Finally, A Book Of (Mostly) Common Prayer

Leon A. MorrisThe Jewish Week, May 13th, 2009

Traditional liturgy is incompatible with contemporary life. Or so we thought. If only the prayer book could be made more relevant, if its words reflected what we truly believe, then Jews would flock to synagogue and find meaning and inspiration through prayer. Of course, many new prayer books have been published over the past 150 years and those beautiful and creative liturgies have inspired many.

With a relatively short shelf life for each liberal prayer book and no increase in participation at prayer services, it seems that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct when he said, “The crisis of prayer is not a problem of the text. It is a problem of the soul. The siddur must not be used as a scapegoat. A revision of the prayer book will not solve the crisis of prayer.”

I can’t help wondering whether the 21st century might lead us to rediscover and reappropriate, in a variety of ways, the traditional siddur. While modern Jews expected the siddur to reflect their own theology, we post-modem daveners are not sure what we ourselves believe. We are on a journey of faith, and the classic siddur provides a well-trodden map for such a journey. Our own personal theology does not need to be reflected on each page of the prayer book. Rather, our evolving theology can emerge from the encounter with the siddur and its words. “this I hope to be true but am skeptical.” “This I have real problems with.”

The traditional siddur might also have newfound appeal in this century as greater numbers of Jews seek out opportunities to engage classical texts and to interpret them for themselves. As more and more American Jews study Torah, Talmud and Midrash and struggle with sources that can be difficult and challenging, they are no longer willing to have a liturgy committee do the work of interpretation for them. This may be why the majority of independent minyanim, regardless of their loose religious orientation, choose traditional siddurim. There is an increasing openness toward seeing the classic siddur as the poetry of the Jewish people.

Could non-Orthodox Jews use a traditional siddur? Nearly 100 years ago, Rabbi Judah L. Magnes made such a suggestion at New York’s Temple Emanu-El. In a sermon delivered in 1910, he stated: “The one prayer book that can ever be the Book of Common Prayer for the Jewish people is the traditional Jewish prayer book, hallowed by the sufferings and the hopes and the religious yeamings of countless generations of our ancestors.”

If, following Magnes’ suggestion and weighing the tenor of our time, we need a traditional siddur with a beautiful but accurate English translation, 21 running commentary that is sophisticated, notes that provide biblical citations and essays that are intellectually engaging, then the new siddur published by Koren Publishers with translation and commentary by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks may just be that siddur.

 

Although intended for the Modern Orthodox community, this is a traditional prayer book that non-Orthodox could find meaningful, uplifting, aesthetically pleasing and relevant for contemporary life.

 

There is a great deal to say about this siddur. Its unusual layout captures, in both Hebrew and English, the poetry of the siddur. Rather than fitting as many words on a page as possible, it understands how much the beauty of the siddur is enhanced by the placement of words on a page, the judicious use of white space and the use of different fonts. Its two Hebrew fonts – one for biblical texts and the other for liturgical texts – have been for decades the most artistic representation of Hebrew available, a feature that has distinguished Koren’s Hebrew prayer books and Bibles.

In the first Hebrew-English project, Koren chose an elegant English font as well.  Most notably, Koren discovered that by “flipping” the typical layout of the Hebrew on the right side and English on the left, each phrase branches outward from the spine of the book to the right (for the Hebrew) and left (for the English). To encourage more accurate reading of the siddur, the Hebrew distinguishes between a shwa nach, between a kametz katan and a kametz gadol, and indicates a furtive patach (as in the word ko’ach).

The elegant yet accessible translation, insightful commentary and thoughtful essays are beautifully rendered by Rabbi Sacks, one of the greatest public intellectuals of contemporary Jewish life. Rabbi Sacks’ creative genius and ability to inspire emerge from each page of this siddur’s running commentary. Whether citing the Greek myth of Prometheus, or using the word schadenfreude, this is not your grandfather’s Orthodox siddur. And it certainly isn’t ArtScroll either.

As he does in so much of his writing, Rabbi Sacks is able to draw upon both the mind and the heart. His commentary seems to address those who appreciate the secular world and non-Jewish culture and wish to be re-inspired by the meaning of Judaism. And its Zionist commitments, complete with a creative liturgy for Yom Ha‘Atzmaut, are front and center.

While the main impetus for the Koren siddur is to provide the Modern Orthodox community with an alternative to the ArtScroll siddur, this is a prayer book that non-Orthodox Jews could also find extremely compelling. We might need to add the names of the matriarchs, substitute non-gendered language for God and provide an alternative blessing or two. But the Koren Siddur might prompt many of us to ask whether reforming the traditional siddur is, well, so 20th century.

Finally, A Book Of Mostly Common Prayer

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