JRB: Ending in Self-Absorption - Hillel Halkin on the Koren Sacks Siddur

How to evaluate a new Jewish journal, The Jewish Review of Books? Ask if it is yet another reactionary monthly? (It is quarterly.) Like they say, read it first. So we do, in search of the, "ideal of the thoughtful essay that illuminates as it entertains."

And in it we read first a review of the recent Koren-Sacks Siddur that turns into a rambling essay by Hillel Halkin about prayer and poetry and religion and then lo and behold, into a disconcerting confession of impiety. Not that unorthodoxy detracts from one's ability to write and think critically. More than likely it helps. But what distresses us is the fullness of ego that intrudes into the article. And the ego is so big it gets broadcast in autobiographical detail that was frozen "midway through adolescence" and then projected across to others. And the Siddur and all its poetry, religion and drama drops from sight. Is this what we do in our public performances: take the center stage and then get full of ourselves? Start with praise and end in Self-Absorption?

Perhaps Halkin is on to something after all, picking up his reflections towards the end,
...Nothing, however, can keep one focused on one’s prayers when one loses faith in the God to whom one has been praying. This happened to me midway through adolescence. Although since then I have attended many synagogues services, I have never really been able to pray. A part of me still yearns for the days when I could. It misses the thrill of the leather straps biting into my arm each morning as I said, “I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” It misses the soul-throb of God’s bringing on the evening while the last light goes out in the west, the spheres rolling out darkness over the face of the earth. It misses the devotion of bowing low like a servant leaving the room of his master, “the King of all kings, the Holy One blessed be He,” in the concluding aleinu.

There were times when I prayed mechanically then, too. There were times when I didn’t pray at all. But there were times when I felt like a priest in the Temple, binding my soul to the altar and offering the daily sacrifice at its appointed time and place. It was the intensity of that experience that makes me feel like an imposter when I take part in a synagogue service today. Like anyone skilled at playing a role, I alone know I am playing it. I go through the motions of prayer as proficiently as do the men around me. You don’t forget such things any more than you forget how to swim or ride a bicycle.

And yet I sometimes wonder how many of these men are having an experience more intense than my own. Not a large number, to judge by outward appearances. Most seem to be engaged in what they are doing without overly troubling themselves about it. They take pleasure in being together, as people take pleasure in any group activity—folk dancing, say, or a sing-along. I do not say they have no feeling of uplift. Clearly they do. But it is an uplift that could also be mine if I allowed it to be, which may be why I place no great value on it....
And then we turn the page to another review, wherein the writer confesses to reading the book that he reviews in the synagogue during services and discussing it with his neighbor, and the book is about Christian theology. Menachem Kellner starts off, "Reading Saving God in shul, I was asked by the person sitting next to me what it was about." I am glad he didn't include in the review the part about the chapter he read in the bathroom.

Which brings us to a book that informs us about an issue that blows our mind. Shalom Carmy reviews, Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person by Gilbert Meilaender, in which he points out, "The second theme is expressed by the subtitle—the author’s conviction that the concept of human dignity is essential to ethical reflection. This question arose in part from the author’s work with President Bush’s Council on Bioethics."

And yes thankfully, Professor Carmy does not wax full of himself, does not confess the state of his faith, does not recount the places of his reading activities, and does pay close and critical attention to the book at hand and its arguments. But incredibly he does not comment on the literal elephant in the room of this review, to wit, the irony of "ethical reflection" in "President Bush's Council."

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