Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There’s a buzz in the air in the Orthodox Jewish community, and it’s about the publication of a new prayer book. The Jewish blogosphere is bubbling with enthusiasm, and I overheard the proprietor of a well-known bookstore bragging that he had already sold hundreds of copies. More than one friend has stopped me in the past few weeks to ask excitedly, “Have you seen it? It’s great!” And several high-profile synagogues have pledged to buy hundreds. “A new experience of prayer,” “Love it,” “We’ve been waiting a long time,” declared various voices in the Jewish press and on the Internet. The exuberance, I must admit, seems disproportionate.

After all, for Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic (European) origin—and almost all North American Orthodox Jews are Ashkenazic—the liturgy is pretty fixed. You might mumble the words unthinkingly in your living room before running off to work, or listen to the operatic performance of a professional cantor, or dance ecstatically in the newfangled, neo-Chasidic services that have popped up of late, but, at the end of the day, the words are the same. The differences between varying traditions amount to a word here and a word there, at most an occasional paragraph that gets moved a page or two earlier or later. When I glanced around my synagogue this morning, the first eight people I saw were each using different prayer books, and nobody seemed the worse for it.

So what’s the big deal that Jerusalem’s Koren publishers have teamed up with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks—the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and one of Orthodoxy’s most articulate spokesmen—to produce yet another Orthodox prayer book with an English translation?

Granted, the book—The Koren Sacks Siddur: A Hebrew/English Prayerbook by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Koren, 1280 pages, $29.95)—is a fine volume. The layout is attractive, the translation elegant, the typeset clear, and the commentary readable and insightful. The choice to line up many of the prayers in short, poemlike lines, rather than in paragraphs, and to place the translation of each phrase next to its corresponding Hebrew line, is certain to help readers whose Hebrew is not quite fluent enough. And the introduction is superb, causing several of my acquaintances to wonder how it is possible that, having said these words daily for decades, we had not noticed some of Sacks’ observations about the structure of the liturgy. Indeed, Sacks points out that the prayer book “continually reiterates the basic principles of Jewish faith.” This leads him to identify and articulate some of the themes of prayer: the celebration of both particularism and universalism, the dialectic between individualism and collectivism, history as a central sphere in which the God—man encounter plays itself out, the intimate connection between prayer and a life of Torah study and observance of the commandments, and the triad of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. These are recurring themes in Jewish prayer because they stand at the center of the Jewish life and worldview.

But is this enough to justify the eagerness and fervor with which this prayer book is being received? After all, there are already quite a few perfectly functional and aesthetically pleasant prayer books with English translation on the market, and one does not, after all, pray from an introductory essay.

To make sense of this seemingly misplaced enthusiasm, we need to understand the subtext. One single prayer book has dominated the North American Orthodox Jewish market for a quarter century: the siddur produced by the Brooklyn publisher Artscroll-Mesorah. And this new Sacks-Koren siddur is most decidedly not the Artscroll siddur. The new prayer book symbolizes a confident, unapologetic alternative to what Artscroll has offered the Orthodox public.

The Artscroll siddur appeared in 1984 to an enthusiastic audience. It was, and still is, aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, and it offers precise and clear instructions for proper performance of the rituals associated with prayer. Before long, it became hard to find an Orthodox synagogue in North America that did not offer it as the primary option for synagogue goers. And it made a perfect bar mitzvah gift (I got two).

But the ease of use and clearly printed words came bundled with the Artscroll publisher’s religious ideology, which its many critics perceive as narrow-minded and dogmatic to a fault. Artscroll’s publishing enterprise—with its thousands of titles of popular literature—preaches an isolationist religion that discourages observant Jews from having extensive contact with people or ideas from outside the Orthodox enclave. The publisher advocates strong rabbinic authority, does not view the State of Israel as having much religious significance, gives little room to women in public religious life, and discourages the acquisition of general education. The tradition viewed through Artscroll’s lenses is monolithic and authoritarian: The best a person can do is to humbly submit to the tradition as interpreted by the great rabbis.

In short, Artscroll represents the voice of the so-called Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, a voice that is out of line with the values and concerns of many in the Modern Orthodox camp, who prefer a more open-minded and less dogmatic approach.

