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Who by Fire, Who by Water

Is Our Fate Determined on Yom Kippur?

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

High on the list of Jewish martyr stories still retold or, at least, alluded to every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the terrible medieval tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. For refusing to appear before the Bishop of Regensburg—who had requested that Amnon become a Christian—he had his limbs hacked off; what was left of him was arrayed alongside his severed parts and returned home in time for Rosh Hashanah. As the chazzan reached the climax of services that day, Amnon interrupted with a beautiful liturgical poem, and was promptly transported to his heavenly abode. Three days later he appeared to the saintly Rabbi Kalonymos, to teach him the poem and instruct him to spread it everywhere. Today, that poem, the Un’taneh Tokef, is a centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy.

So goes the story, which is still told annually in many a synagogue, before Un’taneh Tokef and its two-fold message: first, that “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water ... who by earthquake, who by plague [and so forth]”; but second, that “penitence, prayer, and charity” can somehow alleviate the hardship of the decree.

It is hard to know which is more troubling: the prayer or the story of its authorship. Who by Fire, Who by Water (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), the first volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series, chronicles the fascinating controversy that surrounds them both. The problem with the prayer is that it seems patently scandalous. Was the fate of the 9/11 victims predetermined on the prior Yom Kippur? Did they die because they were insufficiently penitent, prayerful, or charitable? The problem with the story is that it is hardly a message that inaugurates a new year with spiritual promise. Besides, it is pure fiction—there never was a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “aMNoN” is a rearrangement of the letters in the Hebrew Ne’eMaN, “faithful.” This is a morality tale of a putative “Rabbi Faithful” who stood fast in the face of adversity.

The poem was probably composed as early as the fifth or sixth century by a Byzantine Jewish genius named Yannai, who symbolized anything but Jewish martyrdom in the face of inhuman persecution. Yannai personified a Jewish literary efflorescence rarely matched in the millennium and a half following. Perhaps the story we should be telling every Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish potential for artistic brilliance, Judaism as a well of creative potential, not Judaism as the religion of the persecuted masses. Un’taneh Tokef illustrates classic liturgical poetry at its best, an abundance of biblical and rabbinic allusions wed to clever Hebrew wordplay and alliterative excellence.

But what about the poem’s troubling message? While the first half of Who by Fire, Who by Water provides the truly stunning story behind the myth and the poem (alongside an annotated translation of both), the second half elicits commentaries from some forty thoughtful contributors who tell us how they handle the poem’s message. Here, arguing over the poem’s merits, are rabbis and laypeople; men and women from all denominations of Jewish life (some of them artists, writers, scholars, teachers, and musicians); from around the world and spanning generations. Prayer book editors from Europe and North America wrangle over whether to include it, fudge its message, or trash it altogether. Modern feminist and professor Wendy Zierler surveys Un’taneh Tokef as a theme in modern literature. Israeli professor Dalia Marx recalls how the poem emerged anew as a symbol of Israelis dying in the Yom Kippur War of her youth. Bible professor Marc Brettler provides the biblical backdrop for the poem, and several writers subject it to literary analysis, exposing its very many poetic virtues. Author and scholar Erica Brown plays with the image of God as writer of our fate: what kind of writing would God prefer? Fiction? Journalism? Scholarship? “Who shall live and who shall die? The answer is ‘Me!’” concludes Rabbi Edward Feinstein, in his insistence that Un’taneh Tokef speaks directly to our most cherished illusion—that we are in charge of our fate, when, in fact, we are painfully out of control. Isn’t that the whole point of the High Holy Days, delivered, in Rabbi David Stern’s judgment, “with the poetic force of a two-by-four”?

But still, does God really work that way? Does the God of Judaism write real-life obituaries in advance, not just fiction, journalism, or whatever? No, says Rabbi Delphine Horveilleur of Paris, the very idea is unpalatable. The poem’s theology is “infantilizing.” But it is a poem, with all the complexities of Shakespeare, Keats, or Cummings, and requiring all the interpretation they do. It may not even be about God at all, so much as it is about us! Perhaps the poem’s real climactic claim is that even though “our origin is dust and our end is dust,” we yet carry God’s name in our very being—“We are part of something everlasting,” says Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso; Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig concurs: “We may write books, create foundations, generate ideas, found or revitalize synagogues that will nurture generations long after we have died.”

