Power and Politics: Prayer books and resurrection

Banished to a desert island, which 'siddur' would you want to take with you?

jager 224 88 (photo credit: )
jager 224 88
(photo credit: )
Our sages instructed: When you address the Holy One, let your words be few. That's certainly been my approach, though I've piously managed to accumulate scores of siddurim, or prayer books. My latest acquisition - a gift from my London-based parents-in-law - is the recently released Authorised Daily Prayer Book, popularly known as the "new Singer's." You'll find a siddur, along with the Pentateuch, in every Jewishly-literate home across the denominational divide. But while the Hebrew words of the Torah are firmly codified, the siddur thrives in a multitude of variations. Lately, I've been ruminating on their relative merits and theological approaches. My most prized siddur, recently rebound, is my late mother's Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem by Philip Birnbaum (1904-1988) issued by Hebrew Publishing. It's the quintessential American Orthodox siddur, first published in 1949. Birnbaum wanted the Hebrew text of his siddur to be of uniform typeface, abhorring the helter-skelter boldface paragraphing found in Old World siddurim. His translation sought to express reverence, as Birnbaum explained, without appearing archaic. By including the prayer for the State of Israel, "the Birnbaum" reflected American Orthodoxy's newly discovered identification with the Zionist enterprise. A good yardstick for gauging a siddur's theology is to examine how it handles the resurrection prayer in the thrice-daily Amida (18 Benedictions). Here's how Birnbaum does it: "Thou art faithful to revive the dead. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who revivest the dead." No fudging the literalist definition of the original Hebrew. SIDDURIM DIFFER liturgically, while maintaining a core of standard prayers. The style differences - what's included, and in what order - is called nusah. (Just to confound matters, nusah can also refer to the different melodies employed in the service depending on a congregation's cultural roots.) The prayer "style" I'm most comfortable with is nusah Ashkenaz, in which the prayers are comparatively concise, following the practice favored by Jews whose roots are traceable to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belorussia and Lithuania. The Birnbaum siddur follows this tradition. My father, a hassid from Central Europe, favors nusah Sephard, which is comparable (but not identical) to the Sephardi minhag, or "binding custom," favored by Middle Eastern Jews. But the Yiddish commentary in his siddur quickly establishes that while my father may daven Sephardi, he's not of the Orient. The point is, there are dozens of style variations in how prayer books are organized - Italian, Yemenite, Spanish and Portuguese, Western European, Central and East European, and so on - just as there are a wide range of melodic variations. While Jewish prayer eschews personal improvisation and is ideally conducted in a quorum, don't let anyone tell you there is only one "correct" approach to Jewish worship. INFLUENCED by the Talmud, the first prayer book was compiled by Amram Gaon (circa 846-864); his Seder Rav Amram Gaon is the basis of all subsequent siddurim. Other sages followed with modifications, adding layers of rules to guide worshipers on how the three daily services should be ordered and conducted. As best as I can discover, the siddur was first mass-distributed only in 1865; though an Italian siddur printed by Soncino dates back to 1486. The siddur began appearing in the vernacular as early as 1538. The first - unauthorized - English translation, by Gamaliel ben Pedahzur (a pseudonym), appeared in London in 1738. A different English translation came out in the US in 1837. Incidentally, many of the siddurim in print today are knock-off editions of originals which have lost their copyright. Search Amazon.com for "siddur" and you'll get 1,200 hits. GETTING BACK to my collection: There's the Hirsch Siddur, with commentary by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (born 1808) and published by the German-Jewish Feldheim house in 1972. Hirsch was unyielding in his opposition to Reform Judaism, and this is made plain in his commentary on the Amida's references to resurrection: "There can hardly be another thought that can so inspire man firmly to resolve to live a life so vigorous, unwavering, fearless, and unswervingly dutiful than the belief in [resurrection]…" Then there's the Authorized Daily Prayer Book by Dr. J.H. Hertz, published by Soncino in 1941, a classic in British modern Orthodox erudition. Let me digress to explain that, for me, "modern" Orthodoxy does not connote laxity in adherence to Halacha, but rather openness to constructive influences from the larger cultural milieu. This worldview permeates Hertz's Pentateuch even more than his siddur. Hertz's siddur gives helpful margin citations indicating the textual origins of the prayers; not surprisingly, most come from the Bible. Here's how he translates the Amida's resurrection prayer: "Yea, faithful art thou to revive the dead. