Jew­ish Book World review­er Eric Ack­land exam­ines three new books from Jew­ish Lights that tack­le dif­fer­ent aspects of the High Hol­i­days expe­ri­ence (this review will appear in the win­ter issue of Jew­ish Book World).

Mak­ing Prayer Real: Lead­ing Jew­ish Voic­es on Why Prayer is Dif­fi­cult and What to Do About It
Rab­bi Mike Comins
Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing, 2010. 200 pp. $18.99
ISBN: 9781580234177

Repen­tance: The Mean­ing & Prac­tice of Teshu­va
Dr. Louis E. New­man
Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing, 2010. 224 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 9781580234269

For many Jews, reli­gious ser­vices, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the High Hol­i­days can be very alien and intim­i­dat­ing. Lack of famil­iar­i­ty with prayer (both for­mal and infor­mal), lack of famil­iar­i­ty with Hebrew and with the order of the ser­vices, and even dis­com­fort with the notions of God and of sin only com­pound the bore­dom and dis­com­fort that the long ser­vices may cause even those who have the knowl­edge and skills to appre­ci­ate them. These three books tack­le dif­fer­ent aspects of the High Hol­i­days expe­ri­ence and the reli­gious expe­ri­ence in general.

Mak­ing Prayer Real: Lead­ing Jew­ish Spir­i­tu­al Voic­es on Why Prayer is Dif­fi­cult and What to Do About It by Reform Rab­bi Mike Comins and with 53 oth­er con­tribut­ing Rab­bis and leaders/​thinkers, most­ly from the lib­er­al Jew­ish sects, is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to the world of prayer, giv­ing the skep­ti­cal and the unfa­mil­iar a broad out­line of under­stand­ing and a sen­si­tive and gen­er­ous per­mis­sion from which to begin to exper­i­ment and explore.

Rab­bi Comins and his con­trib­u­tors offer strate­gies for approach­ing both pri­vate and com­mu­nal prayer that take into con­sid­er­a­tion many of the obsta­cles that mod­erns strug­gle with in terms of under­stand­ing prayer’s pur­pose, and in embrac­ing its process. Even more com­pelling, the Rab­bis share their per­son­al expe­ri­ences and thoughts about prayer with a refresh­ing sin­cer­i­ty that I con­fess, sur­prised me, as I recall the (as least to me) dry, very unspir­i­tu­al Reform Hebrew school and syn­a­gogue of my youth. Rab­bi Comins writes that his expe­ri­ence as a child was sim­i­lar. I don’t know if the pre­pon­der­ance of con­gre­gants in the lib­er­al Jew­ish world have become as earnest­ly spir­i­tu­al as many of their lead­ers cur­rent­ly clear­ly are, but Jews of any back­ground — from the unaf­fil­i­at­ed to even the Ortho­dox — who are seek­ing to con­nect more deeply with God and with their her­itage, and who wish to expe­ri­ence the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of prayer will find a lot of wis­dom and inspi­ra­tion in this book.


All of us have done (or omit­ted to do) things we regret, and fall­en short of what would be moral­ly ide­al; for many of us, these may be ongo­ing pat­terns of behav­ior. Some may sti­fle their con­scious­ness of wrong-doing and bury it deep with­in, while oth­ers may only be too aware and over­whelmed with guilt and despair. Judaism has long pro­vid­ed a process by which we can atone for our sins and start afresh in the eyes of God and our­selves. In Repen­tance: The Mean­ing and Prac­tice of Teshu­vaDr. Louis E. New­man, a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Car­leton Col­lege, begins by iden­ti­fy­ing teshu­vah (repen­tance) as one of the cen­tral reli­gious-moral” teach­ings of Judaism, and takes a rig­or­ous ana­lyt­i­cal approach to under­stand­ing what teshu­va is and how it is done.

