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Elie Kaunfer: Core issues in prayer (part 1)

October 11, 2011

Elie Kaunfer last month offered a remarkable series of lectures (the last lecture being offered by Joey Weissenberg), Core Issues in Jewish Prayer. Although these lectures were given in a Jewish context, I believe that the fundamental issues he addresses are more universal (thus I have dropped the adjective “Jewish” in my blog title of this transcription.)

These lectures deserve further attention, but Kaunfer is a rapid speaker and it is sometimes tedious to listen to recorded lectures, rather than read them.

I have transcribed the first ten and half minutes of Kaunfer’s first lecture (with handouts here) and as time and interest allows, I may transcribe further sections of the lecture series and post them on this blog as part of an irregular series.  I have slightly edited the text for grammar.  Here is Elie Kaunfer:


OK, welcome everybody. I am excited to see you all here. Welcome to Mechon Hadar’s Fall series, our Elul series, entitled “Core Issues in Jewish Prayer.” My name is Elie Kaunfer. Let me make a few introductory remarks, including a roadmap for these three lectures, and then we’re going to dive into the issue of hand tonight, which is really a discussion of the words of prayer.

I want to start by welcoming our full-time fellows who started their day here at Yeshivat Hadar. These people who are with us for the next nine months to do learning and davening (praying) and community outreach and we’re so excited to have you all here. So, thank you. And I also want to welcome the alums of our program, both our full-time programs and our executive seminars – it is good to see you all back. And welcome to all of the new faces in the room.

OK, I am going to start by putting all of my cards on the table and speak a little about why I think it is important to talk about prayer. Prayer is a core part – if not the core part – of what it means to be a religious person. It is the expression of what it means to be a Jew standing in covenantal relationship with God. And it is nothing short of Judaism’s answer to connecting to the divine. Or, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a teacher that I am going to quote repeatedly tonight and next week,

Source 1: “To live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, p. 59)

Prayer when taken seriously is miraculous, and I want to point to a couple of miraculous features of prayer. It has the power to elevate us. It has power to put God at the center of our experience and to refocus our connection away from worldly things towards the Divine, hopefully impacting our experience in the world itself. It also has a miraculous potential for intensity. The Baal Shem Tov said famously: “The great chesed (gift – loving kindness) from God is that people survive the hour of prayer. “ When you take that seriously you can see the true miraculous of what a prayer could offer.

And yet, we’re so often far from that experience. Instead, we are living in a period that is animated by a “crisis of prayer,” to use another term of Abraham Joshua Heschel. This can be attributed to many factors. It could be related to a lack of prayer role models. It could be related a deficit of inspiration, to an inability to focus. But if I was going to pick one, I would say it is the following: cynicism. Cynicism is really the ultimate roadblock in my opinion that prevents us from experience that moment of prayer life. The cynic in us, the cynic in me, always maligns the possibility of prayer. We talk, we joke, we read, we cross our legs, we fold our arms, we don’t really believe that there is any deep power in prayer. And so we mock the people who think that there is a possibility of prayer, even if those people are not even alive anymore.

The goal of this series is to say: forces of cynicism do not always have to win. If we meet head on the difficulties in davening (praying), then we are at least taking seriously the potential in what it means to pray. It is my intention to examine this difficulties head on, together with you, to open up new pathways in prayer.

Before I move further to laying out the structure of this series, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge some of my teachers in some of my thinking. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what it means to pray and what it means to study the text of prayer from a number of teachers including Rabbi Ebn Leader, Dr. Devora Steinmetz, and my own parents, Rabbi Alvin and Marcia Kaunfer. I also want to take a moment to credit my colleagues who are my fellow travelers in what it means to study and live a prayerful life. Both the leaders of Mechon Hadar, Ethan Tucker, Shai Held, Avital Hochstein, and to all those people in the extended Hadar community, stretching all the way back to Kehilat Hadar’s founding, who really opened up the possibility of what it means to pray full without having to check a part of myself at the door.

This series is divided into three parts. Tonight we are going to focus on the words of prayer, and explore a particular approach to interpretation. Next week, we will move beyond the word, turning our attention to the aesthetics of prayer. And finally in the third session, led by my colleague Joey Weisenberg, we are going to explore the connection to music and the possibilities unlocked through singing and prayer.

