Consequences of Our Commitment
To The Meaningfulness of Prayer

by Richard L. Claman  Copyright 2016

The Conservative Movement is, I suggest, committed to what might be called a “propositional” theory of liturgy.[1] That is, when we recite a line like “asher bahar banu mi’kol ha’amim vi’natan lanu et torato”, we take ourselves to be asserting and endorsing some proposition concerning Israel as a chosen people, and the Torah as a gift from God.  We then proceed to debate amongst ourselves as to just what the proposition is that we are affirming ‑‑ as shown by the different translations of this phrase in our different prayer books.  While a standard Orthodox prayer book translates the critical connector “vi” as “and” (‑‑ see Artscroll’s Kol Ya’akov, “who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah”), Sim Shalom,[2] following Silverman, introduces the linking-word “by” (“who has chosen us from among all peoples by giving us His Torah”) ‑‑ a change that was considered to be theologically significant; and Mahzor Lev Shalem seems to equivocate by deploying a comma (“who has chosen us from among all peoples, giving us the Torah”).

This commitment to a propositional approach is particularly apparent when we recall ‑‑ and our Movement generally rejects ‑‑ the Orthodox approaches of, e.g., Yeshayahu Leibowitz or “the Rav” Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (‑‑ as reviewed by David Hartman in A Living Covenant, and as we will revisit below).[3]  A fortiori, this propositional approach is incompatible with mystical approaches to prayer, whether in the extreme form advocated by “the Ari”, Isaac Luria, or in Hasidic thought.[4] The incompatibility with Hasidic thought is particularly noteworthy, given the recent tendency, e.g., in the Mahzor Lev Shalem, to rely upon snippets from various Hasidic masters. As Louis Jacobs has, however, carefully explained: in Hasidic thought, petitionary prayer has been transmuted into something different from its plain meaning, so that such prayer is seen as not really expressing our needs or wants as pray-ers, but rather must be understood as an expression of the incompleteness of the Shekhina, as the link between the completeness above and the deficiencies below. (One might ask, then: if our approach is so different from that of the Hasidim, why are we relying on snippets from their masters?)

The commitment to propositional meaning also may be one reason why the approach of Abraham Joshua Heschel to the liturgy (see below) has seemed incomplete , since Heschel also could not account for the plain meaning of petitionary prayer.[5]

The commitment to a propositional approach is consistent with the Conservative Movement’s general tendency to imagine itself as being in a position analogous to that of the early Rabbis ‑‑ just as we see them as adapting to the destruction of the Second Temple, so too we see ourselves as facing the challenges of modernity.  With respect to prayer, this is evidenced by our endorsement of the early-Rabbinic call, e.g., in Pirkei Avot 2:18, for a balance of keva and kavana.  (See, e.g., Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism [1988] at 49).

Strikingly, however, in these discussions, we typically ignore the medieval ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (and elsewhere, e.g., Tosafot) that kavvanah in prayer is no longer required, because “in our time” (speaking already in the 13th cent.), no one can be said to any longer really pray with kavvanah![6]

Moreover, I will suggest below that this (medieval) halakhic elimination of the requirement of kavana was a consequence of the absorption into mainline medieval-Rabbinic thinking of the Aristotelian worldview –  whereupon, as Joseph Dan has noted, a propositional approach to prayer no longer made sense, clearing the way for mystical approaches.[7]

Accordingly, our adoption of a propositional approach should be seen as a return to the idealized ‘early Rabbinic’ approach, as opposed to a medieval-Rabbinic approach. And it is beset by the same challenge that faced the medieval rabbis – our modern theology, being post-Aristotelian (to say the least) is surely different from that of the early Rabbis.  We need to ask, accordingly, what is the underlying theology that the words of the liturgy ‑‑ as first compiled by the early Rabbis, and as then amended (see below) by those same Rabbis and/or their contemporaries in the synagogues of Eretz Yisrael in Late Antiquity – affirmed; and is that theology (or, are those theologies) still affirmable today?

Second, the ‘early-Rabbinic’ approach demonstrably was not monolithic. We can see the liturgy changing even within the Talmudic period, and we can infer that those changes reflected changes in theological understandings occurring even during that period.  We will address below two such changes.  First, recent analysis by, in particular, Reuven Kimelman, shows that the metaphor of God as King was added throughout the liturgy under the influence of R. Akiva and his students. (If one compares, for example, the ‘Palestinian’ version of the daily Amidah, as identified by Solomon Schechter from the Cairo Genizah, with today’s daily Amidah, one will find that we today refer to God as King in seven of the Eighteen Benedictions ‑‑ but in the parallel Benedictions in the Palestinian version, that metaphor is not found!)[8]

As a second example: the kedusha, as an insert in the Amidah, is unknown to the Mishnah, and appears to have been added to the liturgy only thereafter, by the ‘popular demand’ of those attending the synagogues of Late Antiquity in Eretz Yisrael (‑‑ we will speculate below as to why).[9]

Plainly these changes were far more extensive than, say, the hard-fought elimination within our Movement of two words, ishei yisrael, from the 17th Benediction of the Amidah (retzei). (Moreover, those words have now crept-back-in, albeit in brackets, in Mahzor Lev Shalem, under the influence of the Hasidic interpretation that they refer to the fire of [Hasidic] religious fervor ‑‑ a characteristic example of the curious attempt by some in our Movement to infuse the Hasidic concept of devekut into our very different sense of intentionality.)

