Book reviews

If you like our website, join the conversations at Coffeehouse Torah Talk: A havurah for Jewish learning. We’re are an egalitarian community that loves Torah Lishma – תורה לשמה. We’re a place to talk Torah, Mishnah, Midrash, etc. without politics or fundamentalism.  Think Open Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, the Havurah movement,  DIY Judaism (“The Jewish Catalog”) and the return-to-tradition wing of Reform 🙂


Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays
Avram Israel Reisner, The Rabbinical Assembly & The USCJ, 2002
Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays

This is a revised, improved edition of “Siddur Sim Shalom”, one of the official prayerbooks for Conservative Judaism. It only has weekday prayers (not Sabbath or festivals.) Many of the translations are nearly identical to the original 1985 edition, but there have been a number of changes. This siddur uses gender-sensitive translations of the names of God, and presents a more literal translation of a number of key prayers. It presents the option to use the Imahot (matriarchs) in the Amidah (Shemonah Esrah).
This edition also restores some traditional Ashkenazic prayers that were not in the 1985 version.
Based on reader feedback, and the popularity of the (Orthodox) Artscroll Siddur, this edition incorporates many helpful new features: an easier to follow layout and table of contents; many pages have notes explaining the background and meanings of the prayers; guidelines and instructions on the content, choreography and continuity of the service. There is an increased use of transliteration.

Mahzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Hardcover – 2010
by Senior Editor and Chair Rabbi Edward Feld, Rabbi Leonard Gordon, Rabbi Stuart Kelman , and Rabbi Alan Lettofsky. The Rabbinical Assembly, 2010
Mahzor Lev Shalem

About once a decade a major new edition of the mahzor – the prayerbook for the Jewish high holy days – comes out. Orthodox mahzorim tend to be “complete”, in the sense of having as many prayers from disparate Jewish communities across Europe as possible – as long as only prayers written before 1700 are concerned. They also tend to ignore half of the Jewish community (women!), the emergence of the State of Israel, or allow for much in the way of new liturgy in the past couple of centuries (despite the fact that the traditional, historical Jewish practice was to constantly add new prayers, and occasionally remove older ones.)

In the early 1970s Rabbi Jules Harlow, of the Rabbinical Assembly, edited the now common “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Freeing itself from Orthodox constraints, it removed many old prayers that were felt to be outdated (which has its advantages and disadvantages) and allowed for the addition of newer material. There was little commentary or instruction; instead, the editors focused on the translation, feeling in most places it would be sufficient. It has somewhat fewer poems than other traditional and conservative machzorim. The translations are more poetic and less literal.

However, the Rabbinical Assembly in 2010 published a totally new replacement “Mahzor Lev Shalem.” This new Mahzor presents a complete liturgy, restoring many traditional prayers that had not been included in the Silverman or Harlow editions of the mahzor, yet it also offers options to use the creative liturgical developments presenting the theology and gender-equality of non-Orthodox Judaism. It contains a variety of commentaries from classical and modern-day rabbis, gender-sensitive translations, and choreography instructions (when to sit, stand, bow, etc.)

It offers more literal translations of the prayers than previous non-Orthodox mahzorim. English transliterations are offered for all prayers and lines recited aloud by the congregation. The page layout surrounds prayers with a variety of English commentaries and readings, as one finds in classical rabbinic commentaries.

In a first, this book was designed to be used by Conservative, non-denominational and Traditional-Egalitarian synagogues and chavurot. By leaving out certain texts and choosing other included options, it also can be used in Modern Orthodox or Reform congregations.

Truly a masterpiece, I hope this finds a place in the pews of synagogues of all denominations.

Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, Ed. Rachel Anne Rabbinowicz, USCJ Book Service, 1982

The Feast of Freedom Passover

This is an official (not “the” official) haggadah of Conservative Judaism. Why the distinction? There never has been any one, authoritative version of the haggadah for any movement. For those who are into Jewish books, it’s interesting to note that the original version of this haggadah was edited by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author of the famed “The Jewish Catalog”. After publishing this work for all members of the Rabbinical Assembly for discussion, Rachel Anne Rabinowicz came on board next as editor of the project. She brought the work to its final form. This haggadah follows the traditional Hebrew text, with an accurate, modern English translation. Along the way, as with haggadahs in the past, some sections were dropped (especially the ones felt to be obscure) and replaced with other rabbinic texts, as well modern writings. The editors took care to link the Exodus to events in our own day, including the Holocaust, the persecution of Jews in foreign nations, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Through a judicious choice of texts, the role of women and men in Jewish history, and the seder itself, is made clear. The center of every page has a Hebrew text and English translation. A terrific feature is that this is surrounded by an English commentary, elaborating and elucidating the text, without disrupting the flow of the service. Clear instructions and explanations take the reader through all of the Seder.

Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary Imitation Leather – August 1, 200 by David L. Lieber (Editor) Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly have created a new Torah commentary for the 21st century. They signed an agreement with the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) to use the five volume JPS Torah Commentary to serve as its basis. Etz Hayim features:

* the complete Hebrew text of the Torah, and the complete JPS English translation, using the latest revisions.

* The readings are arranged for aliyot, and annual readings, as well as the CJLS approved triennial cycle readings.

* There are two levels of commentary; one level presents the p’shat of the text, while the second presents a d’rash.

* The p’shat commentary is a summary of the JPS five volume Torah commentary, edited by Chaim Potok.

The JPS five volume Torah commentary is based on
*the meforshim, traditional rabbinic commentators
*the Mishna and Talmud
*The midrash literature
*Modern day literary analysis, comparative Semitics and linguistic analysis
*intertextual commentary relating each book to other biblical books
*evidence from modern archaeological discoveries.
The d’rash commentary is an original work edited many rabbis including Rabbi Harold Kushner, Shoshana Gutoff, Reuven Hammer, Jack Riemer, Ben Scolnic and David Wolpe. In the 1994 “Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly” Rabbis Harold Kushner and David Lieber wrote an article, “The Projected Humash Commentary” They wrote there that the goals of this Torah commentary are:
* To separate academic truth from spiritual truth, while identifying both as equally true.
* To define the Shabbat morning service as a confrontation with the Torah portion as a source of ethical readings.
* The commentary will not only share homiletic insights; it will try to respond to questions that a modern thinking man or woman will ask of the Torah reading.
* To identify the teachings of contemporary rabbis as Torah, as much as the words of the Tannaim or the Hasidic masters are.
* It will seek to convey the notion that Torah is a living organism, and the Oral Torah, like the Written one, is a product of our people’s desire to understand God’s purpose and will.

It has an original commentary on the hastarot by Professor Michael Fishbane. Etz Hayim has been designed to differ from the official Torah commentary of Reform Judaism, which was edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut and his UAHC colleagues. Kusher states: “Many of us are familiar with the UAHC Torah commentary….It too has significant merits. But first, as a friend of mine put it, we should be suspicious of any Torah commentary where the commentary is in larger print than the words of the Torah. Secondly, it is not set up for synagogue use! You can now get it opening from right to left, but it is still not arranged by parshiyot, let alone aliyot. But my main problem with the Plaut commentary is that it suffers from what I sometimes think of as The Original Sin of the Reform movement – the inclination to judge the Torah rather than to open oneself up to be instructed by it.”

Rabbi David Lieber comments on how Etz Hayim will be more traditional than that of the Reform movement. “As a commentary expressly intended for the Conservative movement, it should offer some halakhic interpretations explicating the Biblical base for the later rabbinic discussions.In this, it will of course differ from the commentary edited by Gunther Plaut.Beyond that, it will present a much more sympathetic understanding of the {sacrificial} cult and its institutions.”

The halakhic materials are written by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, a member of the RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and Dr. Judith Hauptman, Professor of Talmud at JTS. Dr. Adele Berlin, an authority on biblical poetics, compose some 25 new literary introductions to the larger units of the text.

The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation Hardcover – August 1, 2006
by David E. S. Stein (Editor), Carol L. Meyers (Editor)
JPS The Contemporary Torah Gender Sensitive

This is a “gender-sensitive” version of the standard Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh. Normally I tune out whenever someone rewrites segments of the Torah or Siddur to be “gender sensitive” or “gender neutral”. When I have seen such approaches in liberal Jewish writings, I’ve often found rewriting of the Bible itself in order to serve current modern-day political correctness (which is short sighted, since the politically correct positions of today may not resonate with readers in the next few generations!)

