importance of the matriarchs” but to shoehorn them into the Amidah betrays the literary and biblical structure of the classic text. He’s troubled that points of view unburdened by a negative attitude or prejudice against women “appear to be irrelevant” for those who “worship at the altar of inclusiveness, which for them is essential in ways that principles of liturgy and language apparently are not.”At times, new editor Cahan agrees, rejecting the feminist assertion that the Hebrew word for matriarchs be inserted alongside the word for patriarchs in the Amidah. Cahan says the Hebrew word for patriarchs is rightfully translated as “our ancestors,” and the text is inclusive as is.The language of the new Sim Shalom, stressed its editors, is “gender sensitive” rather than “gender neutral,” but many sexisms remain. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week, “No one says that [this] siddur is 100 percent consistent. One ends up doing things that make sense in terms of keeping the traditional, as well. The question is how far do you go?
For example, although God is stripped of honorariums such as king or father, the Sim Shalom gender-tilts by referring to the Sabbath as a “bride” or a “queen.
And the Sim Shalom’s Pirkei Avot — the “Teachings of the Sages” once known as “Ethics of the Fathers” — is hardly gender-sensitive with the translation “Do not engage in small talk with your wife… one who engages in small talk with his wife harms himself; he will neglect the study of Torah and in the end will inherit Gehenna,” or hell.The gender sensitivity is strained again within the Befi Yesharim suffix to the Sabbath morning Shochayn Ad. The Hebrew acrostic spells out Isaac’s name but anagrams into oblivion the name Rebecca. In the Nusach Sephard prayer books used by millions around the world, verses are rearranged so Rebecca’s name is spelled out clearly alongside her husband Isaac. But not here.Also among the missing, the Zohar’s beautiful Friday night prayer, Raza D’Shabbat, that had been thoughtfully adopted from the Sephardic ritual. It was in the previous Sim Shalom, but is now deleted, reducing the Sim Shalom to a strictly Ashkenaz experience.
Although angels are increasingly intriguing to Americans and theologians, angels are mostly exiled from the Sim Shalom. Angels are nowhere to be found in their traditional spot within the bedtime Shema; the famous Af-Bri, angel of rain, is excised from the Prayer for Rain. However, angels are still welcomed home Friday nights in the singing of Shalom Aleichem.On the more traditional hand, the hymn to women, the Ayshet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”) sung by husbands, had been considered too sexist and abridged by almost half in the previous edition. In the new Sim Shalom, Ayshet Chayil is restored to its full glory.Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the editorial committee “worked for seven years to produce this prayer book. We listened to our congregants and our rabbis. We responded by reexamining the meanings and reinterpreting many of the classic texts, adding interpretive comments and new readings, changing the format of the pages to achieve greater clarity, and including more transliterations of the Hebrew prayers.”Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Bnai Jeshurun praised the overdue inclusion of the matriarchs within the Amidah. But when asked why Bilha and Zilpa, two of Jacob’s four wives, were excluded from the feminist Amidah, Rabbi Matalon explained that “traditionally and legally, Bilha and Zilpa are surrogates for Leah and Rachel. On that level, their children are not theirs and they are not our matriarchs.”But another rabbi, who asked not to be named, pointed out that just as we are fixing the flaws of the patriarchal tradition by including the matriarchs, “We should not be bound by the social prejudice that reduces Bilha and Zilpa to surrogates; they should be respected as the biological mothers of four of Jacob’s 12 sons. Bilha and Zilpa are our mothers, too.”Rabbi Epstein of United Synagogue replied that “At the present time I don’t foresee” including Bilha and Zilpa. “But if you asked me 25 years ago whether I could forsee a point where Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah would be included, I couldn’t have foreseen that either. So I don’t know where we will be 25 years from now. A siddur has to keep the basic format of the prayers, but I think siddurim will change and should change each generation to reflect the nuances of that generation.”