Accordingly, a second challenge raised by a propositional approach is whether we are willing, given that our theology has changed, to make the sort of fundamental and far-reaching changes that the ‘early’ Rabbis themselves either made or accepted, in response to the theological developments of their times.

This article does not attempt to provide substantive suggestions in response to these two challenges ‑‑ i.e., we will not here make any proposals as to amending the liturgy.[10]  We will, however, conclude with two procedural suggestions.

First, Emet Ve-Emunah (at 50) had already suggested that, to heighten kavvanah, “a given congregation may vary the form of its worship from time to time.”  And we will make a suggestion as to how such variation might be pursued, while appealing to the different constituencies within the synagogue community who prioritize, respectively, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Second, we will suggest that, in taking a propositional approach, we might consider the liturgy using certain techniques that we apply generally in reading literature, as opposed to the techniques used in reading a philosophic treatise.  For example, when we read Robert Frost saying ‑‑ “Whose woods these are I think I know”, we don’t say ‑‑ ‘well, if you don’t know, then go and look up the ownership in the local title record’; we understand the doubt to be part of the framework of the poem.  Perhaps the idea of God choosing Israel is also meant to be understood within some broader context.

  1. The Propositional Approach

The propositional approach asserts that there is something different about prayer, in contrast to other mitzvot.

Consider the following Talmudic passage (Bavli R.H. 16a), where two anonymous students are trying to make sense of a particular handed-down tradition, i.e., that R. Isaac had asked the question ‑‑ why do we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah?  Student A comments ‑‑ what kind of question is this?  God said to sound the shofar!  Student B speculates: maybe R. Isaac meant to ask, why do we sound the terua type of sound?  And Student A comments ‑‑ again, what kind of question is this, the verse in Leviticus (23:24) calls Rosh Hashanah a day of zichron terua, i.e., a day of remembering by way of a terua sound.  Finally, Student B says ‑‑ perhaps R. Isaac was asking, why do we sound the Shofar at two different points during the service, once right after the Torah service, and then again (interspersed) during the Musaf service?  To which Student A concedes ‑‑ that is a good question; and the answer is, to confuse Satan.

The point of that dialogue, I suggest, is that certain mitzvot involve symbolic actions ‑‑ like blowing the shofar; or eating matzah.  Such commanded actions do not have any intrinsic meaning – rather, they become associated over time with various, and perhaps multiple, midrashic traditions.  And those traditions do not need to be consistent with each other. Matzah can be associated both with the poverty of slavery and with the rush to liberation; or ‘Lulav’ can be associated both with the different parts of the body, and/or with the collective elements of the Jewish people.

Words, however, by their nature, would appear to be different than symbolic actions. Words do carry intrinsic meaning ‑‑ and also, by way of, e.g., their rhythm and rhyme, convey meaning by being joined with other words in particular patterns.[11]  And liturgy is composed of words.

One might argue that this feature of liturgy is irrelevant in terms of understanding the mitzva of prayer. Yeshayahu Leibowitz has argued, in effect, that the point of the mitzva of prayer is simply to recite whatever words are commanded, without regard to their intrinsic meaning or lack thereof ‑‑ for only by avoiding the distraction of intrinsic meaning can we achieve the highest level (for Leibowitz) of kavana,  fulfilling a mitzva purely for the sake of its having been commanded.  Indeed, if we as imperfect human beings were commanded to recite names from a telephone directory, it would be clearer that the mitzvah lies in the recitation and not in the meaning.[12]

Soloveitchik argued for a similar end-result.[13]  He asserted that, but for God’s permission/request for us to pray, we would lack the standing, or dignity, to engage God in prayer; but, in His goodness, God gave us (and indeed commanded us to say) these words as a way to approach Him; and so we recite those words ‑‑ and not anything more or less or different.

Why don’t Leibowitz and Soloveitchik simply assert that we say the words of the liturgy because we believe and affirm them? One answer would appear to be that they, like ‘rationalists’ since the medieval period, recognize that the liturgy is problematic theologically, if considered as an affirmance of its straightforward propositional meaning.

Once Jewish thinkers ‑‑ like all other rational medieval thinkers ‑‑ adopted an Aristotelian world-view, with its picture of God as the unmoved First Mover, many questions emerged. How can petitionary prayer lead to any change by God? What difference can our words of praise make to God?[14] (It should be stressed in this regard that Aristotle did not ‘just’ speak for ‘philosophy’: ‘Aristotle’ at that point was understood to encompass all rational knowledge, incorporating the different fields that we would now call science, math, economics, politics, psychology, and literary criticism.  For someone in the 13th century to say, I reject Aristotle’s teaching in respect of, e.g., the nature of the soul, or the nature of God, would be like someone today saying, I reject climate change).

