Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Intellectuals be Spiritual?

This questions came up at shul this past Shabbat.  Is it more difficult for intellectual people to daven?  Try and follow my argument:

My first assumption is that all of the readers of this blog are intellectuals.  By that I mean to cast intellectual in the broadest definition possible; people who extol higher learning and rational thinking.  To be more precise, I mean intellectual with a lower case i.  Perhaps we need to re-learn our own vocabulary to realize just how powerful these words are.  Similarly I would argue that we are all liberals (again with a lower case l, meaning liberalism) which reflects our Western democratic values (liberty, equal rights,. freedom of religion, open and free elections, etc).  While some readers might embrace a political agenda with a capital Liberal or Conservative, we, by virtue of our upbringing and societal influence, are indeed liberals.  Our educational upbringing are similar enough that signify a common direction and I think this reflects current attitutides to teaching tefilla.

With that in mind, I think it is a reasonable deduction that most of us are also intellectuals and thus have invested a great amount of our time in schooling, reading, and professional training that is more "white collar".  The trend for me that is instigating this specific blog post is that I observe a great dissatisfaction among some people in tefilla settings. Many of my co-participants bring books to read during shul, or open a Jewish text to pass the time, or just chit-chat with the person next to them on either a mundane or holy topic (I am not judging).  Further, the highlight of many shul-goers is the sermon/drasha where the attendees sit and receive the inspiration and digest the intellectual discourse.  Learning/reading is indeed easier than it is to daven, but have we detached ourselves from passion and emotion as well?

One final point for this esoteric post:  William Wordsworth wrote, "The world is too much with us" and I find this true today.  With the great competition for attention with information and technology, individuals have a more challenging time reflecting.  It seems that schools today generally succed in preparing our young people to be intellectuals; to read, write and think critically - but do not in helping them daven, why?


  1. I don't think that schools give students the time to digest, contemplate, and ponder the material they cover. My daughter complains that she reads a rashi but has no time to think about what it MEANS.

    Perhaps if the schools would slow down a bit and teach (or simply allow, though they probably would need some guidance) them to absorb the material, this might affect tefila, too. In general, we are not encouraged to think about, ponder, and emotionally internalize what we read and study.

  2. Thought provoking post. Even when we try to do Beiur Tefillah, I think we often over-intellectualize and fail to grasp the simple beauty of the words. I rarely find shuls with intellectual crowds to be passionate. The Gush Beis was an exception to this general rule.