I have never been to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Manhattan’s premier Jewish queer community and one of America’s more prominent gay synagogues. I’ve heard nice things about it. I know they’re unaffiliated, welcoming to all, and daven a structurally traditional Kabalat Shabat, but their liturgy is full of its own character and unique minhagim.
So when I heard that the newest version of their sidur, Sidur B’chol L’vavchah, would be published this year and made available to a wide audience, I knew I had to get it. I’ve had it for a week and a half and I finally had the chance to daven with it on Friday night.
I own a lot of sidurim, most of them what you could call progressive in some way, and I have used many adjectives (some nice, many not so nice) to describe my sidurim. CBST’s new sidur is unlike any other I own; I am moved to call it and earnest and caring sidur.
We’ll start with what I don’t like because there’s not a whole lot that I don’t like. It is a slim, blue volume with silver titling on the cover, which makes it appear kind of like Mishkan T’filah on a diet. I object to the size of Mishkan, not just its thickness, but its wide magazine-like unwieldiness. On the same dimension-related grounds, I’m put off by the form that this new sidur takes.
When I take a look inside SBL, I’m further put off by the layout, which is again, much like that of MT. Though it lacks the formalized layout of MT (Hebrew top right, translation bottom right, readings on the left), the layout often ends up being very similar to that style and is full of huge white paper-wasting gaps with no type.
And there, shockingly, my full-on dislikes end. There will be more here that I find questionable, but nothing that outright dislike.
The sidur begins with a lovely, if long introduction to the history of CBST and its liturgy. It puts you right there and cogently explains pretty much all of the context that this sidur needs to be understood. As I say, there is much I find questionable in this sidur, but all of it fits into a grand, (mostly) consistently applied concept.
And the concept is this: Sidur B’chol L’vavchah is a sidur attemption to imagine and alternate world in which Judaism is concerned with equality and respect among the genders. Indeed, CBST’s current tagline is “An LGBT Synagogue for People of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities.” This sidur imagines that Judaism as a whole is a for “People of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities.”
And if anyone out there in jblogland is saying to themselves, “But, wait. I’m familiar with Reform liturgy of the last thirty years and I thought that was pretty gender sensitive,” apparently, it’s not gender sensitive enough. To this sidur, gender sensitive isn’t just adding our mothers in with our father or adding Miriam in with Moses (both if which it does), it’s also about imagining a world in which Judaism offers life cycle rituals for people for whom coming out of the closet was a major life event worth being marked religiously and imagining a world in which Judaism breaks free from straight paradigms of family life.
Now, for some examples. To the list of matriarchs and patriarchs in Avot V’imahot, SBL adds the handmaids Bilchah and Zilpah, who, along with Rachel and Leah, are also mothers of the men whom our twelve tribes are named after. To be clear, this is not a liturgical minhag which I am endorsing, merely one I am intrigued by and one that supports the alternate gender universe this sidur endeavors to create. In support of this practice, the sidur offers this commentary:
…we have experienced the ways in which LGBT families are excluded and erased from Jewish community and family life… Some of us have lost our children or have been excides from their lives; many of us will never be recognized as the parents of the children we have raised. [etc, etc, more of this sort of thing] … Therefore we acknowledge all of our ancestors, Avraham, Yitschak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, her handmaiden Bilhah, Leah, and her handmaiden Zilpah. Our ancestors descended from all of them, whether their relationships were celebrated or not…
Mah Tovu reads “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisra’el. Mah tovu ohaleyich Le’ah, mishk’notayich Rachel.”
Hinei Mah Tov, to be inclusive of women and people who are of indeterminate gender, reads, “Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad,” which we are used to, but then continues for two more lines identically, but substituting the word nashim, women, for achim, brothers, in line two. In line three, it reads, “Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet kulanu yachad,” which implies all of us, with no particular gender, sitting together.
L’chah Dodi does not escape. Where it traditionally reads “Kimsos chatan al kalah,” “As a groom rejoices in a bride,” SBL’s version reads “Kimsos lev b’ahavah,” “As a heart rejoices in love.” Again, here is a change I think is wrong-headed, but I respect the effort put into imagining an alternate universe. Unfortunately, I fear that in the universe this sidur imagines, L’chah Dodi may have no place at all, as its very central metaphor is that of the Jewish people as a groom and Shabat as a bride.
Ma’ariv is the site of the most additional options. Two version of Barchu are presented side by side. One reads “Barch et Adonai ham’vorechet,” while the other gives the more familiar “ham’vorach.” This trend continues throughout Ma’ariv. Ma’ariv Aravim, Ahavat Olam, Emet V’emunah, and Hashkiveinu are all set up like this: The prayer in Hebrew, translation, a couple of full pages of readings, and finally a second version of the chatimah. The chatimah, or the seal, is the final line of a prayer, the one beginning “Baruch atah etc.” Each of these secondary chatimot begins “Bruchah at etc,” changing it to the female form and appropriately altering each verb in the chatimah to match.
This brings me to the readings and the supplementary material, which are this sidur’s strongest layer of content.
As I said, between the male and femal chatimot, there are many additional readings one might use instead of or in addition the prayer at hand. There are similarly diverse readings throughout the whole of the Friday night service, which is this sidur’s primary focus, as well as a robust, if agenda-ridden and less-scholarly-than-I’d-like layer of commentary across the bottom of many pages.
What I like about these readings is that unlike any other contemporary sidurim, which tend to be heavy in the readings, these readings are not all in English. Instead, many are originally in Ladino, Hebrew, or Yiddish are and represented in both English and their original language.
Curiously, we also get a bit of Russian, as the brachah for the Shabat candles is translated into both English and Russian. And we get some French too, in the form of a French poem, reproduces in both French and English. Even Arabic appears, if only for one word. Mosh Ben Ari’s popular song, “Salaam,” appears as one of several alternatives to Hashkiveinu.
In the Amidah, an entire section gets added in the tradional liturgy on Chanukah. This sidur also adds a similar section on LGBT Pride week.
The sidur’s strongest point is its long section of supplementary readings at the back. Though it is primarily a Friday night sidur, it also includes these sections:
Blessings for Community Life
Prayers for our Country
Several sections for a variety of Jewish holidays
Transgender Day of Remembrance
AIDS and World AIDS Day
Yamim Hashoah, Hazikaron and Ha’atsma’ut
Blessings for community life includes blessings for a new child, someone about to become bar or bat mitzvah, a milestone birthday, renaming those who are transitioning (to a new gender, presumably), for the power to change, for those traveling to Israel, for coming out, for an anniversary, for lovers and for those about to stand under the chupah, and retirement. It’s a great list.
Prayers for our country includes all the usuals (Gob Bless America, etc.) and the not so usual (celebrating diversity with various poems and such).
Shabat Noach is nutso, I’m gonna be honest. On this Shabat, which happens to have some animals in the parshah, but is really about divine punishment, covenants, and so forth, this congregation apparently does some blessings for pets. Really? Give me a break.
Transgender Day or Remembrance and AIDS Day both get all manner of poems about gay stuff, which are nice and, of course, perfect for the community that’s chosen them.
MLK Day is a great inclusion, as many in the gay rights movement have attempted, with some success, to tie their struggle to that of blacks in the mid-20th century. The section includes We Shall Overcome, selections from the I Have a Dream speech and more in the vein.
Without going into too much detail about the Israeli holidays included here, I can say that of all the sidurim I’ve seen with sections for these days, this sidur’s selections are the best!
The verdict: I will never pray on my own with this sidur, or bring it with me to daven with a community. It’s too unwieldy, physically, and it’s ideologically top-heavy as it seeks to imagine the alternate gender universe I’ve mentioned.
However, I would love to visit CBST with my copy of this sidur in tow to see how this community makes use of it.
I can also definitely see myself referring to this sidur for appropriate readings for holidays throughout the year.