At that time, Jewish rationalists in effect stopped trying to explain the ‘meaning’ of prayer ‑‑ apparently recognizing that anything that they might say would interfere with the ability of the ‘simple- minded’ folk to fulfill the mitzvot of prayer.[15]

The medieval mystics also, according to Joseph Dan, accepted the premises of the Aristotelean world-view, and so they proceeded to account for prayer in a highly non-propositional fashion.

But surely we don’t want to teach in our synagogues today that ‑‑ as the ‘Ari’ taught ‑‑ the purpose of reciting the liturgy exactly is so that we can assist different sefirotic elements to achieve ‘unions’.[16] (To his credit, the Ari’s theory at least thus provided an explanation for the apparent repetition of the amida 21 times each week: because there are multiple levels of sefirot within each of the sefirot, each of the different services, on each of the different days of the week, focuses on a union at a different point within the sefirotic structure.)

Nor, I suggest, do we want to teach the approach of Hasidei Ashkenaz, focusing on the ‘gematria’ of the prayer texts.[17]

You might ask at this point: but doesn’t the halakha presume that the liturgy has an intrinsic meaning, for doesn’t the halakha tell us that, when we recite the liturgy, we must focus on the meaning of the words that we are reciting?

Not anymore.  The Bavli (Eruvin 65a) clearly taught in the name of R. Elazar (or Eliezer), that: “one who returns from a journey must not pray for three days” ‑‑ because the jet-lag prevents kavana.  Likewise (id.), “Rabbi Hanina never prayed on a day when he was upset.”

However, this rule was revoked in the medieval halakha.  Thus, Rabbeinu Nissim commented on the Bavli passage (as translated by Kaddish at 34):

“’Rabbi Elazar said: One who returns from a journey must not pray for three days …’ These words were only meant for previous generations, who concentrated regularly (during prayer).  But nowadays, since we don’t concentrate regardless, we do not neglect prayer for these reasons.”

Similarly, as to the exemption from recitation of the Shema on one’s wedding day, Hartman quotes (at 171) the following comment by Tosafot (Bavli Berakhot 17b, in effect revoking the principle enunciated by the Bavli):

“In our day nobody ever recites the Shema with proper kavana.  So the bridgroom’s lack of proper concentration should not be a bar to his reciting it.  And if he does recite it, he cannot be charged with arrogance because there is no pretense to reciting it with kavana since nobody ever does.”

Hartman is puzzled by these statements: after all, medieval German Jews showed steadfastness even to the point of martyrdom; how can it be said that they lacked kavvanah in prayer?  And so Hartman hypothesizes that these statements were part of a general medieval program to stress the importance of communal prayer, relative to private prayer (at 172-173).

My suggestion, rather, is that the elimination of the requirement of kavana should be seen as a symptom and consequence of the recognition by the ‘rationalist’ halakhic authorities that, since they could no longer explain how the propositional meaning of the required words made theological sense, they could no longer impose a requirement of propositional intention ‑‑ and so they revoked that requirement. (Note, for example, how Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed, in effect offers no attempt to explain the meaning or purpose of the liturgy.)[18]

The Conservative Movement, accordingly ‑‑ e.g., when we fixate upon questions such as, why the Harlow/Sim Shalom did not fully translate the opening lines of the ‘Aleinu’, or where should we insert the word ‘ba-olom’ into the ‘Sim Shalom’ Benediction of the Amidah ‑‑ is adopting an approach that in effect ignores both the theological doubts that emerged in the medieval period and the consequent halakhic developments.

  1. What Did The Early Rabbis Think That They Were Doing?

The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, and/or the congregations in the synagogues of Eretz Yisrael in Late Antiquity, could develop a propositional liturgy because they held a different, and pre- Aristotelian, theological understanding.

To vastly oversimply on the level of theology, and focusing solely, by way of illustration, on petitionary prayer: the Rabbis, following the understanding of the Pharisees as represented by Josephus, held that our actions derived from a mixture of our (free) will and of fate (or God’s intervention). This was in contrast to the Essenes, who held that all human actions were predetermined (governed by fate), and in contrast also to the Saduccees, who believed that humans have unfettered free will. (Josephus, Antiquities Book XIII, ch. VI ¶ 9.)

Now, if everything is predetermined by God, then petitionary prayer would be pointless.  And indeed, one of the striking results of recent analysis of those prayer-texts that appear to have been written by the Qumran community (in contrast to texts from outside the community that were included with their library), is that that community, which was strongly deterministic, did not write petitionary prayers![19]

Conversely, if everything is a matter of human free will, and there is never any Divine intervention, then petitionary prayer is superfluous.

