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New siddur nudges Orthodoxy toward inclusion

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Siddur Avodat Halev by the Rabbinical Council of America (Koren Publishers)

According to Orthodox Judaism today, the siddur (prayer book) ideally remains constant. This conservative tendency dates to the 19th century and the rise of the liberal denominations of Judaism, which unabashedly changed and innovated many of the prayers. Nevertheless, in the last few decades, three new Orthodox siddurim have been published in the United States, changing the nature of the prayer experience in Orthodox synagogues while preserving the essential language and structure of the prayer book.

The first on the scene was the Artscroll siddur. Its commercial success has been amazing. Despite its unabashedly haredi commentaries, it captured the modern Orthodox market almost immediately upon publication, partially because of its modern esthetics and the brilliant marketing of Artscroll publishers, but mostly because it came into a vacuum. The older Birnbaum siddur was more open in outlook, but its English was old-fashioned and the layout was not as attractive as Artscroll’s.

In the last decade, two handsome and well-edited modern or centrist Orthodox siddurim have appeared to compete with the Artscroll siddur (and potentially with each other): the Koren Sacks siddur, published nine years ago (and reviewed then in these pages) and the new Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) siddur, Avodat Halev (meaning “service of the heart,” a term for prayer in classical rabbinic literature.)

The new RCA siddur is a handsome volume, almost 1,500 pages long. The Hebrew text is accompanied by a fine, modern, page-on-page English translation, useful commentaries on the prayers in English and inspiring English-language essays on Jewish prayer by contemporary rabbis and educators, including one woman.

It contains many laudable new features. For example, it includes the full text of the five megillot (the biblical books of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Song of Songs). Nowaday, in most Orthodox synagogues, these five books are read as part of the synagogue liturgy on, respectively, Shavuot, Tisha b’Av, Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret, Purim and Passover. Fifty years ago, the reading of Song of Songs, Ruth and Ecclesiastes in North American synagogues was less common. The new siddur thus fulfils a new need.

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Israel figures prominently in this siddur. It contains special prayers for the fallen soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces and prayers for recitation on Israeli Independence Day and on Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. In the Artscroll siddur, these days of commemoration are ignored. But as Prof. David Berger explains in “Prayer on Israel’s Days of Remembrance and Celebration” in the essay section of the RCA siddur: “The return of a significant portion of the Land of Israel to Jewish sovereignty after two millennia was manifestly an event of staggering importance in Jewish history. It is a daunting, nearly insuperable challenge to formulate a theory of providence within the framework of traditional Judaism that perceives this as anything other than a manifestation of divine grace.”

Perhaps the most significant change in the new RCA siddur is the awareness of the need to be more inclusive of women. Even on the simplest grammatical level, since Hebrew is a highly gendered language, some prayers like Modeh Ani (a prayer said every morning upon rising) appear inherently masculine. The new RCA siddur recognizes that women also recite this prayer, presenting the proper grammatical form to be said by a woman: Modah Ani.

Like the old Birnbaum siddur, the Artscroll siddur and the U.S. edition of the Koren Sacks siddur, the RCA siddur contains a prayer for the president of the United States. But the Hebrew word for “president,” nasi¸ is gendered. The new RCA siddur is the first Orthodox siddur I’ve seen that takes into account that the president might not be a man, providing the alternate form, nesiah, to be recited when the president is a woman. (Koren Sacks has also published a Canadian version of their siddur, with a prayer for the prime minister. It remains to be seen if the RCA will do the same.)

The changes in the RCA siddur, like the Koren Sacks version (but unlike Artscroll), go beyond language, acknowledging events in the life of a woman. Prayers are included for women in childbirth, and for a ceremony for the welcoming of a baby girl. In old-fashioned Orthodox circles, while there is a significant celebration with the traditional liturgy of the brit milah (circumcision) for a boy, generally, the only liturgical addition when a daughter is born is a misheberakh prayer recited when the girl’s father is first called to the Torah after the baby’s birth. But this new siddur has a separate liturgy for the zeved ha-bat celebration of the birth of a daughter.

For the zimun prayer (the invitation to the Grace After Meals recited by three people), the RCA siddur provides two versions: one to be recited by three men and the other by three women. The notes encourage three women to recite zimun and add that if one or two men are eating with three women, the men should also answer the “invitation” offered by the woman.

When changes appear in an Orthodox siddur, it is not clear whether they are reflecting changes that have already occurred or encouraging changes that have not yet occurred. The inclusion of the five megillot and of prayers concerning Israel reflect changes that have already occurred. But my own sense is that zeved ha-bat and women’s zimun are still uncommon in centrist Orthodox circles, so credit goes to the RCA for publishing a siddur that encourages this move toward inclusivity.