A multiplicity of voices
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A multiplicity of voices

Local author's new book explores the inner workings of Jewish prayer

Do not be fooled by the rows of black Hebrew letters into thinking the machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book, speaks with one voice.

Tzvee Zahavy imagines a machzor (or siddur) where different prayers – or even different passages within a single prayer – are printed in different colors to highlight the different voices that, he believes, make up the liturgy.

“It’s not just one unified symphony with one orchestra,” he says.

In his new book, “God’s Favorite Prayers,” Zahavy picks out six “archetypes” reflected in the prayers. The different archetypes reflect different ways of relating to God.

They have different physical postures. They have different ways of connecting to God. And they express themselves in different parts of the prayer service.

Zahavy begins by describing the “Performer,” who can be seen when the prayer book has us repeating – performing – biblical passages. The quotations from the Bible that are at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf services are emblematic of this aspect of the prayer book. The Performer has us connect to God by reciting God’s favorite passages as part of the service, or by reading from the Torah – the act at the center of the Shabbat worship service.

Not all recitations from biblical texts reflect the Performer, however, says Zahavy.

Notably, the readings from the Torah that constitute the Sh’ma reflect a very different mode of prayer.

For one thing, the most ancient rules of Jewish prayer – those found in the Mishnah – mandate a specific kind of intention for the Sh’ma, debating when one must focus and when one can return a greeting during the recitation.

Digging deeper

Zahavy could not understand this.

“Why speak about greetings when you are talking about focus? What more were they telling me by framing the rules as they did?” he asked himself.

He found the answer when he was writing at his computer and his wife came in to tell him her plans for the day.

“Just a minute,” he heard himself saying. “I do want to hear what you are saying. Please just let me concentrate to finish writing this paragraph.”

“I understood a lot at the moment that I said that,” says Zahavy. “It became clear to me that, when the rabbis spoke about focus – kavvanah – for reciting the Sh’ma, they used a model of concentration that was familiar to a writer – to a person who is engaged in textual work, to a scholar sitting at his desk and trying to think through his complete thoughts.”

Thus was born the archetype of the “Scribe.”

Seen as a prayer of scribes, other aspects of the Sh’ma began to make sense. The prayer is recited seated, the position in which a scribe writes. It talks of reward and punishment – in ancient times, the scribes were the accountants. And it focuses on those mitzvot of mezuzah and tefillin that are the craft of the scribes.

A third archetype is that of the “Priest.”

The Priest’s religious concerns naturally focus on the Temple and on sacrifices.

One of the Priest’s starkest distinctions from the Scribe, however, concerns concentration and posture. In contrast to the Sh’ma, recited sitting down, what Zahavy identifies as a priestly prayer, the Amidah, is recited with what Zahavy calls “a martial kind of self-possession, standing with erect posture, feet together. The person reciting the prayer needs to bow at the proper intervals, in keeping with his martial drill.

The obedient guard

“Like a palace guard, the Priest archetype who is engaged in prayer is militarily focused on the prescribed activities. He obeys what he is commanded to obey and deliberately ignores all other noises or intrusions into his material context,” says Zahavy.

The three other archetypes Zahavy describes are that of the “Mystic,” whose prayers often relate to angels; the “Meditator,” whom Zahavy sees as focusing consciousness through blessings over food; and the “Celebrity Monotheist,” who rejoices in worshiping God through the one true faith.

Zahavy developed the ideas behind his book when he was asked to teach a liturgy course at the Jewish Theological Seminary a couple of years ago. His studies of the prayer book go back to his childhood, as the son of the rabbi of several Manhattan Orthodox pulpits; to his studies at Yeshiva University with Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Aharon Lichtenstein; and to his academic work where, as a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota, he investigated the historical origins of the prayers described in the Mishnah and Talmuds. He published translations of the Jerusalem Talmud tractate on prayer, Berachot. And he speculated on the possible origin of prayers in competing priestly and scribal circles of pre-talmudic Judaism.

When he set out to teach and explore the prayer book, however, he rejected both the theological and historical approaches. “Teaching liturgy means you have to teach what it is, how it works, how is it dramatic, what does it articulate as part of the Jewish soul,” he says.

He feels his approach “heightens spirituality by seeing more sharply the elements that are in the prayer book in front of us.”

“God’s Favorite Prayers” is not simply a book about the prayer book, however. It is in part a spiritual memoir and autobiography.

Spiritual odyssey

“Just as the midrash presents stories of rabbis to make important, deep theological points, I present my own spiritual odyssey, the interactions and anecdotes that I have had with rabbis and spiritual people,” he says.

For Zahavy, discovering the archetypes – what he calls, “the six people you meet in synagogue” – has had an impact on his own spiritual life.

“It has made my prayers more meditative and immediate and in the moment,” he says.

“We have to get over the idea of davening without a break, without punctuation, trying to finish as fast as you can without really reflecting deeply. We need to make sure that we stop and see the themes of our services – and of our own spiritual needs.

“Boredom is not possible for me as I open the prayer book, because whenever I open it I am looking to see more nuances, looking to see where is the scribe, where is the priest, where is the meditator. Why are we talking about angels? Obviously, we are in a mystical mode! It makes me pay attention to every aspect of the prayer book,” he says.

Zahavy is convinced that the prayer book, with all its facets, reflects the genius of the Jewish soul.

“We were blessed with different geniuses who created the structures we have in front of us,” he says.

“What troubles me is that when you daven through the siddur really fast so you can get home 10 minutes faster, it’s kind of like going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing how fast you can run through the Impressionist rooms, still seeing every one of the Impressionist masterpieces, but trying to save five minutes. When you run through the machzor or the siddur, you’re going through the great masterpieces of the liturgical expression and you’re trying to save five minutes. Something better can be accomplished,” he says.

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