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Orthodoxy and Innovation

For many religiously observant Jews, the traditional siddur, or prayer book, constitutes a problem. One such Jew was the great hasidic rebbe, Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810), who articulated the problem in terms appropriate to his time: the fixed prayers, with their praises and petitions, are like a well-traveled highway, and well-traveled highways attract robbers. By which he meant that excessive routine makes it difficult to concentrate the mind.

Relevant Links
Tradition and Innovation  Daniel Sperber, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. A revolution has already occurred in women’s Torah study; the next frontier is the prayer service. (PDF) 
A Torah Expert vs. the Rabbis  Yair Sheleg, Haaretz. Once upon a time, says Daniel Sperber, Jewish religious law was user-friendly; it should become so again. 
Orthodox Women Rabbis?  Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Forward. Within certain limitations, there is no reason, according to Daniel Sperber, why women ought not be able to work in congregational settings.  

Things haven't changed in the intervening centuries. In fact, they've gotten worse as the traditional siddur has grown in size and the highway has been extended. It's a rare soul who actually reads the two millennia's worth of accumulated prayers that, for example, are supposed to be recited each weekday morning. Today, the traditional prayer service resembles,  paradoxically, the spirit of contemporary life: it leaves no time to reflect.

But if the prayer book presents a problem, the ease with which traditional forms have been destroyed in the modern period presents another problem, and arguably the greater one. The traditional text is, after all, a reservoir of elevated thought and sentiment—potential energy waiting to be harnessed—while no serious person believes that simply dismantling the tradition will serve to revive the hearts of the Jewish masses. 

The tension between the need to breathe new life into Jewish prayer and the danger of recklessly undermining traditional forms lies at the heart of a new book, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations. Its author, Daniel Sperber, is a scholar and an Orthodox communal rabbi in Jerusalem who has outspokenly advocated expanding the role of women in synagogue worship; his specific intention in On Changes in Jewish Liturgy is to demonstrate that the classical Jewish tradition leaves room for new modes of prayer, including by altering time-honored formulas that many Orthodox women consider to be offensive. That said, however, he is also aware of the dangers involved in innovation for the sake of innovation, "for it is easy to destroy but difficult to build constructively."

Why do traditionalist circles resist modifications to existing prayers or the addition of new prayers? Because, Sperber explains, certain talmudic texts seem to suggest that it is forbidden to change the standard liturgy, "the coin our sages minted." But, he claims, these texts have been misunderstood. The issue is complex, but Sperber's bottom line is that the rabbinic authorities intended to establish an unchanging framework for the mandatory and fixed prayers, not precise or immutable formulations. To the contrary, within the fixed framework, the sages wanted the heart of prayer to remain free and flexible. Illustrating his point, Sperber adduces much evidence to show how "[i]n all periods, additions, changes, alterations, and updatings were made" to the prayers.

An obvious objection to Sperber's claims lies in the rabbinic sources that do explicitly prohibit changing the liturgy. Sperber is of course aware of these sources, but he traces their position to a super-conservative attitude that first appeared among the classical scholars of Babylon. As against them, he appeals to their contemporaries in the land of Israel, who "allowed and practiced greater flexibility." In this sense, Sperber's position is restorative, an effort to revive the freer spirit of the Judaism of the land of Israel.

Toward the end of his book, Sperber lays out the two ways in which liturgical changes have occurred in history: either a great authority has introduced the change or a community as a whole has moved in a certain direction, leaving rabbis no choice but to give their blessing after the fact. This brings us to our current situation. Expecting little from today's religious leadership, Sperber hopes that change will come from the bottom up—so long as "numerous congregations are willing to be creative."

What sorts of changes might eventuate? When it comes to incorporating feminist sensibilities, some are already happening. To cite one well-known example: at a number of Orthodox synagogues, including one in Jerusalem, women are being called to the Torah and, for parts of the service, leading the prayers. But it's no coincidence that this is the only realm in which significant adjustments are taking place. Equality is the dominant value in modern society, and it has proved to be a potent weapon for those advocating equal roles for men and women.

