- To Worship God Properly: Tensions Between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism
Contemporary American Jews place great value on doing what is “traditional.” By this, they usually intend the halakhically informed, normative Ashkenazic folk-practice. Underlying this inquiry into the “Jewishly correct” way of doing things are two important assumptions: that what is considered to be “traditional” is authentic by virtue of its antiquity and that such traditions are “correct.” Ruth Langer’s valuable book demonstrates the malleability of Jewish liturgical practice over time; more surprisingly, she documents repeated struggles between communities that sought to uphold and continue their own local practices, which they defended as “ traditional,” in the face of halakhic opposition from rabbinic authority. In many of the examples discussed by Langer, the rabbis muted or creatively interpreted their opposition in the face of the “almost constant unwillingness of the people to conform to rabbinic strictures” (p. 188). This detailed study of the history of Jewish liturgical practice and halakhah both examines the internal arguments and claims made by successive generations of rabbis for why Jews should or should not pray in specific ways, and applies historical and other critical tools to interpret these various claims. Its particular strength is the close and careful reading of the various authorities, locating them in their cultural and historical settings, and detailing the various social, halakhic, and organizational forces which contributed to the resolutions they brought to the halakhic challenges before them.
In Maimonidean fashion, Langer synthesizes the hundred of talmudic teachings about prayer into three groups of basic principles that inform what constitutes proper prayer. The talmudic rules, implicit and explicit, are categorized as 1) laws that establish and regulate the communal nature of prayer; 2) laws that generate the framework for [End Page 121] the composition of prayers; 3) laws that define the parameters for the application of these various rules (pp. 24–36). These basic principles range from the concrete, e.g. “Prayers must always be composed in the first person plural,” to the abstract, “Prayer requires intentionality.” This lucid summary of talmudic teaching makes explicit and accessible what, once it is before the reader, appears to be something one has always known but had never been able to articulate so clearly and cogently.
A general premise of post-talmudic halakhah was that only blessings which were documented in the Talmud could properly be recited. This important principle was a significant source of conflict when rabbis tried to invoke its authority to forbid the recitation of blessings associated with proper rites. Thus, for example, Maimonides sought to banish the custom of a bridegroom publicly reciting a blessing over the “tokens of virginity” (i.e. the blood-stained sheet) after consummating the marriage. Maimonides and his son, Abraham, both declare the rite and especially the blessing unauthorized and forbidden. In the fourteenth century, there is a renewed interest in this blessing; while all admit that the blessing has no talmudic basis, these later rabbis permit its recitation based on the fact that the earlier Geonim had permitted it. If the Geonim had permitted what would otherwise be an unauthorized blessing, explained the seventeenth-century Yissachar Baer Eilenburg, this can no doubt be because they had an oral tradition from the talmudic sages (p. 69). Repeatedly, in many different settings, the rabbis resolved the problem of blessings that had no talmudic textual warrant by creating an “origin myth” which credited the origin of the disputed text to an appro priately ancient source. Through the invocation of pseudo-epigraphic authorship, inno vation was permitted while upholding the principle of talmudic authority. In the case of the tokens of the bride’s virginity, it was the influence of local non-Jewish custom, in most communities—rather than rabbinic authority—which determined whether or not this rite and blessing were used. In Langer’s other examples from geonic and medieval Jewish practice, too, we find ample proof for Blu Greenberg’s assertion that “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a...