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 By now, Birnbaum has been superseded by Artscroll, which is also liturgically very similar to the other two siddurim.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

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.

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.

A Lost Blog and the Future of Academic Blogging

July 17, 2007

Today for the first time I came across a short lived and unfortunately defunct blog called Giluy Milta B’alma. The idea was that it would be a forum to publish and discuss new and interesting findings in Hebrew manuscripts. The five posts that exist are somewhat uneven, but valuable for all that. It is a shame that the project did not work out, and here, presented in a roundabout, but hopefully useful way, is why.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the last few years about what academic blogging is, can be, should be, will be, etc…, from the UC Davis panel on “Historical Blogging and the New Media,” to the various ruminations at The Valve. (The link is to John Holbo’s, who has thought about these ideas as much, if not more, than anybody, long post introducing The Valve, what it is and what he wants it to be. It is pretty close to a programmatic statement on his vision of what academic blogging should be. Not all of his co-bloggers agree, and it’s worthwhile to poke around the place, read the comment threads and trackbacks and piece together some of the debates that surround Holbo’s vision of the future of blogging in academia. These issues are also addressed by a number of the bloggers on my blogroll.) I don’t want to rehash all of that, others have said it better than I could. The two links I posted above barely scratch the surface of what is a very interesting and productive conversation which has been going on for several years. But in all the time I’ve been following that debate, I never saw anybody suggest something quite like Giluy Milta.

The idea is to present either preliminary findings that are not yet ready for publication, or that are too short to merit a full length article. The blog format perfectly fits this project for two reasons. First of all, it is suited for shorter length pieces, such as “I was poking around in the archives today, this is what I found…:” The sort of things that you always want to put in papers, but don’t really belong there. The second reason is that blogs have built in space for discussion. “That fragment that you found? I think it might actually be…” A blog like Giluy Milta is, or would be, a fantastic forum for just those sorts of discussions.

In a certain sense this sort of project is a mirror image of John Holbo’s book events at The Valve, Crooked Timber and other sites. He and his colleagues bring their expertise to bear on scholarship which has already been produced. Book events stimulate discussion of what’s going on in a field, and contribute to the next phase of scholarship to an extent, but at the end of the day they are not actually part of the process of producing original scholarship. I think Giluy Milta points to a way that blogging can contribute to that production.

Unfortunately, right now two crucial components are missing. There is no audience, and consequently no group of contributors. To be successful, this sort of project needs a large number of contributors who are willing to take the time to post their archival findings online. It also requires people to read their contributions and comment on them, to create the lively sort of forum we see at the Valve. Without contributors, there will never be an audience. Somebody with some clout and some connections needs to get behind a project like this, and get others excited. If that were to happen, I think that it would open up a new opportunity for online scholarship.

The Limits of The Limits of Orthodox Theology

July 12, 2007

Marc Shapiro responds to a recent review of his book The Limits of Orthodox Theology in Jewish Action at Seforim Blog. This has ignited quite the controversy in the comments over there. While it’s been a couple years since I read the book, I confess that at the time it did not strike me as that big a deal. The thesis is that Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith have not been universally accepted, and even where they have, they were not always considered to be essential dogma. While I was impressed with the incredibly broad bikius that Prof. Shapiro brought to the issue, I was not surprised by his conclusion, which really was fairly limited. Yeshaya Leibowitz discusses it in a few places, though nowhere near as thoroughly as Prof. Shapiro. While it was certainly interesting to be exposed to Prof. Shapiro’s erudition, it was hardly shocking to see the extent of the sources he cited. That being said, I understand why it might come as a surprise to people who are used to thinking of Jewish theology as a continuous train of theology from Moses up to the present. At the very least, The Limits of Orthodox Theology will provide some kiruv rav with a lot of material to harmonize.

