Is prayer a recitation of wish lists? Or regrets? A cry for help? What about gratitude? How does one achieve transcendence? Feel God’s presence? What about doubt? Can you pray if you don’t believe? How does prayer affect the supplicant?
And what sort of meaning do we give our words, many of which are everyday words? Where do we draw from? Is prayer really about silence? What happens when people can’t pray? What’s the connection between prayer and hope, between prayer and memory?
I like poet Edward Hirsch’s line, “Passionate attention is prayer, prayer is love,” as he writes in his poem “Colette.”
It may seem counterintuitive, that as we Jews seek what the psalmist calls the “still small voice,” we use words, lots of words.
On the eve of the Jewish New Year, several new prayer books (and some in the works) along with a book about prayer aim to help deepen the experience.
“Nehalel beShabbat,” created by Michael Haruni (Nevarech/Ktav), is a traditional siddur illustrated with color photographs. In an introductory essay, Rabbi Tsvi Grumet calls it “a visual midrash on liturgy.” While there are, of course, no images of God, there are images of God’s creations: landscapes, seascapes, views of shifting light, ancient gates, illuminated manuscript pages, Jerusalem, historical photos, luscious grapes on the vine (adjacent to the Kiddush prayer).
The book has joyousness about it. To use it to pray is to see the liturgy anew. Some pairings of word and image are more literal than others: A blessing for the beginning of the day, thanking God “who engineers the stride of man,” is presented with a photo of a baby taking his first steps and an astronaut walking on the moon. The morning prayer said on entering the sanctuary, Ma Tovu, faces a sepia photo of the exquisite aron kodesh, or holy ark, of a synagogue in Kedainiai, Lithuania.
In the Foreword, Rabbi Daniel Landes writes that with “Nehalel,”a siddur he recommends praying from, “we can rise together to a new level of direct conversation with our creator.” One difficult photo — that the editors debated including — dates back to 1940 Poland and shows a rabbi praying, with tallit and tefillin, and being humiliated by German officials. The photo, juxtaposed with a psalm, suggests the longing for redemption.
Haruni, who devised the book’s format, prepared a sensitive new English translation, took many of the photographs and published the book, urges that we “press our imaginations” beyond the photos. He is now preparing a new volume, for weekday use.
The British-born Haruni writes that from an awareness of the lines of text depicted pictorially, we might move “to a livelier, more encompassing appreciation of the prayer — as if the dimension of meanings, once opened up, suddenly becomes more openly accessible to us.”
I’ve sometimes wondered how people can pray in a shul without windows, and this siddur, looking out to the world, makes that possible.
Highlighting the inspirational teachings of Rabbi Nachman, the “Breslov Siddur” is slated for publication around the time of Chanukah in Israel in a bilingual edition by the Breslov Research Institute. With a new translation by Rabbi Avraham Sutton, the siddur is meant to “transform the daily prayers into a conversation with HaShem.” The user-friendly siddur is actually a three-volume set, with volumes on weekday and Shabbat prayers, with a third volume of extended in-depth commentary, beyond that which appears on the bottoms of the pages of the prayer books.
The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) is planning to publish a new volume, in 2015, “Siddur Lev Shalom,” in the same format as their new mahzor, with an inventive and beautiful graphic design that leaves space for contemplation, inspired in part by Renaissance printing.
“Siddurim should be a personal treasure trove not simply a volume for synagogue use,” says Rabbi Edward Feld, senior editor. “The new Siddur Lev Shalem is directed to the individual Jew, offering insightful directions for entering into Shabbat, Festivals and the world of prayer. On the one hand it bases itself in the traditional liturgy presenting a literal, readable, translation in contemporary language, on the other, it includes poems, prayers and kavannot incorporating the language and perspectives of 21st- century religious search. The extensive commentary is geared to both the novice and the learned, offering both historical insight and spiritual meaning.”
In November, a pilot edition of the Friday night service, will be available in 10 test Conservative congregations.
First published in a bilingual edition in Israel in 2009, the “Koren Sacks Siddur” (Koren Publishing) features a new translation and important introduction by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, an elegant typeface and layout (with Hebrew on the left and English on the right, the opposite of how pages are usually presented. Matthew Miller, publisher of Koren, tells The Jewish Week that they have introduced other volumes for the individual holidays since then, along with a version in Nusach Sefard, or Sephardic tradition. Miller expects the bookshelf to be complete in about two years.
“We’re trying to build two sets of bridges — between Israel and America, and between intelligent, modern Jews and an extremely halachic approach to prayer,” he says. Miller adds, “It changes the prayer experience. Even the line breaks are on purpose, to slow people down. Prayer is poetry — it needs some time to be read.”
“Jewish Men Pray: Words of Yearning, Praise, Petition, Gratitude and Wonder from Traditional and Contemporary Sources” edited by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Stuart M. Matlins (Jewish Lights) suggests supplementary prayers, written by men.
Matlins, who is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of Jewish Lights, tells The Jewish Week, “This is not a prayer book. For a variety of reasons, men in the liberal wings of Judaism have been disappearing from the synagogue. We aren’t going to address the reasons, but have to provide some of the solution. One of the ways is to help men open up their spiritual lives, particularly their prayer lives — their personal relationship with God.”
Included are thoughtful prayers from classic and contemporary sources on a range of themes, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (“How Will I Convey the Great Truth?”), Rabbi Irwin Kula (“A Prayer for What I Need”) , Jay Michaelson (“On Being with Constricted Jewish People and Concepts”), Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (“In Thanks”), Rabbi Howard Cooper (“On Unemployment”), Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (“Take Off My Heavy Burden”) and many others.
As to why a book specifically for men when all the prayer books were written by men, Matlins says, “The answer is that Moses, neither the original nor Maimonides, worried about issues of body image and dealing with jobs and their colleagues. They didn’t focus on family lives and their relationship with their children in the same way that modern men do and have to do today. Men have unique needs just as women do, and those needs need to be addressed. Unfortunately, those needs have too often been ignored.”
“Some people who are born lucky have an intense personal relationship with God. The rest of the fold learn it over the course of their lives — Sometimes it takes a great tragedy to bring people into that relationship,” he adds.
What about women’s prayers? In some ways, Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s 2003 “ Lifecycles 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones” (Jewish Lights) was a book on Jewish women’s prayer, as it included prayers for women’s passages that had been neglected. Rabbi Orenstein, who leads Temple Israel in Emerson, N.J., points out that historically, techinos, prayers written in Yiddish for women, focused on what were traditionally considered women’s issues, including candlelighting, pregnancy and family welfare. While many of these techinos were written by men for women, many were also written by women.
“We are still uncovering women’s prayers,” Rabbi Orenstein says, citing Dinah Berland’s 2007 translation and reissue of “Hours of Devotion,” written by Fanny Neuda, a 19th-century wife, daughter, and grand-daughter of rabbis.
“The grandeur and greatness of the siddur and mahzor is that both men and women can find and express themselves in them. But the liturgy was never canonized or closed, and Jews are encouraged to create new prayers, orally or in writing, to express their concerns and connection to God. Personal and spontaneous prayer are very much part of the Jewish liturgical tradition.”
All of these books will help enlighten and even uplift, perhaps answer some of the tough questions. I leave the last word to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, quoted in the epigraph to “Jewish Men Pray.” “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”