However, once I read the introduction of this new work, I was heartened to find a responsible, academic approach to the issue. Instead of retranslating the Bible for promoting current social and political purposes, the emphasis here is on the peshat, translating the text as it was meant to be understood by the original audience. This is done in a way that the translator hopes will remove unconscious or misleading gender errors. In the introduction to this volume David Stein notes that the current JPS Torah and Tanakh (New JPS, or NJPS) already engaged, to some extent, in gender-accuracy and sensitivity. Stein writes:

“Where the Torah’s language suggested a neutral sense, NJPS avoided misleadingly ascribing gender, not only by rendering inclusively some “male” nouns, but also by rendering masculine inflections and pronouns idiomatically rather than literally. Thus, for example, what kjv had rendered as “thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause” appears in NJPS as “you shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes” (Exod. 23:6). In short, NJPS inadvertently led the way among contemporary translations in “gender-sensitive” rendering. Limitations of NJPS Despite its overall strengths, the gender ascriptions in NJPS can still be called into question on a number of counts….

Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History Hardcover – January 15, 1993
by Ismar Elbogen (Author), Raymond P. Scheindlin (Translator)
Jewish liturgy

This is not a book for beginners. If you want an introduction to Jewish prayer, see “Entering Jewish Prayer” (Reuven Hammer) or “To Pray As a Jew” (Hayim Halevy Donin).

This book is the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written. Originally published in German in 1913, and subsequently updated in a number of Hebrew editions, the latest edition now has been translated into English by Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin. It covers the entire range of Jewish liturgical development, beginning with the early cornerstones of the siddur; through the evolution of the medieval piyyut tradition; to modern prayerbook reform in Germany and the United States.

The only problem is that it doesn’t deal with the liturgy of Conservative Judaism, except in a few minor references. To learn more about that, one should consult the introduction to “Siddur Sim Shalom”, edited by Jules Harlow, and the introduction to “Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and fFstivals”, edited by Leonard Cahan, and the section on Liturgy in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Thank You, God! A Jewish Child’s Book of Prayers (English and Hebrew Edition) Paperback – October, 2003
by Judyth Groner (Author), Madeline Wikler (Author), Shelly O. Haas (Illustrator)
Jewish child's book of prayers
Ages 3-7. Haas’ finely worked watercolors evince a sense of serenity, as though echoing one of prayer’s purposes. The morning sun highlights the silhouettes of two awakening children; parents’ heads bend in a sheltering posture over the children with whom they are welcoming Shabbat; the havdalah candle’s broad flame reflects from the faces of youngsters transfixed by its flare. Children catching fireflies and decorating a succah are among the other tenderly painted images that frame the blessings and prayers, which are printed in Hebrew block letters, with a Roman alphabet transliteration and an English translation below. In addition, brief, explanatory notes often place the prayers within a relevant context for youngsters. This thoughtfully prepared book not only teaches the blessings that herald the holidays and that welcome and close each day and each meal, but also includes parts of the Mi Sheberach and the Kaddish, prayers to turn to as needed when a loved one is ill or has died or when praying for peace. There is surprisingly little duplication between this and Edwards’ Blessed Are You: Traditional Everyday Hebrew Prayers. Ellen Mandel

“The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer” Macy Nulman, Jason Aronson Inc.,1993, 429 pages.
Macy Nulman Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer
Provides in one volume information on each and every prayer recited in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.

The publisher writes: Fifteen years in the making, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer is a monumental achievement. Never before has such a comprehensive resource been available to those searching for answers to questions on Jewish prayer. Macy Nulman has provided, in one unique, accessible volume, information on each and every prayer recited in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions, creating an invaluable tool for study or quick reference. Arranged alphabetically by prayer, the encyclopedia entries include extensive liturgical information on the prayers, their composers and development, the laws and customs surrounding them, and their place in the service. All prayers, including not only prayers recited in the synagogue, but also the Grace After Meals and the prayers to be said before going to bed, prayers for special occasions such as weddings and circumcisions, prayers for the funeral ritual and for private devotion, are featured. The entries make extensive use of cross-referencing and bibliographical information to facilitate further study. In addition, the author discusses the many poetic insertions, known as piyyutim, recited on special Sabbaths, Holy Days, and festivals… it contains several indexes: two title indexes – one in Hebrew and one in transliteration – as well as an index of biblical verses and a name index.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s