Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Don't Mess With the Siddur

Rav Asher Lopatin over at Morethodoxy, in his ongoing efforts to blur the distinction between his brand of Modern Orthodoxy and right wing Conservatism, has come up with a new idea. I guess he's envious of those amazing Conservatives who don't think anything of messing with the siddur. It's well known that they've editted the traditional text to omit anything that doesn't fit with their secular liberal views on Judaism. One of the most famous changes they've made is to alter the three "who has not made me a" blessings in the morning into their positive forms. Why start the day with a "I'm so glad I'm not a..." when you can start it with a positive affirmation?
The problem with doing that is that it misses the point of why those blessings are in the negative in the first place. Starting with the original citation in Menachos 43b and down through the various levels of poskim multiple analyses look at exactly this quesiton and justify the current form.
But that's not good enough for someone whose Judaism is guided by his secular liberal sensitivities. What matters it that 2000 years of tradition have had it one way when it is out of step with today's realities? He doesn't like the form so he's going to change it! After bringing very selective sources and misquoting the Gras, he concludes:
Therefore, I suggest that we follow the b’racha according to the G’ra and the Rosh and our Talmud, and say, “She’asani Yisrael” instead of the negative, and that a woman says“She’asani Yisraelit” instead of the negative. Once the first b’racha is said in this way, the way it appears in the G’marra Menachot, then we have no choice, based on the p’sak of the Aruch HaShulchan (from the Bach) , to avoid saying the final two, negative b’rachot of “Shelo Asani Aved” (God did not make me a slave) and “Shelo Asani Isha”(God did not make me a woman), since they become unnecessary after such an all encompassing, powerful, and positive statement of Jewish identity of “She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit”.
Now for some “hashkafa” – philosophical context:
She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit” is a beautiful b’racha, thanking God for making me Jewish – proud to be Jewish, excited to begin the day as a Yisrael.
Rather than beginning the day with negative b’rachot, which accentuate the G’marra of “noach lo la’adam shelo nivra” – it would be truly better for a human being not to have been created at all – maybe it is now time to begin the day with a positive b’racha “k’mo sha’ar b’rachot shemevarchim al hatova” (Magen Avraham, 46, 9) – like all other b’rachot that we say blessing God for good things. How do you want to wake up in the morning: happy to be alive, or frustrated that you are still stuck in this world? Perhaps it depends on the day!

