Our synagogue is in the process of changing from one prayer book, what we call the Silverman Siddur, to Sim Shalom, the new prayer book of the Conservative movement. In fact, Jacob is the first Bar or Bat mitzvah ceremony in this shul to use the new prayer book. Our shul has been slow to change, at least partly because of me. I want to tell you why I was so slow to change, but also why I found a prevailing reason to change, and why I now think it was so necessary. All matters of the spirit are personal, so I ask your indulgence in allowing me to speak in very personal terms.
I resisted the change because, as any anthropologist will tell you, ritual is about order and sameness and permanence. For many of us, the Silverman Siddur was the vehicle for decades of our prayers. We were raised on that book. The English of the Silverman Siddur is not modern, but it has cadence and spirit. And it is associated with years and years of our memories and our ceremonies and so on.
On the other hand, the Silverman Siddur was outdated soon after it was published in 1946; it does not reflect that there is a State of Israel, a central change in the Jewish world. And most important, it speaks constantly about men, as if all people were male.
Many of us have changed in a fundamental way over these decades since the Silverman Siddur came out. We believe, with perfect hearts and minds, in the equality of all human beings. For some of us, what separates Conservative Judaism from Orthodox Judaism is the watershed issue of women’s rights. If you think about it, most of the changes that Conservative Judaism has made have been about women’s rights. Males and females can sit together. Females can have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Females are counted in a minyan, can have an aliyah, can be witnesses, can be rabbis, can lead services, So to use a prayer book that emphasizes males becomes difficult if not offensive.
So we tried an experiment. We used the new Sim Shalom prayerbook, which is gender neutral, for a while, to see how it felt.
Gone were some of those delightful nuances and cadences of the Silverman siddur.
Gone were the familiar layout and print and page numbers.
But the most interesting change was that when we got to the Amidah, we were given a choice between the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob and those names plus the G-d of Sarah the G-d of Rebecca, the G-d of Rachel the G-d of Leah.
The new book gives you a choice, a or b,
Patriarchs or the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
And at first, I couldn’t get there.
Three times a day for over forty years, and growing up before that, I’ve said those words: The G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the God of Jacob. And I didn’t want to change this.
And I was fully aware of the halachic, that is, the Jewish legal arguments, that there is no precedent to changing the most important prayer, the Amidah, in this way. I knew that some of the other blessings of this prayer had changed over time, but not the first one about praying to G-d Who is the G-d of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But I decided to try it on for size. We used it in our services.
And I’m standing in front of the ark, and I say those words, and I start thinking about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
I thought about Sarah, a strong and interesting person, who laughed at the idea of miracles but then G-d talked to Sarah and the miracle happened.
I thought about Rebecca, who G-d also talked to, when two nations were in her womb. And G-d told her that Jacob would carry on G-d’s promise.
I thought about Leah, the unwanted wife, the unloved bride, who made so much of her life, giving birth to six sons who would become six of the tribes of Israel.
And I thought about Rachel, who waited so long and then bore Joseph, only to die giving birth to Benjamin.
Three out of the four couldn’t have children for many years, but then G-d answered their prayers. When I pray, I want to invoke the names of people that G-d had a relationship with, who G-d talked to and who talked to G-d. And G-d had relationships with Sarah and Rebecca as well as Abraham and Isaac.
And I’m there in front of the Ark, thinking about the matriarchs, realizing how big a part of the stories of Genesis they were, when I started thinking about those four names, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
I have a daughter named Sarah, my youngest child, who, alas, has just gone off to college. Sarah has been very involved in her Jewish youth organization, helping Jewish teenage girls to get closer to their Judaism. And I thought: Is G-d not the G-d of Sarah?
I have a sister named Rebecca. Rebecca is Orthodox. She sits behind a curtain when she goes to shul. I disagree, I object. But it’s her decision, it’s her life, and I love her and respect her. And G-d is the G-d of my sister Rebecca at least as much as G-d is my G-d.
I have a daughter named Rachel who has astonishingly changed from a little girl to a mother and a social worker who cares for troubled young adults. She raises her two children in the Judaism of her ancestors. How can my Judaism be perpetuated to the next generation without her? G-d is the G-d of Rachel as least as much as G-d is my G-d.
And Leah, well, that’s the name of my mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s disease. She doesn’t know her name, or who she is. But I know who she is. She survived Nazi Germany. She escaped and went to England and survived the Battle of Britain. Where was G-d then in her life and where is G-d in her life now? I don’t know, but she never looked at things that way. She was a simple woman of faith who didn’t question and loved G-d no matter what happened. G-d is certainly the G-d of this Leah at least as much as G-d is my G-d.
And so I get it. It’s taken me years, but I get it.
And so that’s how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Matriarchs.
I am positive that Conservative Judaism is absolutely right in asserting that we have to keep growing.
We should not be so full of ourselves that we should not keep learning and moving forward.
We can’t be stuck in the chauvinisms of the past.
I am positive that Conservative Judaism is objectively right when it looks at the history of the Jewish people and sees evolution and growth.
I am positive that Conservative Judaism is right when it explicitly articulates the full equality of males and females.
Too often, we measure whether something is right by its failure or success. But to be right is its own success.
And there is such a thing as being right, right about equality, right about intellectual openness, right about pluralism and finding different ways to Gd.
So if we have a choice, as we do, between an old prayer book that is familiar and comfortable and warm but unresponsive to our changing insights about the truth, and a new prayer book that is unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable and a little awkward and a little less warm but very responsive to who we are and who we’re becoming, then the choice is clear. In life, there are always trade-offs, but you always trade up to improve your life and the lives around you.
Most berachot say: “Blessed are You O Lord our G-d, King of the universe.” But the beracha at the beginning of the Amidah says, “Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob.” It doesn’t say the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but speaks of each separately as having a relationship with G-d: the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob. I love the idea that G-d had a different relationship with Isaac than He did with Abraham. Which means that G-d has a different relationship with each one of us. That’s the biggest lesson of this discussion: we each have to find our way to G-d. That’s what prayer is. So by adding just a few words, we can invoke the hopes and the merits of all of our ancestors so that G-d may respond to the prayers of our hearts.