Review on the Siddur Avodat Halev (5*) — This is a Siddur you want to own!


Siddur Avodat HaLev (Hebrew and English Edition) Hardcover – August 20, 2018
by Rabbinical Council of America; Editor: Rabbi Basil Herring
1346 pages
Publisher: Koren Publishers Jerusalem; Bilingual edition 2018
Language: Hebrew, English
ISBN-10: 9653019368
ISBN-13: 978-9653019362
Price $24.73. Rating: 5*

The brand new Siddur Avodat Halev is a fabulous new commentary on the traditional siddur, but unlike most commentaries you have read, the writers of this project have incorporated many significant and thought-provoking articles on the theology and praxis of Jewish prayer.

Each page of the siddur contains short pithy remarks that remind me of the old Phillip Birnbaum Siddur and the Artscroll Siddur. The commentary features a brief digest of many of the halakhic perspectives and customs that govern Jewish prayer. It is not verbose, but actually quite succinct. While many commentaries intimidate the reader, the Siddur Avodat Halev’s does not.

Under Rabbi Basil Herring’s fine leadership, the siddur also traces many of the prayers to their scriptural origins—something many prayers after the Birnbaum Siddur neglected to do. In fact, I was curious to see how they explained the blessing, “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things” (p. 90), and sure enough the same explanation Birnbaum gave in his siddur notes appears in the Siddur Avodat Halev. Giving credit to the Birnbaum Siddur would have been nice, but the explanation he gives is satisfying to a reader like myself who enjoys studying the history of what inspired  the ancient prayers.

Women’s participation in traditional prayer is always a hot-button subject. To the siddur’s credit, it tries to be more inclusive than other Orthodox siddurim of the past. For example, instead of using the traditional male-oriented language which invariably uses the male pronoun “he,” the siddur uses the more gender-inclusive pronoun, “one.” Or, in the Grace After Meals, it uses the expression, “esteemed companions” in place of “rabbotai,” “head of the house” instead of “master of the house.” It also mentions “With your permission, (my father and teacher,”/ “ my mother and my teacher” in the opening words of the Grace.

This is very appropriate, and it reminded me of the Scriptural passage, ‎ שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ “Listen, my child, to your father’s instruction, do not reject the Torah (lit. instruction) of your mother” (Prov. 1:8), for our mothers do teach us Torah by their values and lessons we learn from the age of infancy onward. This verse would have made a terrific footnote for the siddur, and I would encourage adding this concept in a future edition.

The siddur also contains additional prayers such as those relating to the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and personal events such as thanksgiving and dedication of a home. In the original Artscroll Siddur, references to the Shoah and the State of Israel do not appear until Artscroll later partnered with the RCA in producing a more updated siddur.

In the Mi’Sheberech prayer that is said after one is called up to the Torah, the Siddur included the mentioning of the Matriarchs—this is the second Modern Orthodox Siddur I have seen in which the authors include this. The other siddur is the Nahalel Siddur. These changes represent a dramatic mind-shift in the Modern Orthodox community.

The old albatross of a prayer blessing God, “for not making me a woman” is still included; the same old tired apologetic exposition is used. I think this Siddur should have included the 15th-century Italian version of the prayer, “Blessed are You… .Who did not make me a man.” Not only would this have been a provocative change, but it would also stress that we ought to thank God for making us who we are. Better still, it would have really been terrific to say these blessings in the positive. Instead of defining ourselves by what we are NOT, we should take a positive approach and thank God for making us who we ARE. Thus, a man should say, “Blessed are You . . . for making me a man,” or “Blessed are You . . . for making me a woman,” and lastly, “Blessed are You for making me an Israelite.” This version completely sidesteps the usual awkward problems associated with these particular prayers.

While Siddur Avodat Halev has made great strides, sometimes it still operates within the confines of a medieval Procrustean bed, named after Procrustes, the bandit from Greek mythology who stretched or amputated the limbs of travelers to make them conform to the length of his bed. Rabbis need greater freedom to improve upon Jewish tradition and I pray that someday the Modern Orthodox movement will seriously change their overall thinking on this sensitive matter. No amount of apologetic explanations can justify the animus of a prayer that has offended Jewish women for many centuries.

Another piece of anachronistic history in the siddur is the section pertaining to the Kapporet prayer. Frankly, the old practice of Orthodox Jews swinging a frightened chicken over their heads on the eve of Yom Kippur seems antithetical in every way to the modern facelift the Siddur Avodat Halev wishes to make. And while the commentary points out its shortcomings, I think no explanation can sanitize the inappropriateness of this prayer—especially since the practice of the Kapporet more often than not violates the biblical prohibition of causing animals needless pain (tsar ba’alei chayim).

The authors should have included the Tefilah Zakah instead. It is a much more powerful prayer that captures the beauty of the High Holidays and its emphasis on forgiveness. This prayer actually appears in the siddur on pages 338-339. In Jewish liturgical history, the Tefilah Zakah is a part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, and in this prayer, a people enumerate and connect their various sins with various acts and ask for forgiveness. More significantly, people forgive any who have caused them pain or harmed them. R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820) popularized this prayer in his famous Halakhic digest, Hayye Adam. It is definitely a better alternative to the Kapporet ritual.

Perhaps the most critical part of the Siddur Avodat Halev pertains to the attempt of its writers to explain the theology of Jewish prayer with a particular focus on the nature of Kavanah, or “intentionality.” And while the siddur does a fine job in examining the nature of Kavanah, it sheepishly avoids dealing with most perplexing questions of our age: What is the nature of a personal relationship with God? Is God “responsive” to our prayers? Does prayer truly have or evoke healing power? Nothing challenges the theological beliefs of a Jew—regardless of our denomination—more than prayer. Prayer calls into question all of our most fundamental beliefs in a “personal” God and this area poses tough questions for Modern Orthodox intellectuals and theologians alike, as well as their Conservative and Reform colleagues.

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