But what about other sorts of change, for instance when it comes to the length and routinization of prayer? Here what is needed are rugged individualists ready to speak their minds even if doing so means giving offense; but in a world increasingly obsessed with tolerance and the virtue of not giving offense, few such types are likely to appear. As for the ultra-Orthodox, tolerance is admittedly not a supreme virtue with them; but neither is innovation.

What, then, remains for those dissatisfied with the present state of the traditional liturgy but hesitant to say anything lest they undermine larger traditional understandings? Rabbi Nahman, for one, cultivated an innovative solution that he was also careful to attribute to a number of biblical heroes: he found a secluded spot where he could pour out his heart to God, alone. 

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Geoff on September 13, 2010 at 10:08 am (Reply)
First Dennis Prager, now Daniel Sperber suggesting the liturgy needs to be reformed! As if I haven't already seen whole pyuttim skipped over in Dati shuls in America and Israel. Welcome to the 19th Century, gents. Again, the truth oft denied is revealed. Every religious Jew is a Reform Jew. We all change, we all want change, its just that only some of us can be honest with ourselves about it.
Jeff on September 13, 2010 at 11:41 am (Reply)
HI Geoff, with all due respect, wanting change does not make one a Reform Jew. Allowing any and every change that every Jew wants with no concern for tradition, Torah or, dare I say it, halachah, makes a Reform Jew. No one's talking about gutting the prayer book as has been done in so many cases. We can still be halachic Torah Jews and make change, if the changes we make are within halachah. Please refrain from projecting your own identity on the millions of Jews who are not like you.
Geoff on September 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm (Reply)
Excellent closing advice, Jeff, now carry that message to the Chief Rabbinate and see how it is received. I only point out that people deceive themselves about what they claim vs. what they do, it is the Orthodox who actively strive to impose their halakhic identity upon unwilling millions with real-life misery ensuing.
Moshe on September 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm (Reply)
One fascinating innovation in nusach tefillah is Machon Shilo's Rabbi David Bar-Hayim who has revived the ancient nusach tefillah of Eretz Yisrael, which is based upon the Jerusalaem Talmud. Machon Shilo has a minyan in Jerusalem. The nusach is briefer than other nusachim and very beautiful.

Rabbi Bar-Hayim's initiative is part of his approach which holds that practicing Judaism as an "Ashkenazi" or "Sefardi" is no longer relevant in an age where Jews have reconstituted themselves as a a nation living in Israel.
Hineni on September 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm (Reply)
Geoff is of course more on target than Jeff. If you simplistically look at halachah as meaning law, you are mistranslating a word that has walking, or forward motion, at its root. Judaism changes, and always has -- the only difference is the speed of change.

While we can never know, I theorize that the speed of change introduced by Reform was directly responsible for putting the brakes on the speed of change of so-called halachic Torah Jews.

The pressure to modify liturgy and liturgical practice, especially vis a vis the role of women, is just one symptom of the real tension -- do we participate in the world around us, or do we isolate ourselves from it. Jeff, you would do well to refrain from projecting his misinformed view of Reform on the millions of Jews who are not like you.
Moishgil on September 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm (Reply)
Can we please remember that the word "observant" is not the same as Orthodox and Orthodox Jews do not "own" the rights to being "observant Jews." There are plenty of people affiliated with Orthodox synagogues who are not observant, and there are plenty of serious, committed practicing Jews who do not identify as Orthodox. I am a religiously observant Conservative Jew who is generally quite pleased with siddurim and machzorim my denomination has published over the years. (The new machzor, Lev Shalem is being well received). This is a very interesting article about resistance to change in one denomination of Judaism. But its opening sentence is misleading.
Yisrael Medad on September 14, 2010 at 5:43 am (Reply)
By the way, that phrase, "well-traveled highways attract robbers", is used by the Baal Shem Tov to permit a very fast recitation of the prayers, just like a traveler who quickly runs through a forest so as to avoid any robbers (= interfering thoughts).

