Leeser begins with something of a feint: offering an extremely weak defense of the existence of Jewish prayer outside of the Psalms and the Siddur. He acknowledges the difficulty of writing prayers and wishes for “a manual of devotion” to “aid us to fashion our thoughts into prayer.” And yet, Leeser doesn’t hold a high opinion of the “occasional prayers” collected outside of the Siddur, for “there are but few public occasions when we need anything beyond [the prayer book’s] contents.” He is critical of the “ancient” teḥinot in Yiddish for their antiquated ideas in a “barbarous jargon” (a reference to the tkhines literature as found in the Seder Teḥinot). And he does not restrain his criticism of the new petitionary prayers in the languages of newly emancipated European Jews — “for the simple reason that the authors could not think for the people” (possibly an off-hand reference to Imrei Lev, an anthology of teḥinot and paraliturgical prayer in French, authored and compiled by Jonas Ennery and Rabbi Arnauld Aron in 1848).
But it would be a mistake to read Leeser’s criticisms as an opposition to prayer literature or to women’s prayer literature. What he seems to truly want are prayers that speak, in English, for those who, despite their distance from Hebrew, still wish for a devotional practice; in Leeser’s words: “to commune with their heavenly Father in meekness of spirit.” It’s important to note that for Leeser, prayers made public had a purpose — and that purpose was not to be confused with self-expression. “We would only caution all who make the attempt to take heed how they mix their own private thoughts in their outpourings; for, however blissful in its effects a prayer for the moment may be to the individual, it cannot make a good impression on another, who may never be placed in similar circumstances.” What distinguishes tkhines from so many liturgical prayers is the voice of the first-person, singular — an unapologetic “I voice.” As a patron of this literature as the editor of the Occident, Leeser was in a powerful position to indicate for an audience and a generation of aspiring Jewish women liturgists, what was an acceptable I-voice and what was merely self-indulgence.
The legacy of this patronage is complicated and a cautious lesson to those taking a benevolent but active interest in the creative work of others, especially where there is a power dynamic in play. Or exactly as it was between domineering men and enterprising women in the 19th century up until and including the present day. Just over a decade later, in 1863, Leeser published his own “correction” to Hester Rothschild’s Meditations & Prayers (1855), her English translation of the French Imrei Lev by Ennery & Aron. Rothschild’s translation had the approval of Nathan Marcus Adler, chief rabbi of the Jews of the British Empire, and Rothschild herself considered Leeser’s attention as unwanted (at best) and in so many words, a work of piracy in the days when printers in the United States regularly transgressed the copyright of authors in other countries. –Aharon Varady
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Our fair correspondent, Rosa Emma Salaman (1815-1898). who has so often enriched our pages by her elegant and deep-toned poetical contributions, has lately turned her attention to the composition of prayers for her own edification, and she has sent us two as specimens of her work and we have no doubt that, if these awaken a corresponding feeling of what she has experienced in others, she may be induced to publish a small volume of devotional pieces, for the improvement of her people.
Lightly as many may conceive the effort of writing or composing prayers, there is perhaps not one so extremely difficult in all the range of literature. The Psalms and Hymns of Scriptures are only prayers of various kinds; and yet how unattainable in excellence have they always proved themselves to their imitators. Still the heart feels occasionally impelled to pour itself out in either entreaty or thanks, and we look in vain for a biblical psalm just corresponding to our sensations of the moment. It is then that we naturally desire to have a manual of devotion, which may aid us to fashion our thoughts into prayers; and the closer, there fore, any writer can fathom the inborn wants and imperfections of the human heart, the better guide he becomes to us in our private hours of devotion. The prayer-book embraces a great variety of petitions, we gladly acknowledge, and there are but few public occasions when we need anything beyond its contents.
But we speak now of the house, the bed-chamber, the solitary walk, the lonely hour, when we are not rarely reminded of our dependence on, of our necessity of divine aid, which we would gladly invoke, had we but words to express suitably our inward sensations. Every one is not endowed with the power of continued reflection, to string word on word, and thought on thought, so as to make the whole a suitable gift or petition to the Supreme. If, therefore, we can have another to think for us, we must needs call him our benefactor. The teachers of Israel have always acknowledged this, and hence there are a great variety of occasional prayers, composed in the language of the people, both of the barbarous jargon which was once customary in Europe, a derogatory reference to Yiddish. and the more refined dialects of modern times. It is needless to say that the ancient matter can be of little use at the present day, as both ideas and language are antiquated; but modern compositions, although occasionally beautiful, have failed, for the most part, to answer the end in view, for the simple reason that the authors could not think for the people. If it were necessary, we could exhibit proofs of this fact; but we are not about to indite a criticism on prayer, but merely to introduce specimens of an unpublished work.
It is enough, therefore, to say that, though in Germany some excellent attempts have been made to supply the natural want of a domestic manual of occasional devotion for Israelites, the English language is almost without any such pieces at all, the few of the late Miss Aguilar, which, however, we have not read, being, as far as known to us, the only collection that has appeared in print. We therefore hope that the effort may be farther pursued by our gifted friend, and others who are willing to devote their hours to the sacred service, so that especially those who are not familiar with the Hebrew may have the means to commune with their heavenly Father in meekness of spirit. We would only caution all who make the attempt to take heed how they mix their own private thoughts in their outpourings; for, however blissful in its effects a prayer for the moment may be to the individual, it cannot make a good impression on another, who may never be placed in similar circumstances.
Prayers like those we speak of should be universal, to be of the least value, and then they should be free from familiarity, and entirely Scriptural in their construction; for only thus can they be tolerated alongside of the prayer-book and the Psalms of the Bible.—Ed. Oc.
This essay was originally published by Isaac Leeser untitled as an introduction by the editor of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate (9:5, Ab 5611/August 1851, p.253-255) in advance of “Two Short Prayers” by Rosa Emma Salaman (1, 2).
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“On Composing Prayers Outside of the Prayerbook, an introduction by Isaac Leeser to “Two Short Prayers” (1851)” is shared by the living contributor(s) with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.
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