Tradition, Interpretation, and Change: Studies in the Liturgy of Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenaz

Tradition, Interpretation, and Change:
Studies in the Liturgy of Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenaz

Kenneth E. Berger. Tradition, Interpretation, and Change: Developments in the
Liturgy of Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenaz. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew
Union College Press, 2019. xv + 429 pp.

Composers and interpreters of Jewish prayers and synagogal customs in the
centuries before the rise of the critical and historical approaches championed by proponents
of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were motivated, among other considerations,
by halakhic, mystical, or poetic agendas. They were rarely interested in, or
even aware of, what more modern analysts would come to identify as the broader
historical, theological, and cultural foundations of liturgical changes. Had they
indeed been informed about such foundations, they might well have preferred to
ignore them as a threat to the authoritative nature of the rulings and preferences
that they were enthusiastically promoting. It is the task of contemporary specialists
in the evolution of the various prayer texts and customs to examine these medieval
interpretations and to offer their own assessments of the historical process.
Kenneth Berger has lightened the workload of today’s historical analysts by
providing a rich compendium of medieval statements and explanations relating to
many parts of the Jewish liturgy. Originally inspired by Joseph Heinemann at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem and by Menahem Schmelzer at the Jewish Theological
Seminary in New York, and more recently encouraged by Ruth Langer, he
has, while also serving as a congregational rabbi and a lecturer, devoted more than
four decades to the close study of such sources, and this volume is the product of
his scholarly efforts. The aim of his book is to trace the interplay of custom and
tradition over many centuries and to demonstrate that “the liturgy of Ashkenaz
was never static” (11) and that “new liturgies and liturgical practices were incorporated
into the service, the inclusion of various prayers was challenged, and
variant readings of prayers became standard” (355).
To that end, Berger has cited at length, often in his own English translations,
the reasons put forward for the manner in which prayer texts were being used on
different occasions, had been adopted or rejected, and had acquired new significance.
He has also identified which adjustments were inspired by Sephardic
and/or kabbalistic precedents, which were intended to “protect one from
danger” (255), and which “liturgical practices performed by the living can alleviate
the suffering of the dead” (271). Among the items that receive lengthy attention
are the use of the verses from Psalms 78:38 and 20:10 (ve-huʾ; the various
additions made to the evening service on Friday, including the recitation in the
synagogue of the Kiddush, which began as a domestic ritual; and the diverse
choices of biblical verses used to accompany the removal of the Torah scroll
from the ark and its return there, as explained by Ruth Langer. Berger suggests
that the inclusion of the Alenu prayer at the end of most services was because
of its “stirring rhetoric, its emphasis on the contrast between the true religion of
Israel as compared to the beliefs and practices of the gentile nations, its ascribed
antiquity, and its stress on the theme of the kingship of God” (193).
Berger provides a detailed textual study of the Hashkivenu prayer of the
evening service and relates some synagogue wall paintings to the adoption of
customs promoted by the kabbalists. The Mourner’s Kaddish and the numerous
medieval suggestions about how it originated and how it should be recited also
receive extensive attention. In connection with this custom, Berger correctly
notes that prior to the twelfth century “there was no consistent, universally
affirmed Jewish conception of the nature and duration of the soul’s punishment
in Gehinnom” (292), and, following David Shyovitz (AJS Review 39 [2015]:
49–73), refers to parallel developments among Jews and Christians. Some
pages later he justifiably goes further than this and notes the “influence of new
ideas about the nature of the after-life taking hold within European Christianity
during the twelfth century” (303).
In his introductory remarks, Berger states that he has “written this book for
an audience that includes both the specialist in Jewish Studies and the general
reader interested in the history and development of Jewish liturgy” (xv). Full
credit is due to him for providing such a readership with a helpful, reliable, and
detailed compilation of a welter of medieval data, as well as some sound summaries
of modern scholarship, and conclusions that are generally convincing. The
volume will undoubtedly serve as a useful vade mecum for students in many classrooms,
as well as for their teachers. It will also, one hopes, encourage a wider
engagement with medieval Jewish liturgy, as well as a better understanding of
the dynamic evolution of rabbinic prayer. The chosen methodology and the discursive
style of presentation may prove to be of considerable assistance to the general
reader. In addition, the excursus, the tables, the appendices, and the indices are
highly informative. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the specialist
in Jewish liturgy, as distinct from the specialists in the broader area of Jewish
studies, may find the many introductory remarks, the numerous repetitions, the
constant rehearsal of the same information, opinion, and conclusion more than a
trifle otiose and even somewhat tedious. Explaining that פלוני is equivalent to
“John Doe” (282) and that אותו האיש means “that man” (294) is perhaps too elementary
for many potential readers of such a volume. Some serious editorial
pruning could have improved what is otherwise a welcome addition to the scholarly
literature. That said, this specialist reviewer must admit to a personal delight at
encountering here so many important references to the liturgical texts and comments
of Shabbetai ha-Sofer of Przemysl, about whom he himself has spilt so
much ink over the years, and who is often ignored in such studies.
More specifically, greater emphasis should have been given in many
instances to the late dating of some of Seder Rav Amram; any reference to the
life and work of Maimonides (24) must surely note the splendid volume of the
late Joel Kraemer, The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
(New York: Doubleday, 2008); the discussion about Kaddish (280–302) might
have benefited from the volume Death in Jewish Life, ed. Stefan C. Reif,
Andreas Lehnardt, and Avriel Bar-Levav (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014); mention
is made (232) of Shabbetai ha-Sofer’s inclusion of berikh shemeh but not of
his translation of that text from Aramaic into Hebrew; it is odd that in the discussion
about the repetition of leʿeylaʾ in the Kaddish (10), no mention is made of
its origin in the ancient rite of ʾErez. Yisraʾel; and Professor Wieder always
gave his forename as Naphtali, and not Naftali, after he left Berlin and settled
in the United Kingdom.
Stefan C. Reif
St. John’s College
University of Cambridge