Another metaphor the Besht uses is of one who is drowning and who throws his hands, arms and body all about to be saved. So, too, a soul of the one who prays and therefore one should not mock someone who is hyper-active in his devotions for he is trying to save his soul.
Jeff on September 14, 2010 at 2:55 pm (Reply)
HI Geoff and Hineni -- I'm a little confused... what does this have to do with the Chief Rabbinate? And what's more on-point about saying all Jews are Reform than saying all Jews are not Reform?
Yisrael and Moshe, thanks for your additions. I'm going to go look up R. Bar-Hayim right now.
Maria Bonde on September 14, 2010 at 9:40 pm (Reply)
Halacha needs to be replaced with "guidelines" for values and "suggestions" for behavior. All "holy books" were written by fallible human beings. Stop pretending there's a Big Invisible Man up in the sky watching us and requiring specific actions.
Michael on September 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm (Reply)
Hineni: "Judaism changes, and always has -- the only difference is the speed of change."

No. The differences are what motivates the change, how one reads and respects tradition, how much accord one gives to the sages of prior generations and whether one follows the guidelines for change and innovation in the context of observing halacha as a system of required, rather than optional, behavior.

For example, Rabbi Sperber discusses adding the matriarchs to the first paragraph of the Amida that refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Rather than ask why Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are missing, one should first ask why the patriarchs are there in the first place. R Sperber (along with conservative and reform thinkers, and some orthodox feminists) seem to view this as part of patriarchy and their modern egalitarian values motivate and justify their proposed change. Rabbi Soloveichik however saw the reference as a matter of permission: it is an act of chutzpa for a human to seek a dialog with God and were it not for the precedent of patriarchs (who established the morning, afternoon and evening prayers by tradition) we would have no authority in halacha to do so. There is no comparable connection to matriarchs (though Chana might make sense, since her prayer is the model for the Amidah). Rabbi Soloveichik himself made changes to the Amidah, but generally only to correct and clarify problematic texts or restore original meaning.

These are radically different approaches and it is not just a matter of the speed of change.
Hineni on September 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm (Reply)
I appreciate and admire Michael's erudite contribution to this conversation, and still maintain my original point. The halachic process is slow and sometimes cumbersome, but when the rabbis want to make a change, they find an argument from within the system to justify it. Changing what has been required behavior carries an implication that we were wrong before, so saving face becomes just another motive for slowing down. Change is inevitable, speed is adjustable.
Julian Tepper on September 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm (Reply)
Some questions that have occurred to me:

1. Do Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism comprise the same religion, distinct sections of the same religion or different religions?

2. Do Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism regard each other as Judaism?

3. Is it to be preferred that Jews who think the same about how the religion they regard as Judaism is to be observed group together and express no propriety judgment regarding the forms of observance chosen by others?

4. In terms of trend lines, what are the prospects for the growth or continued existence of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism?

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Larry Kaufman on September 16, 2010 at 7:15 pm (Reply)
From the perspective of Reform Judaism, and I think Conservative Judaism would agree, all three of these are branches of the same tree; and you can find people in the Orthodox community who also regard the other streams as part of Judaism, although possibly as errant parts. Note that the argument is not wholly about what is Judaism, but about who is a Jew, bloodlines counting more than practice or ideology.

The implication of your third question is that, if we are one, as the slogan has it, we should not seek to delegitimatize one another, to which I, as a Reform Jew, say Amen.

Regarding the future -- the best we can do is put a mirror to the past, and see what we can learn from it.
Orthodox Judaism has grown in recent decades more than most observers would have predicted, but is still vastly outnumbered both by secular Jews and by Jews of the more liberal streams. Conservative Judaism has had some shrinkage, while Reform has stabilized as the largest stream after several years of significant growth. While the institutional frameworks of the movements may change with time, my prediction (I can't call it a trend line, per your question) is that Orthodoxy will persist as a fragmented and somewhat inchoate but strong minority niche, the secular niche will diminish as its participants either drop out of Jewish identification or identify with one of the religious streams, and some amalgam of today's non-Orthodox contingents will continue to comprise the largest sector of the North American Jewish community.

