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    The RCA Siddur – Avodat HaLev (book review)

    Edited by Basil Herring
    Koren Publishers, 2018

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally published on the Arutz Sheva website on 1 January, 2019.

    I have reviewed many books in my time but this is one of the very best.

    It is a Siddur for the modern-age English speaker, a completely re-thought, re-planned and re-worked prayer book that takes account of technical advances in font, layout and binding; linguistic developments in the use of English style; historical events such as the Holocaust and the State of Israel; sociological changes to the place of women in Jewish life; ongoing ideological analyses of spirituality and theology; and developing halachic assessments of how and what to pray. The rubrics are clear and practical, and the book positively invites one to daven.

    The book took years to put together, but the wait was worthwhile and the result is spectacular.

    Fortunately it has not followed the aberration of some other new Siddurim which put the Hebrew on the left-hand page and jump counter-intuitively with the placing of their commentaries.

    Non-orthodoxy is no longer the American norm. Numerically it seems to be declining. Qualitatively it is far less exciting and substantial than orthodoxy. The orthodox community is re-emerging and re-energising and can be proud of itself. As Rav Soloveitchik said, “They don’t laugh at us any more”. Orthodoxy has rising numbers, growing educational institutions, increasing levels of observance.

    Centrist orthodoxy, represented in the USA by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), is especially powerful because of its leaders and members. It has a noteworthy range of world-class scholars who are marked by a combination of Jewish, professional and academic eminence.

    Once upon a time people could say that when rabbis became doctors, Judaism became sick; now they are making Judaism hale and hearty. Great figures who unite rabbinic with general intellectual talents have been recruited to projects such as the RCA Siddur, which they have made into a major literary as well as communal achievement.

    This is not to denigrate the trailblazing work that has been done in this area by Jonathan Sacks, whose intellect, elegance and scholarship are unique in the Jewish world. Sacks’ liturgical works have deservedly won themselves a special place in Jewish affections.

    Where Chaim Bermant used to say that Anglo-Jewry was not a thinking community, Sacks has made it one, not least by means of his Siddurim and Machzorim. But in some respects the RCA Siddur surpasses even Sacks.

    Sacks is an amazing one-man scholar-team, even though he was backed by a Scholars’ Committee when he updated the Singer Siddur in Britain some years ago. The RCA Siddur in contrast is the work of a whole array of translators and explicators. Basil Herring welded their work together into a true market-place of ideas with cutting-edge freshness that upholds halachah while facing new realities.

    Apart from the graphics and technical aspects of the book, I tested it as a worshipper, a davener. Unlike some people, I don’t daven by heart; I use a Siddur. My litmus test starts with my eyes, which are strained by miniscule print and unattractive fonts. In this respect I don’t give high marks to ArtScroll but I do to the RCA Siddur.

    Though it is heavy to handle, the pages are well designed and easy to read, with subtle lessons in the occasional resort to smaller print, e.g. the Aramaic sections of the kedushah d’sidra.

    The Siddur ranges across the whole of one’s day, week and year. Having the whole of the Book of Psalms is a great help since there are so many occasions when chapters of Tehillim express one’s existential needs.

    However, many people have a kavvanah problem with prayer. Externalities keep intruding. I used to tell my High Holyday congregations not to be drawn aside by distractions including the chatty shule neighbour, but when one’s attention wavers they should ignore the service for the time being, close their eyes and think deeply about God, life, and ultimate issues.

    There is a kavvanah problem which is actually caused by a good Siddur like Avodat HaLev. Its annotations are so inviting that they divert one from davening. The best advice is to daven and then go back and read the notes, which are a combination of the scholarly and the devotional, teaching the mind, stretching the soul and arousing the heart. One does not always agree with what is said, but everything is highly stimulating, though one of the least satisfactory notes is on the first line of the Shema.

    A word of praise must be added for the essays at the end of the book. They deal with what to pray, how to pray and how to acknowledge historical experience, especially seminal events like the Holocaust and Israel. Naturally the views of the various authors will not be supported by everyone, but kol hakavod that the orthodox community has highly competent thinkers who are up to these challenges.

    When the Siddur is re-assessed in due course, it will need checking for typos (e.g. the word Sedet instead of Seder on page 1029), and the system of transliteration will need to be re-addressed. The use of the Israeli accent (Avodat, not Avodas) is to be commended, but I am puzzled that sometimes a feminine noun ends with “h” (“Torah”) and sometimes not (Amida). I prefer an “h” but at least let there be consistency.

    The RCA deserves congratulations on this Siddur. I for one look forward to davening with it and uncovering its treasures.

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