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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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It’s hard to pray in English

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Worship services in Reform congregations almost invariably include prayers in the vernacular. Influenced by contemporary feminism and its stress on gender equality, new editions of Reform prayer books in English have chosen inclusive language rather than literal translations of the original Hebrew. In order to be politically correct, the Union for Reform Judaism even has a book of Haftarot that has neutered the biblical texts to make sure that “sexist” language doesn’t come over the lips of readers.

The New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, published shortly before Pesach, has chosen to ignore this trend. It translates the texts literally and refers to God as “Lord” and “King,” and consistently uses the masculine personal pronoun when appropriate.

Despite going against the current, or perhaps because of it, the book has become an instant success and is likely to be used at many Seder tables in years to come.

Those who appreciate the beautiful and apt translations have thus reacted against what has become an accepted norm among English-speaking liberal Jews. And even advocates of gender sensitive language admit they cannot do anything about the Hebrew prayers, because Hebrew doesn’t lend itself to neutral terminology.

This means people who wouldn’t say “Lord” or “King” in English do so, seemingly happily, in Hebrew or in, say, French and German, which also don’t allow for the kind of neutral expressions that are possible in English.

In addition to including references to the matriarchs each time the patriarchs are mentioned, the synagogue where I pray in Jerusalem – and where, of course, only Hebrew is used – is trying to occasionally address God by the feminine Yah instead of the masculine Adonai. But most of the texts remain intact and, mercifully, no attempts are being made to tamper with biblical readings.

In the choice between accuracy and what they deem to be relevance, Reform Jews in the English-speaking world have largely opted for the latter. But an article in the April 4 issue of the Forward by David. A.M. Wilensky, although he reports to have been reared in an American Reform congregation, challenges this trend.

He’s 23 and describes himself as being part of a generation “nearly defined by our rejection of ideologies that require exclusive allegiance.” Supporting the translations in the New American Haggadah, he writes: “If genderless translation is an example of ideology affecting liturgy, it should come as no surprise that a hip, contemporary liturgy would eschew that in favour of a more straightforward approach to liturgical translation.”

I have grandchildren of Wilensky’s generation, but in this case, I may be younger than my years. Like him, I’m a staunch advocate of the equality of women in all aspects of religious life. At Holy Blossom Temple, we made sure that almost always, at least one of its rabbis would be a woman and that the congregation would practise and consistently promote gender equality in all aspects of synagogue life.

Such equality, successfully spearheaded by Reform Judaism, has now also been embraced by the Conservative movement, despite dissent in some Canadian congregations. Modern Orthodoxy is currently struggling with the problem and showing signs of progress.

But Wilensky’s words resonate with me as no doubt they do with many others: “When we convince ourselves that we’ve solved the problem of centuries of exclusion of women from Jewish ritual and narrative by reducing God to a cumbersome asexual matter of grammar, we do ourselves a great disservice. We sweep our people’s treatment of women under the rug.”

As more and more Reform Jews come to know enough Hebrew to appreciate the liturgy in the original and, as a result, fewer prayers are read in English, the more Wilensky’s words will resonate with them as well. Perhaps at times they’ll even choose the Hebrew to avoid bland translations.

I surmise that my rabbinic colleagues who aspire to be politically correct will disagree. Happily, there’s no clause in Reform Judaism that would condemn me for heresy. As the Central Conference of American Rabbis recently recognized the 50th anniversary of my ordination, it may ascribe my unease with gender sensitive language in prayer to theological sclerosis that’s to be humoured rather than rebuked.

The way I often deal with my discomfort with doctored translations is to escape into the Hebrew original, even when the congregation reads in English. Some might call this creative liturgical maladjustment.

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