by Rabbi Azriel C. Fellner
Scholarly books about prayer, in fact, many books about prayer and praying, often, ironically, dull the spirit and deaden the heart. All too often, the abstract language or the academic tone distances the reader from the prayer, and destroys, in the process, the meaning and the power that originally inspired the prayer or transformed it into an emotional experience.
Thus, when a book comes along that not only uses the scholarly apparatus with skill but also retains and even revives, in some instances, the life of the prayer itself, this book is worthy of great praise.
Rabbi Barry Fruendel’s book, Why We Pray What We Pray, is an examination of six prayers: the Kriyat Sh’ma, the reading of the Sh’ma, a core prayer recited daily; the Nishmat prayer, which adorns the beginning of the Shabbat and holiday liturgy; Birkat Hachodesh, the prayer for the new moon; the controversies surrounding the Shir Hakavod, also known by the first words of the poem Anim Zemirot; the Aleinu; and the Kaddish in all its forms and varieties.
Freundel, rabbi of the Orthodox Kesher Israel in D.C. (disclosure: My brother is a congregant), begins his examination of each of these prayers by determining its earliest iterations, found either in the Bible, the Midrash, the mystical literature or the personal pleas of rabbis and teachers.
Then, like a detective, Freundel teases out of each of the sources clues that lead to exactly how each of the prayers either responds to an historical event, is shaped by a particular community, or finds expression in the hearts of the Jewish people, even though the intent of that prayer had been something entirely different.
At the end of each chapter, the reader is treated to a kind of poetic reprise that breathes new life into the words often casually recited by congregants in synagogue. In the process of his examination, Freundel shows how serious Jews took their prayers and in the historical context of their lives shaped and reshaped them.
Of the six chapters on individual prayers, the piece on Anim Zemirot is a near masterpiece. It is recited on Shabbat and holidays toward the very end of the service in many synagogues. There are some synagogues, however, that find the poem, this Shir Hakavod, the Song of Glory, too anthropomorphic.
God, who is the subject of this poem of 31 verses, is represented in concrete images. There are no metaphors and few similes: God is depicted as both old and young, gray-haired or youthful, as a man of war, clothed in white or crimson, and the knot of the tefillin, wrapping his head, visible from the back of his neck. Little wonder that many would consider this piece and its graphic descriptions of God as virtually idolatrous and would consider its recitation in the synagogue as inappropriate, even dangerous.
Tackling Anim Zemirot, attributed to Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid of Regensberg, a leader of the pietists of the 13th century (Freundel assumes Rabbi Yehudah to be the author, though there are scholars who debate that issue), Freundel suggests that this poem is a response to the crusades that took a horrible toll both physically and spiritually on the Jews of Germany.
The utter brutality and inhumane behavior of the crusaders left Jews wondering about the power of God and the meaning of their lives as Jews. For some, the pain was so unbearable that they questioned the continuation of Jewish peoplehood and its religious future.
The Anim Zemirot was an antidote to that despair, a kind of call to God to reveal himself in all his power and strength, concretely and without reservation, and bring about the salvation of his people. How the poem accomplishes that feat of spiritual legerdemain is an intellectually adroit tour de force, which Freundel methodically and patiently reveals in a line by line explication.
Moreover, the examination of this prayer reveals Freundel’s understanding of literary techniques employed by the author, which includes an impressive understanding as to why there appear to be only 31 verses in the poem itself, since the poet wrote in doublets. The poem feels unfinished, as though the last notes of a melody were left hanging in silence. Freundel’s reason as to why the poem ends as it does is cogent.
There is so much more to glean from each chapter, from the controversies over the calendar between the leaders of Babylonia and Judea, to how the Anshe Knesset Hagdolah (Supreme Council of Sages) shaped the Jewish community after its return to Israel from Babylonia some years after the destruction of the First Temple; from the mystical journeys of Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis who “heard” the angels’ prayers to God and brought them back to become part of the siddur, to the “offensive” statement in the first paragraph of the Aleinu prayer that generated a Prussian decree forbidding its recitation.
There are a few things with which to quibble about in this remarkable book, such as its lack of an index and bibliography of sources. Perhaps subsequent editions will remedy those lacunas.
But the ultimate test for this book is that it brings to life these prayers that Freundel studies, making those prayers accessible to lay people and a boon to scholars, as well.
Azriel C. Fellner, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and is the former rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J., records for Audible.com, frequently lectures on the movies all over the country, and writes columns and essays.
The original article may be found here.