Introduction to siddur birkat shalom
Project.” The goal of the project was to create for our Havurah a siddur which would reflect our commitment to the traditional liturgy, as well as
our shared perceptions of God and the world which differ from those of traditional Judaism. This volume, Siddur Birkat Shalom, contains the fruits of the years of study, discussion, writing, inspiration and criticism. It includes the complete Shabbat morning service as it is recited at Havurat Shalom (some prayers that are traditionally recited have been omitted as
they are not recited at the Havurah).
Although the composition of the Siddur Project group has changed since we began working formally, we continue to find ourselves to be a
microcosm of the Havurah membership with our various reactions to the experience of davenning. We are women and men, lesbian, bisexual and
heterosexual, with a strong commitment to feminism, and these qualities influence our relationship to the traditional siddur. Some of us have received excellent Jewish educations; others have rediscovered our Judaism only since coming to the Havurah. Some have converted to
Judaism. The diversity of our group has been both an inspiration and a challenge: we have had to learn to trust each other and to work together
to create a document that each member of the group can use as a siddur. We also have had to establish a process that would help us to accomplish the many types of changes we needed to make. Accordingly, the initial
months of our work were dedicated to studying and analyzing the traditional Shabbat morning service. We then worked individually on
revisions, translations and meditations, coming together to edit and criticize the new material. Our work was shaped by group discussions
about a variety of topics including the nature of good and evil, our concepts of God, chosenness, feelings about gender, and the use and
power of language.
We have focused on changing the Hebrew text, since we felt that enduring changes to the liturgy should be made in the original language
of the prayers. We cling to a strong bond with the familiar Hebrew prayers, and a connection through time and space to the Jewish people.
Still, we also feel the need for a new English translation, compatible with the changes we have made to the Hebrew — reflecting the richness and strength of the original Hebrew — but at the same time, less archaic. Most of the major adaptations we made to the liturgy can be classified in the following areas:
Egalitarian language: The traditional Hebrew siddur uses masculine referential pronouns and specific nouns almost exclusively when
alluding both to God (e.g. “melekh” — King, “Barukh atah” — Blessed [masc.] are you [masc.]) and to humans (e.g. “tzadik katamar yifrah” — a
righteous [man] will flourish like the palm). Siddur Birkat Shalom contains masculine and feminine God-language and references to humans
balanced equally for frequency of occurrence and relative importance (from a rabbinic point of view) of the prayer. With few exceptions, a
single gender reference for God is maintained throughout each psalm or prayer; references to humans alternate wherever possible in order that
each prayer address both males and females. (Please see “Notes on Gender Language” below for additional information about treatment of
gender references in this siddur.)
Images of God: There are many traditional images of God which we found inspirational (e.g., God as creator and sustainer, giver of life and
Torah, God of compassion and loving-kindness). However, traditional references to God characterizing God as King, Judge, Father and
dispenser of bountiful reward and devastating punishment raised questions for us. Siddur Birkat Shalom has chosen to retain some occurrences of traditional God-names, while changing or emphasizing others to extend the choices we have in opening ourselves to God. Additional names for God used in the siddur include: Source of Life (“Mekor ha-Hִayim”), Our Mother (“Imenu”), and Life of the Worlds or Everlasting Life (“Hִei ha-Olamim”). We have also included phrases
portraying God as a nurturer, friend and teacher. Although the traditional word for God, “Adonai,” is masculine, we have chosen to treat this name as both masculine and feminine, using pronouns for both genders in order to maintain our connection to our Jewish tradition which commonly uses this name as the most Holy.
Jews and non-Jews: An important component of traditional Judaism is the concept of Jews as the “Chosen People.” An obvious corollary to this
concept is that non-Jews have not been — and cannot be — "chosen" as well. Consequently, the traditional siddur states both implicitly and
explicitly that the practices of non-Jews have less spiritual validity. Havurat Shalom has clearly articulated the belief that there are many
paths to God and that all peoples have been "chosen" by the Holy One in some way. Accordingly, Siddur Birkat Shalom affirms the chosenness of all people: “asher bahar banu im kol [instead of “mi-kol”] ha-amim” — who has chosen us with all other [instead of “from among all other”] nations. We have reframed prayers which traditionally portrayed non-Jews as simply witnessing the wonders that God performs for the Jews to portray non-Jews as having a more equal and participatory role (cf. Psalm 98).
Good and Evil / Reward and Punishment: Traditional liturgy views the interplay of good and evil in a way that seems simplistic in our time.
God is portrayed as entirely good, the rewarder of the righteous (i.e., the Jews and the downtrodden) and the destroyer of the wicked (i.e., nations
who oppress Jews, the rich and haughty). The liturgy largely fails to address the many difficult questions about good and evil which have
confronted people throughout history: What is the role of God in evil? Why do righteous people appear to suffer in this world while evil people
appear to prosper? Why must God destroy evil people instead of merely destroying the evil within them? We have begun to address these issues by changing the focus in some prayers from evil people to the evil within all of us, and we have eliminated references to evil altogether in other prayers. Siddur Birkat Shalom attempts to retain some references to divine retribution in the recognition that there are times when an individual needs to express feelings of anger and revenge. Resolutions to these quandaries continue to be a source of challenge.
Hierarchy: We were troubled by the concept of hierarchy as it relates to humans, God, and its expression in the traditional siddur. Some members found the pervasive concept of God as an authority figure troubling. Others felt a strong distaste for humans’ uses and abuses of power, and the often oppressive hierarchies built into human social institutions. They rejected the extension of these systems into the God-human
relationship (e.g. God as Master and humans as slaves), since this model, sanctioned as “divine,” has been used to reinforce oppressive systems.
Group members also perceived the traditional siddur to be emphasizing a view of God as transcendent at the expense of an additional notion of God as a more immanent, intimate Being.
Siddur Birkat Shalom expands the traditional notions of a transcendent God and an authoritarian God. It adapts some prayers to convey a sense of partnership and intimacy between God and people, a sense that is also
present in Jewish tradition, but has been less emphasized in the psalms. Images of God which are analogous to oppressive human power
relationships have been changed or omitted wherever possible. A particular concern emerged regarding the characterization of God as
King/Queen and of people as servants. In addition to the discomfort with this hierarchical structure of God and people, some members of the
group found it difficult to relate to the concept of royalty. Accordingly, many of these references were omitted or modified, while others
(particularly in the case of King/Queen) were retained to accommodate those davenners who feel a connection with these concepts. Along with
these concerns about hierarchy, the group certainly acknowledges and treasures metaphors that express the sense that God is unimaginably greater than human beings, and beyond any finite work of creation. Nearly all the prayers (both Hebrew and English) in Siddur Birkat Shalom
have been changed from the traditional to some degree. Though in some cases, only the gender of God and/or humans has been changed, some
prayers have been changed more extensively according to the criteria described above. Adaptations may include omission of some words or verses of a prayer, inclusion of other biblical verses within a prayer, or substitution of words in a prayer. In the case of substitutions, care has
been taken to use Hebrew words appropriate for the language of the original. As a result, most prayers include the words "adapted" or “mutkan” (Hebrew) in their titles. A few prayers which have undergone major revisions are described as “meditations” rather than “adaptations.” The word “meditation” is also used to denote selections
in English which are loosely based on a Hebrew prayer, but which are not faithful translations.
An important assumption which underlies all the efforts of the Siddur Project is that the Havurat Shalom siddur cannot be made to order by a
committee but, rather, has to evolve. We see our role as generating material to be used by the Havurah community while encouraging the
community to determine which adaptations best meet their needs. The members of the Siddur Project are eager to hear and consider all
comments and reactions to the various editions of Siddur Birkat Shalom as our community grows and changes.
During our work on the siddur, we were delighted to discover how the prayers changed us even as we revised the prayers. For some of us, this
meant broadening our ideas about what kind of changes were acceptable. Others, who had originally been strong advocates of major
changes to the liturgy, found more depth and feeling in the traditional prayers. These changes in ourselves allowed us to be more daring about
what we were willing to try, knowing that nothing was irrevocable, that unimagined growth could result from our experiments. We hope that the
excitement of this discovery will be felt by all those who use Siddur Birkat Shalom, and that all of us will continue to be enriched by the work we
have begun, even as we add to our beautiful and profound liturgical tradition.
Notes on Gender Language (updated 2006)
(Section 3 of the following notes is of a more technical nature than the rest of the introduction and is intended for those with a particular
interest in some of the linguistic decisions made by the Siddur Project.)
1. Generic: In nearly every language devised by humans, the masculine is used to denote the generic (e.g., “every man” is presumed to be equal
to “everyone”). The siddur Project has chosen to use both masculine and feminine nouns to denote the generic.
2. Historical note on masculine and feminine usage at Havurat Shalom:
For most of its history, prayers at the Havurah have used masculine gender referents almost exclusively. The notable exceptions to this
practice were the use of “horenu” (our parents), or “avotenu v'imotenu” (our fathers and mothers) in place of the traditional “avotenu,” and the
inclusion of Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel where traditionally only Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mentioned.
Although there were many informal discussions about including more feminine language in davenning, and a few experiments along these
lines were tried sporadically, the first concerted effort in this direction took place during the spring retreat in May 1984, when the Shabbat
morning service was conducted entirely in the feminine. Reactions to the service were generally positive, although some participants felt that use
of the feminine-only was as exclusionary as a service conducted entirely in the masculine. Subsequent davenning at the Havurah (at the
discretion of the service leader) relied on the traditional (masculine) siddur with some prayers entirely in the feminine on photocopied pages.
Beginning in 1986, a small portion of the High Holiday services was adapted and made available in the Havurat Shalom Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Anthology. These prayers had been revised according to the criteria set out in the introduction above. Many leaders of Shabbat
davenning chose to use some or all of those revised prayers at appropriate intervals in the service. With the introduction of the first edition of Siddur Birkat Shalom, the number of times it was necessary to switch back and forth between two siddurim was significantly reduced.
3. Feminine future plural verb: In classical Hebrew (the language in which the siddur is written), a unique verb form is used in the future
tense for the feminine plural second and third person, (e.g. “t’daberna” — they [fem.] will speak, you [fem.] will speak). This form is now rarely
used in modern Israeli Hebrew. Instead the corresponding masculine forms are used for the feminine as well (e.g., “t’dab’ru”— you [masc. or
fem.] will speak; “y’dab’ru”— they [masc. or fem.] will speak). In its, fourth printing, the Siddur
Project chose to return to the classic Hebrew
feminine plural verb form. The few instances where this form was not preserved have been footnoted.