A Remarkable New Book by Barry Freundel, “Why We Pray What We Pray”

by Tzvee

Barry Freundel has published a remarkable new book, Why We Pray What We Pray through Urim Publications.

The description from the publisher says:

”Why We Pray What We Pray” details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer (Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish) has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

We are most impressed by the wide scope of the author’s learning and by his accessible writing style. That desire to reach the reader comes through clearly in the author’s chapter titles and in the presentation of their contents.

Chapter 1: It is Not Your Great Grandfather’s Keriyat Shema
Chapter 2: Nishmat: The Soul, the Song, Shabbat and the Pope
Chapter 3: Birkat ha-Hodesh — Can’t We All Get Along
Chapter 4: Reaching for the Face of God — Anim Zemirot, the Song of Glory
Chapter 5: Aleinu — Climbing the Stairway to Heaven
Chapter 6: Kaddish: The Response that Keeps on Giving

Talmudic Analysis:

First of all, of course we like being cited in the footnotes. And then we found much to review here of the scholarly work on these prayers that we already knew and more that we did not know. Freundel summarizes the views of the major historians of the liturgy. He also presents the primary textual evidence from rabbinic literature and from mystical treatises along with a line by line translation. This opens up those sources to a wide readership. Freundel is a very good teacher.

We are in debt to Freundel for validating our conclusions regarding three of the prayers. He speaks in one discussion of the Shema of the, “choreograpghy involving both the Jews praying below and the angels praying above (62).” This is just one instance of how Freundel throughout the book recognizes the modalities of the prayers and keeps them separate in his analysis.

We were further indebted to see his citation in the Aleinu chapter confirming that the martyrs of Blois recited the prayer in 1171 at their executions (228). It validates one of our main points about that prayer as we will present it in our new book. In fact, with that confirmation in hand we were able to extend and deepen our discussion of the Aleinu adding several pages to our chapter. We were grateful for other points that Freundel confirmed for us as well.

We liked that Freundel underscored repeatedly the mystical character of the Kaddish. We most certainly agree. Others do not see it that clearly. He says, reciting a prayer like this one elevates the reciter to a, “mystical realm where they can respond as the angels do (261).” We don’t make such ambitious assumptions about elevations. But we are glad to see a sensitive scholar in the same ballpark with us regarding the central essence of the liturgy.

On this we disagree with the author. He does see, “The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer” (the subtitle of his book) as a core factor in providing meaning and depth to his congregants. Our view is that the origins of prayers do not tightly determine their essences or value for present theological purposes. Freundel is not yet on board with that point of view.

There is much of great value here for those who wish to learn the history and development of these liturgies. Embedded in that work of reconstruction is the author’s unmatchable sensitivity to the nuances and meanings of the prayers for the present day worshipper.

We were disappointed to see that the volume lacks indexes. Perhaps this can be remedied in later editions, making the book an even more valuable resource to scholars and laypersons alike.

From Tzvee’s Talmudic Blog.


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