10/18/14

My 2010 Analysis of a Book by Rabbi Barry Freundel, "Why We Pray What We Pray"

Unfortunately the distinguished rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested and charged last week with crimes involving video voyeurism in the mikvah of his synagogue.

Update: Is Freundel working on a new book: "Why we Prey?"

In 2010 I wrote these nice comments and analysis below on a book he published, Why We Pray What We Pray through Urim Publications....

The description from the publisher says:
''Why We Pray What We Pray'' details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer (Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish) has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.
I am most impressed by the wide scope of the author's learning and by his accessible writing style. That desire to reach the reader comes through clearly in the author's chapter titles and in the presentation of their contents.

Chapter 1: It is Not Your Great Grandfather's Keriyat Shema
Chapter 2: Nishmat: The Soul, the Song, Shabbat and the Pope
Chapter 3: Birkat ha-Hodesh -- Can't We All Get Along
Chapter 4: Reaching for the Face of God -- Anim Zemirot, the Song of Glory
Chapter 5: Aleinu -- Climbing the Stairway to Heaven
Chapter 6: Kaddish: The Response that Keeps on Giving

My Talmudic Analysis:

First of all, of course I like being cited in the footnotes. And then I found much to review here of the scholarly work on these prayers that I already knew and more that I did not know. Freundel summarizes the views of the major historians of the liturgy. He also presents the primary textual evidence from rabbinic literature and from mystical treatises along with a line by line translation. This opens up those sources to a wide readership. Freundel is a very good teacher.

I am in debt to Freundel for validating my conclusions regarding three of the prayers. He speaks in one discussion of the Shema of the, "choreography involving both the Jews praying below and the angels praying above (62)." This is just one instance of how Freundel throughout the book recognizes the modalities of the prayers and keeps them separate in his analysis.

I was further indebted to see his citation in the Aleinu chapter confirming that the martyrs of Blois recited the prayer in 1171 at their executions (228). It validates one of my main points about that prayer as I present it in book "God's Favorite Prayers". In fact, with that confirmation in hand I was able to extend and deepen my discussion of the Aleinu adding several pages to a chapter in the book. I was grateful for other points that Freundel confirmed for us as well.

I liked that Freundel underscored repeatedly the mystical character of the Kaddish. I most certainly agree. Others do not see it that clearly. He says, reciting a prayer like this one elevates the reciter to a, "mystical realm where they can respond as the angels do (261)." I don't make such ambitious assumptions about elevations. But I am glad to see a sensitive scholar in the same ballpark with me regarding the central essence of the liturgy.

On this I disagree with the author. He does see, "The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer" (the subtitle of his book) as a core factor in providing meaning and depth to his congregants. My view is that the origins of prayers do not tightly determine their essences or value for present theological purposes. Freundel is not yet on board with that point of view.

There is much of great value here for those who wish to learn the history and development of these liturgies. Embedded in that work of reconstruction is the author's sensitivity to the nuances and meanings of the prayers for the present day worshipper.

I was disappointed to see that the volume lacks indexes. Perhaps this can be remedied in later editions, making the book an even more valuable resource to scholars and laypersons alike.

1 comment:

Rabbi Benyamin Yosef said...

Rabbi Freundel was in charge of the Beth Din in Washington DC and handled Beth Din disputes, conversions, and other matters. Also be cautious of using the Beth Din of America for your GET, conversion or other religious issue. Both Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz have seruv’s against them. Prior judges on this court have had a multitude of problems. Read more about it at thebethdin dot com. Too many Beth Dins and Rabbis are corrupt and dishonest.