In the 1980’s when we began the process of carefully changing roughly half the masculine pronouns of the liturgy, we felt that achieving gender parity was the ultimate feminist challenge. We have come a long way since then. We now wrestle with the question of how to make the liturgy accessible to those who see themselves as gender fluid or non-binary. This is a much more difficult situation to “fix”. Hebrew is gendered. It’s much more gendered than English, and more gendered than even the European languages (such as Spanish or French) with which some of us are familiar. Consequently, replacing “him” and “her” with “them”, which works well in English, doesn’t work in Hebrew, since Hebrew uses both a masculine “them” and a feminine “them”.
The most consistent and complete solution would be to replace all noun and pronoun references with new, gender-neutral references, such as those provided by the Nonbinary Hebrew Project (https://www.nonbinaryhebrew.com). The project, created by Lior Gross and Eyal Rivlin, makes use of the vowel “ֶ “, (pronounced “eh”), among others, to replace the traditionally “feminine” ending “ah” and to neutralize the male and female pronouns. For example, in traditional Hebrew, “he” is “הוּא” (“hu”), and “she” is “הִיא” (“hee”). The Nonbinary Hebrew Project has changed both pronouns to “הֶא” (“heh”).
This is an elegant and well thought out solution. It’s one that we may arrive at some day. At this point in our development, we felt the departure from words that connect us to other davveners was simply too great. We have, however, taken some other steps to be more inclusive in our referents.
In order to accomplish this, we have taken advantage of two constructions in Hebrew which are already gender neutral: the infinitive (e.g. “to pray”, “to write”, etc.) and the first person (e.g “I wrote”, “I did”, etc.). In the most recent editions of Siddur Birkat Shalom and upcoming second printing of our Machzor, we have replaced all prayers where the davvener has to choose whether to use the “feminine” version or the “masculine” version with a gender-neutral version. For example, in the very first prayer of the morning service, traditionally the “modeh ani” (I thank you God), we have replaced our previous choice of “מוֹדֶה אֲנִי - modeh ani for men” or “מוֹדָה אֲנִי - modah ani for women” with a single option - “אוֹדֶה אֲנִי - odeh ani, I thank you God” which works for all genders. We have also been able to redact some short prayers, such as the blessing for those who have come up for an aliyah, so as to eliminate gender references to the blessing recipients, even though God remains gendered.
We’ve been working consistently on our liturgy since 1984. We’ve created and adapted prayers in ways that we couldn’t have imagined when we first started. We look forward to continuing our quest for a liturgy that we can all “breathe” and are excited to see what we’ll come up with next.