How the “Soloveitchik Prayer Book” Loses Sight of J.B. Soloveitchik’s Perspective on Prayer

July 19, 2017 | Yaakov Jaffe
About the author:

Published in 2011, the Mesorat HaRav Siddur is an English-Hebrew prayer book with commentary excerpted and paraphrased from the writings and lectures of the towering 20th-century thinker Joseph B. Soloveitchik, along with adjustments that align with his sometimes idiosyncratic version of the traditional liturgy. Its appeal stems in part from the desire of Modern Orthodox Jews to have a siddur more reflective of their attitudes and beliefs than more popular editions, which are increasingly seen as having a decidedly ultra-Orthodox bent. Yet, argues Yaakov Jaffe, while the volume admirably conveys many of Soloveitchik’s ideas, his overarching approach to prayer seems to get lost, and may even be at loggerheads with the book’s purpose:

Soloveitchik convey[ed] the feeling of surrender toward God and halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. One offering prayers before God must be . . . constantly unable even to formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be uttered. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. . . .

In contrast, conventional prayer in Modern Orthodox synagogues has embraced the opposite attitude. Creativity, victory, and denominational ideology abound. Parts of the prayer service that fail to resonate are removed to the extent possible, while the parts that do resonate tend to emphasize closeness to the Creator [and therefore] become centerpieces of the service, even if they are the most daring and anthropomorphic. [For instance]: whereas for Soloveitchik the blessings that precede and follow the recitation of the Sh’ma convey the themes of divine authority, the Modern Orthodox Jew sees in them the theme of divine love. . . .

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