Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Musings on Prayer Texts

I decided to see some more local scenery today so instead of going to my regular synagogue, I went to one of the other 11 synagogues (that I know about) within 5 blocks of my house. I went to the synagogue my neighbor -- of bris and eruv fame -- attends, and an interesting thought occurred to me while there. This is the part where I offend half my readers, so let me first wish a hearty mazel tov to my neighbor's entire family on their joyous occasion (while I'm at it, I'll wish a mazel tov to R. Daniel Z. Feldman, whose son Ya'akov Simcha was circumcised Monday afternoon).

The synagogue starts services at 9am -- a ridiculously late time to start for people who normally pray at 7am or earlier, but tradition is to pray later on Yom Tov (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 529:1) and, regardless, when in Rome... Since it started so late, I had extra time for some traditional learning in my sukkah and to get close to finally finishing David Ellenson's 500+ page book After Emancipation outside of the sukkah (I can't bear to bring a book by the president of Hebrew Union College into my sukkah; sorry if it's not politically correct). The book is rich in fascinating topics and interesting sources, and incredibly poor in analysis. He spends a good deal of time discussing halakhic topics and has a remarkable grasp of the responsa literature for a Reform scholar. But he always almost gets it, but not quite. But I'll leave that for another time.

The last chapter of the book I read before going to synagogue is an article that reviews a 1998 prayer book by the Israeli Conservative (Masorti) movement. In that article, Ellenson discusses the various reforms/changes to the prayer book that have been instituted over the past 200 years. He writes (p. 473), "[T]he Jewish prayer book has hardly remained static. Flexibility and freedom have always marked its texts." "Come on," I thought to myself, "do differing traditions about the text and various insertions clearly marked as such give anyone the right to make blatant and explicit changes to the text, crossing out phrases, changing others, and creating new phrases out of whole cloth and inserting them in?"

Then I went to shul. Somewhere around the middle of the blessings prior to the Shema, as I recited the prayers by heart, I looked down at the prayer book in front of me which was turned to the correct page but from which I was not reading, and it struck me that, well, case in point! Nussah Sefard. That is basically a combination of the basic Ashkenazic text, some Ashkenazic customs that over time were lost to the mainstream and, to a large extent, intentional tinkering with the text by kabbalists to fit in with their worldviews and their ideas of the ideal text. (On this, see Responsa Hasam Sofer, Orah Hayim 15-16. Yes, I know, the Divrei Hayim disagreed with the Hasam Sofer.)

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements are tinkering with the text based on their rejection of fundamental Jewish beliefs (e.g. resurrection). However, the changing of texts in itself... I don't know how much we, the Orthodox community, can argue with that unless we are willing to take on Nussah Sefard.

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