Foto: Matthias Friel
In this course we shall study, reflect on and discuss a range of models for understanding prayer in the Jewish religious tradition. We sequence our course historically, but one could, in theory, also approach the topic in other ways. No attempt is made to provide a representative historical presentation, but rather to choose striking and significant examples. We omit Biblical Religion and Rabbinic Judaism, and start with Maimonides, who offers one of the first systematic treatments of the the question: What is prayer, and how to understand it? Next we turn to a very different model, that of medieval Kabbalah, in which the relation between ritual and prayer is emphasized. Hasidism transforms the kabbalistic heritage and yet stays within a mystical framework. From here we leap to thinkers who, in modern times, struggled to find ways to bridge the gap between the pre-modern premises of prayer and modern thought. Rav Kook and Soloveitchik serve as great representatives of different strategies in re-interpreting kabbalah and existentialist hermeneutics of liturgical discourse. We shall conclude with some contemporary thinkers who grapple with the challenge of prayer in various ways, for example, Arthur Green, Michael Fishbane, Avi Sagi, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (from a feminist perspective) and some Israeli poets. If there is interest, we may include in our readings some contemporary non-Jewish philosophical reflections on the nature of prayer.
The course will be taught in English. The texts will be studied in English and Hebrew. This course is partially based on lectures and therefore attendance and note taking is crucial. Students are expected to participate in class discussions based on the reading assignments. There will be some brief writing exercises and presentations. A five page final essay is to be submitted at the end of the course. The deadline for submission is final.
Proof of performance includes regular participation, reading the texts given for the weekly meetings and various written self-reflections. If students miss more than one fifth of the class the class counts as “not completed” and no credits can be given.
The course will introduce the student to historical and theological approaches to Jewish prayer. Through close readings of the selected texts, the students will get to know the perspectives of history, history of religions, theology, literary interpretation, and philosophical analysis. The larger picture that emerges will contribute to the understanding of prayer in the Jewish religious tradition as a dynamic and multifacetted phenomenon evolving in response to new cultural horizons.
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