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    Koren Sacks Machzor (book review)

    Jonathan Sacks
    Koren Publishers, 2011

    Reviewed by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
    Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

    After the Sacks Siddur, the Sacks Machzor was inevitable. That is no criticism – far from it. The scholarship, elegance and practicality of the Siddur needed to be continued in an edition of the festival liturgy, and the task has been performed with great success.

    I understand that a companion volume for Yom Kippur is under way and will appear in twelve months’ time, presumably to wide acclaim.

    British Jewry’s only precedent is the Routledge Machzor, published just over a century ago, which long held sway in the synagogue without any real competition, at least until the arrival of ArtScroll.

    English-speaking Jewry never had much interest in spirituality or theology, despite the Jacobs controversy of nearly fifty years ago, but it did take its liturgical works seriously, and justified fame was enjoyed by the trilogy of the Routledge Machzor, the Singer Siddur and the Hertz Chumash. Now that Lord Sacks has more or less replaced the first two, the third will presumably soon attract his attention.

    Compared to Routledge, the new Machzor is a delight to handle. Not that Routledge was unattractive in its time, but it was unwieldy – certainly too big for synagogue book-rests – and the layout of the material was rather unimaginative. Book design is an art form that is still developing, but Koren Publishers rightly pride themselves on the appearance of their works.

    The typeface is clean and easy to follow, far better than the ArtScroll font with its unfortunate and unnecessary use of italics. But I cannot fathom the logic of having English on the right-hand pages with the Hebrew on the left. The more traditional approach – English on the left, Hebrew on the right – is better for books that open on the right and recognise that Hebrew runs from right to left.

    A strange concomitant of the new design is that the bottom-of-page commentary often begins on the left-hand side and continues on the right. It takes time and effort, for example, to work out the order of paragraphs in the commentary on Unetanneh (why transliterate it Untaneh? What about the sheva and the dagesh?) Tokef. It’s all rather confusing.

    Lord Sacks’ translation utilises large swathes of material from his Siddur, which he is perfectly entitled to do. The special elements that represent Rosh HaShanah (is there some reason why Koren Publishers drop the Hebrew heh when transliterating words ending ah, e.g. Shana instead of Shanah, but keep it for words like Torah, Unetanneh – though the book renders it Untaneh – and Yavneh?) are beautifully rendered into English with Sacks’ trademark literary elegance. A translator has to have a feeling for both languages and the judgment to know whether and how to try to reproduce idiomatic expressions.

    Here and there Routledge fell down in this respect and produced jingles that showed the cleverness of the versifying translators (Israel Zangwill and others) but made people grin rather than pray.

    ArtScroll translations present quite different problems – not stuffiness like the Routledge prose or rather cheap versification of the piyyutim, but generally lacking in English style and sophistication. I know they say they aim at greater literalness, but you can be more or less literal and still achieve a degree of literary power.

    The Sacks book represents the current state of Minhag Anglia, the Anglo-Jewish Usage (Koren Publishers have also issued a non-Minhag Anglia edition of the Machzor largely for an American audience). Dayan Ivan Binstock of the London Beth Din was the advisor in this area and has brought into the book a number of liturgical changes that reflect the facts on the ground. It is quite legitimate to accept changes in usage even if it means the abandonment of cherished heirlooms, because that’s what customs are about. People’s customs arise and move as society evolves, and that has happened to Minhag Anglia too.

    An example in the Machzor is the procedure for the sounding of the shofar, which is now far more traditional than the old minhag because orthodox synagogues in English-speaking Jewry have unquestionably come closer to tradition in recent years. But it’s a pity that some of the historic Adler initiatives have as a result been consigned to history – for example the introductory prayer that placed teki’at shofar in a fine devotional setting.

    My own studies of Minhag Anglia lead me to think, however, that the Anglo-Jewish usage was never limited to prayer rites or synagogue ceremonies but was a philosophy, an ethos, that blended Jewish loyalties with British mores, and it would be interesting to get Lord Sacks’ take (and Dayan Binstock’s) on whether this approach has also changed.

    It is good that Dayan Binstock was brought into the project. Actually there are other Anglo-Jewish scholars – at least a dozen of them – whose input might have been useful, and I hope it is not too late to involve them in the Yom Kippur volume.

    As one would expect, the commentary is well worth reading – interesting enough to be studied carefully even if one does not feel motivated to pray. Again a comparison with ArtScroll is to the point. Where ArtScroll explains a prayer or concept it correctly draws attention to commentaries and gedolim, but it does not tackle theological issues with enough clarity and sometimes fails to admit the depth of a problem.

    Sacks is a renowned religious philosopher, and though he does not necessarily have final answers to many of the age-old agonies of religious thinking, he sounds relatively satisfying in his approach, though he too sometimes creates question marks.

    As an example, he realises that Unetanneh Tokef is rather fatalistic (he could have said something about Islamic influences) but makes the crucial comment that there is a “great outburst of faith that defines Judaism as a religion of hope. No fate is final. Repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree”. So our deeds determine our future.

    He could, however, have mentioned the famous distinction between the areas where God makes the decisions, e.g. whether we will be fat or thin, tall or short, and those where we are in control, namely our spiritual and ethical response to life’s events.

    When he comes to the culminating line about repentance, prayer and charity he does not say they “avert the evil decree”, though he has said precisely this a couple of pages earlier, but “avert the evil of the decree” – a fair statement probably justified by the Hebrew original – but he has to make up his mind: what is it that is averted, the decree itself or its evil?

    His notes on Avinu Malkenu acknowledge that God is at one and the same time Our Father and Our King: we are both His subjects and His children. But he could have made more of the difference between a father and a king, between One who is near and one who is far – both alternatives are true, providing one more piece of evidence that there are necessary paradoxes in Jewish theology: a point that he does actually make towards the end of his notes on Unetanneh Tokef. He does touch on the issue in the Introduction, but it needs more fleshing out.

    In a review of the Sacks Siddur I said that when I use it for davening I often find my attention distracted because of the quality and fascination of the commentary. I fear the same will be true of the Machzor. I intend to use it on Rosh HaShanah and I only hope that I will be able to daven as well as to read.

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