The Origins of Jewish Prayer

In a fourpart series, Yosef Lindell traces the history of Jewish liturgy, from the biblical phrases and motifs that were later used by the authors of prayers, to the first rabbinic accounts of formal prayer, to the evolution of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other variant liturgies, to modern changes to these texts. He writes:

Despite their differences, these diverse [liturgical traditions] are probably at least 90-percent the same. This is in part due to the seder—or siddur—of Rabbi Amram Gaon. . . . .When asked by the Jews of Spain to document the order of the prayers and their laws, Amram Gaon (the 9th-century head of the yeshiva of Sura in Mesopotamia) produced a text that influenced nearly every siddur used today.

Amram’s siddur is remarkably similar to ours. [Yet it] did not erase or override the customs of existing communities but instead fused with them. For example, the Jews in Spain never adopted the siddur wholesale, but rather edited it to conform to their own customs. For this reason, it’s impossible to know which words Amram actually wrote. We have no original manuscript of the siddur, only living versions filtered through the traditions of its users.

In 1486, the Soncino family in Italy printed the first siddur. Printing revolutionized the prayerbook. The prayers, which were initially the expertise of those who could memorize them and then the domain of those who had access to handwritten manuscripts, became available to all. A congregation of worshippers could participate more fully than ever before, not just passively listen to the ḥazan and recite a few refrains.

Printing standardized the siddur, and at the same time contributed to the spread of new prayers. The new prayers of the kabbalists could not have gained such widespread acceptance without the help of the printing press. The power of print also led to the rapid acceptance of other prayers of murkier origins.

Read more at 18Forty

More about: Jewish history, Prayer, Prayer books


How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus