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Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 110-112 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Jeremy Schonfield undertakes this study of Birkhot Ha-shaḥar and P’sukei D’zimra with a fundamental assumption: just as all sacred text is a matter of inquiry and curiosity, rather than simple acceptance, so we should encounter the familiar texts of the siddur as investigation and engagement. He writes, “Liturgy is more than a purely linguistic gesture or ‘speech-act,’ partly because it relies on physical props and performance in real time for its effectiveness” (p. 48). While worship is performative, it is also inwardly a challenging multivocal expression of poetic-liturgical narrative. Schonfield has undertaken an investigation of scriptural and rabbinic contexts for prayer texts, as well as the meaning of objects—tallit and t’fillin— to frame the opening words of daily prayer. Appreciating and engaging the background and context of the liturgy, both text and subtext, is part of the worship experience itself. Rather than presenting a p’shat reading of the liturgical texts, 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.

Schonfield’s discussion of the siddur is a close reading of a small part of the daily liturgy. He devotes over three hundred pages to Birkhot Ha-shaḥar and P’sukei D’zimra. The author creates a particular sense of structure of each prayer, and each group of prayers. Traditional davening, then, is a matter of assembling distinctive threads into the whole cloth of the experience. He draws articulately on biblical, talmudic, and midrashic literature, as well as the recognizable commentaries of Rashi, Maimonides, and Karo. He engages the reader in thinking about the meaning of particular texts in the flow of moving from one prayer to the next. Throughout the work, this reader felt the lively imagination of one who is an engaging teacher, as well as a sincere believer.

Of the very opening of the daily prayers, Schonfield observes, “. . . there is no resounding introductory proclamation such as might be expected of the beginning of a new day, and its absence suggests that the moment of waking is not a point of departure for the speaker [davener] at all, but part of a continuum in which communication with God has never ceased” (p. 68). It is in these opening moments of the day that the davener renews the relationship with God that was abandoned during sleep. Of this intimate moment, Schonfield suggests that the words modeh ani can be read as “I thank God,” as if God may, or may not, grant us the kindness of returning our soul this morning. Or modeh ani can be read as “I acknowledge that God [restores my soul as an act expressing God’s beneficence for humankind].” Schonfield reads these personal prayers with communal meaning, as the departure and return of one’s soul suggests also the theme of exile and return for the Jewish people. Schonfield cites the scriptural language from Daniel and Lamentations to establish a state of mind for this prayer acknowledging one’s nighttime survival. He intriguingly suggests that this prayer upon awakening can be understood as a type of mourning the exile from the Divine, which we experience during sleep, and then ends when the soul is reunited with God upon our awakening—even as our ancestors lived in a world bereft of Jerusalem, praying for a messianic time of lasting salvation (p. 76).

Various chapters bear titles that express his search for meaning in the ironic (or rather, the oxymoronic): “The Darkness of Waking” on the opening words of prayer; “The Bonds of Freedom” on the texts for wearing tallit and t’fillin; “The Silence of Language” as prayer moves from personal gestures, such as waking and dressing, to prayers recited in the synagogue.

He interprets donning tallit and t’fillin as an act re-clothing oneself, as one has been re-souled upon waking. As one prays, one is transformed into a cultural entity, manipulating a symbol, even as our prayers are the manipulation of language. Even as all of Jewish life seeks to add holiness to the mundane, so tallit and t’fillin are...

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