Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System:
A Prayer-by-Prayer Explanation
of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship

by Arnold S. Rosenberg

Jason Aronson/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; © 1997

(review by Rabbi Eli Mallon)

Arnold S. Rosenberg has attempted a daunting feat: Explain the spiritual purpose of the entire traditional Jewish liturgy in a way that’s also scholarly, while also acknowledging relevant innovations of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal branches of Judaism.

His essential point is that liturgy is a guide to spiritual experience:

“Jewish [liturgical] prayer is a means to an end. That end is achieving an altered state of mind and, by doing so, reinforcing ourselves in resisting evil and doing good in our daily lives.” [1]

Praying isn’t an “intellectual” act, although intellect may be involved; not meant to unemotionally fulfill a requirement, even if obligation is involved. Nor does he believe that liturgy obstructs personal, “spiritual” prayer. Words, intellect, mandates, etc., can be tools to bring about a positive change in our consciousness and behavior.

I feel that our liturgy is crystallized from a process central to worship in Mishkan, Temple, even at Mt. Sinai: harmonizing ourselves with the palpable Presence of G-d. Liturgy captures the various stages of that process in a fixed series of prayer-texts, to which “layers” were added in later eras (especially the Middle Ages and the Kabbalistic revival of the 16th century). We must always keep in mind, though, that G-d’s Presence, not our own effort, brings about the “re-harmonization.”  

At first, “kavana” [“attention” or “concentration”] simply means learning to pronounce the words familiarly and fluidly; without effort but not without import. From there, we might progress to learning their literal meanings. We might then work on bringing our attention back to the words when distracted by sounds or thoughts. Comfortably saying the prayers and understanding what we’re saying, we can proceed through a service with a fair degree of ease.

“The immediate goal, attainable through kavana, is to transcend the words of prayer, to know the words so well that they come to mind effortlessly as we become immersed in the visions that go with them.” [2]

Where can we go from there?

At that stage, Mr. Rosenberg’s book can be uniquely helpful in increasing our “kavana” – our attention – during prayer:

“There are numerous popular books on Jewish mysticism and on the Jewish prayer service, but none on the link between the two.” [3

Knowing the historical reasons for prayers can help engender a feeling of joining with all the others who ever said, or ever will say, the same prayers.

Knowing the cognitive reasons for each phase of the service can help make each one special. It may all look like “saying words” when viewed from the outside, but a knowledgeable participant can experience distinctly different states of mind in each of the various phases.  

Knowing why we’re saying what we’re saying – both the cognitive reasons and the historical ones – can deepen our experience significantly, adding import to each detail and phrase.

In saying the “Shema,” for example, we’re meant to be listening to G-d: “With the Shema we visualize ourselves receiving Torah from G-d.” [4

In saying the Amidah, we’re meant to be giving to G-d the best wishes of our hearts for ourselves, our community; our world: “What we ask G-d for — what we visualize during the Amida — is national redemption culminating in world peace.” [5] 

Mr. Rosenberg goes far beyond these simple examples.

He also discusses observances other than prayer – Shabbat candle-lighting, for example – in the same mode as he discusses prayer itself, with the same useful results. His copious footnotes guide us to many other helpful sources and resources.

I might disagree with some of his explanations, but it’s impossible to disagree with his fundamental approach.  

Is his book itself a “spiritual manual?” Does it guide us through the prayers to the experience of which he writes?

Not necessarily. Spiritual directions can’t be followed as literally as those in a recipe for baking a cake. We must find our own way; better – learn it in person from someone well-experienced in the process him/herself. Given Mr. Rosenberg’s emphasis on “community,” this learning might best be pursued as part of a devoted “prayer-havurah.” Still, one can certainly meditate effectively – harmonize him/herself with G-d – even during a conventional service.

Mr. Rosenberg’s book is an important resource for those who, having begun, want to derive more from their Jewish observance.

It can be useful in our preparations for upcoming High Holiday services and as a text to be read and reviewed all year, for many years to come.

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[1] p. 4
[2] p. 208
[3] p. xx
[4] p. 65
[5] p. 73