None of this is what I want to address here, however. One of the main points of debate in the comments thread focuses around a review of Prof. Shapiro’s book by Rabbi Yosef Blau. R. Blau does not seem to be disturbed by the information Prof. Shapiro presents, he praises that aspect of the book. His major critique is that The Limits of Orthodox Theology does not present a viable alternative to the dogmatic structure it questions. In the comments at Seforim the question arose as to whether R. Blau’s critique is a valid one. Should a Jewish Studies professor, writing a book on historical reactions to the RaMBaM be compelled to respond to the theological concerns of Orthodox Jews? Conversely, is that what Prof. Shapiro was doing? Or was the book directed to the modern Orthodox world as an attempt to combat a dogmatic rightwing perspective? If that is the case, then is it Prof. Shapiro’s responsibility to present some sort of alternative to that perspective?

Frankly, I’m not sure that either of these two readings correctly pegs The Limits of Orthodox Theology. One of my undergraduate professors (also a YU musmach) once criticized David Berger’s The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by saying that, “He wrote it wearing his rabbi hat, when he should have been wearing his professor hat.” I think the issue with understanding Prof. Shapiro’s book is that he isn’t sure which hat he’s wearing. On the one hand, the bulk of the book is a scholarly treatment of historical reactions to the principles. It was published by Littman, an academic press. It certainly counted towards tenure. On the other, as R. Blau notes, he specifically puts the work in the context of increased dogmatism in Orthodox Judaism. The tone of the book certainly makes it seem as if he wants to combat that dogmatism. He also makes the point that he believes that Judaism does have some central beliefs. All of this leaves the reader feeling somewhat confused. Is the book an anti-Charaidi polemic, or is it a measured scholarly work? Is it intended to be taken as both?

Prof. Shapiro’s research interests correspond with his personal and religious interests. This is perfectly normal and unsurprising, and I don’t think it taints his work at all. However, this coincidence of the two sometimes leaves us with a somewhat muddled picture of exactly what it is that he is trying to do with a given work. (The same is true, to an extent, of Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox. Is that book a measured evaluation of the relationship between R. Lieberman and Orthodoxy, or is it a polemic directed at the Orthodox rabbinate to admit R. Lieberman into the canons of rabbinic thought? Well, it’s a little of both.) So long as we can recognize this for what it is, he has a lot that is tremendously valuable to offer, but because he does not fully commit either way, he may also fall short of some people’s hopes.

No Clever Titles Here

July 4, 2007

Mississippi Fred refers to a comment thread at Hirhurim, which raises an interesting problem for orthodox Jews with a critical bent. (The thread is long, the relevant part starts at timestamp The debate is over R. Akiva Eiger’s attitude towards Mendelsohn and his Biur, but the problem runs deeper than that.

There is an inherent tension between critical historical thinking and orthodox Jewish thought. There are all sorts of ways to negotiate that tension, those don’t interest me just now. I want to explore the tension a bit. The fundamental problem is epistemological. How do we know what we know? Based on our sense data mediated by reason? Or do we trust to revelation, mediated by tradition? Those of us who live within religious traditions take revelation seriously, but what part of that tradition is revealed? How do these questions relate back to R. Eiger’s relationship to Moses Mendelsohn?

For those who take a maximalist position vis-à-vis the question of tradition’s relationship to revelation, it becomes impossible that a pious historical personage could disagree with contemporary theological ideas, because all of theology was revealed. When I was in Yeshiva, at a nominally Religious Zionist institution, I would ask one of the rebbeim questions about questions about statements of Chazal that seemed heterodox by contemporary standards. He would always preface his answers (which were rarely satisfying) with, “Well, you have to understand, you can’t take these things at face value,” which drove me batty. The point of all of this is just to say that the tension is very real, and to argue about particular details, though important, ignores the larger issue. For example, this Shabbat I mentioned in passing to a young friend of mine who attends the local Charaidi yeshiva high school that the Septuagint was an early Translation of the Bible written for a Jewish audience. He took exception to this, as it contradicts Chazal’s claim that it was commissioned by Ptolemy. We couldn’t even argue about it, because we were coming from different epistemological positions. He was unwilling to entertain the possibility that Chazal might have been wrong in this case, that some aggadic material might be historically inaccurate. He was very concerned that I was claiming it might be.

At the end of the day we have to draw lines for ourselves. What part of tradition is revealed, and what isn’t? This is a longstanding debate in the Jewish tradition which maximalists want to ignore, or interpret out of existence. I don’t have any answers to these questions, but it is useful to at least articulate them.