Ten years later I still agree. Here is what is wrong with our Jewish prayer book commentaries

After reading in a June 2009 morning at KJ some initial and random comments in the new Koren-Sacks Siddur, I was reminded of what in the past I have found lacking in prayerbook commentaries.

They are not complicated enough.

They portray our services as if they are beautifully woven together and, in the case of the longer services, as if they unfold in a gentle rising crescendo of drama from initial inspiring prayers, through more meaningful and expressive liturgies to our culminating praises and petitions.

When you read our most popular prayer book commentaries, you think the correct background music for our prayers would be say something soothing and nearly seamless, like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

I have logged many davening hours and I never saw the Orthodox Jewish services projecting this sort of connected and calm mood.

No I've always thought the services were at best symphonies with abruptly varying movements, often characterized by stark contrasts and even at times by cacophony.

Our Siddur is in fact a complex composite document that evolved over many centuries. Many hands had a role in expressing the values and beliefs that our collective prayers represent. By its own definition, such a work should not be a smooth fabric.

A few times I have attempted to say just this in the modes of expression that characterized our scholarly writings. For instance in a paper I wrote, "The Politics of Piety: Social Conflict and the Emergence of Rabbinic Liturgy," I summarized at the outset a major theme of our more lengthy arguments as follows,
Prayer services do not emerge spontaneously or arbitrarily in a vacuum. They are the public pronouncements of the central values and concepts of the religious leaders who initially propounded them and are social rituals that often emerge out of intense conflict and hard-fought compromise. Specific historical, social, and political conditions contributed to the distinct origin of two major rabbinic services. In the crucial transitional period after the destruction of the Temple, the Shema emerged as the primary ritual of the scribal profession and its proponents. The Tefillah at this formative time was a ritual sponsored mainly by the patriarchal families and their priestly adherents. Compromises between the factions of post-70 Judaism later led to the adoption of the two liturgies in tandem, as the core of public Jewish prayer. But this came about only after intense struggles among competing groups for social and political dominance over the Jewish community at large and concomitantly for the primacy of their respective liturgies. The political, social, and even economic dimensions of the religious life of the synagogues were crucial to the formation of nascent rabbinic Judaism.
I think this is what brings our Siddur alive. It's a story of sharply competing ideas and values all striving for attention within a closed but utterly vibrant religious world. That's the story I'd like to see in some variant form in our prayer book commentaries. It's the narrative of a dialectical theological universe of debate and dispute over which notion we ought to employ to express our most urgent needs before our creator. For instance, do we put our scribal needs at the top of our agenda? Or do we cast our priestly yearnings at the top of our list?

In our Siddur we see a constant flow of traffic, changing of lanes, jostling for position of values and notions, ideas and concepts. And more than this, we see layer upon layer of meaning imposed upon our every practice and festival. Sacred time in our prayer book has mystical, agricultural, historical and Torah-logical importance, all at once. And all of us see different angles of this "lasagna" of religious life.

(When I start using such metaphors, that means uh-oh, I must be getting hungry and it's time to wrap up the post.)

See these among my published writings for more details.

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