This, of course, is just the opinion of one uncredentialed layman.
Julian Tepper on September 16, 2010 at 8:16 pm (Reply)
To LK:

Thanks to the credentialed neologist for that info.

rbk on September 18, 2010 at 9:30 pm (Reply)

I think your criticism is not deserved. The Conservative movement also has struggled with the traditional siddur. They sometimes come to different conclusions than their Orthodox brethren, but the struggle is remarkably similar. The fact that new siddurim and machzorim are being published is emblematic of this.
Ilene on September 21, 2010 at 10:20 am (Reply)
I identified a lot with the frustration of traveling down the same "highway" over and over. I wrote about it in my latest blogpost:
TrannorpDof on February 27, 2011 at 3:49 pm (Reply)
спасибо большое было очень интересно читать
Bear Stearns Co on August 4, 2011 at 7:04 pm (Reply)
Good article. Very well written
Yisrael Medad on August 5, 2011 at 2:13 am (Reply)
BTW, that new siddur will be coming out at least in another 6 months. I spoke last week to the editor. He uses proofsheet copies for his davening.
Julian Tepper on August 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm (Reply)
Following up on LK's response:

Is there a criterion or a set of criteria that all who think of themselves as Jews can agree on regarding what it is that comprises (a) a Jew; and (b) Judaism?

And, as to either of these, if there is no such criterion or are no such criteria, then, as the case may be, does that mean that Jews and Judaism exist only in a most relativistic construct?

Also, is there a defined minimum of required behavior that one must live by in order to be considered as living a Jewish life?

And I am curious about this: Can one who regularly eschews kindness in favor of self-important posturing be considered a good Jew?

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD
RosaBridges27 on September 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm (Reply)
It is great that people are able to receive the loans. This opens completely new possibilities.
Issuerurf on September 24, 2011 at 11:26 pm (Reply)
The aim of life is to live a divine life. We are living in this world. We know that man does not live by bread alone. He needs the soul in order to live in the world of God's Reality. The soul alone has the capacity to see and feel the known and the Unknown, the existent and the non-existent, the dream of the past, the achievement of the present, and the hope of the future.
Yael Shahar on September 25, 2011 at 11:54 am (Reply)
Regarding the question of how Judaism, with all its variations, will evolve in the future, we might draw some analogies from biological evolution. While it is an oversimplification, one can model a people as a living species that persists over time. To continue to exist, the species must adapt to changes in its environment. The changes can be physical ones, as when Jewish communities evolved their own political structures in order to exist within the bodies of other nations during the exile. They can also be mental ones--processes of learning--as when Jewish communities learn to redefine their national mission in order to maintain cohesion in the face of adversity.

In this analogy, we can view halakhah as the "genetic code" of the Jewish people as a people. In order for its host to survive, the code has to adapt. There will be mutations--sporadic changes spurred by local conditions. There will be more structured, intentional changes wrought by individual communities. There will also be adaptations spurred by massive upheavals and changes in the environment--for example, the choice offered the Jews in Western Europe at the time of their emancipation. They could gain citizenship only on the condition that they give up Judaism as a nationality with its own civil laws. This caused a radical shift in Jewish identity, since those who chose this option had to redefine their Judaism as a religion, a matter of creed and belief, on a par with Christianity and Islam. In Sephardic countries, this change did not happen; and Judaism continued to include elements of civil law, economic law, agricultural law, etc., alongside what we like to call "religious" law.

What determines whether a given mutation will survive--whether there will still be Jews around in a hundred years who practice the new way of doing things or the new self-identification? Obviously, if a mutation causes Jews not to have children, or to marry out in numbers insufficient for replacement (usually given as 2.4 children per couple), that mutation will prove a dead end. It seems to me that if a mutation results in Jews' taking themselves completely outside Jewish civil law (halakhah in the broader sense), that mutation may also be too extreme to survive.

If we look at the past, as Larry has suggested, then we can discern a subtle thread running through Jewish history. The mutations in halakhah that caught on and became part of the genetic code of future generations tended to be changes that not only helped their adopters survive and encouraged them to have children but also included a mechanism for transmission. It isn't enough for a change to be useful for a single generation; it also has to have be self-reinforcing. It must lend itself to self-replication in the next generation. Halakhah as a whole is a wonderfully adaptive structure, with many little "loopholes" for change built into it. Whether the lawmakers of any generation are willing to use those loopholes has more to do with the level of perceived threat to the structure or to their own authority than to any rigidity in the halakhah. But halakhah also has a built-in retransmission mechanism, what Max Kadushin called "value concepts." These concepts are effective at retransmission because, inter alia, they lead to self-reinforcing actions in the real world.

