Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is the father of the neo-Hasidic Jewish Renewal movement and one of the foremost authorities on Kabbalah and Hasidism. He is professor emeritus at Temple University and the author of many books including Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters and A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters. Joel Segel has edited many books on spirituality and is co-author with Reb Zalman of Jewish With Feeling.
"True prayer is a bursting forth of the soul to God," writes Reb Zalman in this creative primer on the many ways Jews can open their hearts to God and experience pleasure, ecstasy, and mystery similar to "a lover's tryst with something alive, immediate, and true." He uses the word davening as a shorthand for this kind of exhilarating prayer. The Jewish devotional life begins with kavanah, a focus that keeps distractions at bay. Next is the firm resolve of intention and then the hope for meaning. Reb Zalman counsels us:
"I like to say that humans are theotropic beings, that we are meant to grow toward God, to follow where God takes us. Not that we are always in harmony with that ideal way. But if we get a little bit more subtle and spiritually cleaned up, then we will get to the place where we, like the needle on a compass, will naturally swing around to align ourselves with our inner core of kavanah."
Reb Zalman hits high stride with his commentary on niggun, which he describes as a wordless prayer, a song of the heavenly spheres, and a soundtrack to a Jewish movie. The Hasidic way of life is impossible to imagine without this form of prayer. The author believes that niggun delivers Jews to a place of en-chant-ment and provides an outlet for their acute longing for connection with God.
Next comes davening in the four worlds of action, formation, creation, and emanation, followed by a chapter on a potpourri of ways to give God praise and adoration. The goal of all these prayers, rituals, and meditations is made clear:
"We strive to make our prayers a vessel for our own experience — and yet, at the same time, to transcend all that heart and mind can grasp. We aim to be most truly ourselves, to stand in our fullness before the living God."
Davening closes with material on being at home in the shul (the synagogue experience), a look at blessings, and an overview of prolonged prayer.