New Conservative manual — woman-friendly, personalized

Responding both to women's issues and an increased demand for personalized prayers, the Conservative movement has published a revised version of its rabbis' manual.

The two-volume guide, which contains liturgy for numerous lifecycle events, now includes gender-sensitive language as well as a "grieving ritual" for either a couple or a woman following an abortion.

Last updated in 1965, the new 688-page edition released late last month has three times more pages than the previous manual.

The palm-sized "Moreh Derekh," or "Journey Guide," also has Bay Area influence. Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Shalom is one of two co-editors.

By personalizing Judaism, Freeman asserts, the manual shows Jews that "our tradition has something to say to you."

Some Conservative rabbis, such as Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, have been eagerly awaiting the new edition.

"We need to be sensitized to situations that have been neglected by tradition," he said. "I'm almost sure that in the old manual there wasn't a woman's voice."

The manual has long been used as a guide for officiating at major life moments such as weddings, funerals, circumcisions, conversions or kashering a home.

Now, rabbis can utter officially sanctioned prayers for events ranging from a retirement or the birth of a disabled child to a departure for summer camp or college. Rabbis can also turn to the guide to welcome the secular new year or conduct an interfaith Thanksgiving service.

The previous manual's inadequacy another' — or the more technical explanation that the fetus was not yet a baby,"

Neither response offers healing to a woman who is grieving over the loss of a future child, Eilberg said. Whether the unborn is considered a child under Jewish law is irrelevant to a woman who is mourning — "In her heart, this is a baby."

In addition to her abortion ritual, the publications committee adopted Eilberg's ritual for parents who have lost a newborn infant.

Although Eilberg also wrote a ritual for miscarriage, the committee selected one written by four other women rabbis.

In the abortion ritual, the grievers meet privately with the rabbi or in a small circle of friends and family. They are directed to sit on hard chairs to remind them of the hard place in which they find themselves.

The rabbi and those assembled chant Hebrew and English passages for the unborn child, whom the parents knew only as "a stirring, a dream." The ritual acknowledges the grief of the would-be parents.

"That we have the capacity to make choices is both a blessing and a curse," the ritual reads in part. "Sometimes the choices can make our lives rich and beautiful. Sometimes the choices are filled with pain, or it feels like we have no choice at all. Nothing can make the ending of a pregnancy easy."

The ceremony affirms the sanctity of life and reaffirms the mourners' faith in God.

The new ritual is designed to acknowledge suffering and begin the emotional healing process from an abortion, regardless of the reason for it — a dead or unviable fetus, an unwanted child, or to preserve the mother's life or health.

While Jewish law doesn't endorse elective abortion, Eilberg maintains she is not making a political statement through the ritual. She is simply trying to alleviate the crisis at hand — the grieving of would-be parents.

At least one area rabbi didn't need the manual to know that women need a special ritual for the loss of an unborn child.

Sheldon Lewis, spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, said he took his cue from a congregant who had undergone psychological counseling following an abortion.

Counseling offered the woman little respite from her grieving, so Lewis decided to write a special prayer for her. The blessing gave the heartbroken woman renewed strength to carry on, Lewis said.

Members of the Reform Women's Rabbinic Network also have developed rituals for the loss of unborn children, as have some Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Yamin Levy of the Orthodox Congregation Ezra Bassaroth in Seattle wrote about the need to address miscarriage, the birth of stillborn babies and the death of newborns in his new book, "Confronting the Loss of a Baby." Levy wrote it after interviewing 200 Jewish couples from around the country. He also outlines new mourning rituals.

Even if rabbis are becoming more receptive to women's needs, Eilberg contends that most congregants will not seek spiritual counseling on such intimate issues, especially elective abortions.

None of the women who had approached her had chosen to abort because the child was unwanted.

Nevertheless, some Conservative rabbis opposed her rituals when Eilberg first presented them at a meeting of the Jewish Committee on Laws and Standards in the late 1980s. The opposers disliked her labeling of the unborn as "a baby." They were also concerned that the ritual would inflame anti-abortion groups.

Eilberg balked. She still considers those arguments irrelevant to the most pressing spiritual concern — the emotional and spiritual health of the parents.

"The religious right would like us to believe that women have abortions in a whimsical, thoughtless and routine way. I don't think that is the case," she said. And certainly, "the woman who chooses an abortion for those reasons is not going to go to her rabbi to overcome grieving."

The ceremonies, she stressed, are necessary for those who "need to feel God's presence and feel the Jewish tradition wrapped around them during difficult life transitions."