Debra Reed Blank, ed. The Experience of Jewish Liturgy: Studies Dedicated to Menahem Shmelzer. The Brill Reference Library of Judaism Series. Leiden: Brill, 2011. vi + 356 pp. $176.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-20135-4.
Reviewed by Yoel Kahn (Congregation Beth El, Berkeley)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
The Study of Liturgy: Celebrating Possibilities and Limitations
Menahem Schmelzer, beloved teacher of medieval literature, liturgy, and piyut (liturgical poetry) at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), is honored by this festschrift edited by his student and colleague, Debra Reed Blank. Almost every essay in this volume begins with an acknowledgement that the author first learned about the manuscript sources under discussion because Schmelzer brought them to her or his attention during his many years of service as JTSA’s librarian. As such, this volume, as a whole, is as much a testimony to the enduring centrality of the librarian in scholarship as it is a collection of essays on “the experience of Jewish liturgy.” Wide ranging in scope, these essays are an accurate snapshot of the state of research, illustrating the wealth of material awaiting publication, the need for revisiting prior assumptions, and also the limits of our scholarship.
The title of this volume, The Experience of Jewish Liturgy, demonstrates the challenges of liturgical research. Academic research about liturgy faces the same fundamental difficulty as does writing about drama or other “performed” forms of human cultural creativity; the “script” or text is much easier to hold constant as an object of study than the enacted ritual that it informs. After describing a wide variety of customs and suggested practices for the observance of the Passover meal, Evelyn M. Cohen concludes her discussion in her essay “Seder Foods and Customs in Illuminated Medieval Haggadaot” with brave honesty and modesty: “How faithfully the Seder participants followed, understood or cared about the instructions provided is unknowable” (p. 38). By and large the essays in this volume reflect on the texts of the historical Jewish liturgy and therefore reflect the learning and worldview of their authors, and, despite the promise of the title, reveal relatively about the “experience” of Jewish liturgy as it unfolded in the shared life of communities over time. Unlike prior generations of scholars, the contributors to this volume acknowledge this reality and do not make claims beyond what the evidence they bring can sustain; the result is perhaps a more sober but honest reading of the historical record, with acknowledgement of the significant gaps in our ability to map the textual and performative history of even some core texts.
Thus, in her discussion of the censorship of the Alenu Prayer, Ruth Langer surveys the conflicting and inconclusive evidence about when this prayer text moved from its original home as an annual recitation in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to be part of a private recitation at the conclusion of the daily liturgy to a fixed part of the public liturgy. It is clear that an anti-Christian (and, in some versions, anti-Moslem) interpretation was circulating and known across a variety of Ashkenaz Jewish communities in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. As the language of the Alenu and other prayers was adjusted to respond to the threat of censorship, the polemical interpretation was assigned to the “cleaned up” euphemistic language. In many texts, perceived negative associations of the word goy (nations, gentile) were replaced with AKU’M--worshippers of elilim (idols) and mazalot (constellations). While this was a publicly acceptable replacement for what had been considered by officials as an anti-church slur, privately many Jewish communities whispered that the true meaning of the euphemistic replacement was “worshippers of Christ and Mary” (in other commentaries: Christ and Mohammed). Even as the manuscript or printed text was censored, whether voluntarily or under coercion, “private” subversive interpretations and explanations of the euphemistic replacements or explanations for the page’s visible lacunae were popular. We can only guess how subsequent generations of readers and worshipers understood the significance of the obviously deliberate blank spaces where censorship had required that text be removed; this remembrance via absence was often preserved well into the era of printed editions. Here, too, the textual record can only hint at the lived experience across centuries and cultures.
Because of the paucity of historical sources, scholars must be continually cautious about making unfounded reconstructions of the historical record; the strength of the above and most of the other essays in this volume is their readiness to recognize the limits of their sources; to paraphrase the Mishnah, there are those matters that “are like mountains hanging by a string, for they have little textual basis but many conclusions” (Hagigah 1:8). In an otherwise convincing discussion of how theological considerations have informed modern liturgical change, Neil Gillman writes that the dispute about whether to reinstitute the traditional words m’chaiyei ha-metim (who revives the dead) to the second blessing of the Amidah, praising the one “who revives the dead,” was a central issue in the editorial process for creating Mishkan T’filah, the most recent American Reform prayer book: “The ensuing dispute riled the movement for a decade and delayed the eventual publication of the book” (p. 99). While there were many reasons, internal and external, for the delay in publication of the volume, I can state (as a member of the book’s editorial committee) that this particular issue never rose to a matter of wide public conversation and certainly had nothing to do with the timing of publication. Gillman shows that the modern liturgist’s emendations of the historical text are motivated by and proceed no differently than those done by the earliest liturgists as they tried to shape prayers that would resonate for their community; for current editors, though, there is a much longer tradition of what is considered to be authentic text to contend with then there was for a Tanna in the second century.
This volume also brings to light several beautiful examples of previously unknown or underappreciated piyutim (liturgical poems). Of special note is Laura Lieber’s “ Dew of Rest: the World of Nature in Qallir’s G’vurot shel Tal.” Translating and explicating a piyut composed for a once-a-year recitation on the first day of Passover, Lieber both honors Schmelzer--in so far as he had published this piyut in a modern edition--and the incredible creativity of Eliezer Qallir’s seventh-century composition. The lengthy poem involves alphabetical acrostics, embellishments of most of the verses in the Song of Songs and all of Psalm 92. In one unit, each stanza is followed by two quotations, each one in turn involving a sign of the zodiac, and much more; yet Lieber regrets that “this synopsis does not do justice to the formal and thematic intricacy” (p. 171). I cannot hope in this short review either to do justice to the mosaic beauty of quotation; allusion; and, in its most wonderful feature, the botanical thesaurus the poet uses to describe the natural world, invoking every imaginable (and many perhaps previously unknown) alimentary and ornamental plant in the Hebrew lexicon. The translation is a tour de force worthy of the original.
This volume of lovingly dedicated scholarship is a worthy tribute to Schmelzer and his lifetime of scholarship and service.
. While Susan Einbinder, “Moses Rimos: Poems and Recipes of a Jewish Physician in Italy,” does not cite any JTSA manuscripts that Shmelzer first introduced her to, she does cite his PhD dissertation in a footnote (p. 67n14).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Yoel Kahn. Review of Blank, Debra Reed, ed., The Experience of Jewish Liturgy: Studies Dedicated to Menahem Shmelzer.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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