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. Read the rest of this entry »