The Reform movement’s new holiday prayer book is radically inclusive

When some Reform synagogue-goers open up their prayer books this High Holiday season, they will be greeted with snippets of poems by the likes of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. Feminist and LGBTQ-friendly terms and phrases will be subtly incorporated into the prayers, and scattered between those prayers will be original woodcut prints inspired by the holidays.

How can this be, you ask? The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization of North American Reform rabbis, has revamped its High Holidays prayer book for the first time since 1978.

The new prayer book, or machzor, reflects an effort to be more inclusive of women and LGBTQ Jews. In some cases, God is referred to as a woman. One passage substitutes the words “bride” and “groom” with the gender-neutral “couple.” In a blessing that calls congregants to the Torah, mention of gender is left out in a gesture to transgender people.

“There’s no way to give you a percentage [of what has changed] — it’s a totally new book,” said Rabbi Hara Person, the rabbinical conference’s director of publications. “Of course, it’s based on the structure of any machzor … but it’s not just a sort of tweaked version.”

The new prayer book also features what Person calls counter-texts, which accompany traditional prayers and challenge their assertions. For example, the important Untaneh Tokef prayer is followed by a philosophical Carl Sandburg poem and then by the new sentence: “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them … clearly there’s no scientific foundation …”

In addition to textual changes, the new two-volume book contains original artwork for the first time: 11 commissioned woodcuts by renowned artist Joel Shapiro, to be exact.

The goal, Person says, is to make all Jews, no matter how religious they are, feel more comfortable during High Holiday services, even if they only attend due to family pressure.

When the prayer book was unveiled at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’s annual convention in March, 180 synagogues had already ordered it. That number has now risen to approximately 300 as the holidays approach.

So far, Person said there has not been much negative backlash among Reform rabbis. The book had been in the pipeline for seven years – four years of which involved testing the book in services at select congregations across the country – so those in the know have been expecting the changes for some time.

“We haven’t gotten any calls or emails saying What did you you do?” Person said. “I think that the piloting and the education process paved the way because it became a very interactive process.”

How to Give Torah

There are some ideas so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how radical they are. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every life is worth a world. The entire people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

For most people throughout history, including today, a spiritual quest or revelation has meant an individual encounter with the Divine — often on a mountaintop and in solitude. Definitely a personal, private relationship.

Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s grandest moment of revelation — on a mountain, but definitely not in solitude. Absolutely personal, but not in the least private. Zeman matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, had many of the (ecumenical) markers of great spiritual encounters: preparation and purification, fear and trembling, synesthesia and miracles, mission and covenant. But it had one rare and defining component: It was shared.

Biblical descriptions of giving the Torah vary in some details, but the message of inclusion is unmistakable. Exodus 20:15: “And all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the shofar….” Deuteronomy 5:19: “Adonai spoke [the Ten Commandments] to all your assembly at the mountain … with a mighty voice that was not heard again.”

The most radical statement of inclusiveness appears toward the end of Deuteronomy (29:9-14), as Moses reviews the nature of the covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your children, your women and your stranger who is in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water — to enter into covenant with Adonai…. Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with the one who stands here with us this day before Adonai our God, and also with the who is not here with us this day.”

Ancestors and descendants, women and men, political leaders and manual workers, natives and strangers, those present and those not present — everyone is included. And we are all present together this day — this day of revelation at Sinai (Shavuot), this day that our ancestors listened to Moses on the plains of Moab, this day — any day — that we open up the Torah and read this message. Revelation occurs in the eternal present tense. That is why the blessing upon reading the Torah is phrased “noten hatorah” — Blessed are You, God, who gives [or constant Giver of] the Torah.

Ancient rabbinic commentaries highlighted the diversity of participants at Mount Sinai. Converts were said to be present. Pregnant women were present, too, although the voice they heard was softer, so as not to startle and induce miscarriage. When Exodus 19:2 describes the Israelites pitching camp before Sinai, the verb used (vayichan) is singular. One interpretation is that, even with the enormous numbers and diversity of the participants, the Israelites were absolutely One with God and one another at Sinai.

In the classic rabbinic analogy, the experience at Sinai is like a wedding. The Jewish people and God enter into holy and mutual covenant. A wedding is, from one point of view, a rather strange custom. In honor of a most sacred, intimate bond and of joining your life inextricably and permanently to another in every arena, you invite 200 or so of your closest friends to watch — and then munch on kosher pigs-in-blankets.

Why does the crowd gather? Curiosity? An overweening sense of ownership? Brides and grooms have leveled these accusations, but the truth is that the crowd is vital. It not only bears witness, it also informs and shapes the covenant. Sneaking off to elope in Vegas is not a standard (or even rebellious) Jewish practice, because Jews know — going all the way back to Sinai — that covenant is a communal event as well as a personal choice. Whether it’s a wedding between two Jews or the marriage of God and an entire people, our holiest moments are communal moments. Not a solitary person on a mountaintop or a lone couple in a desert chapel, but an entire people, the whole mishpocha, sharing a connection with a Divine and/or human beloved and with one another.

The world has become very splintered. We separate and segregate: red states vs. blue states, religious vs. secular, us vs. them. The situation is not appreciably better within the Jewish world. Among Klal Yisrael, there is, sadly, a great deal of divisiveness.

The holiday of Shavuot reminds us: Torah means inclusion. Covenant means community. Not just some folks, or the people I agree with, but everyone.

We first received the Torah on Shavuot. But it was not the kind of “receiving” that is passive or complete. It is an active receiving, which demands being available and aware, continually integrating what we receive, and ultimately transmitting it, as well.

God is not the exclusive Giver of Torah. Each of us is called upon to teach it to our children. Torah is our bequest, as well as our inheritance. We invite it to leave its mark on us, and we strive, with all due humility and awe at the task, to leave our mark on it.

How shall we give Torah? Ideally, as God did: inclusively, irrespective of age, position or gender; lovingly, in holy covenant; with unconditional, radical acceptance, in the melee of imperfect community; united, amid the noise and the crowd and all the differences that seem to separate us.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at