invite you into the heart of Jewish spirituality, to learn about its idiom and imagery, its emotions and its great sweeping dramas. I invite you to meet six ideal personalities of Jewish prayer. And I invite you to get to know some of their respective prayers.
My thesis in this book is simple. Jews pray every day in holy synagogues and in ordinary places throughout the world. When they do so, they engage in sacred rituals and they recite and sing and meditate prayers that derive from six distinct archetypes. I invite you to meet the six personalities: the performer, the mystic, the scribe, the priest, the meditator and the celebrity.
My approach in this book is also simple. I use stories, anecdotes and personal references throughout this volume. But this work is not a personal memoir. My narrative framework in the text will help guide you to discover some deep and personal meanings in the classic Jewish liturgies.
I will tell you about a few of my experiences and several of my outstanding teachers to motivate your interest and humanize what can be difficult and abstract prayers. In the past, a lot of dry theological approaches have been applied to the readings of the liturgy. As a result, in our synagogues, it is common to hear that many are bored with the services or alienated from them.
My point is that liturgy is not dry theology. It is a vibrant enterprise of bright ways of expression, filled with colorful pictures, evoking sentiments and passions and full of exhilaration. To appreciate great prayers, people need to stop, to find their own personal threads of liturgical meanings and to discover all of its energy and excitement.
I invite lay people, educators and academics, Jews and non-Jews to come with me and start this process through my set here of contemporary metaphors and anecdotal narratives which I wrap around my presentations and analyses of the main prayers of Jewish worship.
I invite you to join me in these main steps of my investigations in this book, my quest to discover the beauty and meaning of God’s favorite prayers.
In my opening chapter, I tell you a bit about who I am, with short stories of aspects of my childhood and younger years when I sought spiritual textures and began my search for the perfect shul, the Yiddish word for synagogue. That is when I started exploring both the actual and ideal social networks of the synagogue.
I invite you to join with me as I recall parts of the dramatic arc of my expeditions of discovery that I unfold for you in this book. When I was younger, I mistakenly thought I could find a perfect brick and mortar synagogue. Inevitably that led me both to discovery and to disappointment, followed by growth and a realization that I need to conduct another kind of search.
To open the way for new thinking about the old formalized prayers, I start out to address the prayer book in the chapter that follows and to explain why I find the regular, more common ways of talking about prayer lacking, which is why I do not follow some of the paths of previous explorers and travelers.
In my discussion about the recent prayer book edition of the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, I clarify why theologians don’t always speak straightforwardly about the liturgy. I then discuss how at times the sermons of rabbis in synagogues are diversions away from the spirituality of prayer.
Next I defend my view that reconstructing the history of liturgy is mostly beyond our reach. I speak about prayer as timeless and without visible origins. Finally, in my consideration of one recent popular way to classify prayers, I make clear why that particular previous try to formulate categories for sorting out the liturgy doesn’t edify us that much. All of this initial groundwork shows you why we need a new paradigm of interpretation for the prayer book and for what goes on in the synagogue.
In the next six chapters, I present accounts of my avid spiritual quests for God’s favorite prayers and for an ideal synagogue. These sections of the book unfold for you in my six encounters with exemplary places, people and prayers. That allows me to convey to you what I learned about the six archetypes of Jewish prayer. I call them the six people you meet in synagogue.
In my reports on these people who pray and their prayers, I introduce you to the most important spiritual individuals that I have come to know. You will meet exemplary real people and their respective ideal types and their prayers, the essential components of Jewish spirituality. Here are their appellations and a capsule itinerary of our spiritual quest.
In the introduction to my first account, I introduce a wonderful cantor, Louis Danto, whom I heard when I was young in the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center on Long Island in New York State. I tell you about that summer congregation where I spent the years of my childhood. I invite you there to encounter the archetypal worshipper that I name ‘the performer.’ In that report, we then learn about the central roles that the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, plays in the synagogue. In that context I speak about the Torah readings in the synagogue, the bar and bat mitzvah, and some of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, namely the Musaf (Additional Service) which accompanies the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn.
In the opening of my second account, I introduce Hannah, both as a biblical figure and as my theoretical model of a type of prayer. I discuss the story of Hannah in the Biblical narrative in the book of Samuel. Then I encounter a contemporary Hannah in a small shul in Jerusalem called Har-El. This is where I invite you to meet the archetype of Jewish prayer that I term ‘the mystic.’ In that context, I speak about the Kaddish prayer and other mystical parts of the liturgies. I explain there also, using other examples of Jewish prayers, how the mythic mode of the religious imagination operates in the synagogue.
