Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: G-d's Favorite Prayers

Several months ago, I purchased a book by Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, G-d's Favorite Prayers, and as I read it, I learned that there is an intentional duality in the title, in that "Prayers" refers both to liturgy and supplicant.  Dr. Zahavy offers many fascinating insights into both tefilla and mispallelim.  His work evinces a poetic and thoughtful soul, scholarship combined with deep feeling.  Here is one example: he points out that the form and environment of the Shirat Kedusha of the malachim seem to be central to its significance.  But I sensed what seemed to be a patronizing attitude toward Orthodoxy, a tendency to favor the subjective and the transcendental over precedent and strict theology.  In that same discussion of kedusha, he notes what he considers the banal content of the prayer of the malachim.  This strikes a false note.  I prefer to think that this ostensibly simple beauty simultaneously expresses and hides a deep and profound truth.  I was not sure whether my perception was justified, or nothing more than a mirage.  I asked a learned friend (who recently, on top of his responsibilities to his family, his work, and the poor of the community, after years of hard labor received Yadin Yadin ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg) if he would read it and comment, and he has done so.  Here is what he wrote (any errors are the fault of my inexpert transcription from his notes.)  (For balance, or contrast, here is another review, printed in The Jewish Press.)
Dr. Zahavy's book: Dr. Zahavy's blog:

I was recently asked by a colleague as to my thoughts about a book entitled G-d's favorite prayers (Tzvee Zahavy, Talmudic Books July 14, 2011)

His exploration of prayer in its various forms is a lovely premise and his writing style is very approachable and readable.  As to literary critique, I would say my personal experience with the book was that when speaking in the first person I found the writing engaging.  When veering into discussions of liturgical text the writing became somewhat dry.

As to the core philosophy of the book, I take issue.  The writer on page 13 reveals that he is not happy with the segregation of the sexes in the Orthodox synagogue.  He lets us know that he does not submit to Halachic theology as defined by the Torah sages of each generation.  Inasmuch as no validated Torah sage has allowed co-gender prayers, he clearly establishes his core philosophy outside the halachic community.

This is not shocking, since there are many American Jews who are not observant of the Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Berura, opinions of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein za'l and the like.

What is surprising is the author hanging his hat on his studies and relationship with Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik za'l and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlita'h.  And even the emphasis on R. Meir Kahane a'h.

While Rabbis Soloveichik, Lichtenstein, and Kahane all were broad minded thinkers who may have pushed Orthodox theology to certain broad limits (being considered left or right of mainstream Orthodoxy respectively)  all three of them were and are committed to halachic observance with no compromise.  None of them would have considered gender separation in prayer an issue "on the table" for negotiation.  (The book The Sanctity of the Synagogue in fact prints the court testimony of Rav Soloveichik on the matter leaving no room for doubt.)

Throughout the book the author veers back and forth with respect for form and disdain for it.  Even the expression "the Deuteronomist" suggest a belief system antithetical to the teachers he claims to revere.

While question are part of Judaism, so are answer from sages.  One who questions the need to separate the sexes during prayer, despite the problem of hesech hadaas, is either an angel or a fool.

When one had the privilege of being with an intellectual giant like Rav Soloveichik, one should learn the humility to say "even if I have questions, this man is such an intellectual and spiritual giant, and he uses a mechitza, it clearly is the right thing to do."

The chapter on meditation is another example.  There is a glaring omission of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's three volumes on meditation which demonstrate the Jewish sources of meditation which predate Kabat-Zinn's frequently idolatrous presumptions. 

Even the source list in back, using the Sim Shalom prayer-book, is baffling.  The Artscroll translations are far superior to Sim Shalom, which is stuffy and boring.  (I have always been amazed and dismayed at the reform and conservative prayer-books, which were supposed to "modernize" prayers.  They are consistently flat, stuffy, and boring.)

The Chafetz Chaim used a mashal on occasion of a big delicious cake with one cup or rat poison poured in.  This book took a lovely idea and an engaging ability and sadly mixed in just enough poison to make it inedible.

My mechutan, Rav Y. Y. Suber of Yerushalayim is known as a tzaddik.  in addition to being a rebbe in Yeshivat Chofetz Chaim in Yerushalayim, an enormous talmid chacham and masmid, he also feeds hundreds of people each week with his network of food gemachs.  He also embarked on a one year's journey in Yerushalayim, davening each tefillah in a different shul and learning the suctoms of the various kehillos in Klal Yisrael.  He asked Rav Sheinberg many shaylos how to daven in those shuls and not compromise any halacha.  He gained enormously from the experience, which broadened him spiritually.  He entered the orchard inpeace and exited in peace.

Pluralism can expand or crack boundaries.  Dr. Zahavy's experience seems to have done both.

There is much more to say but time doesn't allow.  The Chasam Sofer has a famous piece in Beshalach where he establishes that the solidity of halacha and mesora is what, counterintuitively perhaps, makes the system continually refresh itself, because rules solidly establish practices and their weight.  Alternatively, loose laws invariably and emprically lead to dissolution of practices over time.


  1. I was sent the book for review. But I get a lot of books like that and don't have the time to read and review all of them. My wife did read it and it really upset her. After reading this review, I now understand why.

  2. It certainly wouldn't get a nihil obstat from the Moetzes, but it does have a lot to offer to one who goes in knowingly.

    In the balance between
    בִּין תָּבִין אֶת אֲשֶׁר לְפָנֶיךָ וְשַׂמְתָּ שַׂכִּין בְּלֹעֶךָ אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה
    אַל תִּתְאָו לְמַטְעַמּוֹתָיו וְהוּא לֶחֶם כְּזָבִים,
    I would tend toward the former.

  3. I hope to have time to write a more measured reply later. For now, let me thank Barzilai for taking the time and effort to review the book. Be that as it may, I am disappointed regarding at least four points. First, the anonymity of the reviewer. Mema nafshach - if you are proud of what you say, sign your name to it. And it not, don't publish it. Second, anonymous misrepresents what I say about gender separation and carries it way beyond what I suggest on page 13: "even though I’m not at all happy with the segregation of the sexes in the Orthodox synagogue, I won’t digress to delve into that issue in this book.". I do not mention this again anywhere in the book. Not sure why anonymous makes such a tsimmis about it. If you must know my motivation, I wanted to be more open and inclusive and inviting by expressing my personal feelings. I surely did not mean to stand up against the halakhic world by revealing this. Third, the viewpoints of sefer devarim are coherent and unique, and many scholars do use the term Deuteronomist to indicate that. That nomenclature is not a psul, it is descriptive. And fourth, I wish the anonymous one would have spoken to my main thesis, that there are expressions of six rich personalities within the tefilot. There are other points to reply to, but that will have to suffice for now.

  4. Harry, If you or your wife wants to let me know what "upset her" in the book (in a private communication), that will be of great value to me. I plan to follow this volume with "God's Awesome Prayers" about the tefilot of the yamim noraim and will want to make sure not to upset anyone in that book.

  5. Tzvee, I'm not sure she would be willing to do that. She won't even post a guest review of your book or any of the others she read - even though I practically begged her too. I ssumae she objetced to some of the same thinge mentioned in thois review. Be well

  6. I did not read the book, but if the author objext to the use of a mechitza, and claims to follow The Rav, he has a problem. The Rav held that if one had a choice on Rosh Hashanah between davening in a minyan with a mechitza and not hearing tekiah shofar or davening in a minyan without a mechitza but hearing tekiah shofar then he should go for the mechitza minyan.