But tonight I want to focus on the issue of the text of prayer, and ultimately describe a methodology of interpreting prayers that is service of increasing the religion quotient in the analysis of texts of prayers. That is to say, there are many ways of considering the texts of prayers. But for my purposes, unless they lead to a religious end, they are of little use in solving the “crisis of prayer.” In the academic study of liturgy, there have been three major approaches to encountering the text of prayer. I am going to briefly describe them here, and then I am going to contrast these approaches with the one I am going that I am suggesting here tonight, which I will term the literary-intertext approach. Then we will this put this methodology, the literary-intertext methodology, to the test, first with a fairly uncontroversial line from the Havdalah prayer, and perhaps if time allows, to a line from the Amidah prayer.

So, onto the academic models. One of the first modern scholars of the scientific study of Judaism, Leopold Zunz, pioneered one approach to dealing with words and specifically words in prayers. Zunz’s approach, known as philology, is reflective of the academic spirit of his age in the 1800s. By studying the variants and history of the text, he claimed to be able to uncover the earliest recession of the prayer. Zunz and his intellectual heirs, including scholarly giants such as Ismar Elbogen, Daniel Goldschmidt, Ezra Fleischer, and the contemporary scholar Uri Ehrlich, believed that such an original text can be uncovered. You can find the first text of the Amidah, let us say, or any particular blessing. And many in this school also tried to connect to some political explanation to tie to the original text. If we could derive the original text, then let us think about what the political motivations for why someone might have written the text were. The most famous example is the Curse Against Heretics (the Blessing of the Heretics) in the Amidah prayer, which people have tried to connect to actual political events on the ground some two thousand years ago.

Joseph Heinemann represents the teacher of the second approach in the academic study of liturgy, known as form-criticism. And here he takes a page out of the extent of Biblical textual approaches, by saying that essential that there is no such thing as an ur-text, there is no original text; texts arose at the same time in tandem. There is no way of identifying what the number one original text was, even if there were such a text, we could not identify it. His theory is basically that these were multiple expressions of the same idea that happened together, and there was no rabbinic central authority that had controlled over saying “this is the text,” that then got edited later. So instead of having one text that splits, there were many texts that perhaps got funneled into one. What did Heinemann do then, if we cannot find an original text? He tries to classify texts, not by their age, but by their institutional origin. So he takes something like the Bar’chu prayer, and he says he noticse something about the Bar’chu parayer – it is in the second person. Right? “Bar’chu” means “you bless.” It is a command. “You should bless.” So who is speaking to me? Who is speaking to the worshiper? Heinemann identifies that with the priestly institutional locus, where priests were telling other Jews how to worship, or to worship in this moment. That is contrasted with something that comes out of, let’s say beit midrash origin, a study hall origin, where he connects something like the Kaddish prayer. For Heinemann, it was not the idea of the original form of the Kaddish prayer, but to say that the Kaddish prayer and the Bar’chu prayer are totally different because they arise out of different institutional origins.

The final academic approach I am going to just briefly touch on is one pioneered by Larry Hoffman in his book entitled Beyond the Text, which was published back in 1988. Hoffman is a scholar at Hebrew Union College, and if you are interested in those previous two approaches, the philology approach and the form-criticism approach, he also writes about those in his book. But Hoffman basically recognizes that praying is much more than texts, and as a result he introduces what he calls the holistic approach. In his words, this approach is meant to argue from texts to people. Hoffman is not interested in the text ultimately; he is interested in what the text can tell us about the people who were saying the text. In service of that goal, he employs a holistic approach, that is to say a multi-disciplinary approach, trying on the ideas of anthropology and linguistic theory to say something significant about the people who were saying the text. Now Hoffman is surely right when he states

Source 2: “Prayers are unique human cultural extensions of those who pray them, indistinguishable as prayers, in fact, as long as they are separated from the act of praying…. Liturgy is not a literary matter in the first place.” (Larry Hoffman, Beyond the Text, p. 6)

Hoffman stresses his holistic approach when he says “liturgy is not literary matter in the first place.” That is a fairly bold claim. In other words, as the title of his book suggests, he is moving beyond the text; he does not care about the text as an end in itself, he cares about the people who said it.

But while there is much appeal in Hoffman’s approach, tonight I am not really prepared to move fully beyond the text, because truly the word or wordiness of prayer, for the cynics among us, either provides an opportunity for blockage or in a best case scenario a way in. That is to say, what ultimately connects me to praying? It is the words. And I want to offer an interpretive approach that hopefully can connect us to those words in a deeper way, and that is what I am calling literary-intertext approach.

(Part 2 continues here.)


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