I’ve been to services at other congregations, some of them politically progressive ones and self-declaredly feminist ones (those being the ones I like to attend), and in my experience the Havurah's liturgy is unique. Other congregations add the matriarchs to the patriarchs, other congregations have women leading services and leyning the torah portion. Some other congregations have English translations of their liturgy that diminish the degree of masculine domination in the traditional Hebrew text – e.g., the Purple Valley Siddur produced by students at Williams College. But even there, if you turn from the English to the Hebrew, you find God referred to exclusively in the masculine, and human beings almost exclusively so.
I’ve thought a lot about this gulf, this asymmetry, I’ve talked about our liturgy recently with friends both sympathetic and critical. I’m no less supportive of it than I was before those conversations, no less inspired by it, no less in need of it. But I have a better sense of what’s radical about it.
Theologically, it seems to me, we’re on firmer ground than supporters of an exclusively masculine God-language can be. G-d transcends gender, that seems axiomatic. It follows that it cannot be just, cannot be adequately capacious, to speak of God exclusively in the masculine, because doing so constrains God within a single human gender category. Speaking of God sometimes in the feminine and sometimes in the masculine does better justice, however imperfect, to the ein sof, the one without end or limit.
We are also on firmer ground than those who argue (the focus here being on the language used to describe people rather than the language used to describe God) that of course “he” means “he and she,” “man” means “man and woman,” ish means “ish and ishah.” I was taught such ideas when I was a grammar school student. I was taught the notion of the generic he; I’m familiar with the notion. But that was a long time ago, and if it was ever true – and I’m not sure that it was – it’s surely not true now (nor do I teach it now to my students). One fruitful consequence of feminism has been to challenge what used to be taught, even at the level of grammar, to change the ways in which we actually speak and write. If someone today were writing a Declaration of Independence, would that person write “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”? (Angelica Schuyler’s response in Hamilton is on the mark: “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/ I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”) And no translator today, I think, would render the title of Viktor Frankl’s concentration camp memoir as Man’s Search for Meaning; too much is excluded, too much is distorted. (And it’s a fanciful translation, which a strict literalist of my sort has to reject on other grounds as well, the original title being, in strict translation, “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.’) And the English of the prayerbook needs to be our English, the English of this moment. Not, to be sure, the slang or perishable colloquial idiom of this moment – nothing goes out of fashion more quickly - but the English we write at this moment to formulate prayer.
All of this seems straightforward enough, to me at any rate, and justifies the Havurah's liturgy on grounds both of theology and of feminism-inspired living English usage in the 21st century. I would make that argument anywhere, to anyone.
But then we come back to the fact that these commonsensical arguments seem to persuade only us, or almost only us, that elsewhere than at Havurat Shalom the Hebrew liturgy remains, with the very moderate exception of the addition of the matriarchs, a masculinist one. (This is true even in siddurim and machzorim where other aspects of the liturgy are changed for what one might call political reasons, e.g., in the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshama, which alters the Hebrew of the aleynu prayer to eliminate its invidious comparisons between Jews and non-Jews but leaves G-d and the worshipper in the masculine.)
For two reasons, I think. (I exclude sexism as a reason, not because it plays no role, but because, as noted, even self-declared feminist congregations retain a masculinist liturgy.) First, because of the desire, the principled desire, to be in accord with tradition. Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, “do not separate from the community,” that is a real desire and a real principle, and I respect it. It is wonderful to think that the words one is saying or singing in prayer on Friday night or Saturday morning are the words being said or sung all over the Jewish world. Changes are made when necessary – few congregations I have visited retain the blessing thanking God “for not making me a woman” – but these are minimal, the goal being not to separate, to have all of us together saying or singing sh’ma yisra’el.
A second reason: because it seems so khutspedik, so insolent, so whipper-snapperish, in oneself or in others, to alter a liturgy established so long ago, by people of great authority and wisdom, who created beautiful and meaningful poems and prayers. We should be hesitant, the argument might run, to put ourselves forward as empowered to alter what others of greater authority have constituted. Who are we, anyway?
I feel the force of both these reasons; but they are in my judgment not so much reasons to refrain from altering the liturgy as reasons to alter it in some ways and not in others.
Regarding the first reason, I would quote Joel Rosenberg’s colloquial and wise extension of it: “al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur except when you have to.” Necessity, that is, should be our guide, not caprice. We should change the liturgy not when we casually dislike it, when we have a problem with, when it’s not to our taste; we should change it when we must, when the language makes the prayer an obstacle to praying, a diminishing of ourselves, of the persons and energies we bring to davening, when the prayer as written sticks in our throat, and I mean that almost literally, when we cannot breathe it out. And for me, and for the long train, di goldene keyt, the golden chain, of our liturgy-makers, the exclusively masculine characterization of God and the worshipper has exactly those effects. We change the liturgy so that we can breathe it. Nishmat kol chay tevarech et shemech we sing, the breath of every living thing will praise your (feminine) name, and for that to be true, we too have to be able to breathe.
Regarding the second reason, I would say that it should stimulate us to think about our relation to the authority of the past. I might not go as far as Emerson does, lover of Emerson as I am: “meek young persons grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero . . . Locke . . . Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young persons in libraries when they wrote these books.” I would go as far as Mordecai Kaplan did, who said often and in various forms, “the past has a vote, but not a veto.” I would also go so far as to say that it is intellectually and emotionally unhealthy to think that all wisdom is in the past, is in those who happened to come first, is in those men who happened to come first. Mayn neshome iz nit keyn rozhinke, my soul is also no raisin – or, more colloquially, and shifting the metaphor from fruit to meat, “what am I, chopped liver?”
We should in remaking the liturgy certainly hold ourselves to a high standard, philologically and literarily. We should not presume that replacing old formulations with new ones is easy, that Hebrew can be easily made to say with authenticity what we wish to say. We should look with humility as well as pride on the new liturgy we have made, and change it when we need to.
But if those are the criteria - acting from necessity not from caprice, rewriting with a judicious mixture of philological humility and human self-reliance – then the liturgy we make new, our mutkan liturgy, fixed and healed and restored, will be an essential element in the fruitful multiplicity of Judaisms, the seventy faces of Torah. Or rather it already is.
 http://digitalemerson.wsulibs.wsu.edu/exhibits/show/text/the-american-scholar, accessed September 26th, 2017.