Commentary Magazine


The Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals, edited by David de Sola Pool; Weekday Prayer Book, edited by Gershon Hada

The New Prayer Books

The Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals.
by David de Sola Pool.
University Books by arrangement with Behrman House. 879 pp. $17.50.

Weekday Prayer Book.
by Gershon Hadas.
Rabbinical Assembly of America. 315 pp. $230.

During the past year, the American Jewish community has been presented with two new “official” prayer books. The Rabbinical Council of America, the large, middle-of-the-road Orthodox group, has for the first time authorized an edition of the Sabbath and festival prayer book, principally the work of David de Sola Pool, rabbi emeritus of the Sephardic Shearith Israel. While this book was being introduced late last year with considerable fanfare (including a piece in Life), the Prayer Book Commission of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly was completing its Weekday Prayer Book, largely done by Gershon Hadas. As might be expected, the efforts of the two groups offer an interesting commentary on the present state of the two large tradition-oriented movements of American Judaism.

Consumer appeal seems to have been a primary concern of the Orthodox Siddur Committee. And one cannot deny that this concern has had some commendable results. The typography of The Traditional Prayer Book is really admirable. The type faces both in Hebrew and English are clear and attractive; the page layouts are in the best of taste. After generations of semi-legible prayer-book printing with chaotic mixtures of type sizes and faces, such virtues are not negligible ones. Dr. de Sola Pool has also organized his book to help the less experienced congregants. There are lucid, well-placed instructions on what to do and what to say, and the structure and progression of the service are elucidated by his prefacing each large unit of the prayers with a long explanatory note. Dr. de Sola Pool’s own prose—like the language of his translation—tends to be effusive, but that fault in style seems to be a prevalent occupational hazard of the American rabbinate.

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My more serious objections concern the general tenor of Dr. de Sola Pool’s various introductory comments, which suggests that he is working hard to sell as well as explicate the traditional siddur to his modern readers. The introduction to this first authorized Orthodox prayer book begins by announcing that the prayers which follow are “irradiated by a glorious universalism.” We are also informed that the prayer book is a radiantly optimistic book, a primary instrument of Jewish survival, an expression of Jewish social idealism. It is not really until the second third of the introduction that the siddur is characterized as a book of praise to God. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin has aptly observed that the editorial remarks in the new Orthodox prayer book have a distinctively Conservative, and more particularly, a Recon-structionist tone.

The translation itself, however, is anything but an appeal to modernism. Translating any ancient text for the use of modern people presents a delicate aesthetic problem. It ultimately may be a question of personal taste whether an American-speaking Jew should address the God of his Fathers as Thou or You, but in any case the Orthodox and Conservative prayer books have taken opposite courses. We can see the kind of difficulties each runs into by comparing their translations for the concluding words of the Kaddish:

Literal translation: “May He who makes peace in His high places make peace among us.”

Orthodox: “May He who creates the harmony of the Spheres/ Create peace for us.”

Conservative: “He who ordains the order of the universe/ Will bring peace to us.”

The archaizing poetic fancy of the Orthodox version is self-defeating. Surely the modern Orthodox Jew cannot be expected to pray to the First Mover of a medieval cosmology; in most instances he will hardly know what the words refer to. The Conservative version, on the other hand, introduces the kind of philosophic abstraction that makes the God of Abraham and Isaac begin to sound like the God of Newton.

In general, Dr. de Sola Pool’s use of archaic English has the effect of creating an unwarranted distance between the worshipper and the text of the prayers. Despite its antiquity, the Hebrew of the prayer book is a direct and familiar idiom for those who pray with a knowledge of Hebrew; it is certainly much closer to them than King James English is to a speaker of present-day American English. All the “yeas” and “days of yore” and “hoary ages” are likely to make the content of The Traditional Prayer Book seem quaint and perhaps alien to the typical synagogue-going American Jew.

This new translation is, moreover, neither entirely correct nor consistent in its use of archaic English. And it suffers at many points from excessive literalism: “Let Thy tender mercies flow toward the righteous”; “He has lifted up the horn of strength of His people”; “though war rise up against me.” On the other hand, the translator does not hesitate to veil the actual meaning of the original when he finds it embarrassing. Thus “menstrual period” is translated by the comfortable ambiguity of “time of separation,” and in the Song of Songs, “thy navel” becomes “thy form,” while “thy two breasts” are rendered as “thy bosom” and once even as “thy heart.” (Jews in the past may have been puritanical, but not prudish.)

The most regrettable lapse in literary taste in the new Orthodox prayer book is its perpetuation of a group of jingling poetic paraphrases of the Hebrew liturgical poetry by Israel Zangwill and others who translate in his manner. An authorized edition could certainly have done better than Zangwill’s “The Angels Came A-mustering, A-mustering, A-mustering” as a translation for the poem Hitkabtsu Malachim. Dr. de Sola Pool has unfortunately followed the model of Zangwill in his own renditions of various hymns. The exigencies of an ABAB rhyme-scheme used with a short, regular line reduce such fine pieces of poetry as Lecha Dodi and Adon Olam to chiming doggerel.

