Conservative Prayer Book Reaches Out to Diverse New Generation

Do Jews still want to call God their Lord, King and Master?

Maybe not. Some words and phrases like this won’t resonate for many American Jews, said Rabbi Edward Feld, the senior editor of a new prayer book for the Conservative movement, Siddur Lev Shalem. “The word ‘king’ is just empty for people living in an American democracy.”

And that is just one of the contemporary realities Feld and his colleagues sought to take into account as they put together the new prayer book, or siddur, which is being distributed this week to Conservative congregations around the country.

Ultimately, Feld explained, in re-translating the Hebrew liturgy into English, he and his colleagues settled on “sovereign” instead of “king.” It was safer. And gender-neutral. “Awesome” was also cut, replaced by “awe-inspiring.”

“Language changes so quickly in our time, there are words that you can’t say anymore” and be understood, he explained. “Every generation will need their own prayer book.”

That might be considered an ideological credo for the Conservative movement, which from its late 19th century birth has upheld the importance of traditional Jewish law, but the importance, also, of contemporary knowledge and contexts in its application. In line with this, the siddur, a project of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, sheds some of the traditional language of past liturgy and answers a growing call for more inclusive prayer—respectful of single-parents, non-Ashkenazi traditions, same-sex couples, mixed families and people who might not even pray in a synagogue or speak Hebrew.

At the same time, the assembly hopes to also appeal to those with high Jewish literacy and attachment to traditions. It offers Hebrew prayers with English translations on each facing page, plus rabbinic commentary, in English, with additional readings right next to the English prayer texts. This same format was used in a 2010 prayer book for the High Holidays, Mahzor Lev Shalem.

Siddur Lev Shalem, which is for use for Sabbath and festivals, took five years to make, said Feld. Eventually, he added, it will replace the prayer book currently in use in most Conservative congregations. That prayer book, Siddur Sim Shalom was originally published in 1985 and updated sporadically, most recently in 2008.

“We’ve expanded in two directions,” said Feld, “more traditional and more contemporary.”

The prayer book comes as the Conservative Judaism movement, the second largest denomination after Reform, is rethinking its “core message” and considering how to appeal to new members. The number of Conservative Jews has shrunk by one-third over the last 25 years.

Over the last decades, the Conservative movement has been more cautious to embrace social changes than Reform Judaism. The movement “played catch-up” to more liberal movements when it came to “attentiveness to inclusivity” in liturgy, said Debra Blank who teaches the history of Jewish liturgy at Hebrew College in Boston.

For example, though the movement approved inclusion of the biblical matriarchs in the Amidah, a central prayer in Jewish liturgy, in 1990, broader inclusion of biblical women moved relatively slowly. (Later Sim Shalom editions, and the latest Lev Shalem siddur, include two Amidahs side-by-side; one with women, one without.)

One of the most controversial additions was to include an optional line in the Sabbath service that seems to acknowledge mixed families by saying that Sabbath is a “gift for all,” not only a “gift for Jews,” said Feld. “There are people in our congregations who have not converted to Judaism. What does it mean to say: we haven’t given Shabbat to you?”

Traditionalists balked. And some congregations won’t include it in their prayer services.

Rabbi Joshua Heller, who is part of the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards predicts that his Atlanta congregation, one of the more traditional in the community, will not use any of these optional, and less traditional, texts. “Other than having women participate,” Heller said, “our service is very similar to an orthodox service.”

But for those who want it, interfaith families can be included. And Miriam can be evoked alongside with Moses; Sarah, Rachel and Leah revered with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and not just in the Amidah, but throughout the siddur.

Still, the Conservative movement has been careful to not over-simplify or just cast away uncomfortable passages. It’s a delicate balance. Indeed, Feld observed, many Jews are drawn to the complexities of prayer.

Years ago, when Blank was teaching rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she noticed many of them used ArtScroll prayer books—an Orthodox siddur with staunchly traditionalist commentary and explanation—rather than Siddur Sim Shalom; and this, in Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary. The students were drawn to ArtScroll’s literal translation, expanded commentary and “halachic stage directions,” Blank said.

The Conservative movement appears to have taken note of the younger generation’s interests. In addition to inclusive language, in-step with liberal American trends, the new book includes detailed rabbinic and halachic context.

“With my editors and then my whole committee we sat and read aloud every word and phrase,” said Feld. “We considered the variety of people we are speaking to.”

Contact Sam Kestenbaum on Twitter @skestenbaum

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