November 20, 2018

Conservative movement rolls out new Siddur

In Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s new prayer book released in February, the Rabbinical Assembly had a two-fold mission: Stay true to traditional Jewish roots, yet appeal to the diversity of how people today live their lives and understand their faith.

For the rabbi-editors tasked over the last five years with updating the siddur, the work included maintaining accuracy while retranslating ancient prayers and liturgy to make them more relatable for contemporary readers, and thinking of ways to include LGBT Jews (the movement approved of same-sex marriage in 2012) and non-Ashkenazi Jews who may have found themselves less represented in previous siddurim.

The word “sovereign” is now used for God instead of “king.” “Awesome” is now “awe-inspiring.” English translations sit side by side with Hebrew, with commentary and text from 500 sources, including 60 contemporary authors, throughout the 666-page prayer book that’s meant to be used for weekdays, Shabbat and festivals. The pages now incorporate traditions of North African, Italian, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews in addition to Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. New gender-neutral prayers offer guides for celebrating birthdays, adoptions and anniversaries, traveling to Israel and same-sex couples marking lifecycles in the synagogue.

“It’s very much a siddur that addresses the idea that we want everyone to find themselves on the page,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “For example, many siddurim have incorporated the prayer that people say on Shabbat after a harrowing or dangerous experience. This siddur also incorporates a prayer to say when you’ve had a great, wonderful experience.”

The Conservative movement, which is the second-largest denomination in the United States after the Reform movement and represents about 18 percent of American Jews, released its previous siddur, Siddur Sim Shalom, in 1985. Several updates were published along with commentaries through 2008. Schonfeld said the Rabbinical Assembly decided to fully update the siddur after the success of the Mahzor Lev Shalem, a prayer book for the High Holy Days, which it released in 2010 after editors took a similar approach to translation and Jewish prayer.

“I have enormous respect and admiration for the previous siddurim — we are standing on the shoulders of giants — and at the same time this is an enormous step forward,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, associate editor of the Siddur Lev Shalem and rabbi at the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in New York. “Just the presence of explanatory and historical commentary, for example … helps people who either know a lot, are excited to learn more and want the intellectual engagement; or people who are new to liturgy and want to learn what it’s saying and is about.” 

Uhrbach also emphasized the siddur’s focus on kavanot (intentionality in prayer), poetry and prose. “There are many inspirational readings which talk about what it means to pray, and teachings that can help us enter prayer a different way. You’ll find historical commentary on one side of the page, and poetry and alternative readings on another side of the page.”

Rabbi Edward Feld, the siddur’s senior editor, said in a statement that the book especially encourages “participation of those who are not able to read Hebrew,” adding that “language and the way we use language changes, so each generation needs its own translation.”

Conservative congregations are not required to purchase or use the new siddur, but the Rabbinical Assembly expects it will become the dominant prayer book over time. 

At Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Stewart Vogel said he’s ordered nearly 500 copies of the siddur for his congregation, which plans to start using it this month.

Vogel, who is an officer in the Rabbinical Assembly, praised the book for addressing “not just the translation of prayer or what we say or how we pray, but how to find meaning in it,” and said the siddur “captures the flow and experience of prayer more than any siddur before it.”

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Bel Air, said the strongest points of the book may be its versatility and easy-to-read yet poetic language. “How do you get people to feel the excitement and beauty of Shakespeare in modern times? That’s what this siddur is doing with our classic traditions,” said Artson, who contributed a meditation on the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”).

At least one rabbi has expressed some reservations.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino called the siddur “artful, deep and inspiring,” yet said in an email that the book may be “so good, it’s distracting. It draws us downward and inward into the text and into our own thoughts. It might keep us from rising up to join a community in collective devotion.”

Additionally, he said, “A bound, printed book freezes our prayer text at a moment in time. The book is finished. We can’t add to it. But prayer, in my mind, should be an ever-growing, ever-evolving expression of our reaching toward the divine. … I would prefer …  a format that inspires sensitive souls to create new expressions of prayer.”

Feinstein said that at $29.40 per copy for those associated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the book is too costly to buy for his congregation. Still, he added, “I will encourage my members to purchase a copy of the siddur. I think every family should own one.”