Orthodoxy and Innovation – book review and thoughts

One of the most challenging aspects of Judaism is its male centricity.  If one looks at our liturgy, there is a clear male bias.  The challenge we face today is the question of changing the liturgy or keeping the status quo.  R. Dr. Daniel Sperber (hebrew wikipedia) offers his argument in a new book,  On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations (disclaimer, I bought this book and did not receive it to review). 

I will begin by highlighting some of the positives of the book.  As usual with Dr. Sperber, he is well researched and and includes proof texts for his arguments.  He makes a strong case for the notion that liturgy has changed over time, some due to scribal errors and others due to particulars customs and traditions.  His primary argument is that since change has occured throughout history, we should be allowed to make other changes in the text of the liturgy as long as the traditional premises remain.  For some general discussions about how Sperber confronts modernity see: Orthodoxy and Innovation, A Torah expert faults the rabbis and Our Dialogue with G-d: Tradition and Innovation.

With that said, the book was highly troubling to me.  For starters, his arguments, while filled with proof, are very weak.  Some of that has to do with the fact that the writing is poor.  You could clearly tell that this work was written by someone who is not a native English speaker.  The other troubling part if his argument is that he is advocating for liturgical changes for societal reasons.  The problem here is that his proof texts generally relate to changes due to grammatical error or some mystical reason, like the numerology of Hasidei Ashkenaz.  To me, arguing for change because of the sensitivities of women, while admirable, doesn’t seem to fit with how liturgical change occurred. 

 Dr. Sperber, if he wants to make certain changes, doesn’t outright tell you what is offensive.  He makes reference to three potential changes to be made.  The first would be the removal of שלא עשני אשה in the morning blessings.  The second seems to be the inclusion of אלקי שרה… as part of the first blessing of the Amidah.  His third is the removal of a line in Tachanun that relates sin to menstruating women.  However, never does he outright say, this is the change we should make.  To me, if a person is going to go so far as to conclude his/her book with a call for a liturgy sensitive to women, then tell us what that would like.  The problem he faces is that if he were to make the outright claims, his book would probably not have been by Urim publications and he would also have been accused of being a Conservative Rabbi, thus ending the discussion right there. 

Every year, the less traditional movements continue to produce new, innovative siddurim while the Orthodox world, when they do make changes, tend towards adding more material that can become sacred even if the liturgy was not meant to be an absolute requirement.  For example, the new Artscroll Siddur, by including prayers like פרק שירה, will now lead to more people reciting this text without them understanding what it is they are reciting.  It will become part of the standard liturgy.  From that perspective, Dr. Sperber is onto something.  However, as I have already mentioned, to make liturgical changes for sociological reasons can be a very dangerous area to walk down. As far as the book goes, to me it is a good reference work but I am not sure it really accomplishes presenting a strong case for changing prayer to meet Modern orthodox sociological needs.

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