Both the poem’s authorship and its message matter profoundly. Which Jewish type we emphasize, Amnon the martyr or Yannai the poet, will determine what Judaism we hand on to the next generation. The dizzying panoply of commentaries gathered here ask and answer the core religious questions of our time: Who is God? What is fate? How do humans matter? What spiritual truths can carry us forward when mortality’s harsh reality becomes finally unavoidable?

........................................................

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, is editor of the My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and the major new series Prayers of Awe, which explores the High Holy Day liturgy. He is author of many works that enrich Jewish life today. 





Who by Fire, Who by Water—Un'taneh Tokef

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 1: The Sh'ma and Its Blessings

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 2: The Amidah

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 3: P'sukei D'zimrah (Morning Psalms)

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 4: Seder K'riat Hatorah (The Torah Service)

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 5: Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 6: Tachanun and Concluding Prayers

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 7: Shabbat at Home

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 8: Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat in the Synagogue)

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 9: Welcoming the Night—Minchah and Ma'ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayer)

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My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 10: Shabbat Morning: Shacharit and Musaf (Morning and Additional Services)

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The Way Into Jewish Prayer

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Israel—A Spiritual Travel Guide, 2nd Edition: A Companion for the Modern Jewish Pilgrim

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My People's Passover Haggadah Book Set

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My People's Passover Haggadah, Vol. 1: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries

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My People's Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries

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The Art of Public Prayer, 2nd Edition: Not for Clergy Only

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A book from SkyLight Paths, Jewish Lights’ sister imprint




Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life

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On Prayer Archive

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Meditation Coupled with Prayer
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God as the Ultimate Writer
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On Mindfulness
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Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues
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Start a Blessing Practice
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Navigating the Heavens
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Sacred Community Within and Beyond the Shul
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi, DMin, and Ellen Frankel, LCSW

Prayer of the (Broken) Heart
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Why Prayer Works Even When It Doesn’t
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Open My Lips
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A Mini-Sabbath at Work
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Prayer: An Eternal Experience
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Rows vs. a Circle
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The God Who Is Listening
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Waking Up
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A Morning Practice
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Preparing for Prayer
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Prayer—Fact or Feeling?
Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi (z"l)

Medicine, Prayer and Hope
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

The Haggadah’s Last Word: A World of Eternal Life
David Arnow, PhD

The Kiddush
By Dr. Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver

The Breath of Life and Prayer
Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Ashrei
By Rabbi Shefa Gold

Blessings New and Ancient—A Living Link to God
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We Pray Better Than We Theologize
By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, DHL

“Out There,” “In Here”—What's the Problem?

Rabbi Perry Netter

Talking to God
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Joel Segel

Learning to Pray from My Bubbe
Dr. Ron Wolfson

Personal Prayer
By Dov Elbaum

Chilean Miner Rescue Gives New Meaning to Old Prayers
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

The Power of Praying with People
By Rabbi Mychal B. Springer

A Prayer Before I Pray
Harold M. Schulweis

Hebrew as the Basis for Prayer
By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

With God as My Companion
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

The Healing of the Name
By Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Finding the Prayer of Your Heart
By Rabbi Goldie Milgram

For People Like Me Who Struggle with Prayer
By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

I Don't Pray
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

A Great Miracle Happened Here
By Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

When the Messiah Is Here, How Will Judaism Be Practiced?
By Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman

Transitions in Prayer
By Dr. Ron Wolfson

Cultivating a Personal Prayer Voice
By Rabbi Mike Comins

Becoming a Prayerful Person
By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

Praying in God’s Corner
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Donald Gropman

Prayer Said by a Partner
By Sandy Falk, MD, and Rabbi Daniel Judson

Gentle Guidance
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Tehinot: Calling Out for Divine Intervention
By Arthur Green, PhD

Breathing Prayer
By Ellen Frankel, LCSW

It's All God
By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Forgiving God
By Rabbi Will Berkovitz

