The Birnbaum Siddur and the plight of contemporary orthodoxy

October 8, 2007

(This started as a comment on this post at On the Main Line. It quickly got to big for the comment box, so I decided to put it here instead. I need to post more anyway.)

The Birnbaum Siddur is interesting in a number of ways. I think its eclipse by Artscoll is in many ways one of the subtler signs of the changes that have taken place in American Orthodoxy in the past 60 years.

Birnbaum was a professor at JTS, and intended his siddur to be used in both Conservative and Orthodox Synagogues (indeed, at the time the differences were often much fuzzier than they are now). The first printing had an acknowledgments paragraph, which thanked many Seminary luminaries, including R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, R. Louis Ginzberg, R. Louis Finklestein, Alexander Marx and others. This was excluded in the 1951 printing, and all later editions. I assume that this was due to the distaste of some Orthodox customers for these heterodox figures, but I haven’t seen any empirical evidence for this. In any event, it quickly became the siddur of choice in North American Orthodox congregations.

In 1961 the RCA came out with their own siddur, edited by R. David De Sola Poole. It was intended, I believe, to overtake Birnbaum in Orthodox circles. Birnbaum wrote a rather scathing review of the translation in HaDarom. (I don’t know the exact dates off the top of my head, but I have copies of the articles in my files. I can dig them up for anybody who is interested.) The RCA fired back, with a sharp response to Birnbaum’s critiques, which included some somewhat nasty comments on Birnbaum’s siddur, nearly 12 years after its initially publication. Though the byline for this response was R. Charles Chavel, Louis Feldman, in his eulogy for R. Joseph Dov Soloveichik, says that it was, in fact, the Rav who wrote this frank, and somewhat nasty, reply to Birnbaum. Birnbaum was permitted a response, and that was the end of the fight in print. In terms of sales, the RCA siddur was never as popular as Birnbaum.

What is interesting about this fight is that it was not over the actual liturgy. The two siddurim are very similar on the Hebrew side of the page. The disagreement was, for the most part, about the English translation, and the commentary, which was minimal in both. By now, Birnbaum has been superseded by Artscroll, which is also liturgically very similar to the other two siddurim. This points to an interesting facet of the rightward turn in North American orthodoxy over the past 60 or so years. The battle, for the most part, has not been over ritual. For the most part, what we do in the synagogue has gone relatively unchallenged. (The obvious exception to this, the move to allow more women’s participation in prayer services, is extremely recent, and so far relatively unpopular, though that is changing.) The fight has been over ideology, and, to a large degree, the extent to which historical scholarship can inform orthodoxy. While in the 50s and 60s, the community was more open to scholarship (or so I am told, I was not there), as evinced by the popularity of the Birnbaum siddur, the contemporary scene requires a less scholarly prayerbook. Granted, this is not the sole reason for the popularity of Artscroll siddurim. Presentation is certainly also a large factor, and there are others. However, it is certainly a factor and perhaps a decisive one.



September 23, 2007

for the long hiatus.  I have been settling into the routines of school.  But with some time off for the holidays, I’m going to try to get back to posting again, and see if I can’t find a routine that will keep going through the semester.  No promises, but we’ll see how it goes.

On Jewish Political Thought

August 7, 2007

A few summers ago I interned at The Shalem Center, a think tank and research center in Jerusalem.  Specifically, I worked for their publication Hebraic Political Studies, mostly doing the normal intern type stuff, working over footnotes, doing market research, and occasionally getting to do some interesting research, building a bibliography of primary sources for possible translation and/or publication.  Hebraic Political Studies is a peer reviewed journal, which publishes articles that “explore the political concepts of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature, the significance of reflections on the Hebrew Bible and Judaic sources in the history of ideas, and the role of these sources in the history of the West.”  

In a letter from the editors printed in the first issue, they describe this project as compensatory.  The political thought of the Jews has been largely ignored over the years, for a variety of reasons, and it is the goal of this journal to illuminate the way in which the western political tradition has been influenced by Jewish sources. For the most part the focus on three sources of Jewish influence on the West’s political though.  The Bible, medieval philosophical though, exemplified by Maimonides, and the 16th century interest in Hebraism are the main foci of Hebraic Political Studies interest. 

All of this came to my mind the other day when I came across an essay by Ismar Schorsch called “On the History of the Political Judgment of the Jew,” from his collection From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1994), in which he articulates what was always my major critique of Hebraic Political Studies.  In his essay, Schorsch notes that, at least in Europe, the Jews were almost always an autonomous group, “a state within a state.”  This status “gave rise to major institutions of self-government whose responsibility it was to administer the internal and external or, if you please, the domestic and foreign affairs of the community.”  That is, the history of the ways in which Jews organized their communities, and their debates and discussions about how they should do so, is the history of Jewish political thought.  This is an intensely powerful argument, brought to bear against those who argue that Jews do not have political though, but were politically impotent in the face of Christian oppression.

Shalem and Hebraic Political Studies are largely responding to the same issue, though implicitly, where Schorsch is explicit.  However, they ignore the massive body of Jewish literature not intended for non-Jewish consumption, and which failed to influence the west in any way, but which is explicitly political, in that it described the ways in which Jewish communities were organized, and how they should relate to their non-Jewish rulers.  It is instructive, I think, that of the various sources that the Hebraic Political Studies editors list on their website that they intend to investigate, the responsa literature, and the various Jewish court records, the primary depositories of information about the ways in which Jewish communities were organized, are not mentioned.  When I brought it up with the associate editor while I was working there, she dismissed such sources as not being proper political thought.  It simply seemed to be something they were not interested in exploring.  To be fair, it is not a subject which is on the agenda of many scholars.  The only person who I’ve seen do work that approaches these issues is Bernard Cooperman, from the University of Maryland.  He has published two papers, Political Discourse in a Kabbalistic Register: Isaac De Lattes’ Plea for Stronger Communal Government,” in Be’erot Yitzhak, Isadore Twersky Memorial Volume (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) and “Theorizing Jewish Self-Government in Early Modern Italy” in Una Manna Buona per Mantova. Man Tov le-Man Tovah. Studi in onore di Vittore Colorni per il suo 92° compleanno (Florence: Olschki, 2004), both of which take close looks at particular cases in Early modern Italy which deal with the larger issues of how self-governing Jewish Communities should be organized.  More of this sort of work needs to be done, and I hope that when it is Shalem and Hebraic Political Studies will support and publish it.

A Content Free Link

July 29, 2007

That’s a bit of a lie.  The link (to a comment at The Valve), in fact, is chock full of content.  The post, however, lacks any content aside from the link.  Which I found interesting.

Is it just me…

July 27, 2007

Or is Julian Tavarez more effective when he is competing for a starting spot? At the beginning of the season, when we thought that Lester might come up any day now, he was excellent. Then, when his roster spot was assured over the past month or so, he was dreadful. Tonight, pitching out of the bullpen after Gabbard’s collapse, he has thus far been lights out.

That paragraph was written at the beginning of the seventh inning, before Tavarez imploded.  Which only make me more superstitious than I used to be.

Why is it…

July 27, 2007

That when I search Google for the CNN bumper, I get a slew of semi-pornographic videos?

Hillel Organizations or How I Suck at Coming Up with Titles..

July 26, 2007

I’ve spent the past few days at work compiling a list of contacts at Hillels on what my boss calls “key campuses,” which seems to mean campuses where we can get asses in seats for showings of our Israel advocacy film. So as I’ve been working though the Hillel websites, mining them for information as to the organization and orientation of each particular Hillel, I’ve been surprised at the incredible diversity that is out there. Not so much programming diversity. I’ve visited enough schools to know that programming, especially religious programming, will vary widely base on the composition of the student body. What surprised me so much was the vastly different ways in which these Hillels are organized and run. So, for example, Boston College Hillel, which seems to be relatively active, based on their programming calendar, shares its sole professional staff member with Wellesley College. Wellesley also has its own executive director, though it seems to be mostly student run as well. Contrast this to McGill, my alma mater, which has a student board which works closely with a large professional staff, which is integrated very closely into the city’s larger Jewish community.

While I suppose it is somewhat obvious that this would be true, it surprised me nevertheless. I had always thought that the Montreal system was somewhat anomalous, with a citywide Hillel board and staff coordinating the various campuses around the city, each of which has its own student board, and with the larger campuses having some individual staff as well (to say nothing of the separate system for the French speaking schools). So I was nonplussed to find that the same thing seems to exist in Chicago (excluding the larger campuses of the University of Chicago and Northwestern) and in Orange County. I suppose the question I have is, what creates such a system?

I understand where it came from in Montreal. The Jewish community at the Montreal schools was largely local, and lived at home. Instead of being clustered on separate campuses, away from each other, the Jewish student body lived mostly in the Jewish parts of Montreal. It made sense for Hillel to focus on the community as a whole, rather than on any particular university. Is this true of the Orange County and Chicago Hillels? I suspect not, though of course I don’t know. Something worth exploring I think.