Reform rabbis adopt LGBT-friendly prayer book
by Matthew S. Bajko
In time for the start of the Jewish High Holidays, which begin this Sunday with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Reform rabbis across the U.S. will be using a new LGBT-friendly prayer book for the first time.
Known as the "Machzor," the new prayer book is being published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It was last updated in 1978, and the new version has been in the works since 2008.
The changes, noted the conference, include making all prayers LGBT-friendly, adding references to God as "she" and as "compassionate mother," and making "room for the doubt that all of us feel when confronting our identities."
"It's a major effort by America's Reform rabbis to change worship to match the needs and drives of today's Jews," according to a statement from the rabbi conference.
One change, in light of the fact same-sex couples can now legally marry, was made to a prayer that traditionally referred to a "bride and groom." It now names "couples celebrating under the chuppah (marriage canopy)."
Another update added contemporary voices, like gay poets Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg, who now "sit next to" the prayer book's ancient Torah texts. The entire book, noted the rabbi group, is now "laid out and footnoted in a way that will invite a personal spiritual journey, and not just the rote call-and-response of traditional worship."
A number of Reform congregations in the Bay Area, from San Jose to San Rafael, and across California will be using the new prayer book. More than 300 synagogues from across the country have ordered the updated Machzor.
"I love the book; it is an amazing book. It gives people the opportunity to really enter into the High Holidays and open themselves up and speak to them in a much more meaningful way," said Rabbi Barnett J. Brickner with Temple Israel in Alameda.
The 155-member congregation, which includes several LGBT families, will use the new prayer book for the first time during the Rosh Hashanah services Sunday. Brickner said the revisions speak to the diverse nature of his congregation.
"I think there is incredible inclusivity about it," he said. "I think it allows for opportunities for congregants to explore their own theology during the service. It allows them to pause and reflect on a certain prayer or moment in the service that speaks to them."
Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, whose members number between 5,000 and 6,000 and has several out rabbis, has ordered the new prayer book and plans to begin using it in 2016, said Cantor Marsha Attie. For years it has been using a "homemade" prayer book, noted Attie, that is LGBTQ inclusive.
"It is a process to transition a large congregation like this to a new prayer book," she said. "We will use it a little bit for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."
The congregation has used gender inclusive prayers and gender-neutral terms for some time, said Attie, in order to be inclusive of its congregants' sexual orientations and gender identities.
"It is the direction the Reform movement in Judaism has been going already for a long time. The Reform movement is among the most progressive and egalitarian thinkers in regard to prayer and inclusivity," said Attie.
As the congregation's music person, Attie said she has been updating the terminology in the songs it uses, especially at its religious school for children. It is a reflection of the many versions of today's families, where one parent, a guardian, or same-sex parents may be raising children.
"It has been years since we felt comfortable singing about 'my mommy and daddy.' We wouldn't do that anymore," she said. "We are kind of at the forefront with how we are using language with children."