For generations of Jews, the first lines of the Amidah – the central daily prayer of the religion – have invoked a distinctly male God. As well as eulogising the "God of our fathers", practising Jews refer to the patriarchs of their faith – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
On the last Friday of this month, members of the Movement for Reform Judaism, who make up a quarter of Britain's Jews, will add a further line to the prayer. In doing so, they will usher in a dramatic change to their liturgy which Reform rabbis insist will dispel centuries of sexism and put the women of the Torah, the Hebrew bible, on an equal footing with its men.
A new prayer book to be used by Reform Judaism's 35,000 members will replace the "God of our fathers" in the opening line of the Amidah with the "God of our ancestors" and add to the list of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the names of the matriarchs of the Jewish faith – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.
Instead of beginning "Blessed are you God and God of our fathers/God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob", the reformed Amidah will begin: "Blessed are you God and God of our ancestors/ God of Abraham, God Isaac, God of Jacob; God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Leah and God Rachel."
Rabbi Shoshona Boyd Gelfand, the executive director of the Movement for Reform Judaism, said the decision to use "gender neutral language" to refer to God – replacing terms such as "Father/King/He" with "Sovereign/Ruler/ Living God" – and giving senior female figures from the scriptures parity with men was part of a wider effort to bring faith movements up to date with attitudes on gender.
The unveiling of Forms of Prayer, a 700-page book of daily prayer designed for use at home and in synagogues, is the culmination of eight years of debate and consultation within Britain's 43 reform congregations. Reform Judaism, which bills itself as the progressive arm of the Jewish faith, also makes up about 70 per cent of American synagogues. The authors of the new British prayer book say it will underline a key distinction with Orthodox Jews by providing a "commitment to the equality of the sexes".
Most Orthodox congregations, who make up about 60 per cent of Britain's 200,000 practising Jews, do not allow female rabbis and require women to sit separately from men during synagogue services.
An opinion poll carried out by the Reform movement, which has had female rabbis since the late 1970s and has women making up two-thirds of its current intake of student rabbis, found that 60 per cent of people believe it is wrong for God to be solely referred to as "He" and the same proportion see religion as sexist.
Rabbi Gelfand said: "Faith is still seen as fundamentally discriminatory and still almost exclusively promotes male images of God, with which only a minority any longer identifies. The launch of our new prayer book can play an important role in challenging such thinking and re-engaging those who feel cut off by current attitudes. It will make Reform Judaism the natural home for the majority of British Jews."
The new book will be used for the first time in Reform synagogues on the last Friday of this month.
The leading women of Judaism
*Sarah: 'Woman of high rank'
The first of the matriarchs of Judaism, Sarah was the famously beautiful wife of Abraham who was held captive by the Egyptian pharaoh. At the age of 90, she conceived their first child, Isaac. Abraham himself was nearing his 100th birthday.
The wife of Isaac, Rebekah impressed the servant sent to find his marriage partner by giving him water. She ensured Jacob, her second son, received his blind father's blessing by using goat skin to disguise him as his hirsute brother.
Leah was destined to marry Esau but prayed for a different fate. She married Jacob after being swapped on her wedding night for her sister. Leah had six sons and a daughter, founding half of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. She is buried in Hebron.