In, however, a mixed view, petitionary prayer might be effective. And so long as it might ‘work’, it is meaningful.  Recall, for example, the Midrashic tradition preserved in Rashi’s comment to Gen. 32:10, concerning Jacob’s preparations for meeting Esau: Jacob prepared himself in three ways: by gifts to Esau, hoping for peace; by prayer; and by aligning his camp for war.[20] In other words, one should not refrain from petitioning to God: while petitions might only rarely be granted, they nevertheless sometimes are granted, and hence are worthwhile; but in any event one should also pursue other defensive and offensive courses of action.

The problem, of course, with this theologically ‘mixed’ view concerning free-will vs. Divine intervention, is that it was hard to explicate and defend within an Aristotelian framework ‑‑ and is even more difficult to defend today.[21] (We will discuss below a suggestion as to how the early Rabbis nevertheless ‘defended’ this concept.)

[The foregoing ‑‑ and speculative ‑‑ account of the theological background of Rabbinic liturgy skips over the question of how, as a ‘mechanical’/historical matter, that liturgy emerged: but is, I think, compatible with some recent historical theories.  In brief: it seems that a regular confessional prayer developed as part of Second Temple practice, based on the concept that confession was a prerequisite for sacrifice to be effective to atone for intentional, as opposed to unintentional sins, drawing upon the new confessional prayers in Ezra ch. 9, Nehemiah ch. 9, and Daniel ch. 9. [22]  Confessional prayer was then adopted as the basis of a daily liturgy by some sect that both (a) followed a solar-based calendar, and (b) rejected (at least to some extent) the Second Temple ‑‑ the text known as Divrei Ha’me’orot, recovered amongst the Dead Sea texts, may exemplify this stage[23]; and (c) the Pharisees, as a competing sect with whomever composed Divrei Ha’me’orot‑‑ and, per Albert Baumgarten,[24] competition amongst the sects also involved a certain amount of copying ‑‑ in turn borrowed and adapted the practice of a daily liturgy.  One can imagine a young man at that time who, like Josephus, was trying-out various sects, entering one day into a Pharisaic beit midrash.  An elder greets the young man, saying “Call me Gamaliel”.  The young man explains that he is no longer interested in obsessing about the end of the world, but he really liked getting up at dawn to pray.  Gamaliel explains ‑‑ ‘we have just compiled a comprehensive prayer, called the Amidah; some say it at dawn, others allow for it to be recited later each morning; come and help us edit it’.  Note how the Amidah appeals to the ‘wisdom’ crowd by beginning its petitionary section with a prayer for wisdom; and then sets forth a brief confessional; and only mentions the Davidic messiah after God has Himself carried out all of the preparatory steps for the Messianic age.[25]  In short, it appears that the Rabbinic prayer service may have as a general matter emerged as a theological balancing- act; and in that context the early Rabbis incorporated their ‘balancing’ approach to petitionary prayer.  As will be discussed below, I think that we too need to pursue an overall balancing approach ‑‑ but the particular theological doctrines that we now need to balance have changed.]

*                        *                        *

As noted above, moreover, we can see continued developments over time within the Rabbinic liturgy.  Thus, to take one key example, Kimelman argues that “the single most important innovation of rabbinic liturgy is the focus on divine sovereignty”:  the introduction, throughout the liturgy, of the metaphor of God as King.  One bit of evidence for this development ‑‑ in addition to that derived from a comparison of ‘Palestinian’ Amidah with our standard Amidah (see supra), derives from a consideration of M. Taanit 2:3.  That Mishna lists the extra benedictions to be added to the Amidah in the event of a prolonged drought: the extra six benedictions, as listed, include “Zichronot” and “Shofarot” ‑‑ but there is no mention of “Malchuyot”.  Why not?  Because, it seems, no such unit yet existed.

Kimelman notes that the key counter-evidence to his theory is the purported memory, in the Mishna (Yoma 6:2), that ‘the people’ in the Second Temple already knew and used the response: “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto li’olam va’ed”.  Kimelman has argued, however, that “malchuto” was not original to this phrase, based on a comparison to Psalms 72:19. If so, the Mishna’s purported quotation is actually anachronistic.  One bit of evidence for the anachronism theory is that the compound-construct ‘shem k’vod malchuto’ is not grammatical, as a matter of Hebrew syntax/semantics, which is why the phrase is practically impossible to translate. (Harlow translates: “Praised be His glorious sovereignty throughout all time” ‑‑ with no reference to God’s Name; while Mahzor Lev Shalem abandons the ‘construct’ form and instead adds extra words ‑‑ “Praised be the name of the One whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever” ‑‑ even though “the One” is not represented in the Hebrew text, and sounds like something out of The Matrix).

What motivated the introduction/proliferation within the liturgy of this metaphor?  Kimelman suggests that the metaphor of Kingship simply had become popular in the Roman world.

