Lord Jonathan Sacks on the Siddur

1] When I think of certain prayer books commentaries, I sometimes think of them with a few words. Hirsch – moral aspiration, Birnbaum – historical anti-Semitism Artscroll – Hashem centered,   Rebbe – attachment to God

For Sacks, the words are hope, faith, and dignity.

Full disclosure – I received a copy from the publisher after my last post on the idea of witness in his thought. In short, my reaction is that his books are generally well crafted and delivered publicly, but here we have short comments not fully explained or justified.

2]  Collective Prayer

His message throughout the siddur is collective faith, we join with others. Prayer concerns the past and future of the community, the people Israel. The prayer is adoration and praise for God – our highest aspirations for the Jewish people. He favors Yehudah Halevi– prayer shows a God of history and human events. We learn from prayer the need to maintain faith, hope, dignity, and pride.

What is prayer? Prayer changes us – it is self-fulfillment He opens the book with a definition that prayer is conversation with God and never actually uses that definition in the book. From his commentary, prayer is listening and shaping oneself from the liturgy. Symbols need meditations therefore many do the yehi ratzon (cf. Hirsch).

His commentary is not very spiritual, emotional, or experiential, despite his use of these words. For example, he states the repetition of the amidah is the peak of religious experience because it contains the kedushah which was based on prophetic and mystic visions. Liturgy is not experience or experiential. Nor will one find much solace or human struggle in the prayer book.

Like the commentaries on Book of Common Prayer – he offers Biblical teachings applied in everyday life. The book is not very Rabbinic.

The commentary on the weekday shaharit is on the history of the liturgy and on the Shabbat shaharit is more theological.

3] Justice

His vision is that prayer will teach us personal and social responsibilitie. There is a cosmic moral standard of justice  God’s eternal values for the affairs of humankind-are justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to captives, and hope to those at the margins of society.” Korban (sacrifice) is the pledging of ourselves to do his will. Peace the ultimate hope of monotheism. [Wow – this is nice universalism and good ethical monotheism- will it mold Orthodoxy?]

He writes: We believe that “The world is the product of single will , not the blind clash of conflicting elements”.[what of divine mandated clashes and exclusivism?]

He writes “Havdalah means making distinctions”, “to make order out of chaos, God wants us to be creative.” That is great homiletic but will it encourage the production of what the wider world calls creativity?

4] Revelation

Sacks writes that in contrast to the universal demands on Jews, Revelation is particular – it is our covenant of love with God – a relationship.Torah is our written constitution, collective memory, and record of covenant- not just sacred literature The message, however, of revelation is the universal justice, compassion, inalienable rights for the downtrodden.[This is the point were I find this commentary as selected quotes from his books on global ethics. Nothing is substantiated or justified here but they are justified in the books.In addition, the books come from speeches delivered in public to answer a need. These comments have no criteria for their inclusion.]

5] Christian locutions

a) Sacks writes that Resurrection is hope “ Jews kept hope alive, hope kept the Jewish people alive.”We have a divine promise and hope defeats tragedy

This is one of my pet peeve – tikvah and spes are not the same even if both translated as hope.

The former word tikvah is restoration –

[There is a debate of Radak and Ramban is if has the same meaning as kav – to make a line.]

Nahmanides says that just as a blueprint has lines drawn so too our tikvah for the national redemption is already drawn. Christian meaning of spes is of unseen things, the future, as part of the supernatural virtues of faith hope, and charity. For Christians hope is a virtue, for Jews, God (or Torah) has kept up Jewish hope for the redemption. One hopes in God, one does not hope as a virtue.

Sacks uses the word in several places in the Christian sense  and even has locutions like faith, hope, and dignity – cf the Christian faith, hope and charity

The use of the word hope in this sense is also used often in Shakespeare

b) On page 146 – he writes we are your witnesses, the bearers of your name. (Jews don’t use it like this)- see my prior post

c) He uses the phrase “free air of hope” – page 152 coined by the Irish theologian George Tyrrell (1861 – 1909).

6] He views religious language as metaphor

In many places he has a variant of the following: God is unknowable and belong words – the goal is to get behind words.

7] As a book

Well…A large number of quotes are quite cryptic – he likes good phrases better than good comments. Many times one cannot make out what it means. The full ideas in other books are here reduced to bon mots. Comments sometimes say “it may be” “may reflect” – so the effect is a more of a homily than a commentary.

Sometimes he cites his sources – in one case there are three cited names in a single  passage—and then there are many pages without a single citation. Yet, in his other works he cites the author of the interpretation. It seems arbitrary.