In 49 short chap­ters (none more than a few pages in length and thus per­fect for read­ing in dai­ly dos­es), New­man elo­quent­ly exam­ines the var­i­ous ways that Judaism has his­tor­i­cal­ly looked at sin, freewill, respon­si­bil­i­ty, fate, and atone­ment, before explain­ing the com­po­nents of the teshu­va process, and explor­ing some of the sub­jec­tive fac­tors that peo­ple encounter and strug­gle with in the process. Fol­low­ing the clas­sic Jew­ish philoso­phers he breaks down the process of true atone­ment into com­po­nents, which he iden­ti­fies as: accept­ing cul­pa­bil­i­ty, feel­ing remorse, con­fes­sion, apol­o­giz­ing, mak­ing resti­tu­tion, mak­ing an account­ing of one’s soul, and trans­for­ma­tion: com­mit­ting to for­go the same behav­ior in the future.

Although he does speak of God, Dr. Newman’s think­ing is ground­ed in psy­cho­log­i­cal real­i­ty and func­tion­al­i­ty, and thus, even those not-so-com­fort­able with the God-con­cept could derive real val­ue from the book. How­ev­er, Dr. New­man only briefly alludes to (and then essen­tial­ly dis­miss­es) the tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish under­stand­ing that there is a world-to-come to which this world is just a pas­sage­way, and that reward and pun­ish­ment for earth­ly deeds is met­ed out not just in life, but, more cru­cial­ly, after­wards as well. This is some­thing which vir­tu­al­ly all, if not all, the clas­sic sources he cites (as well as con­tem­po­rary Ortho­dox lead­ers) took/​take as axiomat­ic and as cen­tral to under­stand­ing the full con­se­quence and moral weight of our deeds, and thus of the potent cor­rec­tive pow­er of teshu­va as well. To put the omis­sion in con­text, Dr. New­man devot­ed a chap­ter (a reward­ing one) to philo­soph­i­cal­ly tan­gling with the idea of ani­mal sac­ri­fice as teshuva’s his­tor­i­cal antecedent, while brush­ing aside this still-vital belief in a world-to-come in just a few para­graphs (he only refers to it in the past-tense), and with­out clear­ly indi­cat­ing that his dis­missal is nei­ther uni­ver­sal nor author­i­ta­tive. This is a seri­ous omis­sion from a his­tor­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, and ulti­mate­ly, a dis­ser­vice to read­ers, espe­cial­ly those who won’t notice the sleight-of-hand. That said, I reit­er­ate that I found the book an oth­er­wise wor­thy intro­duc­tion to the subject.


One of the great dis­com­forts of pray­ing from a sid­dur (Jew­ish prayer book) or Mach­zor (prayer book for a spe­cif­ic hol­i­day) is not under­stand­ing Hebrew, but an even greater one can be actu­al­ly under­stand­ing it. For lib­er­al-reli­gious Jew­ry in par­tic­u­lar, this has long posed a prob­lem. As Reform Rab­bi Lawrence A. Hoff­man, PhD. can­did­ly describes in the insight­ful intro­duc­tion to Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, when prayer books began appear­ing in trans­la­tion, many Jews, both lead­ers and laity, were dis­tressed by the con­tent and mean­ing of the prayers. So edi­tors,“ … changed the Hebrew, so that the Eng­lish would come out decent­ly’; they pur­pose­ful­ly mis­trans­lat­ed the orig­i­nals to avoid ideas that ancient authors had no trou­ble with but that mod­ern wor­shipers found hor­ri­fy­ing; they com­posed alter­na­tive prayers in the ver­nac­u­lar — prayers on the same theme as the orig­i­nal, but say­ing what mod­ern peo­ple were like­ly to appre­ci­ate; they called for the prayer to be sung, so no one would pay much atten­tion to the words; or they omit­ted the trou­ble­some prayers alto­geth­er.” Rab­bi Hoff­man neglects to men­tion one nec­es­sar­i­ly com­ple­men­tary strat­e­gy, which may or may not have been sim­i­lar­ly delib­er­ate: that of not ade­quate­ly edu­cat­ing the lib­er­al Jew­ish laity to be able to read and com­pre­hend Hebrew, leav­ing it for the Rab­binate alone to unde­mo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly medi­ate and inter­pret the clas­sic texts for the laity, much as the Catholic Church pre­ferred for its cler­gy to do pri­or to the Ref­or­ma­tion. (At the sec­ond Reform rab­binic con­fer­ence in Frank­furt in 1845, accord­ing to Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Neil Gill­man, fif­teen con­fer­ence mem­bers vot­ed that Hebrew should not be objec­tive­ly nec­es­sary,” thir­teen vot­ed that it should be, and three abstained.” One, Rab­bi Zechari­ah Frankel, walked out over this issue even com­ing to a vote, and went on to become a fore­fa­ther of the Con­ser­v­a­tive movement.)