I would suggest, however, that there was, in addition, a more specific purpose.  As noted above, the Rabbis could not explain, as a coherent philosophic matter, how to mix the concepts of free will and God’s intervention; and so instead of an explanation, they sought a metaphor to express their point.  The Roman emperor provided, I suggest, a useful model and metaphor: one could petition the Emperor ‑‑ see, e.g., the tradition of a mission to Rome by Rabban Gamaliel II (Y. San. 7:19).  Such missions/petitions were undoubtedly long shots, and the Emperor’s attention and resolution would obviously be subject to extraneous constraints, as well as to the intrinsic merits of the petition; but petitions were possible, and on occasion were successful.  Moreover, the Roman emperors stressed the availability of petition as part of their propaganda of personal care for and involvement in justice throughout their empire ‑‑ and the early Rabbis seem to have been very aware of the popular appeal of that message.[26]  I suggest that the Rabbis held a similar view as to the efficacy of petitionary prayer ‑‑ petitioning God was a very serious matter, and very few petitions were actually considered on their merits ‑‑ but yet sometimes God heard and intervened, so that petitionary prayer was meaningful.

A second major change in the liturgy during the Rabbinic period involved the introduction of the Kedusha into the Amidah (and also into the morning blessing before the Shema).  The history of the Kedusha is complex and controversial ‑‑ involving, inter alia, the question of the relationship between the Rabbinic liturgy and (i) the prior Apocalyptic literature (e.g., I Enoch), and (ii) the difficult-to-date Hekhalot literature (perhaps from around the 3rd-4th Centuries).[27]

My suggestion is that there is an analogy to be drawn between the introduction –originally in the Synagogues of Eretz Yisrael, and adopted only later by the Rabbinic literature ‑‑ of the Kedusha, and the use in those ancient synagogues of zodiac mosaics: in each case, the persons praying in those synagogues were searching for new metaphors to express their sense of the sanctity of their worship, but were looking for metaphors that no longer were ‘emotionally charged’ by reason of association with either revolutionary or foreign precedents.  I suggest that the metaphor of praying with the angelic hosts had by this time ceased to carry its earlier apocalyptic associations, and so that metaphor could be re-deployed simply to express how the synagogue shared in the holiness of God’s throne-room.  In each case, what was sought to be expressed ‑‑ as in the last line of the Kaddish (“oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu”, etc.), which was apparently also added at this time ‑‑ was the hope that just as God made peace among the heavenly hosts, so too we look forward to the day when peace will be established on Earth as well.

This metaphor of praying with the angels may still have been too apocalyptic for the Rabbis of the Mishna ‑‑ which contains virtually no mention of a Messianic Age (‑‑ just as the Rabbis were at best uneasy with the ‘zodiac’ mosaic floors); but the Kedusha’s metaphorical expression of hope for the future became inextricably intertwined with the concept of holiness.

III. Consequences

Our problem today is even more acute than that facing the medieval rationalist rabbis:

–  we want our synagogues to appeal to a broad cross-section; we do not want to turn our synagogues into single-focus ‘minyans’;

–  some of our synagogues members ‑‑ and indeed, probably most of the members who participate regularly in the prayer services ‑‑ are generally satisfied with the present liturgy, either because they have not thought-through the ‘problems’, or perhaps because they have thought-through the problems, and (like Seth Kaddish, in Kavvanah) arrived at some resolution that allows them, in a sophisticated way, to take a ‘simple-minded’ position; and we certainly do not want to alienate this group; but we know we are ‘losing’ people who are otherwise engaged Jewishly, e.g., in adult education, or visiting the sick, but who do find liturgy to be problematic ‑‑ although they too may not have fully thought-through the problems.  And obviously we cannot compel (as did the medieval kehilla) people to show up for prayer services.

How can we balance these concerns?

When I was in college, the course catalogue was divided into three broad areas: the physical sciences (and math); the social sciences (e.g., political science, history and economics); and the humanities (including philosophy, literature and languages).  Students were required to ‘major’ in one subject within one area, and then were also required to take a certain minimum number of courses in both of the “other” broad areas.  Thus, a ‘math’ major was required to select, e.g., some history courses, and some fine arts/literature courses.[28]

Conversely, however, since the college required poets to take, e.g., physics, the college was also required to offer courses affectionately known as ‘physics for poets’, and ‘fine arts for physicists’.

This, I suggest, should be a model for Jewish synagogues life as well.  Every Jew should be committed to at least one subject within the broad areas of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim; but everyone is also commanded to be involved to at least some extent in the other areas as well.  As a practical matter, there is just not time to do everything ‑‑ which is why, according to the Bavli (R.H. 35a), a person who is deeply involved in study (and acts of tzedaka) is allowed to pray only once every 30 days!

But, just as the college is required to offer ‘physics for poets’, so too the synagogue needs to dedicate some Sabbath services to ‘Avodah for persons majoring in Gemilut Hasadim’, and to ‘Avodah for Torah-Study concentrators’!  The fairest mechanism is a rotation ‑‑ if everyone understands that there is a communal sharing involved, then people tend to be willing to share.

