Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: Jewish Prayer the Right Way

This original review was published in Bookjed Digest 106

Davening is one of those things in life that definitely gets better with age.  Teaching people how to daven is also easier talked about than  practiced and is often left to modeling (watching how other people preform) or reading literature on tefilla.  While there are many works that complement the siddur, reading Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen’s Jewish Prayer the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas (Urim Publications 2012) one discovers an easily digestible resource and an important addition to an educator’s library.

Cohen’s style of writing is extremely clear and the queries presented on each aspect of tefillalend to excellent trigger topics for formal and informal educators looking to prepare for activities.  I could almost hear how such a book was developed out of a tefilla course given at a high school or from mini-lecture between mincha/maariv in a local shul.  This work reflects both Cohen’s scholarly and rabbinic pedigree and his keen eye for what resonates with contemporary readers.   Topics range from “The Chazzan’s Place” and “Prayers for Luxury” to “Kaddish for a Gentile Parent” and “Davening on the Airplane”.

One shortfall of this work, I found, was in the title.  In proclaiming what appears to be his series of “the Right Way” Cohen seems to be espousing that there is a single halachic answer to each question presented, whereas in my personal experience and paying close attention to several excerpts in this book, there is sometimes no clear answer to conclude.   As some of the questions do address issues of minhag I found the scent of this authoritarian angle to misrepresent what the goal of writing this was to do.  This title clause does not however detract from the bountiful research within the binding but I would have liked to read more in the introduction from the author on this issue.

Another curiosity in reviewing this book was the quiet side stepping of clearly more controversial tefilla issues.   The closest you get to a question in the neighborhood of feminism is “Women Davening in Synagogues”.  Cohen does address, in the sub chapter on “Kavod Hatzibur”, of woman being called up to the Torah but does not reference any possible impact or contextualization and concludes with a short one sentence paragraph stating that “it would be a breach of Jewish law and tradition for any congregation to assume that they have the authority to annul the ordinance of the Talmudic Sages prohibiting women from being called up for analiyah” (241).  In the most objective manner that I can write, I would like to have seen the issue addressed in a more practical application.

Overall,  Jewish Prayer the Right Way offers a rich reading on the topic of tefilla and should be acquired by educators and readers who want to be enriched by the story of how religious law and life are intertwined.

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