Book review: ‘Chana: A Life in Prayer,’ by Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko

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The opening chapters of the book of Samuel recall the desolation, despair, and redemption of Samuel's mother, Chana. Yet many view this story as only a prologue to the birth of Samuel, the great prophet whose career broke the destructive cycle of sin and punishment which brought Israel to the brink of disaster in the Book of Judges.  

Rich details in Chana's story suggest that the tale is meant to be more than an origin story. Chana, in fact, is an utterly unique character. Of the six barren women in the Bible, only Chana's prayer to God is recorded, and only her request is granted by God in direct response. The relationship that Chana boldly forges with God reflects her remarkable inner strength, a strength that enables her to transcend the loneliness that results from her disappointing human relationships. 

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko's recent book, Chana: A Life in Prayer , superbly illuminates Chana's unique place in biblical and rabbinic tradition. The book opens with an exposition of Samuel 1-2 that focuses on Chana's character and acts of prayer. This exposition explores how Chana's story builds on earlier biblical texts, and how it was later interpreted by the rabbis.

In the book's second section, Poupko-JUF Rabbinic Scholar and a monthly JUF News columnist-considers how the rabbis rely on Samuel 1-2 to establish sources for foundational laws regarding prayer. In doing so, the rabbis "transform Chana into a person whose very life and conduct become a teaching text" (p.148).

The book's final section examines the themes that Chana's story shares with themes embedded in the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. These themes, especially those of "creation, birth, remembrance, and judgment" (p. 203) explain why the rabbis selected Chana's story to be retold in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.

Throughout this book, Poupko demonstrates breadth of insight that transcends the story of Chana and relates to all aspects of Jewish life. In exploring the words that describe Chana's prayer, for example, Poupko comments that the verb le-hitpaleyl is reflexive, and therefore the translation of le-hitpaleyl as "to pray" fails to capture the fact that it "describes a dynamic action in a relationship characterized by reciprocity and ongoing dialogue" (p. 60). 

In another passage, Poupko notes that women in the Bible are custodians of leadership, and "where no woman serves as the custodian of leadership transition from one generation to the next…chaos ensues" (p. xxxii).  These insights, and many others, result in a resource rich with compelling interpretations that mine scriptural texts and rabbinic commentaries for new meanings.

I differ with Poupko on a small interpretive point. While he sees Elkana as an empathetic partner who deeply loves Chana, I see Elkana as someone who gravely errs in dismissing Chana's suffering. Poupko takes Elkana's statement, "am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?" as a tender declaration of his commitment. I see Elkana's response as lacking understanding and empathy for her desire to bear children.

Unlike Elkana, Chana knows that loving and nurturing a child cannot be replaced with loving and nurturing a spouse. Misunderstood or mistreated by those closest to her, Chana finds herself alone in her human relationships. This reading supports Poupko's emphasis on Chana's boldness: Chana does not retreat into her loneliness. Instead, she determines to go where God resides to seek His understanding. Ironically, even the man of God, Eli, cannot accurately assess Chana's internal state. And despite yet another painful encounter, Chana remains committed in her mission to confront God.

Poupko's erudite explorations of Chana's prayer, and his discussions regarding how Chana's story illuminates core themes of the High Holidays, make this book an excellent entry-point into the liturgical experience of the High Holidays. Those seeking to appreciate what it means to encounter God through prayer would do well to use this book as a guide.

Poupko's exploration of Chana's story is deeply personal. He began studying about Chana following the tragic death of his young granddaughter, Chana Tova Poupko, who passed away at the age of two. Jewish law does not mandate that grandparents practice ritual mourning upon the loss of a grandchild. Unable to express grief through ritual, Poupko selected to immerse himself in understanding his granddaughter's name sake. As he points out, one's name reveals one's truest essence in Jewish tradition, and in studying the biblical Chana, he sought to better understand his young granddaughter.

Aside from its many insights about Chana, perhaps the most powerful argument of this book is a subtle one: Whether they live in biblical, rabbinic, or in modern times, Jews are not asked to deny or repudiate grief. Like Chana and countless others, Poupko uses grief as a vehicle with which to approach and confront the divine. And like Chana, this confrontation constitutes a creative act, and results in a lasting contribution to the Jewish people.

Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and Director of Catholic-Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union.



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