Not long ago, “Siddur B’chol L’vavcha,” a prayer book (siddur) for gay Jews, arrived at my office. The blue cloth volume had its start in 1981 as a collection of typewritten pages with Hebrew lettering cut and pasted between the English text. It grew out of the life of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, an 800-member gay synagogue near Manhattan’s Chelsea district.
During the intervening years, massive shifts occurred among American homosexuals, including the AIDS crisis, and the changes are reflected in a recent edition of the siddur, published in 2008.
Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, the newer book is sophisticated and professional, one more sign of an increasing level of comfort some members of the religious community have with their openly gay members.
Paging through the siddur reveals (to heterosexuals) an alternate universe of experience and assumptions. For instance, the siddur does not assume its readers can marry and have children or are capable or desirous of having them. It includes rituals for the celebration of animals (one prayer thanks God for a cat’s purring), World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) and Transgender Remembrance Day (Nov. 20).
It has new rituals, such as the prayer “on coming out,” which reads, “As God blessed our ancestors as they came out from Egypt, may you be blessed as you come out as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer.”
The 1981 edition listed as forebears the matriarchs: Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. This edition adds Jacob’s concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, who had been left out of previous lists because they weren’t official wives of the patriarch.
Why this addition?
“This edition is acknowledging the profound role that non-legal parents have played and continue to play in raising younger generations of Jews,” the preface says.
And so we have an attempt to begin a new history by constructing a whole new set of realities.
This clearly is a prayer book for the observant, for whom Torah commands mean something. Hebrew and Yiddish quotes abound along with poems, prayers, testimonies and songs by gay composer Bill Finn, gay British poet Thom Gunn, gay Jewish playwright Tony Kushner and many others.
“We are a center from where people all over the country contact us for pastoral and liturgical help,” Congregation Beth Simchat Torah Executive Director Ilene Sameth told me. “We wish to bring into synagogue life ways to express the daily lives of LGBT people in a religious setting.
“These are prayers for things that directly touch LGBT peoples’ lives in a way different from straight peoples’ lives.”
Thus, “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” as the Latin saying goes. How one prays is how one believes. Which is why a regular prayer book won’t do here. Once one has shifted to a belief that homosexual practice is compatible with Jewish law, a new paradigm must be called in.
In this paradigm, even gender is not a given. God is referred to as both male and female, and verses from the Song of Songs (the Bible’s one erotic book) are cited with the “understanding not only that sexual orientation may shift over the course of one’s lifetime but also that the gender identity of one’s partner or one’s own gender identity might shift.”
Thus one of the earliest prayers in the siddur is reworded to accommodate intersex Jews.
American Judaism is all over the map on this issue. Whereas Reform and Reconstructionist Jews allow gay rabbis, the Orthodox do not. Conservative Jews let their member synagogues run the gamut between forbidding same-sex unions and gay clergy to allowing them. Some Conservative synagogues urge gay members to undergo therapy in an effort to change or at least pacify their desires.
The writers of this siddur have moved beyond the debates, which may be why CBST is an independent temple, beholden to no one.
• Julia Duin can be reached at email@example.com.