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Riverdale rabbi makes two front pages

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It’s been a busy week for Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, spiritual leader of the Riverdale Jewish Center. On Wednesday, the rabbi found himself quoted on the front page of The New York Times after police foiled a plot to bomb his synagogue and another nearby congregation. And in this week’s Jewish Week, Rosenblatt has a glowing review of the new Koren Sacks Siddur, the volume that poses the first challenge to the hegemony of the Artscroll Siddur in American Orthodox synagogues in a generation.

Much has been written about the Zionist elements in the new siddur that render it more ideologically appropriate to the American Modern Orthodox. But Rosenblatt, while duly noting the religious legitimizing of the State of Israel in the siddur, trains his focus elsewhere.

Why is this the moment for a new siddur? Much has changed since the appearance of the Artscroll Siddur. A rabbi named Shlomo Carlebach changed the expectations of the prayer experience from decorous and somber to uplifting and ecstatic as he captivated generations with elemental melodies and stories of miraculous human saintliness, modesty and unselfishness.

There was also the change wrought by the publishers of Artscroll themselves: the appearance of the Schottenstein Talmud, sanctioned by the same sages who had supported the siddur. A quiet revolution ensued. A new throng of students was welcomed into the Holy of Holies; the study of the Babylonian Talmud was now in English. The reality of authentic Talmud Torah taking place in the vernacular reopened the question of prayer. If God could accept the study of His sacred Oral Law in English, perhaps prayer, the Service of the Heart, might fare as well.

Enter the Koren Siddur. Its English component is not merely a resource for consultation. Its lovely poetic prose is a vehicle for worship. Chief Rabbi Sacks is a master of cadence, a student of the English language’s greatest craftsmen. He has the good taste to leave touchstones of the King James Bible untouched. He is also among the few voices of our time who, although thoroughly rooted in Jewish tradition, also understand the spiritual lexicon of English, its evocative words and phrases. One is reminded of Heschel and Wiesel. Rabbi Sacks manages in many passages to create what T.S. Eliot called an “objective correlative” for the original Hebrew texts, an English liturgy that sings in King David’s key instead of clumsily sagging under the weight of technical correctness and emotive impotence.

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