Book review: Service of the Heart

"It is my contention that prayer is crucial and essential for a Jew today even if no One is listening or answering." So writes Rabbi Hillel Silverman (emphasis his, not mine) in his introduction to Evelyn Garfiel's Service of the Heart: A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book (Wilshire Book Company, 1958). The question of why we pray (and the corollary question of whether prayer "works") is an oldie but a goodie. I think it's interesting that Rabbi Silverman addresses that question in his introduction to this book -- as if to say, "Look, before we get to the juicy stuff about how our prayerbook works, let me address those pesky questions about whether prayer matters and why we do it in the first place."

He offers six reasons why prayer is good for us: When we pray, we appeal to the best within us. Prayer reintegrates us with our whole selves (mitigating the depersonalization inherent in modern life). Prayer creates "the experience of mystery." Prayer connects Jews with our past, present, and future. Prayer teaches us about our religious values. And prayer brings pleasure and joy. Prayer, he concludes, "will not produce miracles, if by miracle we mean the supernatural suspension and violation of the laws of nature...But prayer can and does produce miracles in the sense that it impels men to produce miracles within themselves." (Emphasis his, again.) Then, having presumably reassured the reader that prayer is relevant even in the modern age, Rabbi Silverman gives a resounding round of applause to Evelyn Garfiel's book, which he regards as an excellent tool for beginning to understand the liturgy -- a prerequisite for meaningful prayer.

Dr. Garfiel was a psychologist who taught at a variety of universities, among them the Jewish Theological Seminary. This book arose out of courses she taught at the JTS Women's Institute in the 1950s. She begins by noting that people "today" often argue that prayer should be from the heart, and find set liturgies unsatisfactory. "But is it not possible," she cautions, "that this plea for spontaneity may sometimes be a cloak for sentimentality, perhaps even an excuse for not praying at all?" For Garfiel, the appropriate venue for personal or spontaneous devotion is within the structured framework of the service as it's set down in the siddur.

Garfiel offers a short history of synagogues, of verbal worship as a replacement for Temple sacrifice, and of the earliest siddurim, crafted by the geonim (illustrious scholars) Amram and Saadia  in the ninth century of the Common Era. For some centuries, we learn, the siddur grew by accretion. In the late 1800s a process of radical revisions and reimaginings began, which is still playing itself out. Garfiel gives slightly more column-inches to the Conservative siddur than to its Reform and Reconstructist counterparts, but she does a decent job of fairly characterizing those three movements as they stood when she was writing the book.

That stuff all serves as foregrounding for Garfiel's real subject: the siddur in its most basic form. The bulk of Service of the Heart is an exploration of the traditional three daily services (weekday and Shabbat), showing the structure of each service and the trajectory the order of prayers is meant to establish. This is solid stuff, well-footnoted and clearly explained.

I liked Garfiel's point about brachot, that when we say "Baruch Atah Adonai..." we are not only blessing and thanking God, but evoking a sense of God's nearness. The section on the history of the kaddish intrigued me. And I finally learned, from this book, why  the tallit is worn at morning services but not afternoon or evening ones. (In a nutshell: it relates to the line in the shema which exhorts us to look at our fringes and be reminded thereby of God's mitzvot and do them. Since we don't recite shema at the afternoon service, we don't wear one then; and since the evening service is recited at dusk when it might be too dark to look upon our fringes, we eschew the wearing until morning again. Cool, eh? I'm not sure how this relates to wearing a tallit katan, though...)

I also liked her reflections on the word olam and how its meaning has changed over time. In Biblical Hebrew the term usually means "forever," but in rabbinic times its meaning was expanded to also mean "the world" or "the universe." In that one switch from time to place, Garfiel sees evidence of a greater paradigm shift toward making Judaism universal.

Occasionally Garfiel's language and emphases seem dated. She seems to be writing with the unspoken aim of proving that Judaism is as enlightened as Christianity,  as when she archly notes that the Our Father owes a fair amount to the Jewish siddur. Her biases show when she chastises liturgical reformers for removing references to the restoration of sacrifice in the Temple. And I was disappointed by the dryness of her discussion of the Shekhinah in the liturgy. (I wanted her to explore, or at least mention, the mystics' multifaceted conception of God  -- Shekhinah along with sefirot and ein sof  -- and she didn't. Indeed, she privileges rational thought over mysticism throughout, which makes sense given the context for her work, but which occasionally frustrated me.)

On the whole, though, my quibbles are few. If you want to understand why Jewish communal prayer is the way it is, this is a fine place to start. And sometimes I agree with Garfiel's overarching point(s) about liturgy, even when I don't share her practical conclusions about how we should be praying. For instance, when she writes:

We misunderstand the nature of prayer if we demand brevity of it. An essay makes its point as clearly and as briefly as possible, but prayer is not an essay, not even an essay on theology. It aims not to explain but to produce a mood through the medium of words. All mood-inducing speech is rhythmic, repetitious.

Prayer aims not to instruct but to "produce a mood," what I might call "to change our consciousness:" right on. Of course, Garfiel extends this passage into an exhortation to keep all of the traditional repetitions of various prayers, a practice with which I don't necessary agree. She places a premium on preserving the traditional format of the service; for my part, I think it's more important to get congregants excited about how the prayers work, even if we only recite the amidah once.

But that's hardly surprising. Garfiel was a professor at JTS; of course she supported the Conservative approach to liturgy. (Which, as has been previously noted, is not my favorite way to davven.) I think it's a credit to Garfiel that her text is still so useful, even fifty years after publication and in the hands of someone whose approach to liturgy is well to the left of mainstream.

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