Skip to content

Elie Kaunfer: Core issues in prayer (part 2)

October 12, 2011

Yesterday, I posted the first segment of the first lecture of Elie Kaunfer.  Please refer to that post for introduction and context.  Here is next segment of Kaunfer’s lecture:


In the academic world the inspiration for this approach is Reuven Kimelman, who is a professor at Brandeis. He really takes prayers and he looks at the literary themes within the prayers, and he connects them with the texts that that stands behinds the prayers. Kimelman writes:

Source 3: “[T]he meaning of the liturgy exists not so much in the liturgical text per se as in the interaction between the liturgical text and the biblical intertext. Meaning, in the mind of the reader, takes place between texts rather than within them.” (Reuven Kimelman, “The Shema’ Liturgy” in Kenishta, Vol. 1 (2001) p. 28)

Now what Kimelman is saying in plain English is that you can never examine a text on its own. You have to always look at the other texts, the intertexts, that stand behind the texts of the prayerbook, and by juxtaposing them you create meaning. Now while Kimelman represents a modern representative of this approach, the idea is quite old. I want to look at two stages of development going backwards. The first will be the medieval stage, and I will identify the R”I bar Yakar (Rabbi Yehuda bar Yakar), who was the teacher of the Rambam (Maimonides) and Abudraham. These were two medieval commentators, the prior one living in the thirteenth century, and Abudraham in the fourteenth century. They constructed book length commentaries on the siddur (prayerbook), essentially dedicated to finding the biblical intertexts of prayer. I brought for you a source for Abudraham; I will read it in English:

Source 4: “You should know that the language of prayer is based on the language of Scripture. Therefore you will find written in this commentary on every word a verse like it or relating to its essence. There are a few words that did not have a biblical basis, and therefore I will bring for them a basis from the Talmud.” – (Abudraham HaShalem, p. 6)

Abudraham’s whole project here is to say that there is a text that is in dialogue with the text of the siddur (prayerbook). Abudraham drew on the work of the R”I bar Yakar’s less known commentary and he actually copied whole swaths of this book (in the good whole days where plagiarism was a compliment), but the methodology even extends back earlier than the medieval period. And that’s something that’s illustrated by Talmud itself. For this I want to read story about someone who prayerd the Amidah prayer from the Talmud, not to look at the theological implications of this, which are profound, but to look at the methodological implications of interpretation:

Source 5: “There was once one who prayed (the Amidah prayer) before Rabbi Hanina and said: ‘The great, mighty, awesome, powerful, strong, courageous God.’ Rabbi Haninah said to him: ‘Have you exhausted all the possible praise of your Master? Were it not that they were written by Moses in the Torah and affixed by the Men of the Great Assembly, we would not even dare to utter those three [descriptions]! But you go on adding all of these?! It may be compared to a human king who had thousands upon thousands of gold coins, and people praised him for owning silver. Isn’t that a terrible degradation of him?’ “ (Babylonian Talmud Megilah 25a)

So now again, breaking the theological of Rabbi Hanina (which I may or may not get back to), what is he saying methodologically? The only way that I can pray is by noticing that the words of prayers are written by Moses in the Torah. Indeed, if Moses had not written them, I would not be able ascribe adjectives to God. So when you look for the Biblical intertext, it opens up (I want to argue) some possibilities. And just to see that intertext does exist, look at what Moses wrote in the Torah:

Source 6: “For God your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. The great, mighty, and awesome God who shows no favor and takes no bribe; who does justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

Now the context here of this phrase, ha’el hagadol hagibor v’hanora (the great, mighty, and awesome God), is totally different from the one in the Amidah prayer which we may have associated with a more cosmic God. Right? A creator God. A God who was going to be great, might, and awesome by dint of the fact that God created the universe. But here we have a different context in which God is acting in an ethical way towards people who are most vulnerable. Now this, I would argue, opens up some possibilities of interpretation which I am not going to go into now (see my previous lectures), but the methodology is one that I want to focus on. Even as early as the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina is pointing out that you have another text that stands behind the prayer.

Now that we’ve established a methodology of connecting biblical texts to the liturgy, the religious question creeps back in. What is the interpretative advantage of linking texts one to another. And here I am going to receive the question as a religious one. What do I do when I encounter a prayer that is troublesome? Or to ask it somewhat less provocatively, what do I do when I encounter words that I simply do not connect to, that are uninteresting to me, or that I cannot find a way into?

There is a rabbi named Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz who claimed that the words of prayer are, drawing on the imagery from Vayikra (Leviticus), “weavings of gold” that need to be filled with kavvanah (prayerful intention). But what if I cannot fill the words with kavvanah? They are meant to be filled, but I cannot do it. How am I supposed to approach that problem? Ultimately, the academic approaches are lacking. The philological and the form criticism method offer little assistance. As Hoffman notes in his critique of them, every liturgist has thus been in the uncomfortable position of lecturing on the origin of this or that prayer, only to be asked by a lay person why we prayed in the first place. In other words, it does not matter how old the prayer is or when it was written or if it is the original one, if you cannot tell me why I have to say it. What does it mean? What does it mean religiously? The alternative is simple textual archeology, which may be of scholarly interest, but has nothing to do with our interest here, which is a religious one. Even Hoffman’s approach of holism, while much wider in scope, sets aside the thorny issue of the text and it instead analyzes deeper anthropological issues about the people who are saying the text, but leaves the interpretation of the text for an unanswered question.

Now I want to speak a little bit of how modern movements have dealt with this question of interpretation or difficult issues in text before coming to our methodology and putting it into use.

All the modern movements have had one of three reactions to the question of what to do with a difficult text or a text that one cannot connect to. I’ll lay them out here: Number one, cut. Number two, rewrite. Number three, interpret. Now, some of these are somewhat obvious associations with various movements and so we do not have to belabor that point. I did want to bring one from the early Reformers which I think is just fascinating from a process standpoint.

In the Seventh Session of the First Rabbinical College, which took place in Brunswick in 1844, there was a vote that was held about the Kol Nidrei prayer (a Yom Kippur prayer where all vows in the coming year are declared null and void.) And we have here the minutes of the discussion:

Source 7: “The discussion is declared concluded. The question is now asked:

1) Should the Conference declare that the oath of a Jew, invoking the Name of God, is binding without any further ceremony?
Unanimous Response: Yes!

2) Does the Conference declare that Kol Nidre is unessential? And will the members of the Conference, in their spheres of jurisdiction, work for its abolition, already in time for next Yom Kippur?

(Jakob Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe, p. 336)

So we have the cutting recorded in the minutes from 1844. And while this approach is obviously popular particularly among Reform and Reconstructionist liturgies, some of which we will look at in a minute, it also shows up in Conservative and even Orthodox liturgies or liturgical approaches.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Gik permalink
    February 26, 2016 3:26 pm

    Great post. One small correction: Yehuda bar Yakar was the teacher of the Ramban, not the Rambam! He was one of the fathers of kabbalah, not an Aristotelian..


  1. Elie Kaunfer: Core issues in prayer (part 1) « BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: