New Bet Mishpachah prayer book: gender binary is so 1991

Scott Reiter, the editor of Bet Mishpachah’s updated prayer book Shavat Va-Yinafash, also created the congregation’s first prayer book in 1991. Photo courtesy of Scott Reiter

When Bet Mishpachah published a hardbound prayer book more than a quarter-century ago, the Washington-based LGBTQ minyan wanted to make sure the text included women and included a gender-neutral word for God. At the time, making women equal to men was an innovation.

But times have changed. Again. Gender identities that aren’t strictly male or female are becoming part of religious conversations.

Two years ago, the group’s liturgy committee decided times had changed enough since 1991 to warrant an update. The prayer book, Shavat Va-Yinafash, would have to recognize those who were not women or men.

Last week, Bet Mishpachah began using a newly published hardbound prayer book, or siddur. It includes updated prayers and supplementary readings that deal with LGBTQ activism and gender diversity — many of which have been used in the congregation’s services before, but were not part of the prayer book.

“The book in ‘91 was very binary,” said Rabbi Laurie Green. “It was concerned about including women, so it was ‘women and men, blah, blah, blah.’”

Most of the changes to the new prayer book are in English, but the committee altered portions of Hebrew prayers to better reflect the diversity of gender identities in the 21st century.

The Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service, underwent such a transformation. The traditional version refers to avot, or fathers. Bet Mishpachah’s 1991 prayerbook used the egalitarian avot v’Imahot, or fathers and mothers. Editor-in-chief Scott Reiter said the committee decided to replace fathers and mothers with dorot — a gender-blind term meaning generations.

Reiter said the committee also changed the language of “Hinei Ma Tov,” from 1991’s egalitarian “How sweet it is for women and men to gather” to “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in peace, how good and pleasant it is for sisters to dwell in peace, how good and pleasant it is for us all to dwell in peace.”

Reiter said assembling the siddur was simpler than the last time because of the invention of Hebrew word-processing software.

In 1991, “they were sending the Hebrew pages to Israel to get them typeset,” he said.

This time around, the siddur also includes passages that were written by Bet Mishpachah members, along with rabbis and liturgists outside of Washington.

One of the Shabbat readings was written by Jerry Goldberg, one of Bet Mishpachah’s founding members. “For GeLiBTe Jews, Their Families and Friends” thanks God for the ability to “celebrate our sexuality and our heritage.” Gelibte means beloved in Yiddish.

I asked people who were putting [the siddur] together, aren’t you going to have anything specific to gay and lesbian issues? And they said, ‘You should write something,’” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said he’s fine with the new prayer book, but that the old one covered all the bases.

“The congregation wanted to have a totally degenderized service and the first edition I thought did that,” he said.

The new edition also includes several holiday-themed readings with LGBTQ themes, such as one written for Sukkot by Alex Carter, a member of Bet Mishpachah’s liturgy committee, titled “In the Sukka.”

The passage is an invitation to enter the sukkah and makes a reference to “Bachelor uncles, maiden aunts,” which she said refers to LGBTQ individuals who never married. The passage also includes several Jewish historical figures, including Harvey Milk — one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States.

“I’m probably someone on the committee who is always saying, we need something more LGBTQ,” Carter said. “We were looking at Sukkot pieces and we found lovely pieces but nothing that spoke to our congregation’s identity.”

Carter also wrote a passage for World AIDS Day, which the congregation marked Dec. 1. It reads “Too long gone now, the dancers the DJs, the actors lawyers artists waiters. Too many buried young, too many never old.”

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