Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is Hebrew the Obstacle?

A reader of this blog contacted me to share some tefilla news: the local rabbi of the major neighborhood shul arose on Shabbat a few weeks ago and addressed the issue of davening.  This rabbi diagnosed the problem primarily as one of frustration with the language barrier and suggested, since Gd understands English, that the congregation experiment with the vernacular in order to increase the meaning and spirit of the community's prayers.

I fear that language is not what is holding the masses, or even individuals, from greater enthusiasm in the realm of tefilla.  But maybe I am wrong.  Try it out.  Read the Shema - do you see/feel a possibility for transcendence?  I - and this is my personal belief - think that you have to try what works best for you.  For some people, English prayers might work best, but for me, it just seems awkward.  I am of the opinion that it is nice to have a special language in which to speak to Gd even though that same language is used to order food, yell at people, and even used in comic books (all in Israel).  It is nice to travel the world and to walk into a temple or synagogue and to have a mutually common way to pray, regardless of the language in which we speak at home.  Having a special and historic channel helps me in my spiritual yearning - but I know that this doesn't work for everyone.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth revisiting whether the revival of the Hebrew language has really led to a spiritual revival in the realm of prayer.  When I tried out the English tefilla, I realized (again) that the problem is that I don't easily meditate or have a sense of how to focus on the meaning behind the words.  I personally attended Hebrew School growing up, which I credit with teaching me how to be illiterate - give me the ability to read but not understand a word. If davening is like punching a ticket and one fulfills the obligation for tefilla by simply chanting words in a particular format then there is a clear method to evaluate what is being taught and practiced in our schools.  But aren't we looking to do something more in our tefilla?  I am happy that some rabbis are standing up and acknowledging that there is a problem within our shuls - but let's be serious about educating people on how to improve the situation.

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