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who revivest the dead." Comments Hertz: "This emphatic statement concerning the resurrection was directed especially against the worldlings who disputed the deathlessness of the soul, its return to God, and its continued separate existence after its reunion with the Divine source of being." For reasons best known to my British friends, Hertz's siddur never took off, and United Synagogue congregations stuck with the Authorised Daily Prayer Book translated by Rev. Simeon Singer (1890). His work includes the cherished "He-who" supplication: "He who giveth salvation unto Kings and dominion unto princes, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, - may he bless Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth… and all the Royal family…." Like the Birnbaum, the post-1948 Singer also provided the Prayer for the State of Israel. THE 1984 PUBLICATION of the Artscroll Mesorah Siddur, edited by Nosson Scherman, heralded an ultra-Orthodox ascendancy in America. Frankly, I have a love-hate relationship with Artscroll. I adore the clarity of the radically improved Hebrew font and typography; I appreciate that the siddur is a godsend for thousands who have returned to tradition but may feel like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming Orthodox service, not knowing when to rise, when to genuflect, when to take three paces back, or which way to shake a lulav. Artscroll tells them all that. I'm not a fan of the English font because the script is difficult to read. But my biggest criticism is of the translation and commentary, which is fundamentalist to the core - for example, the use of "Hashem" for the Tetragrammaton instead of "O Lord," or the decision to use Ashkenazi transliteration (aleph-beis). Here's how Artscroll handles the Amida resurrection prayer: "And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead." I also don't appreciate the absence of a prayer for Israel (special imprints excepted). And it troubles me that many folks will come to the conclusion that Artscroll's approach to prayer is the "authentic" one, and innovation a sin. I HAVEN'T broken in the "new Singer" yet, but I already value its Artscroll-like Hebrew typeface, fine paper and uncluttered layout. The new translation and commentary is by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and includes a section on understanding prayer, in which he addresses the perennial question: "Is prayer answered?" concluding: Yes, it is never in vain. Singer traditionalists will be glad to know that while "giveth" is gone; the "He-who" prayer survives. And Sacks largely sticks with the old Singer's traditionalist translation of the resurrection prayer: "Faithful are You to revive the dead. Blessed are You, Lord, who revives the dead." THE GAPING holes in my collection are the absence of siddurim from the Reconstructionist, Yemenite and Chabad rites. But I do have siddurim from the Conservative and Reform movements. For instance, the Conservative Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book edited by Morris Silverman with Robert Gordis (1927/1946), now outdated - no prayer for Israel - had much to recommend it. In keeping with the ethos of classical Conservative Judaism, the editors write: "There will naturally be instances… where reinterpretation is impossible and the traditional formulation cannot be made to serve the modern outlook…. Thus, the emphasis in the Prayer Book upon the messiah need not mean for us the belief in a personal redeemer, but it serves superbly as the poetic and infinitely moving symbol of the messianic age." In other words, this is not the siddur for those of you inclined to Chabad's messianic mantra, Yechi adonenu, rabbenu vemorenu, melech ha-mashiah le'olam va'ed at the conclusion of your morning prayers. I kind of like what Silverman does with resurrection. He translates the Amida prayer: "Faithful art Thou to grant eternal life to the departed. Blessed are Thou… who callest the dead to everlasting life." I have another Conservative prayer book, Siddur Sim Shalom, edited by Jules Harlow (1985). I like that it provides various liturgical options; is egalitarian - so that worshipers thank God for making them in "Thine image" rather than, for instance, "a man." I also never liked thanking God that he didn't make me a gentile, and much prefer the Conservative approach captured in Sim Shalom: "who made me an Israelite." They've also deleted all the stuff about Temple sacrifices (which I skip, anyway). But there's no way this could have become my "regular" siddur largely because the page flow just isn't intuitive and the alternate services options just get in the way once you pick a direction. My Reform collection is sparse. I have Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book (1975), which captures the movement well into its Zionist phase. Commendably, there are special prayers for Yom Ha'atzma'ut and for Holocaust Remembrance Day, though it has far too many service options. But the interface of the Hebrew and English (on the same page) is seamless. There is also a welcome emphasis on spiritualism and meditation; think of it as "structured improvisation." When it comes to resurrection, my Reform siddur radically transforms the blessing to: "O Lord of life and death, source of salvation… blessed is the Lord, the source of Life." As it happens, the Reform movement is scheduled to issue Mishkan T'filah: A New Reform Siddur later this year. WERE I banished to a desert island and able to take, say, just two siddurim, I'd bring the prayer book I use every morning, V'ani Tefilati, issued by the Masorti movement in Israel (Hebrew only). It's egalitarian where you want it to be, but basically it's a straightforward, classical siddur for folks who known their way around the liturgy, are Zionist in orientation and appreciate the clean (ragged) layout. The other siddur I'd take is the ubiquitous (throughout Israel) national-religious standard bearer Rinat Yisrael (Hebrew only), edited by Shlomo Tal (1976). There are rudimentary instructions, a good, readable font, citations (like the Hertz) for many prayers, and that much-appreciated clean layout. Funnily enough, none of these siddurim contain one of my favorite prayers, attributed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It's adored at Alcoholics Anonymous sessions (and equally appropriate, incidentally, for those who've made aliya). "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference." Amen.