The New RCA Siddur: The Rav’s Legacy and Feminist Innovation

Thanks to the generosity of Yehudit Jessica Singer and Koren Publishers, I received a copy of the new Rabbinical Council of America Siddur Avodat Halev (ed. B. Herring, New Milford, CT 2018), hereafter “the Siddur.” The Siddur is clearly the product of years of hard work and first impressions show it to be carefully crafted for its purpose. I have enjoyed davening from it over the past few weeks and have noted that my observations generally cluster into several categories of interest to me and our readers here at Morethodoxy. One is the enduring legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ”ל “The Rav” whose hiddushei Torah and pesakim are found in this siddur by the dozens if not hundreds. The other is how the Siddur, and presumably the RCA as a body, seeks to position itself regarding the role of women and feminism in the Orthodox community now in 2018 and for the coming decades in which this Siddur will see service.

I am a proud grand-student and great-grand-student of the Rav (on several sides) and many of his minhagim and pesakim have shaped my own practice and my own tefila. Nonetheless, the inclusion of so much material from the Rav, who passed away in 1993 and who was at the height of his teaching career from the 40s-80s, is notable. The Siddur provides an explanation in its Editor’s Introduction (p. xxvi):

“[A] place of pride is accorded to a selection of insights into the siddur by Maran HaGaon R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ז”ל, the leader and inspiration par excellence of the Rabbinical Council of America, and through it of the Jewish community at large”

It is true that during much of his career, the Rav was in large part the posek and the thought leader of the RCA, and that even now decades later his close students and grand-students form the core membership of the RCA. However, in a general use siddur (rather than one specifically prepared for the study and adoption of the Rav’s personal practices, cf. Artscroll Machzor Mesoras HaRav and Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur) the Siddur sacrifices clear instructions on occasion in order to include explanations of both what has become widespread practice and the divergent rulings and practices of the Rav. Consider a few illustrative examples:

“Repetition of the Amida. When repeating the Amida the Leader should recite the verse “Hashem sefataiquietly (MB 111:10). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik maintained that it should be recited aloud.” (107)

“On Rosh Hodesh or Hol HaMo’ed, if one omitted Ya’aleh VeYavo … If one already completed the Amida, one must repeat the Amida (OH 422:1) … It should be noted that according to R. Hayyim HaLevi Soloveitchik, if one omitted Ya’aleh VeYavo at Shaharit and is planning on reciting Musaf in the morning hours, one should not repeat the Amida for Shaharit (Nefesh HaRav, p.174)” (125)

“Heiche (sic) Kedusha (“Abbreviated Amida Repetition”) … When the leader begins immediately, the Mishna Berura favors the congregation starting the silent Amida only after reciting Kedusha, while R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik favors starting the Amida together with the Leader.” (261)

“Keriat Shema Al Hamita. There are different traditions as to whether the berakha of HaMapil is recited at the beginning of Keriat Shema al HaMita or at the conclusion (MB 239:1). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik noted that some omit the berakha of HaMapil altogether … (Nefesh HaRav p. 153).” (339)

To those with a robust yeshiva education, and who daven in minyanim with competent gabbaim who give clear instructions, these ambiguous instructions are not terribly detrimental, but they do make the Siddur significantly less-user friendly to those who daven alone, are actively starting new minyanim without established minhagim, and whom do not have experienced gabbaim or rabbinic figures to decide these questions. The choice to include not only the Rav’s Torah but his minhagim as well is an exclusive choice that signals who are this Siddur’s primary intended users.

The second topic of interest is that of “women’s issues” and feminism. Although I assume many of its editors and contributors would deny it, the Siddur is deeply influenced by the critiques that the Orthodox feminist movement has raised over the years. The editorial choices reflect a moderate and careful approach to that feminism, one which I personally find for the most part balanced and reasonable, and at home in the Modern Orthodox community which I call home. However, certain editorial choices made indicate that the editorial team could not reach a consensus decision about how far to go, how much to include, or what to recommend.

