The quest for justice sometimes takes us down unexpected paths to unanticipated places. For some it may be a facility that discriminates invidiously on the basis of age or origin or gender or race or creed. For others, it may be a legislature that refuses to act to redress a perceived wrong.
Then again, sometimes the quest takes us back to a familiar place, a place closer to home where we would least expect to find an inequity, a place like our own prayer book in our own synagogue.
When the issue was one of gender language and imagery, the Reform movement, like the Reconstructionist movement, amended traditional prayer texts to speak with more neutral language, for instance with Sovereign instead of King, Deliverer instead of Savior, Adonai instead of Lord, or with additional more expressly inclusive references, for instance by adding a list of matriarchs to the list of patriarchs in the T’Filah. But, as we sat in community with our brothers and sisters from the Second Baptist Church I realized there is more to be done beyond correcting gender related issues.
The siddur, by virtue of its origins and purpose, is a parochial book. It contains the prayers and poetry of the Jewish people written and collected across continents and time. It is in many ways also an aspirational book, looking to a future. The editors of Mishkan T’Filah, however, missed a good (and rare) opportunity to demonstrate an authentic Jewish concern, and failed to enable our community to reach out and embrace the strangers among us.
One of the most familiar prayers in our liturgy is the Kaddish Yatom, Mourner’s Kaddish. It is a prayer of considerable importance, said standing in our congregation and aloud. Its words say nothing about death or mourning, but speak of praise for the Eternal One. At the end of the prayer, there is a prayer for peace. It is an unusual appeal to “Oseh Shalom Bimromav”, that is, “the One who creates harmony on high.” We ask for peace for “us and all Israel.” I wondered during that service a few weeks ago what I would think if I were a member of Second Baptist Church and read those words. “What about me?” I imagined they were thinking. “I could use some of that peace too.” Indeed.
What make this restriction particularly curious and onerous is that this prayer for peace is found elsewhere in the siddur, at the end of the T’Filah, but each time other than in the Kaddish the prayer has been modified with the words “v’al kol yosh’vei teiveil” or “and all who inhabit the earth.” So, the editors knew a way to express an inclusive wish for peace for all humanity, and did so numerous times in the prayer book, but, however well intentioned, failed to do so at the end of the Kaddish.
I am less interested in analyzing why the editors made the choice they made than in urging we complete the task they have begun. A community bold enough to recognize how problematic certain gender language was for 50% of the population issues should be at least as sensitive to the 99.8% of the population left out of a prayer for peace. And there are such communities. Reform, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated congregations across this country and in Israel have added “v’al kol yosh’vei teiveil” to their recitation of the Kaddish. They have done so because they recognize that Torah teaches loving the stranger just as it teaches loving your neighbor. And they recognize, as Rabbi Melanie Aron has said, “There will be no peace for the Jewish people, where there is no peace for others as well.”
Beth Emet is strong enough, wise enough and good enough to join them. And it should. So, as a community, let’s add four small words, out loud, and prominently. Who knows? Maybe this is what the Mashiach has been waiting for?