Thus, I imagine a synagogue-services rotation where:

  1. the first Shabbat of each month, we follow our ‘normal’ liturgy, whatever that is;
  2. the second Shabbat each month is dedicated to ‘Liturgy for Avodah majors’: we abbreviate the service in some respects (‑‑ and we all know ways that that can be done), and devote the extra time to analyzing some particular prayer, or learning a variant prayer-text, or learning a new melody, so as to focus on the words that we might overlook in singing our usual melody;
  3. the third Shabbat each month is dedicated to ‘Gemilut Hasadim’ ‑‑ which in my curriculum, includes support for the State of Israel. Again, our focus should be on the intersection of Gemilut Hasadim with the prayer service ‑‑ this is not intended to be a time for politics.  But we can use this time to discuss, for example: how and why is prayer different in a house of mourning? Should prayer be different in a hospital? Or, should we include Israel’s Declaration of Independence somewhere in our prayerbook? (More generally, if I were asked, I would use this time to expand upon my theory that it is not enough to just want to be ‘a good person’; a worthwhile life requires that we identify and pursue additional values, such as friendship, or holiness, and those additional values require a framework, e.g., Judaism[29]); and
  4. finally, the fourth Shabbat each month would be Avodah for ‘Torah’ majors. And we could use the ‘extra’ time to address the hard questions like, what are the historical and theological problems in our prayers?

The aim, in weeks 3 and 4, is both (a) to make the Torah and Gemilut Hasadim concentrators more comfortable with the liturgy, by showing how it has addressed, over time, their particular concerns; and (b) to provide new insight into the liturgy even for the Avodah majors.  To take a familiar example: even Avodah majors might not know that the line after the morning “Barechu”, “oseh shalom u’vore et ha’kol,” is a deliberate modification of the line from Isaiah (45:7) “oseh shalom u’vore ra”: why and how did this happen?  Or, why have we omitted from our liturgy the so-called ‘psalms of covenant complaint’, which do not blame ourselves for our condition, but rather blame  God, such as Psalms 44 or 74; and can that theme usefully be re‑introduced into our liturgy?  Or, it has been argued that Second Isaiah sought to democratize ‑‑ to transfer to the people as a whole ‑‑ the concept of the messianic king;[30] again, is there a place for such an alternative reading in our liturgy today?

*                        *                        *

Our second suggestion, as noted in the Introduction, is that we read the liturgy not on a line-by-line propositional basis, by rather as conveying its meaning through its overall architecture.

Perhaps the most difficult problem, it seems to me, in approaching the prayers, is their apparent form as a dialogue, talking with God – “baruch ata …”.  But perhaps we are reading this too narrowly.  Again, looking to poetry,[31] consider the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s first major poem: “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table”: we understand that the “you” is probably not a participant in any actual dialogue, but rather is part of a hypothetical dialogue that a troubled character in the poem may be imagining.

Perhaps, then, our words of ‘dialogue’ are better understood as part of an elaborate question about the frustration on the part of both God and humankind, unable to better communicate.

Consider, as another example, the second paragraph of the Kaddish, “yitbarach vi’ yishtabach, [etc.]”.  If we omit the response/interruption “be’rich hu”, what we see is a paradoxical statement ‑‑ ‘let us praise God, who is beyond all praise’.  What does this mean?  Doesn’t this sentence contradict itself?  And why has this been added (after the Mishna) at so many points during the service, viz., at the end of every segment of the service?

Perhaps this statement is better read as a poetic expression of a sort of balance in tension: we need to contemplate the Divine in order to proceed to act meaningfully, and it is useful to add new metaphors of holiness as a predicate to doing so; but if we wait to act until we have fully contemplated, it may be too late to act.  So we try to achieve a blend of both contemplation and action ‑‑ for, as humans, there isn’t enough time, but the need to strive for shalom is clear.

Philip Roth, in a recent interview, expressed frustration at being asked whether he agreed with this or that statement that one or another of his characters had uttered, and explained that such a question misses the point of a novel:

“The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make …. The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way he conducts his examination.  The thought of the writer is figured [in …] the architecture of the book … [and] in the moral focus of the novel.”[32]

In other words, perhaps we should be seeking for propositional meaning not on a line-by-line basis, but rather by focusing on the overall shape of each liturgical unit on its own, or upon the architectural juxtaposition of different liturgical units.[33]



Heschel, in a presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953,[34] criticized the proliferation of new prayerbooks: “A revision of the prayerbook will not solve the crisis of prayer.  What we need is a revision of the soul, a new heart rather than a new text.”  Heschel assumed that in all Jews there was, even if hidden, a Jewish soul, ready to experience the same things that Heschel experienced.[35]  Our starting point here, in contrast, is that there are multiple types of ‘Jewish’ souls, with very different affinities for Avodah, and also bringing to the table different sensibilities to the problems posed by modernity to Jewish thinking.  I am suggesting that we need a new proliferation of prayer texts ‑‑ not necessarily new texts, although they may be new to the prayerbook (e.g., Psalm 44) ‑‑ and a willingness to proceed as a community, together with those of different sensitivities, to explore different ways of expressing the different things that various members of our community are trying to say, albeit all within our Jewish curriculum.  A propositional approach is an appropriate beginning ‑‑ for I see no gain in promoting sheer ‘ruah’, or devekut, independent of what our texts are trying to say.  But we can, I suggest, expand upon our texts, and upon the literal propositional approach typically taken, to move forward as a community to all share in the prayer service.


