Reviews In Brief

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The new issue of Jewish Action (Winter 2011) is now online: link. Here is my column, Reviews in Brief (link), which contains some ideas from past posts but is written differently:

The God-Powered Life: Awakening to Your Divine Purpose
By Rabbi David Aaron
Trumpeter Books
Massachusetts, 2010
192 pages

How do we reach estranged Jews with a Torah message in this post-Oprah world of self-help spirituality? Rabbi David Aaron adopts the language and goals of this genre to teach traditional lessons of Torah observance. The commandments, the Talmud teaches, were given in order to refine us as individuals. Rabbi Aaron takes this to the next level. In his able hands, the Torah, and specifically kabbalah, is a self-help manual that enables its devotees to maximize their personal spirituality. The Ten Sefirot are not just descriptions of God’s interaction with the world, but also ten steps for self-improvement. Judaism consists of instructions for personal healing and achievement. While authentic, this dimension of Judaism focusing solely on individual development is not one that is often emphasized. Indeed, this description of Judaism will be barely recognizable to many readers. However, this bold portrayal of a Judaism of the self may be a form to which a large segment of today’s lost Jewry can relate.

On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations
By Rabbi Daniel Sperber
Urim Publications
Jerusalem, 2010
224 pages

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, rose to fame with the publication of his widely acclaimed and award-winning eight-volume study of Jewish customs, Minhagei Yisrael. One would expect a researcher of customs to defend and preserve them…

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. R’ Gil,

    I thought your review of Rabbi Sperber’s book to be a bit harsh. Why would one expect a researcher of customs to preserve and defend them? I would expect a researcher of customs to be thorough and intellectually honest. Researchers should not have an agenda, be it to preserve and defend or tear down.

    Also, of what relevance was your last sentence?

  2. Agree with James.

    Gil, have you seen R’ Sperber’s דרכה של הלכה? It uses women’s Torah reading as a starting point for a wide ranging discussion of issues of social and halachik change.

  3. I don’t know how much of R. Sperber’s book Gil actually read, but his criticism seems to be focused in a few paragraphs from this 200 page book:

    First: After a lengthy quotation from the Mitnaggedim’s Brody Proclamation of 1772 banning the budding Hasidic movement, R. Sperber writes on pp. 111-113 (sans footnotes and italics):

    But this ban, like subsequent ones, was ineffective. The Hasidim developed Nusah Sefarad on the basis of Nusah ha-Ari,a nd then the various Hasidic courts (hetzerot) adjusted the version in accordance with their own specific ideology, so that almost every Hasidic text has its own siddur with its own version.

    Therefore, when I am asked questions such as “To what extent may we add elements in our prayers?” “What method can be used for incorporating additional prayers?” “Can we add new elements to the existing prayers?” “Can we mention the imahot (foremothers) in addition to the avot (forefathers)?” I see the answer is very simple: It is all completely permissible. Adding completely new prayers where one is not changing matbea shetavu hachamim – because that would amount to a new creation, a new composition – is certainly permitted. Adding words or phrases to an established berachah is less acceptable, according to Maimonides, but if the basic content is not changed, one who recites such a berachah does not have to repeat it in its previous form. Thus, for example, as we have mentioned above, the words ומצפים לישועה, in the sixteenth benediction of the Amidah, was originally a directive to the worshipper that at this junction he should yearn for redemption, and it was printed as such in brackets or smaller type, or in a separate line as a directive. However, later it was mistakenly inserted into the body of the blessing in identical typeface, thus appearing to be an integral part of it. It appears this way in many siddurim, while others have tried to correct this error, as, for example, Tzelota de-Avraham, vol. 1 (298). In this case, neither the basic structure nor the content has been changed, so there is no halachic necessity to correct this error. The question might therefore be more a sociological one than a halachic one. How do new prayers or new additions become accepted? Is it because they were written down by great authorities like Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid, R. Elazar of Worms, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, Rabbi Issac ben Solomon Luria, or the Ben Ish Hai? Surely, “Lecha Dodi,” which we recite on every Friday night in the synagogue is accepted by everybody, and that was a completely new creation!

    Can we nowadays sit down and decide to add to, subtract from, change or formulate new berachot, such as she-asani ishah ve-lo ish (who has made me a woman and not a man) or she-lo asani amah (who has not made me a slave-woman)? Halachically, yes. Sociologically – will it be accepted, and by whom? That is a completely different question that a sociologist, not a halachist, will have to confront. Many of the changes that have come about, or that are coming about, will gradually become accepted in any case without a full awareness of the fact. If you look at modern siddurim such as Artscroll, Rinat Yisrael, or Koren, they incorporate many changes of which most people are not fully aware, but which have become completely accepted mainly because they are in a printed edition. The printed book has become the canon. Even its mistakes have been canonized. See, for example, the brief introduction by Koren in the machzorim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which the published pointed out that he tried to print certain piyyutim in a different format in order to eradicate mistakes, errors that entered into earlier machzorim. The truth is that nevertheless, everyone who chants these piyyutim from the “corrected” machzorim do so in the wrong fashion because they cannot free themselves from what they are used to.

    Second: toward the conclusion of the main body of the book, before appendixes, R. Sperber writes on pp. 128-129:

    It should always be borne in mind that, in any case, there is no standard version of Jewish liturgy. Yemenites pray differently from Ashkenazim, and Halabim (Syrian Jews) differently from Moroccans. Indeed there are siddurim in which variant versions of a specific prayer were printed alongside one another in parallel columns (e.g. Siddur Hanau). Over the past forty years or so, changes and modifications have been made in certain prayers to fit new political situations in the State of Israel. Therefore we should not, and need not, seek unanimity in our liturgy. Let there be another nusah of tefillah, one that will be acceptable within the context of modern-day Orthodox feminist thinking, and which hopefully will gain ever wider legitimacy.

    At the same time, we must exercise great care to retain the traditional elements of our prayer book, to preserve its character and structure, to ensure that any additions, deletions, or alterations do not contradict or conflict with normative halachah and, as far as possible, to preserve the style and spiritual ambience of our traditional prayers. Intense thought and study, together with extreme caution, are required before any emendations may be made, for it is easy to destroy but difficult to build constructively.

  4. I read the entire book, as well as Darkah Shel Halakhah and the English adaptaion On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations.

    Detailed notes on this book are listed here:

  5. Actually R Gil’s review in JA was noticeably milder than the views either expressed here by R Gil or R Frimer.

  6. Yah, well, the problem is that most of those changes were not made consciously. Even the Chassidim thought that they were somehow being more correct. They were certainly not made to advance some extremely recent fashionable agenda.

    And hey, I like authentic Ashkenaz and I *do* say the Piyyutim the way Koren/Goldschmidt lays them out. So there.

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