Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
Traditional Jews encounter the prayer-book-the Siddur-more often in their daily lives than any other text, yet it is mysteriously absent from their otherwise nearly comprehensive curriculum of study. In addition, they tend to recite it mantrically, more for its sound than its meaning. The neglect of meaning is so complete that no edition of the prayer-book has yet appeared with a comprehensive range of commentaries. The present work, the first to examine this paradox, explains it as a reluctance to engage with the intellectual and emotional questions that lie just beneath the surface of the text.
An analysis of the opening sequences of the daily ritual reveals that the prayer-book, far from representing one side of a deferential dialogue with an attentive deity, actually challenges God to allow access to the revelation on which human safety depends and to keep his side of the covenant. Confronting the chaotic unpredictability of the human condition, this undercurrent of protest allows Jews to question why God's urgently needed intervention seems absent. Anger at this apparent absence is qualified only by gratitude at being alive.
The core of this book consists of a novel examination of the opening sections of the traditional daily morning liturgy according to the Ashkenazi rite. The analysis is based on mostly untranslated medieval and later commentaries identifying the biblical and rabbinic echoes from which the liturgy is woven, and employs analytical methods of the kind traditionally applied to talmudic and midrashic texts. It shows how each citation and echo imports aspects of its original context into the new composition, forming a countertext to the words on the page. It examines each textual layer, as well as the surface meaning that is usually the only one to be noted, and relates these to the speaker's actual location-home and later the synagogue-as well as to the time of day when the prayers are recited, as the worshipper faces the dangers of the day ahead. The resulting chorus of ideas-linking everyday life to the sacred narrative from creation to exile-demonstrates the philosophical sophistication of rabbinic spirituality in offering poetic insight into an ultimately tragic vision of reality.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
'His comments are rich in data, comprehensible and interesting for a broad readership, well written and cogently argued . . . The physical production of the volume is also impressive in many ways . . . readers will undoubtedly find here numerous insights into the traditional Jewish liturgy . . . we are here being treated not just to the views of a serious literary critic with a good knowledge of the scientific and historical study of Jewish liturgy but also to a very personal expression of devotion that is familial as well as ethnic . . . we are likely to learn much from the volume and to be deeply grateful to the author for carefully guiding us into what is often novel, and sometimes even exciting, territory.' Stefan C. Reif, Journal of Jewish Studies 'Challenges the customary devotional attitudes and behaviour of most Jews . . . should establish Jeremy Schonfield . . . as one of the most innovative and unsettling scholars in the world of Jewish studies . . . absorbing and intellectually exhilarating . . . [his] familiarity with Jewish sources is intimate, comprehensive, and meticulous. Not only are arguments penetrating, but his findings often jar with our preconceptions . . . The gains of this heady, bracing exploration of sources of the Jewish quotidian are manifest.' Haim Chertok, Jewish Quarterly 'Schonfield asserts his undeniable right to be accepted into the first rank of Jewish liturgical scholars . . . no-one who completes this superb book will be able to look at a prayer book in the same way again.' Charles Middleburgh, Jewish Chronicle 'The author with impressive scholarship draws on insights from many different traditions . . . there is no doubt that it adds a wholly new dimension to our sense of what Jewish prayer, and possibly every form of prayer, is about.' Fred Morgan, Gesher 'A remarkable attempt to explain and analyse the morning prayers . . . provides the reader with a tremendous amount of interesting information . . . gives several interesting insights into developments in synagogues in Great Britain.' Andreas Lehnardt, European Journal of Jewish Studies 'Schonfield presents pathways of curiosity and historical/poetical exegesis, as well as multilayered readings-which can raise the reader's thoughtfulness and delight in the traditional texts of our siddur . . . Readers of this book will appreciate the detail of Littman Library publications. There is full indexing by topic, as well as extensive indexing of biblical and rabbinic references. One who adds this beautiful work to a professional library will also appreciate the very heavy paper and quality binding that are not so very common these days. This is a serious and meaningful work, satisfying in its thoughtful and thorough text, and its physical realization that will stand as an admired reference.' Robert Scherr, Conservative Judaism 'Breathtakingly original' Cambridge Day Limmud Handbook