Un’taneh Tokef, is one of the most pow­er­ful prayers in the Hebrew litur­gy, and has long been cen­tral to both the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kip­pur ser­vices. This book, like Mak­ing Prayer Real, fea­tures essays by an array of Rab­bis and oth­er (most­ly) lib­er­al-Jew­ish thinkers, who here, rather than deal­ing with prayer in gen­er­al, are earnest­ly tan­gling with the mean­ing of this par­tic­u­lar prayer, the core sub­stance of which is that of God’s pow­er of judg­ment over human-beings. The prayer address­es the idea that every­thing we think and do is observed and record­ed by God; that we are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and that on Yom Kip­pur, depend­ing on the sever­i­ty of our sins and whether we’ve ful­ly repent­ed in the inter­ven­ing sev­en days, God decides who will live through the next year, who will die, when, and how, Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water, Who by war­fare and who by thirst, Who by earth­quake, and who by plague …” and it asserts that repen­tance, prayer, and char­i­ty” can avert the judg­ment of death. Heavy, trou­bling stuff, no doubt.

The essays with­in the book encom­pass his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, lit­er­ary analy­sis, and more. The range of very strong feel­ing about this prayer amongst the col­lect­ed authors is wide. One con­trib­u­tor, Rab­bi Tony Blay­field, DD says that for him the con­cept of God judg­ing and deter­min­ing when and how we’ll die is loath­some” and even blas­phe­mous” (!) while for Rab­bi Ruth Langer, PhD the prayer is mean­ing­ful on mul­ti­ple lev­els. She writes that, ratio­nal under­stand­ings of its the­ol­o­gy should not be the only legit­i­mate cri­te­ri­on. Ele­ments of its per­for­mance, our mem­o­ries and asso­ci­a­tions with past per­for­mances, its music, and the beau­ty of its poet­ry all play into our rela­tion­ship with a prayer text.” Oth­ers are less trou­bled and engage more direct­ly with the text.

As some­one who has long strug­gled intel­lec­tu­al­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, and even eth­i­cal­ly with the con­tent and mean­ing of many for­mal Jew­ish prayers (this one, not so much), I found read­ing the many raw, reveal­ing, hon­est, and even pro­found essays in this book reward­ing. Per­haps my great­est take-away” from the book is the impor­tance of not dilut­ing the Jew­ish litur­gy from on high so as to make it more com­fort­able and pleas­ing to mod­ern ears. Even the con­trib­u­tors that felt the great­est dis­com­fort with Un’taneh Tokef and who wish it would be cen­sored, must engage with the con­cepts year after year, mean­ing that their moral radar must get re-engaged year after year. I remem­ber my grandfather’s refusal to read parts of the Passover ser­vice that offend­ed his sense of jus­tice with fond­ness and admi­ra­tion, but what I admired was his re-mak­ing the deci­sion each year, as each year he was re-out­raged. He would have been a less­er man for not hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Every­one, not just an elite core of Rab­bis and aca­d­e­mics, should have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be reg­u­lar­ly dis­com­fit­ed in a way that makes them more cog­nizant of their con­science, the fragili­ty of life, and of the endur­ing moral import of their deeds. A reli­gion that is always com­fort­ing, that flat­ters and appeas­es and tells us we’re com­plete­ly okay as we are, and that makes repen­tance an easy thing with­out great con­se­quence if it isn’t sin­cere or com­plete isn’t one worth hav­ing. Bet­ter we should strug­gle and wres­tle with God.

Eric Ack­land is a free­lance writer and editor.