Rav Lopatin is a very educated man, both in secular and Jewish fields, but this is just piffle. So I submitted a reply in my usual inimitable (not that anyone seems to want to imitate it) style:
I'm sorry to interrupt this "let's do something wonderful" fest but...
First of all, I know you are very educated in both Jewish and secular fields, Rav Lopatin. I was not aware, however, that you have achieved the status of Posek haDor. Or is it your contention that any pulpit rabbi anywhere can much around with the siddur any time it bothers his sensibilities?
Secondly, the Vilna Goan does not say "it is the correct language to use in his Biur HaGra on the Shulchan Aruch". He says that that the Rif and the Rambam had the negative berachos in their siddurim while his local siddurim, like those of the Rosh and the Taz had the positive. This does not imply preference. Further, the problem with his statement is that in the Tur itself, chap. 46, he clearly lists the negative berachos without mention of any "sheasani Yisrael".
Thirdly, your reference to the Aruch HaShulchan is incomplete. In 46:10 he notes two reasons for the negatives. One is that the positive blessing implies disregard for those not included, that is: Thank God I'm a Jew because eveyrone else isn't worthy of being noticed. The negative, on the other hand, implies that while non-Jews, slaves and women have definite intrinsic worth, it's even better to not be them but more obligated to God. The second reason, which he brings from the Taz, is from Eiruvin 13 in which Chazal note that it was decided by Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai (and we recite this loudly every year on Yom Kippur) that it is better than man had never been created, but now that he has been, let him engage in Torah and mitzvos. If we see having been created as less than ideal, and by saying that it was decided by the greatest sages of the time then it has reached a level of emes, how can we bless God for creating us? Rather, the negative blessings acknowledge this discomfort and fulfill the recommendations of Chazal now that we're stuck here in This World.
The Taz goes further and notes that in theory Sheasani Yisrael makes sense. After all, there is a rule not to multiple berachos needlessly and there are lots of other ways to hit the magic 100 for the day so why not say Sheasani Yisrael and reduce the number of morning blessings by two? He again notes that this would imply that women and slaves are deficient products of creation and we cannot do this because it's not true.
Further, the Beis Yosef on Tur OC 46 brings an additional reason - by saying all three blessings you add chesed to chesed, increasing your praise of God.
The Chayei Adam 8:2 also notes that if you say Sheasani Yisrael you cannot say the other two berachos, even in the positive sense. Your conclusion from Sheasani Yisraelit is completely incorect. A Yisraelit does not have the same mitzvah obligations as a Yisrael. Therefore the two blessings are NOT equivalent. The only way aorund that is the change the order of the blessings and make Sheasani Israel third but who are we to change the order of the blessings set down by Chazal?
Thus far the actual sources.
This post seems to reveal the major problem with left wing Modern Orthodox psak. It seems the model is "let's find an authority we agree with and run with him". Hence the approving reference to the Vilna Gaon based on the Rosh. Never mind that the Rambam, the Rif, the Tur, the Beis Yosef, the Magen Avraham, the Taz, the Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch HaShulchan disagree. Never mind that if the Vilna Gaon were to come back to life and discover that 99.9% of proper siddurim nowadays have the negative blessings in them he'd probably agree that the obligation is to say them as is. We have a vaguely word Gra. Let's change the siddur!
It reminds me of someone I knew who used to rely on a heter he'd heard about in the Igros Moshe. When a rabbi friend of mine began listing chumros from the same work and asked him if he held by those as well, he shook his head. Talk about rabbi shopping. It may not be intellectually dishonest but it is halachically dishonest.
After all, there are plenty of places where the Gra is stricter than the Shulchan Aruch. Tell me, do you follow his customs on strict gender separation at all your functions? Do you follow all his other customs when it comes to tefillah?
Really, this is not how halacha works. It's how Conservatism works - let's decide what we want first and then find some authority, well-known or obscure, who supports us, or let's misapply some well-known halachic phrase like pikuach nefesh or tikun olam and use it in ways no one who knows what the words mean would ever approve of. The only remaining difference between Conservatism and Morethodoxy seems to be the red line. If the Conservatives don't find their heter, they hold a vote at their so-called Rabbinical Assembly and create one. I would assume Morethodoxy doesn't do that... yet.
Finally, the reasoning: "Rather than beginning the day with negative b’rachot, which accentuate the G’marra of “noach lo la’adam shelo nivra”...How do you want to wake up in the morning: happy to be alive, or frustrated that you are still stuck in this world? Perhaps it depends on the day!" is completely irrelevant! Who cares if you wake up happy? Suddenly Chazal are wrong and it was worth it for you to be created? The gemara does not qualify their statement: It wasn't worth being created... on days you wake up feeling lousy, otherwise great! It is a statement of emes. Wake up, smell the coffee, hear the birds, feel the warmth of the sun on your face, and it is wasn't worth being created because of the high level of responsiblity we have to submit to every day. The negative berachos affirm this truth. Your positive one turns it into a suggestion. Do you have the authority to do that to an explicit Chazal?
"For from the hills I behold him; lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." (Bemidbar 23:9) I am worried about a form of Orthodoxy that seems to work in opposition to this verse, that wants to take all that makes Torah Judaism distinct and to blur it so that we don't seem that much different than the nations around us. Morethodoxy seems to be about avoiding the conflict between amoral secular liberal values and Torah values by minimizing and adjusting the latter so that said conflict is avoided. That's not real Orthodoxy.


David said...

Eh. I'm not so sure that it's a good thing that our siddur remain fossilized like a chunk of dinosaur crap. After all, those blessings are not even alleged to have originated on Sinai-- someone invented them. Whoever did so, did so in light of the times in which he lived and the challenges he confronted (emphasis on the "he").

Moreover, not every "Orthodox" Jew uses the same siddur-- there's Ashkenaz, Sefard, Syrian, Italian Rite, and quite a few others, many of which are worded differently. I have a difficult time relating to much of what's in the siddur, and since nobody's prepared to tell me that those are all God's words and thus not subject to change, maybe it makes sense to revisit things once in a while. After all, we've all seen various explanations and apologetics on the subject of the whole "gentiles/women/slaves" thing. But we all recognize how awful that sounds anyhow. Maybe it's not so bad to reword that...

Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually the siddur is an interesting topic because its history is really well documented, starting from the prayers instituted by the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, through the revisions made by the Chazal and subsequently by the Gaonim. There's a great paper trail.
Here's my point: changes, adjustments, etc. are generally made for very deep reasons by only the greatest of leaders. Just because a given rabbi somewhere doesn't like some of the wording because of his own personal biases is no reason to tamper with the text.
Even the different rites have very specific, traceable origins, but usually for documented reasons, not because "Well, I don't like the way this sounds"

David said...

"Here's my point: changes, adjustments, etc. are generally made for very deep reasons by only the greatest of leaders."

And we know that they're the "greatest of leaders" because they made changes in the siddur? Do you recall how the Aleinu was amended? Kol Nidre itself has an odd and not terribly spiritual history... Paper trail or not, there are various versions out there, and Artscroll is not the be-all and end-all of Judaism. These things have been edited for various reasons in the past to suit the times (why are there 19 blessings in the Shemona Esrei?), and there's really no reason why we shouldn't be able to do the same thing, other than a hide-bound traditionalism, which is doing no good for Judaism.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Who put the 19th blessing into the Amidah? Rabban Gamliel and Shmuel HaKatan.
Aleinu was ammended by censorship, not by choice.

And I agree - Artscroll isn't the be-all end-all. But there are some things that are universal. The ending of every blessing is always the same even if the body part of it differs with more or less words/sentences. The same number of blessings before and after the Amidahs. And the short blessings are always the same. That's why someone should be careful before messing with them.

David said...

Yes, the Aleinu was changed due to censorship (and Kol Nidre was introduced as a compromise with folk tales and superstition). But the change stuck.

As to being careful, that's a different point, Garnel. I'm fully in agreement that anyone who wishes to mess with the text of the siddur should only do so after extensive and careful deliberation. But a priest I once knew explained to me the difference between "tradition" and "traditionalism." Tradition is keeping faith with the dead; traditionalism is keeping alive a dead faith. Treating the text of the siddur with respect is one thing-- making it sacrosanct is quite another.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Agreed. Listen, there have been changes to the siddur. The Dati Leumi now include the prayer for the State of Israel and for the Tzahal, for example.
However there are areas we can touch and areas we cannot. Blessings in particular are a fussy area. It's one thing in the leadup to the final baruch to muck with things, hence the differences between Ashkenaz, Sefard and Edut Mizrach for example, but the final part does not change. Almost all of these can be traced back to the gemara.
In addition, when multiple reasons are given for a blessing being worded the way it is, it's not advisable to change it based on a personal whim.

SJ said...

my idea of messing with the siddur is throwing it out completely. XD

Mike S. said...

1) If you are correct that the GR"A's use of positive formulations was because that was what was found in the siddurim of 18th century Vilna (as well as in the times and places of the Ros"h and Ta"z), you can hardly call R. Lopatkin to task for a radical innovation.

2) Pulling isolated p'sak from an authority that agrees with one's external predilicitions is indeed halachically dishones. However, that is at common on the Right as well as on the Left. For example, Litvishe Roshei Yeshivah who insist on Glatt meat. Or who think there should be no ba'alei batim who work. This should surprise no one. R. Yochanon ben Zakkai felt the need to give his talmidim the bracha that their Yirat shamayim should equal their fear of their fellow men; if the greatest of the Tannaim would respond to social pressures, how much more so the rest of us. We all need to be m'dakdeik in our learning and mitzvot to do the mitzvot as we are commanded, deviating neither to the right nor the left. Failure to do so is not the property of any one faction in the Orthodox world.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi Mike S and welcome.

I think your point is well-made. We should have just as much a problem with Chareidi poskim who suddenly decide that only one halachic opinion is acceptable, for example the whole metzitzah b'peh debacle a few years back. Qualitatively there isnt much difference between that and Rav Lopatin's idea.

But you see, Chareidi leaders generally don't have blogs I can complain on...

Anonymous said...

>But that's not good enough for someone whose Judaism is guided by his secular liberal sensitivities.<

I'm frum and far from being a liberal, yet I find myself wishing more and more that we weren't locked into decisions made over the last few thousand years. And do you have any idea how foolish I feel explaining to someone that we 'sell our chometz' but we can't eat rice, barley, corn, etc. on Pesach?

Dr Mike said...

"Minhag avoseinu b'yadeinu" is a hard one for lots of people to accept but it does teach that sometimes our personal feelings have to be seconded to historical tradition.,

alban said...

I have been unable to buy a GRA
Siddur with his nusach. the
publishers seem to have taken it
upon themselves to censor and
print shello osani is this