Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Postmodern Tefila Tip #2

In my ongoing reflections on how to evaluate and improve tefilla in schools, I came across an unrelated comment by Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter - aka the Sfat Emet. One of the themes that he often riffs on, no matter the topic, is based on Psalms 34: 15:

סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;    בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

The Sfat Emet denotes the difference between actively refraining from evil actions or thoughts and the movements that direct one towards goodness and effectiveness.  Accordingly, a person needs to regularly examine one's deeds and actions to remove any negative attributes toward the goal of personal improvement; such a tactic only brings a person to a neutral state.  This defensive approach to the world differs from one that seeks engagement and enactment.

In my humble opinion, one of the significant differences between liberal democratic values and Judaism is precisely this point - the obligation to refrain from harmful actions versus a command to be an active participant in society.  There are rules in society about what you cannot do, or when you can drive or vote, but no obligation except to pay taxes.  In Judaism, while there are negative commandments (thou shall not), there are many active mitzvot that propel are person into the world to do good, and hopefully spread peace.

With this Sfat Emet dichotomy in mind, I wish to frame tefilla education according to skill based vs. spiritual development.  Often students are taught just the skills in order that they know how to appropriately act if they were to arrive in a synagogue.  There needs to be more emphasis on what can motivate and excite our young people to be agents of positive prayer.  Bringing students to a parve spiritual state just isn't doing it.

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