New Conservative prayerbook fails to cause stir here

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NEW YORK — 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 prayerbook.

Several Bay Area Conservative rabbis approve of the new edition of Siddur Sim Shalom, which was jointly published last month by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the movement's Rabbinical Assembly. However, many said they had been using egalitarian language in services for years.

"To us, God has no gender," said Rabbi Ted Alexander, who has been with Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco for 31 years. "For 25 years, we've tried to be as non-sexist as possible."

But while the matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — are included along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the term emoteinu, "our mothers," is not incorporated alongside avoteinu, "our fathers."

The new prayerbook represents the first revision of the Conservative siddur in 13 years. Rabbi Leonard Cahan, its chief editor, calls the language "gender sensitive," not "gender neutral."

Instead of "Lord," "Father" and "King," the prayerbook uses such words as "Sovereign" and "Guardian."

Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Kol Shofar called the updated version "terrific." He added, "I don't think it goes far enough, but at least it's a step in the right direction."

Derby's services have been gender neutral for five years. "Many women were concerned and uncomfortable with the use of male pronouns when referring to God," he said.

B'nai Emunah has been using the 1946 Silverman prayerbook for 31 years, as have about 300 of the roughly 820 affiliated Conservative synagogues. The congregation has ordered 150 copies of the new Siddur Sim Shalom, which sell for $16 each. Alexander is hoping the books will arrive in time for December's 49th anniversary of the congregation.

"We outgrew the Silverman text long ago," Alexander said. "It was too rigid. It made Judaism a male-centered religion. The new book is much more appropriate to our lives today. It makes women feel better because they are now officially part of the prayerbook and they can more readily identify."

However, Kol Shofar, with 550 member units, has been using the original Siddur Sim Shalom and is not rushing to replace it because of the expense involved.

Some say that the changes in the new edition are so minor that they are virtually irrelevant. A number of Conservative congregations are already including the names of the biblical mothers and the word "emoteinu" during prayers.

"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 Berkeley writer Marcia Falk, who grew up in the Conservative movement but now identifies as non-denominational. "The changes were so minuscule, why even bother?"

Falk's 1996 book, "The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival," was a radical rewriting of the liturgy.

At Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, the new edition is not causing much of a stir.

"We have a woman cantor, women lead our services. It's been an egalitarian synagogue since before I came 18 years ago," said Rabbi Daniel Pressman. "That might be why getting a new book is less of an issue here."

The biggest difference Pressman noticed about the new edition is its size. "It's lighter in the hand," he said.

The original siddur is about 900 pages, combining the daily and holiday text. The new 400-page book only covers the holidays. A daily volume is in the works, according to editor Cahan.