It seems to me that a Jewish community that takes itself outside the halakhic loop altogether divests itself of this intricate genetic code. No community can maintain coherence as a community separate from its surroundings unless it has some such genetic code, which is also separate from its surroundings. If halakhah is no longer taken as the community's genetic code, something else will have to be put in its place. Whether such a community is still Jewish may not be the applicable question. The question is whether it will still be recognizably Jewish in 500 years.
Miriam Bonde on September 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm (Reply)
Halacha is nothing but man-made rules. Some of the rulemakers had divine motiviation, but many were out to control other people. Sometimes that was, and still is, necessary. Looking at the immorality in this world, and as portrayed in movies and TV, we can see the need for guidance. But too many religious leaders are stuck in the past and absurd trivialities. Halacha worship is just another form of idolatry. The real reason authorities don't want to change liturgy is because it's a bunch of magical words and rituals to take the place of Temple sacrificial services until such time as all that antiquated nonsense is restored. Get over it already! All of us ought to be finding our own unique relationships with HaShem.
Julian Tepper on September 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm (Reply)
"All of us ought to be finding our own unique relationships with HaShem," suggests Miriam Bonde, a statement that may not shake or stir but is nonetheless not without complexity.

For example, is it that we have, Bo-Peep-like, lost our own previous unique relationships with Him (Her?) and now must figure out how to find them? If so, do we know where to look? How do we know that each of us had a unique relationship of that sort? What about those of us who did not lose it? What ought we to be doing? What about persons who keep it located in what Bonde (Miriam Bonde) calls "past and absurd trivialities"? (By the way, is her reference to our Lord God as HaShem--The Name--one of those trivialities?)

Is it, perhaps, that what Miriam Bonde had in mind was not "finding" but "discovering" our own unique relationship? But, if so, on what does she rely for her assumptive assertion that each of us has a unique relationship with God? Maybe our relationship with Him is that we are Jewish, members of a tribe, and that each Jew's relationship with our Creator is well described in our Bible.

All of this brings me back to questions I raised earlier:

1. Do Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism comprise the same religion, distinct sections of the same religion, or different religions?

2. Do Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism regard each other as Judaism?

3. Is it to be preferred that Jews who think the same way about how the religion they regard as Judaism is to be observed group together and express no judgment about the propriety of the forms of observance chosen by others?

4. In terms of trend lines, what are the prospects for the growth or continued existence of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism?

5. Is there a criterion or a set of criteria on which all who think of themselves as Jews can agree regarding what it is that comprises (a) a Jew and (b) Judaism?

6. As to either of these, if there is no such criterion or set of criteria, then, do Jews and Judaism exist only in a relativistic construct?

7. Is there a defined minimum of required behavior in which one must engage in order to be considered as living a Jewish life?

8. Can one who regularly eschews kindness in favor of self-important posturing be considered a good Jew?

I'd love to see some instructive answers to these questions.

With gratitude,

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD
Miriam Bonde on September 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm (Reply)
The comments of Julian Tepper following my posting give much to think about, and I will be doing so. But for now, I express my compliments and gratitude for a response that truly reveals a person who is a "gentleman and a scholar." L'Shana Tova Tikatevu....
YY on May 15, 2012 at 10:33 pm (Reply)
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (also Breslev) had specific helpful advice about how to concentrate on prayers despite the "well-traveled highway" issue. Some of these teachings can be read here:

Also, Rebbe Nachman wrote a considerable amount of specific advice about hitbodedut (aka hisbodedus), translated as meditation or seclusion. He thought it was of utmost importance for every person to spend significant time daily, ideally at least an hour, in solitary personal prayer in one's own words.

Much contemporary literature has been written on this amazingly effective and vibrant spiritual path with Judaism (for example, see the wonderful books of Rav Shalom Arush.)

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