On being Egalitarian

From the Keddem Outlook, February 1999 (Shevat/Adar 5759)

One of Keddem's founding principles is that we are egalitarian. In other words, on the most basic level, we believe that women and men should have the same rights, as people and as Jews. What does this mean for congregational life?

Egalitarianism applies on several different levels at Keddem. First, every ritual that is performed at Keddem is open to both genders: for example, both men and women may chant Torah; both women and men light Shabbat candles. Indeed, women and men serve in all capacities in our shul, leading committees, sitting on the Board, leading services, organizing events. No activity is proscribed--or prescribed--on the basis of gender. For many of us, this is a welcome change from other synagogue experiences.

But Keddem's egalitarianism doesn't stop there. One of the more radical ways that Keddem enacts this principle (radical in terms of the larger Jewish community) is in our use of liturgy. We have looked closely at the language we use when we pray, struggled with it, and in some cases even reconstructed it to better fit our egalitarian principles.

Like most liberal synagogues, we have striven to remove gendered references to the deity from the English translations of the liturgy, but we haven't stopped there. We have struggled with the Hebrew in an attempt to make sure what we say better addresses all of us, not just males. For example, we sing "Hinei mah tov umanaim, shevet kulam gam yachad," instead of "shevet achim gam yachad," because achim means "brothers," and kulam means "all."

Hebrew is a gendered language--every noun is either male or female, there is no neuter--and in the Torah God is always referred to in male terms, as "He," "Lord," "King," etc. The opening of a traditional bracha (blessing) is literally translated as "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe," an image with which many of us have difficulty. According to our tradition, God is neither male nor female, and is also both, yet for centuries Jews have referred to God almost exclusively as male. In an attempt to at least begin to address this imbalance, we sometimes use a feminized version of the blessing: "N'varech Yah, Shekhinah, Ruach ha'olam," "We bless Yah, Divine Presence, Life's Breath of the universe." Not only are the words feminine in gender, but the very image of the deity as breath, as a divine presence, is much gentler and more nurturing--for lack of more descriptive words, more what is commonly thought of as "feminine"--than the image of a distant ruler on high.

These kinds of changes and additions to the liturgy have never been made lightly. Reconstructionism in action requires a great deal of thought and wrestling, just as Jacob, in order to become Israel, had to wrestle with God. Because we are committed to the principle of egalitarianism, we recognize no class distinctions among Jews--neither in our services nor in who can decide what liturgy the rest of us will use. All our liturgical decisions have been made by committee, and as always, Keddem respects the varying traditions that our members choose to follow, whether or not they match what is printed in our siddurim.

Each of us must ultimately make our own choices, and together determine the direction of our community. We truly are community-led, not only in who leads our services and runs the congregation, but also in our creation of our principles and values, and in their implementation. Even when or if we hire a rabbi, this needn't change. Together we can keep reconstructing our congregation as needed to make it the egalitarian ideal we want it to be.

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