Yizkor: The Service of Remembrance
By Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur

Teshuvah, Complete and Unending
By Dr. Louis E. Newman

The Kol Nidre: Mirror to Our Soul
By Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

Where Does Prayer Fit In?
By Nan Fink Gefen, PhD

The Binding of Isaac and the Binding of You and Me
By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

Davening with Kavanah
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Joel Segel

Prayer as Art
By Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger

The Power of the Amidah
By Rabbi Alan Lew (z"l) and Sherril Jaffe

Lullaby of the Restless Soul
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

Prayer and Blessings for Social Justice
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Acoustics and Intimacy
By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Prayer for Sleep
By Sandy Falk, MD, and Rabbi Daniel Judson, with Steven A. Rapp

Paying Attention to Moments of Transition
By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, DHL

The Prayer Book
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Donald Gropman

Longing: Fuel for Spiritual Practice
By Rabbi Shefa Gold

The Serenity Prayer
By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD

Concentration
By Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

Two Faces of God, One Choice
By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, DHL

The "I-Thou" Relationship with God
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Stuart M. Matlins

Praying God's Prayers
By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

The Sound of Prayer
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW

Avodat Halev: The Service of the Heart
By Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger

Laugh
By Rabbi Avraham Weiss

The Sea of Ending and Beginning
By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman

The Night of Vigil
By Dr. Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver

Hitlahavut
By Arthur Green, PhD

My Favorite Prayer
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Tefilah?
By Dr. Erica Brown

Balancing Silence and Sound
By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

After the Newtown Shooting: Comfort from Prayer
By Rabbi Dennis S. Ross

Prayer and Meditation: Combining the Two Practices
By Nan Fink Gefen, PhD

The Outcome of Prayer
By Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

People Don't Think Prayer Is Answered
By Rabbi Mike Comins

The First Kaddish
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW

Prayer as Transformation
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Joel Segel

Sharing the Spiritual Search
By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, MSW, MAJCS, BCC

With All My Being
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Resurrection
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A Great Miracle Happened Here
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Haneirot Hallalu
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Edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Prayer and Pregnancy
By Sandy Falk, MD, and Rabbi Daniel Judson with Steven A. Rapp

Directing the Heart
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Why Praying Can Help Even If You’ve Never Done It Before
By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

A Niggun Is a Wordless Prayer
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z"l) with Joel Segel

Have an Ongoing Dialogue with God
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Prayer Is Not Just for "Believers"
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Siddur
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Rites of Passage: Continuity and Change
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Does Prayer Work?
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Rebbe Nachman of Breslov Taught ...

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God as the Ultimate Writer
By Dr. Erica Brown

Are All Responsible?
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Have a Heart
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God Desires Heart
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Please Throw Me a Rope
By Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) and Sherril Jaffe

The Essence of Prayer in Jewish Tradition
By Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

Healing Body and Spirit
By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD

Tefilat Halev: Prayer of the Heart
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Kaddish: Continuing Your Communication with the Deceased
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW

Women in Prayer—Some History
By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

Kavvanah—Direction of the Heart
By Arthur Green, PhD

Prayer as Art
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Saying No to Tebowing:
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By Rabbi Dennis S. Ross

Silent Prayer
By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Miracles Surround Us
By Rabbi Levi Meier, PhD

One Hundred Blessings a Day
By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

Spiritual Goose Bumps
By Ron Wolfson

Choosing Life:
Prayer and Healing

By Rabbi Anne Brener

Changing Self-Deceit into the Quest for Truth
By Abraham J. Twerski, MD

The Importance of Shabbat
By Rabbi David Lyon

Peace of Mind
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Speed Davening:
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By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

The Sea of Ending and Beginning
By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

The Medium Is the Message
By David Arnow, PhD

Connecting Ritual with Action
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Count Your Blessings
By Dr. Ron Wolfson

The Motzi
By Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold

Helping Ourselves
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Walking with God in Israel
By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

May Our Prayers Never End
By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

Script
By Lawrence Kushner

A Return to Fruitfulness
By Ellen Bernstein

With God as My Companion
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

“Hearing” Heschel: Social Action Today
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

