Themes and Theology of Jewish Prayer

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Jewish prayer and liturgy include a number of recurring themes that reflect the historic theology of Judaism. The most basic theme of Jewish worship is the belief in God as Sovereign of the universe. It follows from this that we human beings, and in particular the Jewish people, are the subjects of this Sovereign. The relationship allows each party to have expectations of each other, which are reflected in the ideas and words of the prayers we recite. 

One expectation is an orderly universe, a universe based on immutable laws and rules that we can know. These laws, broadly called Torah, allow for mutual accountability. God demands obedience of us, and we demand of God fair application of the law.

prayer quizHowever, before the prayer services as we know them came to be, our ancestors worshipped God primarily at the Temple in Jerusalem with its sacrificial rites and rituals. The memory of this history is preserved in every prayer service, but it is most conspicuous on the Sabbath and Festivals. On these days, there is an added service that is almost entirely about the sacrifices and rites performed in the ancient Temple on these special days.

The recitation of this additional service, it should be noted, is one of the distinguishing characteristics that differentiate the streams of Judaism. Orthodox and most Conservative congregations retain the service, while Reform and Reconstructionist congregations only include some elements of it.

There are other essential themes expressing more fully the relationship between God and humanity, and between God and the Jewish people. Franz Rosenzweig, a 20th-century German-Jewish thinker and teacher, pointed to three dominant themes of Judaism based in Scripture and developed not only in Jewish prayer, but also through Jewish holidays and festivals. These themes are Creation, Revelation and Redemption, and they inform us about different aspects of the sovereign-subject relationship.

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