Conservative Judaism Unveils a New Egalitarian, Gay-friendly Prayer Book

Editors say they drew on more than 500 different sources in compiling the final version, including 'traditions from the full array of Jewish cultures.'

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
A prayer book belonging to members of the Subbotnik community in Beit Shemesh.
A prayer book belonging to members of the Subbotnik community in Beit Shemesh. Credit: Oren Nachson
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Some words just no longer work in the context of prayer.

“You can’t describe God as ‘awesome’ anymore,” says Conservative rabbi and author Edward Feld, by way of example. "Language and the way we use language changes, so each generation needs its own translation."

Feld is senior editor of the newly released Siddur Lev Shalem prayer book for Shabbat and Festivals, a project overseen by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement.

The new egalitarian, gay-friendly prayer book, five years in the making, is based on the model of the Makhzor Lev Shalem High Holidays prayer book, which has sold over 320,000 copies since it was published in 2009.

“The Conservative movement, as reflected in this siddur, both upholds and honors our rich and extensive Jewish tradition and, consistent with the perspective of the ancient rabbis, understands Judaism as responsive to social change when that change promotes the essential Jewish religious value that humans are created in the divine image,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in a press statement.

To encourage worshippers who don’t read Hebrew to participate in the services, the new prayer book includes far more transliteration than its predecessor – the Siddur Sim Shalom, first printed in 1989. It also contains an expanded collection of prayers with appropriate wording for gay couples marking life-cycle events celebrated in the synagogue. The Lev Shalem High Holiday prayer book, which preceded it, was considered groundbreaking in that respect.

Screenshot of the Siddur Lev Shalem prayer book.Credit: Screenshot

Among its other new features is a special prayer mourners can recite when a minyan – the 10-person quorum required for responsive reading – is not available.

Like the Makhzor Lev Shalem, each page of the new siddur is divided into four columns: two in the middle containing the Hebrew liturgy and its contemporary translation into English, one on the right providing historical sources and explanatory materials, and another on the left with contemporary writing and poetry. Among the authors featured in this fourth column are Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Zelda, Marge Piercy and Yehuda Amichai.

The editors of the new prayer book say they drew on more than 500 different sources in compiling the final version, including “traditions from the full array of Jewish cultures – North African, Italian, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, Ashkenazi – across the range of Jewish history from ancient times to the contemporary.”

Siddur Lev Shalem, they say, is meant to be used not only in the synagogue, but also at home. For that reason, it opens with a text on preparing for Shabbat.

“This siddur is an anthology of Jewish prayer and thought, providing each reader with the ability to explore the service, explore prayer and get lost in it, to understand prayer and have a unique experience while sharing in the common Jewish tradition,” says Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, associate editor of the new prayer book.

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