The Changing Ecology of Jewish Religious Life

By Kaiser, Jo Ellen Green | Tikkun, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

The Changing Ecology of Jewish Religious Life


Kaiser, Jo Ellen Green, Tikkun


The Changing Ecology of Jewish Religious Life My People's Prayer Book, vols. 1-8, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998-2005.

Judaism loses something as a religion when every prayer service is led by a professional. That is not to say that it isn't inspiring to hear an operatically-trained cantor or to anticipate the well-considered sermon of an esteemed rabbi. A rabbi's main task, however, is not to lead services but to be a teacher who can translate Torah to our everyday lives. While the prayer service can be a time to teach-and should be if it includes reading from Torah-it is also something else, a time to affirm identity, to grapple with our deepest desires, to reach God. And in Judaism, we reach out to God in community. The Jewish prayer service is all about the relation of the individual to the whole and the importance of each to each.

The centerpiece of the Jewish prayer service is the Amidah, a collection of eighteen separate prayers of praise, petition, and thanksgiving. The third section of the Amidah, the Kedushah, or holiness prayer, cannot be recited aloud without a minyan, a community often adult Jews (adult men in Orthodoxy). What strikes the synagogue visitor, however, is that in addition to being recited aloud, the Amidah is also recited silently-and, indeed, individuals reciting the prayer are encouraged to personalize it by adding their own petitions, blessings, and thoughts before concluding. It is traditional to wait until each individual has concluded her prayer before resuming the spoken service. Without the group, the individual cannot pray; until each individual concludes his personal prayer, the group does not continue.

The individual's responsibility in a Jewish prayer service is large. Indeed, one aim of a bar/bat mitzvah is to enable the newly adult Jew to lead an entire service. Each adult of the community is theoretically considered able to lead services; nothing in Jewish theology privileges the professional over the layperson in this regard. In fact, in smaller Orthodox shuls and progressive chavurahs, lay people often are invited to lead services. Pulling an individual out of the community as its temporary leader affirms the important relationship between individual and community-affirms that the community needs every individual and not just its rabbi/teacher.

Most Jews, however, feel sadly unequipped for this kind of participatory role. The service is largely in Hebrew, composed of prayers devised almost 2,000 years ago, in an order that can be little short of baffling. Until now, if you didn't figure it all out by the time you were thirteen, well, good luck!

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has changed the very ecology of Jewish religious life with his monumental series, My People's Prayer Book. Hoffman aims to make this book "once again open to all Jews," so that we can share "the richness of the Jewish soul" that can be found in the prayerbook's pages. In so doing, Hoffman helps us connect not only to the Jewish soul of the past but to the life of the Jewish community in the present.

Each volume tackles one section of the daily prayer service, with the first six books focusing primarily on the most complex service, the morning Shacharit. Hoffman's publisher, Jewish Lights, asserts that the series has concluded at volume eight, but one hopes that Hoffman will reconsider and take up a whole new set for the holiday liturgy.

The volumes in the series are not designed for prayer itself, but to help us prepare for prayer. They are a great way to spend a quiet moment on Shabbat at home or in your shul's library, as you can easily dip into any aspect of the liturgy. Each volume contains a template introductory chapter by Hoffman on the liturgy as a whole, followed by one to three essays on the history of the development of the section of the service being covered.

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