In the introduction to my third account, I recall one of my beloved teachers, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. I talk about meeting him in another shul in Jerusalem, a few blocks from Har-El, known as the Shtiblach in Old Katamon. There we encounter together another ideal Jew at prayer; this one, I entitle ‘the scribe.’ I examine the personality of that archetype, his values and theologies. I discuss the Shema prayer, that core confession of the Jewish faith, and other scribal elements in the prayer book and in the Passover Seder.
In my fourth report, I introduce a generic priest whom I call Mr. Cohen (cohen in Hebrew is the word for priest). We meet him in an abstract synagogue. This opens up my discussion of the ideal Jewish type that I call ‘the priest.’ I examine the identifiable personality of that archetype, his agenda of values and his overt theologies. I explain the genetics of actual priestly descent and the historical roots of this personality in ancient Israel. In that context, I discuss the Amidah prayer, a solemn centerpiece recitation of each synagogue service.
Then I go on to introduce what I call the avatars of the priest. These are other embodiments and personifications of the archetype in the synagogue liturgy and in ancient, rabbinic and modern contexts. I range through Jewish history and draw illustrations from the dramatic biblical story of Esther to the victory of the Maccabees, from the disputes of the rabbis of the Talmud to the resistance of some Jews to the Nazis in the Holocaust. I conclude that report with a recollection of my father’s formal shul in New York City, Congregation Zichron Ephraim. I recall how he officiated there elegantly in the mode of the priestly archetype.
In the introduction to my fifth report, I present the archetype that I identify as ‘the meditator’ and call Deborah. I use this as an occasion to develop my innovative notions that rabbinic blessings themselves serve as the meditative components of Jewish living both outside and inside the synagogue.
I expand on how blessings serve as constant triggers of mindful meditation. I scrutinize how blessings in general—and the grace after eating in particular—function as exemplary vehicles for meditation and for fostering compassion in Judaic worship. In an imagined debate, I contrast this practice with a form of mindful meditation that is drawn from a Buddhist context.
In the opening to my sixth report, I describe some ad hoc non-synagogue prayer services, a davening that took place on a Tower Air charter jet flight to Israel. There, in 1982, I prayed the morning liturgy in a makeshift minyan at the back of the plane with nine other Jews. I introduce you to one of the real participants in that davening, Rabbi Meir Kahane. He was a radical Jewish activist and politician who years later was tragically murdered. I take you up there on the plane ride also to meet the ideal type that I label ‘the celebrity-monotheist.’ In that context, I discuss the Aleinu, the exit-prayer of every synagogue gathering, and I summarize the triumphal and messianic values of this ideal type. I extend this discussion to consider how some prayers treat the subject of martyrdom within the synagogue services.
At the conclusion of our quest, I gather our six archetype-friends after synagogue services for an imaginary debate of their perspectives on redemption, the messiah and the Messianic Age. Then, to show an example of how the diverse archetypes of the synagogue come together in the drama of the real liturgy, I end with a presentation of the prayers that accompany the shofar blowing at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
I use those real and imagined places of worship, those real and hypothetical people, and those very real Jewish prayers to create recognizable and distinct settings. This allows me to recreate and depict for you the six most vivid variations on the sacred modalities that I discovered in my voyages into Jewish worship and spirituality—the performer, mystic, scribe, priest, meditator and celebrity—the primary friends in the social network of the synagogue and their respective prayers.
If you are a praying Jew, the texts I consider will be familiar to you. If you are new to the Siddur, be assured that I shall present the selections from the liturgies to you as I go forward, along with my explanations, insights and suggestions.
Over years of devotion and contemplation, I have discovered within myself and in my communities of prayer these archetypes of the Siddur and of the synagogue. Through this process of discovery, my religious consciousness has expanded, and ever so slightly I have come closer to God and found value in some of his favorite prayers.
I invite you to come along now as I narrate the high points of my studies and journeys, explaining more about what I mean by “archetypes” and how, one-by-one, you can become acquainted with them, agree with them, argue with them, learn from them and, perhaps, pray with them.
BUY God's Favorite Prayers