The Siddur explicitly endorses women’s participation in tefila and women’s recognition in the synagogue in news ways, going far beyond what was prescribed by the previous RCA Siddur (published by Artscroll), or by Koren’s previous Siddur the Sacks Siddur. This is certainly the most explicitly feminist Orthodox Siddur I have ever used, (I am aware that this is in part due to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.) and is thus well-positioned to serve as the Siddur of choice in a wide-range of Orthodox synagogues and settings for decades to come. Again, consider the following illustrative examples:

Daughters may recite Kaddish, too, in merit of the deceased, though customs vary regarding whether she should recite it in an undertone or out loud and whether she may recite it if she is the only mourner present.” (52)

“Tahanun is omitted on certain days … 2. In the presence of a groom or bride celebrating sheva berakhot” (144)

The Siddur includes the text for a women’s zimmun introducing Birkat Hamazon along with a halakhic note explaining the practice (22), and the prayer for the government has been updated to reflect the future possibility that a woman will be elected president of the United States; though, oddly enough not Vice President (554).

These explicit references to advancing a woman’s active role in the synagogue and in the home beyond what was commonplace in previous generations are still grounded in solid halakhic reasoning (and often with centuries old precedent), but carry a touch of ambivalence. Many of the feminist innovations in the Siddur carry the qualifications “Some” or “Many communities,” showing the editors’ fear that too much unqualified innovation on the feminist front could potentially anger RCA members and their communities.

For me, the most puzzling among the ambivalences of the feminist in in the text of the Mi Sheberakh prayers recited on behalf of those who are ill, who have recently given birth, who are celebrating bar- or bat-mitzva, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, and “Israeli soldiers or civilians … held in captivity” (534-42).

Traditionally these prayers are introduced with the phrase “Mi sheberakh avoteinu Avraham Yitzhak veYaakov …”—invoking God as the one who blessed our patriarchs (cf. Bereshit 12:2-3, 22:17, 24:1, 25:11, 26:3, 26:12, 32:30, 35:9, 48:3). With the exception of Sarah (Bereshit 17:16) none of the other matriarchs of the Jewish nation are explicitly blessed by God in the Torah, although there are references to God blessing the matriarchs in midrashim and other rabbinic sources. The prayer has also often been amended to include references to Moshe, Aharon, David and Shelomo (not all of whom are explicitly blessed by God).

What is interesting about this Siddur is that in prayers for men, the introductory phrase is left unchanged, but in the prayers for women, God is invoked as “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, …” If God did bless the matriarchs, why not invoke that meritorious fact when praying on behalf of both men and women? And if God did not bless the matriarchs, why [falsely!] claim that God did when praying on behalf of women?

Nearby in the Siddur, I was hoping to see a change and was disappointed. In the Mi Sheberakh prayer on behalf of community members who volunteer their time, energy, and money for the sake of upkeep of the synagogue and its services, which is of unknown and relatively late composition and is not mandatory in any sense of the word, the Siddur retains the classic formulation in which women are not members of the synagogue communities themselves, nor do they contribute to their upkeep; they are only the “wives” and “daughters” of the men who comprise the community. In the past decades we have seen that adult women have become full dues-paying and voting members of almost all Orthodox synagogues, and in many cases even serve on boards and as president. In all Orthodox communities, the volunteerism and wide-ranging contributions of righteous women are at the center of the success of countless programs and initiatives. To my mind, it is unconscionable to continue excluding women from “Hakahal hakadosh hazeh.” This is not a reference to those who comprise the minyan. It is a reference to the community and all its institutions and services, in which women across Orthodox are equal partners with men. The change is minor—rather than reading:

… יברך את הקהל הקדוש הזה הם ונשיהם ובניהם ובנותיהם…

we can easily emend the text to read:

…  ירבך את הקהל הקדוש הזה הם ומשפחותיהם…

And the textual problem is solved. There should be little hesitation to such a change. After all—these Mi Sheberakh prayers are of very late origin, are not a mandatory part of tefila, and have been emended many times across editions of the Siddur, including in this most recent version. I hope this suggestion is one which is considered carefully for future publications.

In conclusion, the legacy of Rav Soloveitchik and the influence of feminist innovation within the Orthodox community are both palpably present on dozens of pages of this new Siddur. The allegiance to the teachings of the Rav cement this RCA Siddur in the 20th century to a degree (although the new commentaries and insights are innovative in their own right) and make it somewhat less appealing to novice users, the incorporation of several feminist innovations with the endorsement of prominent poskim brings this Siddur squarely into the 21st century, and I hope opens it up for a wider appeal than just RCA members and their communities.

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