Sidur B’chol L’vavchah–a review

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

Shabat Noach

Transgender Day of Remembrance

AIDS and World AIDS Day

MLK Day

Yamim Hashoah, Hazikaron and Ha’atsma’ut

Pride Shabat

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.

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21 Responses to Sidur B’chol L’vavchah–a review

  1. BZ June 15, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

    I object to the size of Mishkan, not just its thickness, but its wide magazine-like unwieldiness.

    I just saw a mini version of Mishkan. It’s about time!

    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

    This is our world. If we were really imagining an ideal world, no one would have to be in the closet in the first place.

    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.”

    My objection to this is technical: in medieval Hebrew poetry, rhyme involves the entire final syllable, not just the final sound, and thus each verse of Lechah Dodi ends in -lah, not just in -ah. The new version should adhere to this rhyme scheme as well. Maybe “gilah” instead?

    Shabat Noach is nutso, I’m gonna be honest.

    Whoa. When I saw it above, I was sure it was going to be rainbow-related!

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 16, 2009 at 7:12 am #

      Thanks for the comments, BZ. Yeah, we’ve got some mini-MTs here are Kutz, but they’ve got a weird layout.

    • BZ July 5, 2009 at 10:57 am #

      And in fact, I was at CBST last week, and they read the section from Parshat Noach about the rainbow covenant as the special maftir for Pride Shabbat. (Nothing about pets.)

  2. lyrl June 15, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Thanks for posting this review, it’s really interesting. I’m not qualified to comment on any of the theological aspects, but as for this:

    I object to the size of Mishkan, not just its thickness, but its wide magazine-like unwieldiness.

    Do you know if there been any interest in publishing the Mishkan in a Kindle or Sony Reader version? It seems like an electronic book would be ideal for providing all the text that the movement feels is necessary without the awkward bulk.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 16, 2009 at 7:14 am #

      Thanks for the comment, lyrl.

      If there’s been any interest in that, it’s been passing. I don’t think anyone is seriously talking about that sort of thing for MT right now. This may be a conversation for another, future post…

  3. feygele June 16, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    Two things:

    1 – I’ve been to CBST; I don’t think they daven a “structurally traditional” KabShab, unless you’re using an “untraditional” definition here.

    2 – “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.”

    Are you using “gay” as a catch-all term? Because this reads as slightly pejorative. Transgender is not “gay” (sexual orientation and gender identity are separate issues). And in reading the Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance, sexual orientation is not mentioned; it is explicitly about transfolks.

    Further, using the word “nice” to refer to prayers and poems dealing with memorials for trans people and those who died from AIDS (or have been affected by it) rubs the wrong way. Am I being too sensitive? Possibly. But a few folks mentioned your post to me, and these critiques specifically, which is why I’m commenting.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 16, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

      1- I haven’t been. If this sidur is an actual indication of the minhag at CBST (and, in writing this review, I assumed it to be so), then they are davening a structurally traditional service. By that I mean, kab shab has all the psalms and piyutim you’d find and all of the prayers are there from maariv to the amidah to aleinu. But, as I said, I’m quite keen now on visiting CBST some time. I’m sure that when I do that, there will be more blogging from me on the topic.

      2- If I had reviewed the section in Sidur B’chol L’vavchah that provides readings for Tisha B’Av and said, “Tisha B’Av gets all manner of poems about depressing stuff and Temple destruction and do forth, which are all nice,” no one would’ve batted and eye. Readers would say, “There goes David describing things flippantly.”

      Am I using gay as a catch-all term? Yes and I know better. Queer might’ve been a better term, but as long as this synagogue calls itself “An LGBT Synagogue” and the G goes on standing for Gay, I’m not going to accept that gay this community sees gay as pejorative. If they do, they need a new name.

      I lived in a house with the leader of my school’s Alliance last year and I’m mostly on the up-and-up about what terms mean what when and what’s okay for straight guys like me to say. I chose the word gay because I wanted to use it there.

      And I chose the word nice because they’re nice. I’m not gonna read through each one (I skimmed through a few and a read few others) and tell you how heart-breaking they are. I’m glad this community has given thought to its calendar and made the choices it has as to what holidays are gonna merit a section. As I said, these passages are “perfect for the community that’s chosen them.”

      As a straight white guy (though I consider myself and ally, for what it’s worth) who happens to be a little liturgy obsessed, I’m not interested in this as a gay (or LGBT for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities) sidur. I’m just interested in seeing the latest addition to the diversity of the sidur market and I’m interested in seeing what this sidur has to offer.

      I think I made my respect for the sidur and what it’s trying to do quite clear.

      Are you being too sensitve? I don’t know. But I didn’t mean to offend.

