U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Silverman Machzor and the Culture of Mid-Twentieth-Century American Judaism

We are now in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays:  Rosh Hashanah began last Thursday at sundown; Yom Kippur begins this Friday at sundown.*  Since coming to University of Oklahoma in 1998, I have davened on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a traditional minyan that a few OU professors put together for the occasion.**  It’s a bit of a catch-as-catch can affair.  We have access to a spare Torah from Emanuel Synagogue in OKC, which also lets us use a portable ark of theirs.  And the machzorim (High Holiday prayerbooks) that we use are hand-me-downs that were once used by OU Hillel, and which they got (apparently) from a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.  These machzorim are the 1951 edition of what’s usually called the “Silverman Machzor” (after its editor Rabbi Morris Silverman), a prayerbook first published in 1939, which was the official High Holiday prayerbook of Conservative Judaism in this country for the next three decades.***

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a prayerbook assembled in 1939 shows its age, though the 1951 edition has clearly been changed substantially from the original (the Holocaust, yet to occur in 1939, has been added to the Yom Kippur martyrology, for example).  But for just this reason, I find our 1950s prayerbooks a fascinating glimpse into mid-twentieth-century American Judaism.****

Like most machzorim, the Silverman primarily consists of the liturgy itself, in Hebrew on the right and in English translation on the left.  Occasionally editorial commentary is inserted in the form of notes or footnotes. And occasionally passages from the Hebrew are left untranslated.

I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about the choices of what to include and not to include in the liturgy and particular translation choices that lie far beyond my extraordinarily limited Hebrew (and my basically non-existent Aramaic).  But in this post I just want to point to a few things in the Silverman that strike me as interesting and potentially suggestive of larger questions in American Jewish culture.

The first is a long footnote appended to the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 21, which includes the story of the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. When Sarah asks Abraham to send away Hagar, the Silverman Machzor appends a footnote to its English translation of the text:

Judged by present-day moral standards, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael seems an unusually severe act. It must be understood in light of primitive social standards, according to which the child of a concubine enjoyed a lower social status, and had no claim to the same rights and privileges as the son of the wife.

The footnote then goes on to offer some more standard rabbinical understandings of the justice of Ishmael’s banishment.  But there’s obviously some tension between seeing Ishmael’s banishment as just and seeing it as an artifact of “primitive social standards.”

Interestingly, no such concerns are expressed about the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.  While the Silverman Machzor devotes a page-and-a-half to explicating the theological significance of God’s decision to “stay the hand of Abraham” and substitute a ram for his son, there’s no attempt to grapple with the very disturbing quality of God’s initial demand.

The final interesting feature of the Silverman I want to mention involves the Avodah service of Yom Kippur, which recalls the actions performed by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur.*****  At the core of the temple ritual were a series of sacrifices.  The Avodah service carefully describes these, as well as the way that the High Priest would sprinkle the blood before the Holy of Holies.  All of this is preserved in the Hebrew in the Silverman Machzor. But the English translation methodically avoids mentioning any of the sacrificial aspects of the ritual.  And the extensive notes on the Avodah service don’t say anything about the sacrifices, either.

As a congregant, this decision has always bothered me.  The Temple services on Yom Kippur (and other holidays as well) involved copious animal sacrifices. And there’s something basically dishonest about avoiding this fact.  Reform Machzorim often eliminate the Avodah service entirely, which I’ve never liked, but which at least seems a tad more honest than having everyone listen to vivid recitations of slaughter and blood-sprinkling in Hebrew while reading English “translations” that say nothing of them. 

But as an historian, I think these editorial decisions–to apologize for Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment, to simply accept God’s call to sacrifice Isaac, and to avoid and paper over the sacrificial facts of the Temple rituals–suggest really interesting things about the way leading lights of the American Jewish community in the mid-20th-century were thinking about Jewish religion in a modern age.

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* Gamar chatima tova!

** Religiously speaking, I am largely what used to be described disparagingly in Germany as a Drei-Tage-Jude (Three-Day Jew), that is a Jew who is only religious on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…except I celebrate only one day of Rosh Hashanah, which I supposed makes me a Zwei-Tage-Jude.  However, as a good American Jew, I also do Hannukah and Passover.  

***Most of the High Holiday services I went to before coming to OU used the successor to the Silverman, the Harlow Machzor, which was the official Conservative High Holiday prayerbook from the early 1970s until 2009.  Though the Silverman has always looked familiar to me, so I suspect that somewhere along the line I had used it before coming to Oklahoma.

**** I should say, at this point, that the history of American Jewish prayerbooks is very far from my area of scholarly expertise. But my effort to find out more about the history of the Silverman Machzor was a nearly total failure.  JSTOR contains not a single reference to it.  There seems to be something of a literature on the history of American Jewish liturgy, but I don’t know my way around it at all.  So consider this an apology for not knowing this literature…and a bleg if any of the readers of this blog  know of scholarship that addresses the issues I discuss in this post.

***** Most of the rituals of Yom Kippur as described in the Hebrew Bible involved services performed in the Temple which became impossible to do following its destruction.  The Avodah is just a particular example of the more general strategy of Rabbinical Judaism to essentially substitute prayers for the Temple services.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Most interesting. I hate to confess how utterly ignorant I am of modern Jewish worship and practices. With that preface, here goes…

    You wrote: “There’s no attempt to grapple with the very disturbing quality of God’s initial demand” in relation to Isaac.

    Perhaps it is not discussed because, well, there’s nothing to say? I mean, the writers may have taken it as something that is beyond knowing—as a matter of faith, a mystery (meaning, we are ignorant of God’s high ways).

    I’ve noticed in my experience first as a Protestant, and later (i.e. now) as a Catholic, that many preachers and priests pass over what they can’t explain.

    – TL

  2. I’ve long wanted to write something about the history of the siddur (standard prayer book) and the machzor (just for high holidays). Jenna Joselit’s The Wonders of America may provide the best cultural context but there’s no good study of the textual part of modern Jewish material culture, to the best of my knowledge. Maybe one day….

    In any event, you’d probably find the new Conservative Machzor (Lev Shalem) quite fascinating. Last year I used the 2-pages of Kol Nidre (the actual prayer) to teach how to take apart a primary source (that most students couldn’t read Hebrew was helpful). But in general, the commentary is fascinating.

  3. Hi,

    I actually found your blog post while I was searching for an excerpt from Silverman on Google — and I’m glad I did! Your insights are really interesting, and I think you make some really fascinating points about the Silverman Mahzor. It’s actually the mahzor with which I grew up, and I guess I never took much of a look at it from your perspective.

    The synagogue in which I currently serve had the Harlow mahzor for many years and last year we switched over to the Mahzor Lev Shaleim, the new Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly mahzor. You’re right in your assessment that looking at any prayer book gives you an eye into the historical context of those who compiled it, and Lev Shaleim is no different. Having been published just last year, it definitely reflects the modern view of cultural and “secular” Judaism, attempting to draw folks in who don’t often attend shul in a much deeper way than its predecessors. Perhaps you’d find it interesting.

    Anyway, yishar koach, and g’mar chatimah tovah!

    – Hinda Eisen

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