Fill­ing Words With Light: Hasidic and Mys­ti­cal Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Prayer

Lawrence Kush­n­er; Nehemia Polen
  • Review
By – September 21, 2012

Each week dur­ing Shab­bat ser­vices, wor­shipers recite many famil­iar words, such as bless­ing” and Adon­ai;” they sing famil­iar songs, such as Mah Tovu” and Adon Olam,” and chant a vari­ety of prayers, such as Mi Kamocha.” For reg­u­lar par­tic­i­pants, these words and songs roll off the tongue almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Unless you are the rab­bi, can­tor or lay leader, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that each utter­ance is designed to define and strength­en your con­nec­tion with your inner self, with the past and future of the Jew­ish peo­ple, and with God. Those adept at mak­ing such con­nec­tions could still find cer­tain words or phras­es per­plex­ing and have dif­fi­cul­ty fram­ing ques­tions that might enrich their under­stand­ing of how and why Jews pray. 

In Fill­ing Words with Light, Rab­bis Lawrence Kush­n­er and Nehemia Polen pro­vide some answers through new inter­pre­ta­tions, insights, sto­ries and reflec­tions on the words that com­prise the Jew­ish litur­gy. Orga­nized in order of their appear­ance in the dai­ly and week­ly prayer books, each prayer or set of bless­ings is sub­di­vid­ed and explained in its spir­i­tu­al context. 

One exam­ple is the Ami­dah (stand­ing prayer), which is bro­ken down into 13 ele­ments. The first explores the prayer’s pre­lude, Open My Lips.” If you absorb this sec­tion, the next time you say, Adon­ai, open my lips so my words can declare your glo­ry,” you’re apt to imag­ine your­self as a wave and God as the ocean. 

Kush­n­er, of San Francisco’s Con­gre­ga­tion Emanu-El, is a wide­ly read author of books on Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. Polen, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish thought and direc­tor of the Hasidic Text Insti­tute at Hebrew Col­lege in Boston, has writ­ten a book and numer­ous aca­d­e­m­ic and pop­u­lar arti­cles on Hasidism and Jew­ish spirituality. 

Fill­ing Words with Light is not a primer; it seems more direct­ed toward seek­ers look­ing to broad­en their spir­i­tu­al aware­ness. Thus, a basic famil­iar­i­ty with Jew­ish litur­gy is help­ful to get­ting the most out of this volume.

Robin K. Levin­son is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and author of a dozen books, includ­ing the Gali Girls series of Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for chil­dren. She cur­rent­ly works as an assess­ment spe­cial­ist for a glob­al edu­ca­tion­al test­ing orga­ni­za­tion. She lives in Hamil­ton, NJ.

Discussion Questions