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 By now, Birnbaum has been superseded by Artscroll, which is also liturgically very similar to the other two siddurim.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.