Thursday, September 8, 2011

Keva & Kavanah: Understanding Jewish prayer

The journal Jewish Educational Leadership just published the Summer 2011 edition on the topic of the Arts in Jewish Education.

I highly recommend checking out the article by Gail Baker, Judith Leitner, and Pam Medjuck Stein on "Tefillah Studies and Visual Arts in Grade 5". Below is in an excerpt that I believe has some practical suggestions for educators for any grade level:

In this program we express our understanding of Keva and Kavvanah, and we foster symbolic thinking through an art form. We renew and enrich the culture of derekh eretz in the art room. We perceive that prayer develops our self-awareness as vital individuals and as members of a learning community; that Jews pray alone in community.

In Tefillah Studies we ask, "How can we understand the nature of prayer? How can we understand Rabbi A. J. Heschel’s thoughts on Keva and Kavvanah in Jewish prayer? Where can we find these notions elsewhere in the human experience to help us clarify the act of prayer?

We begin with Rabbi Heschel’s words, quoted in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Interpreter of Jewish Prayer by Arnold Jacob Wolf:

There is a specific difficulty of Jewish prayer. There are laws – Keva: how to pray, when to pray, what to pray. There are fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of inner devotion – Kavvanah. In this way, Jewish prayer is guided by two opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity, uniformity and individuality, law and freedom, a duty and a prerogative, empathy and self-expression, insight and sensitivity, creed and faith. These principles are two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves.

While students explore the ideas Keva and Kavvanah in Tefillah Studies, in Art Class they investigate color and the elements of design. They study the artist Mark Rothko, who said, “I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” ( The class explores Rothko’s approach, learning how complementary colors energize, while altering tones and shades can differentiate strength and mood. Once the learning goals of the component disciplines are met, the study of prayer meets Abstract Expressionism in the art room, where students create a large color field painting. Following Rothko they experiment with how abstract composition and color express ideas. The practice correlates with the themes of duality and conflict in Keva and Kavvanah and students explore through their paintings and written artist statements.

We assess student ability to engage in meaningful discussions, to bridge information from diverse areas of learning, and to connect personal artwork to models from art history. Students must express their understanding of symbolic thinking and Rav Heschel’s thoughts on Keva and Kavvanah in Jewish prayer through their painting and artist statement; they must show comprehension of Abstract Expressionism and produce an extended color wheel; they must elaborate on ideas, and employ diverse art materials; they must persist during a directed lesson, work independently and remain engaged in personal artwork; they must also apply the principles of derekh eretz to the collective learning experience. Through abstract art they evince the solitude and collegiality of Jewish prayer.

Gail Baker is a co-founder of The Toronto Heschel School. She is Head of School and Director of the Lola Stein Institute.
Judith Leitner is a Cofounder of The Toronto Heschel School and its Director of Arts. Her book, The Judaic Arts Compendium: 150 Integrated Visual Arts Programmes, will be published shortly.
Pam Medjuck Stein is the editor of think: The Lola Stein Institute Journal and a founding parent of The Toronto Heschel School.

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