Book Serialization Part 7: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 7:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...

Imperfect Classifications

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 The New 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 sport.
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.
And 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 of prayers?
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.

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