My fellow blogger Tzvee Zahavy has written a fascinating book titled God’s Favorite Prayers (Teaneck, NJ: Talmudic Books, 2011). The book deals with Jewish prayers and spirituality.
Zahavy is an expert in the fields of Judaism, Talmud, and Jewish liturgy. He is the author of many books, articles, and book reviews. He taught at the University of Minnesota and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Zahavy says that God’s Favorite Prayers was written as a result of his spiritual quest. His quest was to discover God’s favorite prayers and the ideal synagogue. In his quest for the perfect religious experience and in order to find the ideal synagogue, Zahavy decided “to pray at least one time in every one of the synagogues in Jerusalem” (p. 10).
The book narrates stories about people he has met in his search for the ideal synagogue. Zahavy introduces several people and different events that touched his life and made an impact on his spiritual journey. His journey was an attempt at discovering the deep meanings present in classical Jewish liturgies and to focus on the prayers recited in Jewish worship.
The approach Zahavy takes to explain the importance of prayer and spirituality in the lives of those people who worship God in the synagogue is by introducing six ideal personalities who serve as archetypes of Jewish worshipers and their prayers.
These six archetypes are people who “seek spirituality according to their own understanding of God and Judaism” (p. 69). When Jews pray, “they engage in sacred rituals and they recite and sing and meditate prayers that derive from six distinct archetypes” (p. 1).
The first archetype is “The Performer.” The performer is the person in the synagogue, the cantor or the Torah reader, who leads the congregation in reading passages from the Torah. He is the one who knows “the words of the prayers, their traditional tunes and how they must be performed in the services” (p. 27). The congregation acts “as a performing chorus” (p. 26) as they praise God with God’s favorite prayers. As Zahavy said, “the Bible is a big component of God’s favorite prayers.”
The second archetype is “The Mystic.” To explain the mystic’s prayer, Zahavy uses the prayer of Hannah as an example of other mystics who pray in a holy place. The mystic is the person in the synagogue who seeks a more personal and deeper relationship with God. The mystic recites texts that reflect the praises of divine beings. One example of a mystic prayer is the Kaddish, a liturgical prayer recited in the synagogue.
The third archetype is “The Scribe.” The scribe is the person who values the written word, record keeping, and scholarly work. The scribe is the one who knows that God keeps records, and values social stability. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah expresses the scribe’s concern, for the liturgy “portrays for us a God who sits annually in judgment, reading from a book of records to determine the fate of the Jewish people and of humankind for the coming spiritual year” (p. 88).
The fourth archetype is “The Priest.” The priests in ancient Israel were responsible for the services in the temple and presided over the sacrificial system, festivals, the rituals, and all matters related to the religious life of the nation. A prayer that reflects the ministry of the priest is the Amidah, “a liturgical prayer that is recited in standing position at each of the three daily services and consists of three opening blessings, three closing blessings, and one intermediate blessing on the Sabbath and holy days and 13 intermediate blessings on other days” (p. 89).
The fifth archetype is “The Meditator.” The meditator is the person who focuses on the meditative dimension of prayer. In the synagogue the meditator is represented by those who are the practitioners “of mindful blessings and intercessions of compassion” (p. 114).
The sixth archetype is “The Celebrity.” The celebrity is the person who has an important status in society and uses that position to speak of God, his mighty works, and who declares the victory of God over the false gods of this world.
At the end of the book, Zahavy gathers the six archetypes for “an imaginary debate” on their perspective on redemption, the Messiah, and the Messianic age.
I was fascinated by this little book because in it I learned much about Jewish spirituality, Jewish prayer, Jewish liturgy, and what happens in the synagogue when people come to worship God.
In addition to discovering the heart of Jewish spirituality, a most fascinating thing happened after I finished reading God’s Favorite Prayers. I learned much about Zahavy, a fellow blogger whom I only know through the reading of his blog.
As I read God’s Favorite Prayers, I learned about Zahavy’s upbringing in New York, about the congregation where he spent his childhood, about his Orthodox family, about his father, an influential Orthodox rabbi who ministered in several Orthodox congregations in New York. I learned about Zahavy’s teachers at the Yeshiva University, about his academic work as a teacher and as a writer.
It is clear that Zahavy has been highly influenced by the people who represent these six archetypes of worshipers in the synagogue. Zahavy wrote: “Through this process of discovery, my religious consciousness has expanded, and every so slightly I have come closer to God and found value in some of his favorite prayers” (p. 6).
After one finishes reading God’s Favorite Prayers, one is assured that when people pray God’s favorite prayers, they also will come closer to God.