A Personal Relationship with Impersonal God
By Rabbi Mike Comins

Individual and Community
in Prayer

By Dr. David Hartman

Blessing: Bringing Possibility into Reality
By Lawrence Kushner

All the World Is a Place for Prayer
By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

An OK Jew
By Peter Yarrow

A Most Interesting “Amen”
Edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

Restoring Balance through Personal Prayer
By Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Avoiding Complacency
By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, MSW, MAJCS, BCC

Blessings after Eating
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Daniel Judson

Spiritual Greed
By Lawrence Kushner

What Matters Most
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Neshamah Meditation—Experiencing Your Soul Within
By Nan Fink Gefen, PhD

Bedtime Prayers
By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

Amen: Saying “Yes”
By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

P’sukei d’Zimrah: The Poetics of Praise

By Rabbi Mike Comins

Moving toward the Light of God

By Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l

The Surprising Appeal of
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By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

At the Edge of the Abyss

By Rabbi Sharon Brous

Past and Future

By Dr. Louis E. Newman

In Dialogue with the Divine

By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

How to Become a Blessing

By Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz

The Need for Prayer

By Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

Love & Prayer

By Rabbi Avraham Weiss

Lullaby of a Restless Soul

By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

The Power of Presence

By Rabbi Edward Feld

Does God Hear Our Prayers?

By Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold

Finding the Purpose of Our Impediments

By Rabbi Levi Meier, PhD, z”l

The Forgiveness of Sin

By Rabbi Jack Riemer

Prayer as a Spiritual Path

By Rabbi Ted Falcon, PhD

Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD

God as the Source of All Things

By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

A Prayer for Zion and Jerusalem

By Ari L. Goldman

The Amidah: A Prayer for Doubters

By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Silent Prayer

By Daniel C. Matt, PhD

Meditation Coupled with Prayer

By Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz

Breaking the Stumbling Blocks to Prayer

By Rabbi David Lyon

Praying by Imitation

By Rabbi Nancy Flam

Hitbodedut: Alone with God

By Rabbi Arthur Green, PhD

Mi-sheberach Blessings: Connecting to Our Experiences and Our Community

By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, MSW, MAJCS, BCC

The Haggadah’s Last Word: A World of Eternal Life

By David Arnow, PhD

The Bread of Oppression or the Bread of Freedom

By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

It Would Have Been Enough

By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Avodah: The Path of Prayer

By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

The Power of Prayer and Action

By Rabbi Jill Jacobs

On Mindfulness

By Sylvia Boorstein

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Navigating the Heavens

By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

Prayer of the (Broken) Heart

By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW

Why Prayer Works Even When It Doesn't

By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

C'mon Jews, Let Go!

By Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Open My Lips

By Lawrence Kushner

Prayer: An Eternal Experience

By Rabbi Chaim Kramer

The God Who Is Listening

By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

A Morning Practice

By Nan Fink Gefen, PhD

Prayer—Fact or Feeling?

By Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi z"l

... Who Has Made Me a Jew

By Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

The Breath of Life and Prayer

By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

How to Be Hanukkah Holy

By Dr. Ron Wolfson

Blessings New and Ancient—A Living Link to God

By Rabbi Marcia Prager

“Out There,” “In Here”—What's the Problem?

By Rabbi Perry Netter

Learning to Pray from My Bubbe

By Dr. Ron Wolfson

Chilean Miner Rescue Gives New Meaning to Old Prayers

By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

A Prayer Before I Pray

By Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

With God as My Companion

By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Finding the Prayer of Your Heart

By Rabbi Goldie Milgram

I Don't Pray

By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Prayer, Habituation, and Holy Insecurity

By Dr. Erica Brown

The High Holy Days Conundrum

By Rabbi Mike Comins

Who by Fire, Who by Water

By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Repentance: A Lost Art?

By Dr. Louis E. Newman

Other Prayer Resources

A Song Every Day
By Virginia Spatz
http://songeveryday.wordpress.com/

Making Prayer Real
By Rabbi Mike Comins
http://makingprayerreal.com/

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