[1]     See, e.g., a recent article that takes this approach as a predicate, David A. Kunin, “‘May the Words of My Mouth Be Acceptable’: Rethinking Triumphalism and Rejectionist Prayers in the Siddur”, Conservative Judaism vol. 64 no. 2 (Winter 2013) at 38-55, esp. at 39 (“we believe that [the words of our prayers] have intrinsic merit which, hopefully, affects the way we respond to God and to the world”).

[2]     “Harlow/Sim Shalom” refers to the original Siddur Sim Shalom, ed. by Jules Harlow, 1985.  “Silverman” refers to the Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook, 1946.

For a discussion of the theological significance of “by” vs. “and”, see Jeffrey Rubenstein “Siddur Sim Shalom and Developing Conservative Theology”, Conservative Judaism vol. 41, Fall 1988, 21-37, esp. at 33.  See also Mel Scult, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Bloomington: Indiana U.P.; 2014) at 193, discussing the “distinction between prayer as quotation and prayer as affirmation”: Kaplan “maintained that what people believed and what they said in prayer must fit closely together.”

[3]     See David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (N.Y.: Free Press, 1985) (reprinted, Jewish Lights, 1998) chapters 6-7.

[4]     Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 2003), esp. at 224-225.

Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (N.Y.: Schocken Books; 1972), ch. 2; included in G.D. Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present (N.Y.: N.Y.U. Press; 1991), ch. 20.

[5]     See Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 2013), at 209-211.

[6]     Orach Hayim 98:2, discussed in Seth Kaddish, Kavvanah: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer (N.J.: Jason Aronson; 1997), esp. at 29-34.

See also Hartman, A Living Covenant at 166-171, quoting from Tosafot to Berakkot 17b.

[7]     Joseph Dan, “The Emergence of Mystical Prayer”, (1981), reprinted as ch. 10 in his Jewish Mysticism: Volume II ‑‑ The Middle Ages (N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1998).

Dan does not specifically make the link between the rulings as to kavvanah and the absorption of Aristotelian philosophy, although the developments are contemporaneous.

One might speculate that the inability of a rationalist to say more about prayer also accounts for the brevity of Maimonides’ discussion of prayer in Guide to the Perplexed Part III ch. 44 ‑‑ see translation with notes in Kadish, Kavvanah at 474. See also, for a further discussion of Maimonides’ views on prayer: ch. 11,”From Dialogue to Contemplation: The Transformation of the Meaning of Prayer in Maimonides and the Medieval Jewish Philosophers of Provence,” in Howard Kreisel, Judaism Philosophy: Studies in Maimonides and the Medieval Jewish Philosophers of Provence (Boston: Academic Press, 2015).

[8]     The Palestinian text is set forth, with English translation, as Appendix I to Richard Sarason, “The Persistence and Trajectories of Penitential Prayer in Rabbinic Judiasm” in M.J. Boda, D.K. Falk and R.A. Werline, eds., Seeking The Favor of God: Vol. III, The Impact of Penitential Prayer beyond Second Temple Judaism (Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature 2008) at 19-25.  The verb meloch is used, however, in the 11th Benediction in both versions.

See Reuven Kimelman, “Rabbinic Prayer in Late Antiquity”, ch. 22 in Steven T. Katz, ed., The Cambridge History of Judaisim: Vol. IV, The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period, esp. at 600-610; see also, e.g., Hananel Mack, “The Source of the Malkhuyyot Benediction,” Jewish Studies Quarterly vol. 9 (2002) no. 3, 205-218.

[9]   See, e.g., Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, Yale U.P., 2000) at 540-544.  The citation to M.R.H. 4:5 in Steven Kepnes, The Future of Jewish Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 2013) at 213, as a supposed reference to the Kedushah text, is an error.  To be sure, Kepnes’ theological approach is not intended to reflect historical development.  I also disagree, however, with his suggestion that one can find the key to a contemporary Jewish theology in Jewish liturgy.  Compare the conclusion of Elliot Dorff, in “Knowing God Through Prayer”, Conservative Judaism vol. 51, no. 2 (Winter 1999) at 37-52, that the prayer book is an incomplete presentation of Jewish theology: “The Siddur, then, is not a complete picture of life, and any full discussion of what one should believe must take into account also those parts of life that do not fit neatly into the Siddur’s theism” (at 51).

[10]    Compare, e.g., Kunin, fn. 1, supra.

