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Prayers for everyday life Update: The new rabbi's manual for Conservative Judaism tries to bring religion into every aspect of life.


Imagine a rabbi offering a prayer specifically composed to ease the jitters that come with sending your kid off to camp, or praying for the parents and safety of a teen-ager who's just been licensed to drive.

Such are the suggestions of a new rabbi's manual for Conservative Judaism's 750 congregations in North America and elsewhere that includes dozens of new rites, including a "grieving ritual" for a couple after an abortion.

Last revived more than three decades ago -- before women rabbis and cantors were ordained and families began confronting a new generation of issues the new manual was issued by the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism in response to a plethora of life events.

"The new rabbi's manual is a source of prayers, ceremonies, ideas, thoughts and words of Torah to meet the needs of the contemporary American Jew and Jews all over the world," said Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the Rabbinical Assembly and the leader of Carroll County's Beth Shalom Congregation. "It reflects the changing needs of people."

The compact manual, with 4-by-7-inch pages, is published in two volumes and runs to 688 pages, three times the length of the previous manual that was published in 1965. It has been available since late October, but many rabbis are just receiving their copies now.

It includes rituals ranging from the profound -- it has a new Confessional Prayer recited just before death that focuses less on sins committed -- to the seemingly mundane, like the prayer before sending a child off to summer camp.

Those who worked on the manual say even those small events are important to families.

Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, who collaborated on parts of the text, recently employed a blessing for a youth in his congregation who received a driver's license.

"It is certainly a rite of passage for the child," he said, "but it is also a rite of passage for the parents, waiting up late at night for their children to get home. It is an event invested with a lot of joy, but also with a great deal of responsibility."

Ideas for the manual's rituals came from rabbis and their congregation members.

"The approach we took was it needed to reflect what's really going on in terms of people's lives every day," said Rabbi Gordon M. Freeman of Walnut Creek, Calif., who edited the manual with Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of Springfield, N.J. "This manual is a collective work rather than being written on high by some liturgist or poet."

The influence of women rabbis is clear in the manual. Many new rituals relate to birth issues: There's a ritual for miscarriage, one for coping with infertility and another for the birth of children with illness or disability.

There is a sensitivity to masculine references to God. It uses the Hebrew word Adonai instead of Lord, "monarch" instead of "king;" and a prayer to the sick mentions Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah along with the traditional patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This is not political correctness, the editors say.

"We don't regard this as necessarily a change from the past as much we see it as an extension of Jewish theology, which would conceive of a God beyond gender and sexuality," Rank said. "We see this as very much in keeping with tradition."

The "grieving ritual for the termination of pregnancy," which has sparked some controversy within the Conservative branch, takes non-judgmental approach.

"You made a choice, choosing life for [mother's name], for the two of you as a couple, for your family, for the well-being of children yet to come into your lives," the rabbi says during a ceremony that can take place in a home or a rabbi's study. "We grieve with you over the loss of this seed of life, and we affirm your essence as people gifted with the ability to nurture other life -- within yourselves, in your love for one another."

This ritual, too, is in keeping with Jewish tradition, the editors said. "In the Jewish way of thinking, there are certain situations in which the termination of pregnancy would not only be permitted, but it would be mandated," Rank said. An example is when the life of the mother is endangered.

"Very often terminating a pregnancy, even when it is clear it has to be done or the mother will die, there is still a sense of loss, guilt, sorrow, shame," Rank said. "Those emotional issues can now be addressed within some spiritual framework, drawing on the sources of our tradition and a community of family and friends gathered specifically for that purpose."

The intent of celebrating these rituals, Rank said, is to highlight the sacred in people's everyday lives and give them a way to express it. And in so doing, the synagogue will become more relevant to them.

"I think at the end of the 20th century, we have a great thirst for religion and spirituality, but also uncertainty as to how to go about it," Rank said. "We feel that many people can find this sense of spirituality that they are so desperately looking for within the synagogue. We want to give them reason to come back."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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