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The Conservative Weekday Prayer Book, on the other hand, can be forgiven much because its translation is written in good idiomatic English. The resulting gain becomes immediately evident when one compares it with the Orthodox prayer book. The latter, moving carefully from word to word in the Hebrew, translates the beginning of U’va L’Tsion: “My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your children, nor out of the mouth of your children’s children, henceforth and forevermore, the Lord has said.” This is faithful but it is not English. The Conservative translation for the same sentence reads: “My word in your mouth/ Shall remain with you and with your descendants./ My instruction shall be on your lips forever.” The original has been partly rearranged, but no real violence has been done to it, and the resulting translation presents no obstacle to prayer for a native speaker of English sensitive to language. In general, the new Conservative translation is admirable for its clarity, precision, and correctness of English usage. By avoiding literalism, it frequently conveys a more accurate as well as more fluent sense of the meaning of the Hebrew.

Freed from prayer-book English to read smoothly throughout, the Conservative translation at times may read too smoothly. The Rabbinical Assembly’s translators seem to prefer the abstract to the concrete, the general to the specific, and as a result the vigor and vividness of the original is sometimes lost. The “double-edged sword” of Psalm 148 is reduced to “a sharp sword.” “I said all men were faithless” of Psalm 117 becomes “I condemned all life as vain.” The power of the Lord—not His right hand—is victorious in the homes—not the tents—of the righteous. The object of the Conservative translation is, of course, clarity, but clarification can become uncomfortable where it is not needed.

Moreover, the English of the Weekday Prayer Book is in places really an interpretation and not a translation of the Hebrew. This sort of procedure may be perfectly valid for presenting the siddur to American Jews, but the reader should be made aware of it. It is significant that God, as He appears in the English of the new Rabbinical Assembly prayer book, is also less concrete, more passive and remote, than in the Hebrew. That the Conservative translators consistently reinterpret and soften the phrases portraying an avenging God seems legitimate enough; but they do not allow God even to be awesome (nora), only “wonderful.” Similarly, at a few key points in the service where the Hebrew makes God the subject of active verbs, the Weekday Prayer Book removes Him from the action and has the action come about in the passive mode through His decree, will, etc.: “In Your goodness the work of creation is . . . renewed” instead of “You renew in Your goodness.” Processes go on in the world while God smiles approval, but in the theology often implied by this translation, God is not an immediate actor in the world.

In terms of its treatment of the text of the traditional siddur, the Weekday Prayer Book has not departed substantially from the approach marked out by the Conservative Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book. The altering of the three negatively-worded Morning Blessings to affirmations remains as it was. The preliminary sections before the morning psalms of praise have been judiciously trimmed. Prayers for the restoration of animal sacrifice are excluded as before, though the new Conservative prayer book goes a step further by offering two alternate versions to the worshipper. Above the black line he can pray for a return to Zion and a messianic era without mentioning sacrifices at all. Lower on the page, he can pray for the same ideal while also recalling the sacrifices offered in ancient times (the version that appears in the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, where the only alteration of the traditional formula is the change in tense of the verbs from future to past).

The Weekday Prayer Book has included at the appropriate place in the Amidah a new Al Hanissim prayer, to be said on Israel’s Independence Day. In view of the Conservative conviction that the prayer book should react—as it has in the past—to the significant events in recent history, the new Al Hanissim is a commendable addition. The prayer gives thanks for the ingathering of exiles after the destruction of European Jewry and for the victory in Israel over the seven invading armies, while it prudently skirts around any explicit reference to the gaining of statehood.

Typographically, the Conservative weekday siddur makes two innovations. On both the Hebrew and the English sides of the page, the main body of the prayers, whether verse or prose, is set up in lines of poetry. This arrangment has the virtue of making the rhythmic units and the units of meaning clear to the worshipper; but judging by the layout of lines on the page, a more compelling reason seems to have been to enable a rabbi to use almost any passage in the service for responsive reading. The other stylistic innovation is to give each short unit in the prayers—again both in Hebrew and English—an informal title (again to facilitate congregational reading?). A good many of the captions are rather unfortunate: heed the commandments, teach your children, remember the commandments, god redeems, guide us and guard us, etc.

In both the Conservative and the Orthodox prayer books, there are these small but disturbing indications that the two movements are beginning to accept some of the less desirable aspects of Jewish religious life in America. The de Sola Pool prayer book offers a transliteration not only for the Kaddish but for the principal hymns of the service and for a number of passages where it is customary for the congregation to join in singing. The implication—as Mrs. Weiss-Rosmarin has also pointed out—is that the Rabbinical Council of America takes as permanent the situation in which large numbers of Jews affiliated to Orthodox congregations are unable even to read the Hebrew alphabet. Equally disconcerting is the suspicion that the Weekday Prayer Book is a siddur designed specifically for use with a rabbi and congregation. It has been a point of pride among Jews that there was never a Jewish clergy which had to “officiate” at worship, but the new Rabbinical Assembly prayer book gives some indication of a tendency to write a clergy into the service. The arrangement of most of the prayers for responsive reading suggests this possibility. Further, the Conservative Prayer Book Commission has now established its brief introduction to the Kaddish as a formal part of the service in both the Hebrew and the English. This introduction cannot be recited either by the mourners or by the other congregants: it is a part of the service that requires someone to officiate.

It is to their credit that both the Orthodox and Conservative rabbinate are concerned with American Jewry’s need for new and intelligible prayer books. One can hope that both groups will resist influences in the present situation of American Jewry that might divert their work from the path of authenticity.

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