Scholars and students of Judaism and prayer will welcome this long-awaited compilation of the core ideas behind Jewish prayer, by one of today's greatest scholars of Talmud and Jewish thought and practice. Not for many decades, perhaps since Elbogen's masterful work "Jewish Liturgy," has a scholar of Steinsaltz's stature attempted to address Jewish prayer in a single volume. This new volume will surely take its place on the shelves of every library and Jewish household.
Steinsaltz details some of the better-known historical developments behind the wide variety of Jewish prayer, from the poetic piyutim, to the morning prayers, to the concluding prayer, the Aleinu, and even the mourners' kaddish.
Steinsaltz examines the beginnings of ancient prayer, as well as the various "justifications" for prayer; how prayer began in antiquity; and why communities continued to gather together to pray.
Steinsaltz isn't as astute about the history of gender. He correctly stresses the egalitarian nature of the ancient command to pray: "The commandment to engage in prayer...is defined as a general injunction to worship God with one's heart and to turn to Him in all times of distress. This commandment is not confined to any specific time period, and is mandatory for all members of the Jewish faith, both men and women."
But when writing about who can be counted in a minyan (the quorum), or on the lack of obligation on women to pray, Steinsaltz speaks as though his readers are male, or are only concerned with the role of men in prayer.
Judaism's approach to prayer, Steinsaltz continues, "resulted in the fact that only a very small number of women regularly recited all the daily prayers, even privately." This agreeably succinct approach to a complicated and heated topic fails to note, however, the variety of ways in which women do participate in communal prayer. Rather than write them out of the story of Jewish prayer, Steinsaltz would have done well to explain the full reality of prayer life to both men and women, many of whom will seek his counsel as they navigate their own prayer life.
Similarly, a short discussion of amulets and their role in prayer would have been fitting. Objects continue to play an important role in the prayer life of many cultures, ours included. Differences of opinion regarding their legality would seem to require any book on prayer to address amulets, if only to discuss prohibitions against them.
Overall, however, Steinsaltz's "Guide to Jewish Prayer" is a tour-de-force, to be received with great celebration, in spite of these weaknesses, to be commended to Jews and non-Jews alike--indeed, to anyone who prays.