Persecution and the Art of Orthodox Jewish Writing

Jonathan Sacks’ edition of the Jewish prayer book is a masterwork — and might also illustrate his debt to Leo Strauss.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

17 thoughts on “Persecution and the Art of Orthodox Jewish Writing”

  1. Reminds me of what a certain faculty member at a certain liberal arts college said towards the end of a seminar on the Summa Theologica many years ago. "Aquinas was an atheist, you know, but he lived in dangerous times."

  2. I'm way out of my depth here, Jonathan, but this:

    closer to us than we aren’t ourselves

    reads like a negation too far.

    And a little closer to your point — it's not only the ultra-Orthodox who would agree that "language is all we have" to describe this Being, or indeed anything else. I value "music, meditation, other forms of artistic expression, or even mystical experience" pretty highly, but I don't see them primarily as modes of description. (And some say even a poem "should not mean but be".)

  3. Hi Vance —

    It was a typo; it should have read "closer to us than we are to ourselves." Fixed.

    As to your other point, I think what Sacks is saying here is that language is the only means of worship. It's not just about description.

  4. I don't know, a straight reading of his words suggests that Vance is right: language is all we have "to describe a Being who is beyond all parameters of speech."

    I also confess I'm baffled by the effort to bring the charedim into this. Not only is this an awfully oblique way of appeasing them, but they of all people are surely sticking with Artscroll. Chas veshalom they should use a prayerbook with services for Yom Ha'atzmaut. It all seems awfully ad hoc. Kind of like Straussian readings of The Republic.

  5. Agree with Vance and RK. I think you're reading too much into this, Jonathan — words "describe," other media do not. And Sacks doesn't write that God *only* listens to words, just that he does listen to words.

  6. Hmm. I'm no expert, but IIRC the Modern Orthodox are the descendants of the Misnagdim and the Lithuanian tradition that emphasizes that God is understood through rationality, learning and study, while the ultra-Orthodox descend from the opposing Hasidic belief in an emotional approach to God through mysticism, fasting, singing, and ecstatic experience. It sounds to me like Sacks is rejecting Haredi criticism, not buckling to it.

    And as for God revealing himself only in words, well, yes. The Modern Orthodox believe that God does not interfere with the divinely inspired laws of nature, while the Haredi see the hand of God in all sorts of daily events.

    I could be entirely wrong, of course.

  7. Yes, I can see that Sacks is talking about worship rather than description — if we're willing to write off the plain use of the word "describe" up front there as sloppiness.

  8. I actually think it IS a little sloppy on Sacks' part. Take a look at the context: he's talking about how to pray.

  9. But if you grant that he's being a little sloppy, then why do you think it's safe to read so much into it? I don't know the political context at all but it sounds to me like you're making a huge interpretive leap, imputing political motives on a stray paragraph in the foreword.

  10. All the Abrahamic religions are extremely logocentric: cf. the status of the Koran in Islam, and the opening of the Gospel of John.

    The problem with approaching the divine through art and meditation is élitism. Most of us can respond to great religious art, but only a few can create it (with the possible exception of choral singing). Mysticism requires either a rare gift or long training. The use of words is open to pretty much everybody; so an egalitarian, participatory religion has to be logocentric.

    Islam and Judaism make life difficult for artists through the ban on representation, but that hasn't stopped Islam from producing great religious architecture. Gulf state sheiks try to emulate Cordoba (and fail – no. 8 here (broken link fixed)). The Judaism of the Diaspora was generally prevented from architectural ambition, but that no longer holds in contemporary Israel or America. Is there something in orthodox Judaism that prevents the attempt to build a great synagogue? Would that be seen as a sacriligious false Temple? Or a diversion of resources from the moral priority of helping others?

  11. I don’t have the Sacks siddur, but the passage you quote seems to be an endorsement of language as a means of connecting with God, not an endorsement of the specific language of the Orthodox prayerbook. I think there is a problem within the Orthodox world of moderates constantly looking over their right shoulder, but I don’t see how the Sacks prayerbook is an instance of that problem.

    As for James Wimberley’s question “Is there something in orthodox Judaism that prevents the attempt to build a great synagogue?” the first non-snarky answer that comes to my mind is “lack of money”. The size of any Orthodox congregation is constrained because all of its members are expected to live within walking distance, and in areas with a sufficiently dense population of Orthodox Jews, you are more likely to see five 100-person congregations (“this one I go to every week, this one I wouldn’t go to if you paid me, this one I go to on the weeks when there’s a good kiddush…”) than one 500-person congregation. Throw in the higher cost of an Orthodox life in general (housing is more expensive in these neighborhoods; kosher meat is drastically more expensive than treyf; Orthodox families usually send their children to private religious schools), and the fundraising pool for “build a great synagogue” starts looking kind of shallow.

    Young Israel of Brookline has a nice building, but I don’t know if that’s what you have in mind when you say “a great synagogue”.

  12. James: Your link generates an Error 404 – Not Found. I'm hoping that you copied it incorrectly (and will be back to correct it soon).

  13. I was going to say what Bloix said, but s/he beat me to it. But at least I can give the shorter version of Bloix: Sacks is a Litvak. Nu?

  14. No, the ultra-Orthodox aren't all Hasidic. About half of them are the latter-day Mitnagdim, judging by Israeli election results. (They vote for Degel haTorah, while the Hasidim vote for Agudat Yisrael.) Plus the descendants of the old mitnaged yeshivas of old are all haredi: Brisk, Mir, Ponevezh, Telshe, etc. Modern Orthodox thought and culture might owe a greater debt to the Litvaks than to Hasidism—most of the leaders of American Modern Orthodoxy certainly came out of the Lithuanian yeshiva tradition—but the distinction really only persists among the ultra-Orthodox, and so self-consciously yeshivish/Mitnagdic types are only found in that milieu.

  15. Most of us can respond to great religious art, but only a few can create it (with the possible exception of choral singing).

    Choral singing, but also chanting, which takes no special training or ability; playing simple instruments like drums and bells; and you forgot dance, a primary and very ancient form of worship. Ritual in general, for that matter, which doesn't have to involve words. Plus which, religious art (painting, sculpture) as a worship mode doesn't have to be "great" to be of value. And anybody can meditate. They may or may not achieve mystical heights, but they can certainly appreciate inner silence. None of this is inherently elitist.

  16. I bow to RK's greater knowledge. But it seems to me that his correction doesn't undercut my point and Joe S's – that Sacks is not buckling to ultra-Orthodox criticism, if anything he's rebuffing it. Did I get that right, RK?

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