By Eve Romm
I recently spent a Shabbat morning at Havurat Shalom, a small lay-led congregation in Somerville, Massachusetts founded in 1968 as part of the neo-Hasidic movement. I knew from the Hav’s website that their prayer book features “Hebrew and English gender egalitarian language for both God and humans,” but I wasn’t sure quite what this would mean in practice. Opening Siddur Birkat Shalom, a spiral bound volume with a blue cover, I was surprised by the sheer thoroughness and rigor of the adaptations. Not only pronouns but verb forms, adjectives, possessives and plural nouns had been expertly shifted with flawless Hebrew grammar. In addition to alternating between masculine and feminine language for God, the siddur had altered much of the language about God’s sovereignty in the traditional liturgy. The liturgical poem, Adon Olam, for example, opened with the words “source of the world who dwells…” (eden olam asher shakhna) rather than “lord of the world who rules…”. Some remained: I particularly relished the phrase “hamalka hayoshevet al kisei ram v’nisa”, “the queen who sits on a lofty and glorious throne,” which marked the transition into the main body of the morning service.
As services began, I noticed my own resistance to these changes, at the same time as my inner grammarian inspected the unfamiliar feminine forms with interest. Having come to traditional observance as an adult and taken pains to become familiar with the Hebrew liturgy, it was hard to surrender my mastery of the text and stumble over pronunciation again. Perhaps at a deeper level, having struggled with the place of women in traditional Jewish texts and communities, I was reluctant to let my guard down enough to trust a more inclusive liturgy. A lot of what I value about the Jewish tradition is the opportunity it furnishes to come into close contact with texts which are often difficult or alienating. Instead of simply rejecting the parts of the text which may wound the contemporary reader, a commitment to Jewish life means remaining in dynamic conversation with a tradition which can be at the same time sam mavet, poison, or sam hayim, life-giving elixir.
However, my brief foray into the gender-egalitarian siddur made me question my assumption that being a woman who is serious about Jewish practice and the study of Jewish texts means ceaseless wrestling with the deeply patriarchal structure of the Jewish tradition. Interestingly, though Havurat Shalom’s approach is to be exhaustively thorough in its adaptation of the liturgy to include feminine and non-hierarchical language for God, they do not alter the text of the Torah reading in this way. To my mind, this difference reflects a crucial distinction between study and prayer.
Rigorous study means serious engagement with the ways in which the text pushes the reader away and resists easy incorporation into modern life. Its goal is to understand the tradition on its own terms, and it requires a kind of interpretive resilience, a tricky separation of personal injury from scholarly interest. Prayer is not like this. The texts with which we pray, I have come to believe, should serve as a verbal technology for spiritual connection, allowing us to enter into them with relative ease so that they can be used to encounter the divine. To alter the text of the liturgy is not to censor it, it is to refine its power as a tool of worship in a particular time and place.
It is also a kind of theology in action. As the inheritors of an incredibly rich textual tradition, many Jews have learned to imagine God primarily through language. The frequent occurrence of certain names of God — Adonai tz’vaot (Lord of hosts), av harahaman (compassionate Father), eloheinu v’elohey avoteinu (our God and the God of our fathers), and melech haolam (King of the universe), to give only a few examples — certainly shaped my personal theology, although intellectually I resist their implications of a stern, masculine, God-as-judge. To a much greater extent than I had expected, even a brief experiment in using different language — makor hahayim (source of life), eden olamim (origin of the universe), shechinah (Presence), imah (Mother) — helped me to see my own gendered assumptions about God more clearly, and to begin to surrender them.
The goal of this adaptation of the liturgy, in my mind, is not that we come to think of God as primarily feminine. Instead, it is that we develop a deeply flexible and multifaceted theology, which embraces God’s ineffability more authentically and completely than the pre-modern rabbis who compiled the text of the siddur (prayer book) were perhaps able to do, being limited, as we all are, by their time. Those who resist this approach to the text of prayer often express concern that even small revisions are dangerous, potentially leading to the elimination of any part of the traditional language that might be objectionable, and losing much of what makes this ancient tradition compelling and complex in this process. I share this concern, but I am also concerned that without the willingness to, cautiously and responsibility, shape and reshape the practice of Jewish prayer, it will cease to be a source of life, joy, and meaning and become a burdensome rote observance. Our centuries-old tradition is not fragile enough to be damaged by this approach — on the contrary, diversity of practice has always made Judaism more resilient and flexible, more deeply adequate to the lived questions of its adherents, and more expansive in terms of who is able to find shelter under its canopy of peace.
Eve Romm recently finished her undergraduate studies in comparative literature and literary translation at Yale University. Her interests range from baking to Talmud study, and she’s particularly passionate about Yiddish women’s literature, the politics of Bible interpretation and translation, and the history of the book. She’s currently living in Somerville, teaching Hebrew school, and working as a freelance writer.