      • BZ June 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

        By that I mean, kab shab has all the psalms and piyutim you’d find and all of the prayers are there from maariv to the amidah to aleinu.

        This is also true for Gates of Prayer.

      • feygele June 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

        I possibly wasn’t clear in my comment.

        “Am I using gay as a catch-all term? Yes and I know better. Queer might’ve been a better term, but as long as this synagogue calls itself “An LGBT Synagogue” and the G goes on standing for Gay, I’m not going to accept that gay this community sees gay as pejorative. If they do, they need a new name.”

        There’s nothing wrong with LGBT, or G/gay. But using “gay” as an umbrella term for LGBT doesn’t work. And, specifically, where you use it as shorthand in reference to transgender stuff, it excludes many.

  4. Jesse June 16, 2009 at 7:00 pm #

    As long as we’re focused on nomenclature and terminology, let me express my confusion by your (David) conflation of “traditional” with “Orthodox” when refering to the content of the siddur.

    If inclusion of a set list of prayers makes something “traditional,” then we’re still operating under the FCD (Frumest Commond Denominator) framework. That is, “more is better.” Or “more is traditional,” or “more is Orthodox.” Take away some of the prayers you’ve listed, and you become “less traditional.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I like more. I’m all about expanding and broadening our horizons, as you know. Let’s push ourselves and do “more.”

    But does more=traditional? No, I don’t think so.

    What is “traditional”? And while I’m at it… when is the cutoff date for “traditional”? Anything pre-haskalah? Or pre-Second Temple?

    As BZ pointed out, according to your framework, GOP is also “traditional.” So is “traditional” pre-2007?

    Perhaps we can’t and shouldn’t define “traditional.” It only creates more barriers between Jews. But I would argue that if you’re going to describe something as “structurally traditional,” you should define what you mean by that.

    Done.

  5. BZ June 16, 2009 at 9:09 pm #

    My point about GOP (which would also apply to Mishkan) was that it also has all the psalms of kabbalat shabbat in it, but that doesn’t mean that congregations that use GOP/Mishkan include all the psalms in their services.

  6. Larry Kaufman June 16, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

    Despite your comment on Facebook, David, I don’t see that anyone is offended by your post — only by some of your word choices.

    As a kid, I was cracked up by the story of the woman who told her grandson there were two words she wished he wouldn’t use — one is swell and the other is lousy. And the youngster replied, OK, Grandma — what are the words?

    Again, when I was a kid, gay was still a synonym for happy in the straight world, and queer could still be used as a synonym for strange, but it was also a pejorative term for a male homosexual. I have the impression that today both terms are used in the GLBT community (is it really a community. or is GLBT an umbrella term covering essentially separate groups?) as descriptors that are not value-laden. As a wordie, I regret the loss of the word gay from its former meaning, but I recognize that words take on lives of their own, and no lexicographer can prevent them from doing so.
    Case in point: the participants in this discussion may struggle with their own relationships to Reform Judaism, but any of them — us — will bristle at someone who equates it with total non-observance. But while we bristle, we don’t own the copyright — and we also bristle when someone looks at emerging Reform ritual and tells us we’ve become Orthodox.

    And that brings me to the next set of David words that are being questioned — traditional, etc. BZ may protest to his heart’s content, but as my bobie would have said, s’vet gornisht helfen.

    Finally, a comment on the siddur itself. I haven’t seen either the NY or the SF books — but I wonder what their shelf life will be, and how long it will be until the special occasion prayers that are unique to these siddurim will find their way into Mishkan Tefila, just as more and more GLBT Jews already find a comfort zone in a non-niche congregation.
    At the risk of not being PC, I would say bimhera v’yameinu.

  7. David A.M. Wilensky June 17, 2009 at 7:14 am #

    Word to all of your mothers.

  8. David A.M. Wilensky June 17, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Oh, and false with regards to MT having all of the kab shab psalms. One of them is missing a paragraph because it’s not so nice.

  9. BZ June 17, 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Right, I meant that GOP/MT contain every psalm (at least in part), not that they contain all of every psalm. (It’s more than one psalm that is missing some text, though an earlier draft of MT had all the psalms in full.) But most services that use those siddurim don’t include every psalm even in part. My point was that one can’t entirely infer the congregational minhag from the contents of the siddur. And I think it’s a good thing for siddurim to err on the side of including more, to provide for maximum flexibility by service leaders.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 17, 2009 at 10:36 am #

      Agreed. However, MT is different from SBL in that SBL, while it is being published for a wide audience now for the first time, is still very much a congregational sidur, whereas MT was designed to be used in all the many congregations that fall under the Big Tent.

  10. Raphael Freeman July 18, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    just a minor quibble, but shouldn’t it be called b’chol levavEcha? It’s a shva na not a shva nach!

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