Growing up in the spiritual dreariness of 1970’s-80’s suburban Judaism, the notion of choosing a siddur (Jewish prayer book) was alien to me. Your congregation assigned a siddur; you didn’t choose one. That’s a shame, because even though there is a (relatively) standard form to the siddur, different editions diverge sharply in translation, presentation, pronunciation. and most importantly, commentary.
That’s why it’s particularly good news that the Koren Siddur, edited by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, has recently appeared in a “pocket” paperback edition. “Pocket” deserves scare quotes here, because even in a small paperback, the thing runs to 1244 pages. Even so, not a page is wasted: it’s a beautiful edition, and the highlight is Sacks’ running commentary, together with a superb introductory essay on the nature of Jewish prayer. Five stars!
That said, even at the outset of the essay, Sacks makes some assertions that might indicate a difficulty with Modern Orthodox thought. He notes, “In prayer we speak to a presence vaster than the unfathomable universe, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves: the God beyond, who is also the Voice within.” Fair enough. But there is a problem, and here is how Sacks tries to solve it:
Though language must fail when we try to describe a Being who is beyond all parameters of speech, language is all we have, and it is enough. For God who made the world with creative words, and who revealed His will through holy words, listens to our prayerful words. Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity.
(p. xvii). Not only is this wrong, it is obviously wrong. Words are “all we have”? What about music, meditation, other forms of artistic expression, or even mystical experience? God only reveals His will through words and not deeds, and only listens to our prayerful words?
When someone as thoughtful and brilliant as Sacks makes such clear mistakes, we might pause about what the potential subtext is. A friend suggested to me, “Well, it’s an introduction to a prayer book: what else is he supposed to say?” I don’t think that works: one can talk of the power and value of prayer without devaluing other forms of religious expression.
Unless, that is, one is a Modern Orthodox rabbi and scholar, who has written brilliant books espousing religious pluralism, and has been attacked by the ultra-Orthodox for doing so. This seems to be tacking the other way: there is no prayer except for the siddur, and the orthodox are its Prophets. This sub silentio trashing of anything not directly controlled by the Orthodox might be a bone thrown in their direction. If so, then it indicates once again vacuity of much ultra-Orthodox theology — a disease that is hardly limited to orthodoxy within Judaism.
In the alternative, Leo Strauss had something to say about what a philosopher does when he is confronted by a persecuting authority, but he wants to get his real intent clear.