o explain what goes on in the synagogue, some people
are satisfied to say that the four basic kinds of prayers are Wow! Oops! Gimme!
and Thanks!, as described in a popular article, “The Right Way to Pray?” by Zev
Chafetz in TheNew York Times Magazine
(Sept. 16, 2009).
Rabbi Marc Gellman
says in that article, “Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation.
Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is
expressing gratitude. That’s the entire Judeo-Christian doxology. That’s what
we teach our kids in religious school.”
I don’t find that
interpretive approach very helpful, I guess, because I’m not a kid in religious
school. Not that it is wrong. There are prayers that fall into those four broad
categories. But it’s not enough to stop there and think we have decoded the
liturgy in any substantial way. I say “thanks” to theories like those that
Gellman provides, “wow” they really make me stop and think, but “oops” I need
you to “gimme” more. What goes on in the synagogue is way more interesting and
way more complex.
How can I get this
point across? Let me try this comparison. The sport of golf is reducible to
these four actions: driving off the tee, long-iron shots from the fairway, the
short game around the green, and putting. But that analysis, though correct,
tells you next to nothing about how to play the game or even how to watch the
Or consider this
comparison. I used to say about opera that I observed the difference between
Italian, German and French operas: that the Italian ones are about love, war
and love; the German are about war, love and war; and the French are about
love, love and love.
Now that attempt at
cleverness even may be true to some small degree. But, other than suggesting a
funny typology, it tells us not much of substance about how to perform or how
to appreciate the drama and emotion of any specific opera.
Gellman’s four types
tell us, at the most basic level, how people imagine that some prayers function
to formulate a message sent from a praying supplicant to a listening deity.
They don’t tell us anything helpful or interesting about any specific prayer,
Jewish or otherwise.
the categorization fails to work dramatically and immediately if you enter an
actual synagogue, look around, and start to try to characterize what is going
on there. If you observe, to start with, the best-known Jewish liturgy, the
Shema prayer, you find that it fits none of those categories. “Hear O, Israel,
the Lord is our God. The Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with
all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might…” That does not conform
to the Gellman typology. Oops! Then, if you look at the Torah readings in the
synagogue, a major habitual activity in the services, well, that is something
else, also not covered by the four-part typology. Oops!
Sure, I do want to
find out in detail how the utterances of praise, petition or thanksgiving work
in Judaism. Where do their words come from? What is the style and personality
behind them? What is on the lists—in the contents of these big, general buckets
And I need to examine
all the rest of what Jews do in the synagogue to see the richness of expression
and action beyond those four special cases of prayer. Those four types do
not—as Gellman asserts—capture “the entire Judeo-Christian doxology.” I don’t
really understand that claim anyway. Indeed, the term “doxology” means only
praise, “A hymn or verse of praise to God.” Am I confused by the Gellman
approach? Yes, because, there is much more for me to do to get an understanding
of the actual contents of Jewish prayers.
To dig into all of
this, I need first to parse with you the sources of Jewish prayers. And we all
can easily see by opening the prayer book, by listening to any service, that
the Bible is the main source of much of what the performer presents in the
synagogue. That is discovery number one in our quest to find the ideal
synagogue—and God’s favorite prayers—as we turn to the next chapter.