8] Sources and comparisons

a) On the topic of liturgy and spontaneity, he surprisingly does not use the usually rabbinic passages on keva and kavvanah but discusses the topic through passages the in Bible. Source seems to be an unnamed book on the Bible or early Rabbinics.

b) He cites historical material from a much much earlier decade with any new insight- he does not references to Yakovson (Jacobson), Abrahams, Elbogen or other works that he relies on.

c) Conspicuous in its absence is the Lubavitcher Rebbe since Sacks relied heavily on the Rebbe in earlier works and adapted a volume of the Rebbe on parashah. But Sacks makes prayer thankfulness and adoration – and does not follow the Rebbe that prayer is connection to God.

d) Sacks noticeably quotes Rav Soloveitchik in his introduction, as if to claim continuity or authenticity, but does not follow his approach to prayer in the commentary.For Soloveitchik, Prayer is the personal existential cry in which there is personal redemption through the tefilot and more importantly, the Torah give us words that raise us above our natural inarticulate grunts of animals.

e) Isaiah Berlin on negative freedom and positive freedom – is unattributed here, and presented as Hazal. In addition, he states that Jews as eternal from Tolstoy (in an earlier work he credited the citation to Hertz quoting Tolstoy) This quote of Tolstoy is also in Isaiah Berlin.But quoting that Jews are eternal from Tolstoy—and not from Krokhmal, Kook, Rosenzweig or Reines—reduced it to a bon mot.

f) In Alenu, he explains “leTaken Olam bemalkhut Shadai” as Lurianic tikkun – is it from Elliott Dorff in My People’s Prayer Book?

9] The sections in the introduction on study, mysticism, and history was less than adequate and quite vague. The section on mysticism could be from more than half a century ago. It has a tone of “Mysticism devalues world”

He takes Kabbalat Shabbat from Elbogen recognized by Elbogen’s its mistaken reliance on Solomon Schechter.  And one is not inspired to confidence when he writes that the source of Ushpezin is a nebulous “Jewish mystical tradition.”

10]  Now what of his frequent citation of Franz Rosenzweig on creation, revelation, redemption? I don’t get this one.

This triad is originally from Hermann Cohen where the triad is a divine meaning to creation in the natural order, the revelation of ethics in the human mind, and human work to make the world a better place. (One finds this Cohen triad occasionally in Rav Soloveitchik;s homilies.)

For Rosenzweig, it is God presence as meaning that negates nihilism, revelation is human love for God, and the liturgical fulfillment of eternity. Prayer along with poetry and love are means to let us be existentially human. For Gershom Scholem, it is a creation of emanation and tzimtzum, revelation of creativity and antinomianism, and redemption through apocalyptic change.

But for Sacks, it is God in nature, God revealed in Torah and prayer, and our redemption in history and life. Where is this mild version from and why bother linking it to Rosenzweig? I have not checked yet, but Netiv Binah by Jacobson and Taamei Hamizvot by Heinneman both combine Hirsch and Rosenzweig into a milder form.

Yet the way Sacks frames the triad it can just as well be Albo’s God, Revelation, and Reward or Cordovero’s God, Torah and Israel. There is a triad in Rabbinic thought and liturgy and in the Rabbinic reading of the Bible which has been formulated different ways in different eras. (see Max Kadushin’s Organic Thinking on this thinking in triads) I am not sure why Sacks attributed his reading to Rosenzweig when Albo or Cordovero would have better served his needs.

But then I found on the web a position similar to Sacks—“Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explained that mans’ relationship with G-d is three-dimensional; we know Him through His creation, His revelation at Sinai, and His promise of redemption.” Did both Sacks and Wolbe take it from Jacobson or Heinneman? Or another secondary source produced by German Jewry? Hmm..

In short, I like the Orthodox universalism, but will stick to reading his longer works,

5 responses to “Lord Jonathan Sacks on the Siddur

  1. So which siddur would you end up using? Komarno? RaShaSh? Where is the real action in the liturgy to be found?

  2. Correct. In the past I used those and now I use a simple small paperback of the popular Haredi Kol Yaakov.

  3. ok so two people have read that now. what drove me crazy at the outset was his prayer is a symphony metaphor. so much so that in my closing class for my jts liturgy course i outlined for the students a three act opera based on the shacharit just to show how much off the mark sack’s genre choice was for his metaphoric riff.

    • I assume it was taken from a book describing the virtues of “The Book of Common Prayer.” A high church service with its build up to Glory and Agnus Dei followed by the antiphonals can be described as a symphony.

  4. then we know its origin – still ‘symphony’ is a big apologetic stretch – even for the best high church style synagogue services that i have attended (and i grew up going to zichron ephraim and many times davened at the s & p, etc.)

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