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
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
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
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
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.