Something happened at Rosh Hashanah morning services this year that threw me for quite a loss. My least favorite prayer—more accurately, my least favorite translation of a prayer—was read. It was one of the birchot ha’shachar, morning blessings, whose Hebrew ending, “she’asani yisrael,” is translated in our Reform prayerbook so that the prayer, “Praised be You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe,” ends as follows: “who made me a Jew.”
Hearing that blessing while sitting next to my wife of twenty-six years, who lives Jewishly but has not converted to Judaism and thus is not “a Jew,” made me feel like I was being kicked in the stomach, as I later told my rabbi, and it took me half an hour to get over it.
I’m not an expert on the history of Jewish liturgy, but I do know a little about this prayer. In a traditional, Orthodox prayerbook, like the Birnbaum prayerbook that I own, the blessing that ends “she’asani yisrael” does not appear. Instead, there is a blessing that ends “she’lo asani goi,” which is translated as, “who did not make me a heathen.”
By the late 1940’s, the Conservative movement’s prayerbook (edited by the rabbi who married my parents, Morris Silverman) had taken out the “she’lo asani goi,” “who did not make me a heathen,” and replaced it with “she’asani yisrael,” which it translated as, “who hast made me an Israelite.” I don’t know how the decision to make this change in the Hebrew prayer was made, or what the thinking was. I assume that the editors were not comfortable with a prayer that was negative about non-Jews, and wanted to replace it with a positive statement of gratitude for Jewish identity.
When the Reform movement in 1975 published the Gates of Prayer prayerbook used in my synagogue, the she’asani yisrael language also appeared, but this time it was translated as, “who made me a Jew.” When the Conservative movement came out with a new prayerbook recently, it also adopted that translation. I think the translation is unfortunate, since the Hebrew word yisrael doesn’t mean “Jew.” It means “Israel” or “Israelite.” I don’t know why that translation was chosen; I can only assume that the editors felt that it was the best way to convey gratitude for Jewish identity.
The problem, in my view, is that the “who made me a Jew” translation is incredibly excluding of non-Jews in our synagogues. When the editors were working on Gates of Prayer in 1975, they could not have foreseen that, twenty-five years later, there would be thousands of non-Jewish partners in Reform synagogues, seeking to have their spiritual needs fulfilled in Jewish worship services. But that is the situation, and the “who made me a Jew” translation presents a real obstacle to those people, as well as to their sympathetic Jewish partners.
I wouldn’t argue that a Jewish worship service should not have many particularistic references to Jewish identity and to God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Jewish liturgy is filled with such references, but I don’t think they are off-putting to the non-Jews in our synagogues. One Conservative rabbi told me that the “who made me a Jew” language is particularly striking because the morning blessings are the only part of the service that are in the first person. At all other points in the service, the prayers are said as “we” or “us,” and it’s easier for non-Jews in interfaith families to feel that they, along with their partner or children, are part of the “us” that the prayer refers to. But in the morning blessings, the “I” or “me” language makes it impossible for the non-Jews among us to avoid feeling personally excluded when the prayer is recited.
In my opinion, given that half of the Jews marrying are marrying non-Jews, and given that the chances of attracting interfaith families to synagogues and having them raise Jewish children will be increased if intermarried parents are comfortable with and find spiritual satisfaction in Jewish worship, language which is unnecessarily excluding of non-Jews in our synagogues should no longer be used. Jewish liturgy has changed in the past, to accommodate new sensitivities and new social realities. Past Conservative and Reform prayerbook editors eliminated the part of the same morning blessings that thanks God “for not making me a woman,” or changed it to thanking God for being made in the divine image. Individual rabbis also make changes in the liturgy used in their synagogues. In my own synagogue, for example, we changed the Hebrew and the English of the traditional Amidah prayer, which refers to our “fathers,” to also refer to our “mothers,” a change that has now become common in Reform and Conservative synagogues.
I think it’s time for prayerbook editors and prayer leaders to take into account those non-Jews in our synagogues who are seeking spiritual fulfillment in Jewish worship services. The Reconstructionist movement, in its most recent prayerbook, translates she¹asani yisrael as, “who made me of the people Israel.” In a commentary, the editor says that that language gives ” thanks for our particular identity as Jews.” One of the prayerbook’s editors told me that, while they did not choose that translation out of consideration of the feelings of non-Jews, he could see how a person who lived Jewishly but was not a Jew could feel that he or she was “of the people Israel.”
I’m proud to be a Jew, part of the people of Israel, and I think it’s a good thing for Jewish worship to include gratitude to God for our identity as Jews. But I would be satisfied to thank God for making me “of the people Israel.” More important, many non-Jews in synagogues, who live Jewishly but are not Jews, could be comfortable thanking God for making them “of the people Israel,” instead of excluded when they can’t thank God for making them a Jew.