Yet, somehow, when these North American Modern Orthodox Jews looked for a prayer book for their synagogues and homes, they turned most often to the Artscroll siddur, not out of agreement with its worldview, necessarily, but because it was clear, user-friendly, and available. This seemed to be the attitude of, for example, the Rabbinical Council of America when it decided in 1987 to offer a prayer book for the use of synagogues associated with its members. Why spend the money and effort producing our own prayer book from scratch, the council seemed to ask, when the available Artscroll siddur is so user-friendly? We’ll replace their introductory essay with one of our own and insist that they add the prayer for the State of Israel.

And Artscroll agreed. Sure, the publishers seemed to say. We’ll gladly ship you thousands of our prayer books and even more gladly cash your checks. We’ll include your introduction, and we’ll even swallow our anti-Zionist pride and include the prayer for the State of Israel. But the rest of the siddur stays, and the rest of the siddur, with its authoritarian religious instructions and commentary that reflects our values, will carry the day.

For many, this decision from the Rabbinical Council of America to use an edition of the ultra-Orthodox Artscroll siddur seemed like selling out. By stocking synagogues throughout North America with Artscroll prayer books, Modern Orthodoxy had, the claim went, gone to Canossa and had bowed to ultra-Orthodoxy’s authority. In the ongoing dispute between these two Orthodox camps, the success of the Artscroll siddur in penetrating Modern Orthodox synagogues seemed symptomatic of emerging ultra-Orthodox victory and hegemony.

That is, until Rabbi Sacks and Koren came along with something new. The prayer book includes a prayer for the State of Israel, not as an afterthought or a way to sell more books, but because this siddur celebrates Zionism. Where Artscroll’s commentary cites only those commentators deemed adequately kosher, Sacks unabashedly cites the decidedly un-Orthodox Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (who first used the expression “Creation, Revelation, Redemption” to describe the central themes of Judaism). While Artscroll remains silent about the Talmudic dictum that allows women to lead the grace after meals, Sacks mentions it proudly. Where Sacks includes a ceremony for welcoming a newborn female baby, no such ceremony appears in Artscroll.

Compare the introductions. In both, fear plays a role in religious life and in prayer. For Artscroll, the religious person is fearful of various forces that mount “attacks on his faith.” Prayer provides the “inner strength” to fend off those attacks. For the new Sacks siddur, fear is inherent in the religious experience and in prayer, since one approaches God despite the inadequacies in one’s personality, despite the inadequacy of language, despite the inadequacy of what we can offer God.

According to Artscroll’s introduction, the Jewish liturgy is fixed in an unchanging text because the mystical juxtaposition of words and letters has a profound and inscrutable influence on the supernal worlds. Individuals have little room for self-expression, since they do not understand the mystical and cosmic power of the fixed liturgy.

Sacks offers more room for individual self-expression. The established liturgy is only one part of a dialectic between the fixed and the spontaneous that must always live in tension in religious life. Genuine spirituality requires spontaneity, but spontaneous spiritual expression will be richer if grounded in an equal measure of discipline and consistency. The challenge is to let discipline feed spontaneity and spontaneity feed discipline.

And so, the Sacks and Koren volume has a clear agenda to be the non -Artscroll, to celebrate Judaism as the Modern Orthodox see it. But it would be a mistake to read the book as a polemical work. In fact, I think that the lack of polemics is precisely why the siddur is being so widely celebrated among Modern Orthodox Jews. Everyone—at least everyone within the Orthodox community—understands the subtext. They know that much of what is important about this prayer book is what it is not. But the prayer book itself seems blissfully unaware of the polemical context. It is as if, despite Artscroll hovering in the background, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks did exactly what he would have done even had there been no Artscroll. He produced the kind of prayer book that Modern Orthodox Jews can use without looking over their shoulders at what the ultra-Orthodox would think.

As a proud Modern Orthodox Jew, I find that worth celebrating.

Yoel Finkelman teaches Talmud and Jewish thought in Jerusalem, where he is director of projects and research at ATID, a foundation that provides resources and training for Jewish educational leadership.