[11]    See, e.g., the discussion of poetry as an avenue to theological thinking in Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2008) at 28-32.

[12]    See Hartman, A Living Covenant, supra fn. 3 summarizing.

[13]    Id.

[14]    See, Dan, supra; and Kreisel, supra fn. 7.

[15]    See Jeremy Schonfeld, Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer (Oxford: Littman Library, 2006) at 35-37; see also Kaddish, supra, arguing in effect that we should nevertheless return to the simple-minded view, as a matter of what Neil Gilman would call ‘second naiveté’ or ‘deliberate naiveté’.

[16]    See Fine, supra, noting the strongly sexual imagery.

[17]    See, e.g., Jonathan M. Benarroch, “‘The Mystery of Unity’: Poetic and Mystical Aspects of a Unique Zoharic Shema Mystery”, AJS Review, vol. 37 no. 2 (Nov. 2013) at 231-256, esp. at 235-237, reviewing the medieval debate between Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Zohar as to whether the ‘magic’ number of 248 for the words of the Shema ‑‑ corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body ‑‑ could better be arrived-at by adding ‘el melech ne’eman’ at the beginning, or ‘Adonai eloheichem emet’ at the end.

[18]    See Moreh Nevuhim, Part 3, ch. 44, translated in Kaddish supra at p. 437; and see Kreisel, supra fn. 7.

[19]    Eileen Schuller, “Petitionary Prayer and the Religion of Qumran”, pp. 29-45 in J.J. Collins and R.A. Kugler, eds. Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans; 2000); see further discussion in Richard S. Sarason, “Communal Prayer at Qumran and Among the Rabbis: Certainties and Uncertainties”, in E. Chazon, ed., Liturgical Perspective: Prayer and Poetry in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leiden: Brill; 2003).  

[20]    See also Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Phil.: JPS; 2003 reprint [original 1903- 1938]) at 297 fn. 242, for citations.

[21]    See generally, e.g., David Winston, “Free Will”, pp. 269-274, in A.A. Cohen and P. Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s; 1987).

[22]    See Mark J. Bode, “Confession as Theological Expression; Ideological Origins of Penitential Prayer”, and William Morrow, “The Affirmation of Divine Righteousness in Early Penitential Prayers: A Sign of Judaism’s Entry into the Axial Age”, both in M.J. Bode, D.K. Falk, and R.A. Werline, Seeking The Favor of God: vol. 1, The Origins of Pentitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Atlanta: SBL; 2006).

[23]    See Sarasen, “Communal Prayer at Qumran”, supra.

[24]    Albert I. Baumgarten, The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the Maccabean Era: An Interpretation (Leiden: Brill, 1987) esp. at 55-58.

[25]    Concerning the muted messianism of the Amidah, see Reuven Kimelman, “The Messiah of the Amidah: A Study in Comparative Messianism”, The Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 116 no. 2 (1997), at 313-324.

[26]    See Natalie B. Dohrmann, “Law and Imperial Idioms: Rabbinic Legalism in a Roman World”, ch. 3 in N.B. Dohrmann and A.Y. Reed, eds. Jews, Christians and the Roman Empire (Philadelphia: U. Penn. Press, 2013) esp. at 72-75, and fns. 42 and 57.

[27]    See generally Lee Levine, supra.

[28]    I began to develop this analogy in “Vinegar and Wine, Leniency and Piety: Justifying a Bias Toward Lightening the Yoke”, Conservative Judaism vol. 56 no. 3 (Spring 2004) 63-80, esp. at 76.

[29]    I set out this argument in detail in “Halakha and Ethical Pluralism” Conservative Judaism no. 57, vol. 2 (Winter 2005) at 58-77.

[30]    See Shalom Paul’s Translation and Commentary for Isaiah 40-66 (Eerdmans Critical Commentary 2012) at 434-435.

[31]    My suggestion as to the use of poetry is thus somewhat different from that of Dan Ornstein, “Honey from the Poem: Teaching Ancient T’fillah Through Contemporary Poetry”, Conservative Judaism vol. 65 nos. 1-2 (Fall-Winter 2013-2014) at 74-86.  My point is that instead of assuming that each phrase in the liturgy is intended to constitute an affirmable proposition, on a stand-alone basis, we should understand ‘the meaning’ to be conveyed by the particular unit of liturgy as a whole, taking into account, e.g., the possibility of back-and-forth movements within the unit; or maybe through the architectural arrangement of units of liturgy.

[32]    Interview of Philip Roth by Daniel Sandstrom, New York Times Book Review 3/16/2014 at 14- 16, quoting from p. 16.

[33]    For an example of what I would consider such an architectural approach, see Jeremy Schonfeld, Undercurrents Of Jewish Prayer (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; 2006).

[34]  “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”, reprinted in A.J. Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed., (N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996), at 119-120.

[35]    See Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Bloomington, Indiana U.P. 2013) at 58-59, noting this weak point in Heschel’s theory.