- The Experience of Jewish Liturgy: Studies Dedicated to Menahem Schmelzer ed. by Debra Reed Blank
Nearly all of the contributors to this volume pay tribute to Professor Menahem Schmelzer, whether at length or briefly. Uri Ehrlich, at the beginning of his contribution, expresses in just a few words the essence of what most of the other authors say: “I dedicate this article to a very kind, outstanding scholar and teacher.” Dr. Schmelzer has served as a full-time professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America since 1961. (His specialty has been medieval Jewish literature, especially piyyut.) And he is also very well known for the many years he dedicated to serving as Librarian (1964–1987). Professor Ehrlich’s sequencing of Professor Schmelzer’s traits is telling: “a very kind outstanding scholar and teacher.” An outstanding scholar, indeed. An outstanding teacher, certainly. Professor Schmelzer has achieved these accolades without doubt. As Professor Blank says in her introduction, he is the scholar’s scholar, “the go-to source when questions of text, context, and analysis arise.” But beyond those enviable accomplishments, he is “very kind.” Anyone who has studied with Professor Schmelzer, or who has interrupted Professor Schmelzer’s work to ask a question, or who has schmoozed with him at the JTS cafeteria, knows the truth of Professor Ehrlich’s first accolade. Even when voicing a dissenting opinion, even when disagreeing strongly with some scholarly point, the humble and gracious way in [End Page 129] which that dissent is registered leaves his interlocutor disarmed with the realization, yet again, that here is “a very kind outstanding scholar and teacher.” This Festschrift of sixteen scholarly essays in the field of Jewish liturgy is a fitting homage to Professor Schmelzer’s ongoing work and interests. The quality of the erudition and research evinced in these articles is uniformly high.
The style of the contributions is unequivocally academic. The number of footnotes in each typically reaches to many dozen. If one were to gather onto one’s desk hard copies of each of the references in any one article, one would have amassed an impressive mini-library of ancient, medieval, and modern primary and secondary works on Jewish liturgy in general, and on whatever niche the particular author happened to be investigating. For the scholar involved in any area related to Jewish liturgy, this book is a must. For the rabbi, cantor, Jewish professional, or interested layman, this book offers many fascinating portals to the contemporary study of Jewish liturgy, but the reader must be forewarned: this is not easy reading. This is the kind of volume one opens to immerse oneself in the work of scholars presenting their current thoughts on a given problem or issue, using the language of their trade. With this kind of thick academese, browsing or scanning is almost impossible. Slow, careful reading is necessary, rewarded, and indeed, a delight.
Among the topics covered are censorship of prayers; Pesaḥ; the High Holidays; the place of heikhalot literature (also known as merkavah mysticism) in the history of prayer and piyyut; the significance of known and unknown midrashim in the composition of piyyut; the role of theology in the composition, evolution, and reform of prayer; the phenomenology (i.e., the experience) of worship; and the contributions of the study of art and music to liturgical inquiry. Among the prayers studied in depth are the standard blessing formula, the Amidah, Hallel, Aleinu, Kaddish, Mah Nishtanah, various prayers of Yom Kippur, and U’netaneh Tokef (perhaps the best known piyyut of the High Holidays).
I don’t intend to comment on each of the entries, but as a student of Jewish liturgy, I should like to share reactions in some detail to two of the essays in order to give a bit more of the flavor...