Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: Jewish Prayer the Right Way

This original review was published in Bookjed Digest 106

Davening is one of those things in life that definitely gets better with age.  Teaching people how to daven is also easier talked about than  practiced and is often left to modeling (watching how other people preform) or reading literature on tefilla.  While there are many works that complement the siddur, reading Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen’s Jewish Prayer the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas (Urim Publications 2012) one discovers an easily digestible resource and an important addition to an educator’s library.

Cohen’s style of writing is extremely clear and the queries presented on each aspect of tefillalend to excellent trigger topics for formal and informal educators looking to prepare for activities.  I could almost hear how such a book was developed out of a tefilla course given at a high school or from mini-lecture between mincha/maariv in a local shul.  This work reflects both Cohen’s scholarly and rabbinic pedigree and his keen eye for what resonates with contemporary readers.   Topics range from “The Chazzan’s Place” and “Prayers for Luxury” to “Kaddish for a Gentile Parent” and “Davening on the Airplane”.

One shortfall of this work, I found, was in the title.  In proclaiming what appears to be his series of “the Right Way” Cohen seems to be espousing that there is a single halachic answer to each question presented, whereas in my personal experience and paying close attention to several excerpts in this book, there is sometimes no clear answer to conclude.   As some of the questions do address issues of minhag I found the scent of this authoritarian angle to misrepresent what the goal of writing this was to do.  This title clause does not however detract from the bountiful research within the binding but I would have liked to read more in the introduction from the author on this issue.

Another curiosity in reviewing this book was the quiet side stepping of clearly more controversial tefilla issues.   The closest you get to a question in the neighborhood of feminism is “Women Davening in Synagogues”.  Cohen does address, in the sub chapter on “Kavod Hatzibur”, of woman being called up to the Torah but does not reference any possible impact or contextualization and concludes with a short one sentence paragraph stating that “it would be a breach of Jewish law and tradition for any congregation to assume that they have the authority to annul the ordinance of the Talmudic Sages prohibiting women from being called up for analiyah” (241).  In the most objective manner that I can write, I would like to have seen the issue addressed in a more practical application.

Overall,  Jewish Prayer the Right Way offers a rich reading on the topic of tefilla and should be acquired by educators and readers who want to be enriched by the story of how religious law and life are intertwined.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Do Reform Jews own Siddurim?

In my wanderings around the web searching for tefilla news and updates, I came across - an online resource to get answers to questions.  One jump article on the bottom of the page was "ask the rabbi" about "Does Judaism have a prayer that requests success in sports?"  I was looking for something on tefilla and I came across the following question:
I am a prospective convert, and recently obtained a copy of the Reform prayer book (Gates of Prayer.)  I find that the prayer book would be relatively difficult to use on a daily basis compared to a more traditional siddur (the Artscroll, for example.)  Do most Reform Jews daven Sacharit, Minchah, and Maariv?  If so, are they using more traditional siddurim?  Will the new Mishkan Tefillah be more conducive to daily prayers?   
My rabbi mentioned that most of his congregants likely do not own a siddur.  Is this common throughout the reform movement?
I found Rabbi Sue Levy's response fascinating (check out her expert profile) and intriguing.  At first she offers a practical answer about the siddur differences between Shabbat and the weekday.  She adds the following caveat :
I think your rabbi is absolutely right that most Reform Jews do not own a siddur. It is a sad commentary, but for many Reform Jews spirituality is something that they find in synagogue once a week or not at all.  
I think there are many people who call themselves Christians who compartmentalize in pretty much the same way, although the church with which they are affiliated might wish otherwise.
This has not been my experience or impression (as well I am not one to generalize about large groups of people and Jews specifically).  Whether this siddurim are dusty on a top shelf or strangely unfamiliar is probably a fact for most unaffiliated Jews regardless of their denominational affiliation - but what's with the thesis about compartmentalizing of spiritual life for Reform Jews?  (tangential recommended article, Is Prayer for Activists?).

What are your thoughts? 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Passover is in the Air

I knew that Passover is around the corner when the pediatrician today, prior to checking on my daughter's throat, asked her to recite the 4 Questions.  Since it is already the month of Nisan, I thought I would get the readers in the mood with a rousing rendition of והיא שעמדה by Yaakov Shwekey and Yonatan Razel (composer) - originally sung in Caesarea in 2009.  Words are from the Haggadah:

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ. שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם
And He that has kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving. For, not only one arose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and Hashem saves us from their hands.
The song is amazing, IMHO, and I think rings especially true today, especially for me as I live in Israel.  Putting aside the rhetoric of the Iran threat, I think we must always capture the message and story of Pesach - our determination to keep the tradition alive and help it thrive.

This song always makes me think of the Israeli soldiers, past and present who are sitting at uncomfortable places and during a pivotal time in their lives that allow me the comfort to sit in my living room and educate and enjoy my family.  May our prayers be answered and we not have to rise in defense but rather only in celebration of freedom.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Introverts and the Power of Solitude

Today I watched at TED talk that apparently another 1.4 million other people enjoyed by Susan Cain on the "The Power of Introverts".  It gets more intense at the ten minute mark and has a nice Jewish twist at the end.

She discusses the "transcendent power of solitude" in her lecture and it really resonated with me regarding my attempts to teach and evaluate tefilla.  While addressing that we are inherently social beings, Cain promotes reexamining how people do not often enough seek within themselves and ape and mimic "the beliefs of the people around you without even realizing that is what you are doing."  This point zeros in on one of the key modes for teaching kids how to daven: modeling.  For the lucky and determined person that figures out the key to successful tefilla, probably through deep introspection, have you asked how they gained such insights? Usually I think the best practice is to copy their outward behavior and approach.  My 7 year old shuckles (sways) like I do when I daven and has done so before he even went to school.

Cain notes that Western Society has shifted from a "culture of character" to a "culture of personality" - I think this has only enhanced young people's disenchantment with group prayer.  Whereas inidividucals might find the need to have prayerful expression, there are fewer role models on how to do, or even lead, a dynamic tefilla.

Her take away message: Go the wilderness, have your own revelations, and unplug.  Can we as educators teach our students how to do this or are school's curriculum and exceptions too rigid?

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Talking, Davening, and ADD

I came across this anecdote on the web without a proper source:

The Minsker Rabbi was very angry with his congregation because they always chattered while prayers were being said. One Shabbat after services, he noticed a small group of people standing and talking. 
“This is something I can’t understand, my good people,” the Rabbi said. “During the services you must talk, but why must you talk after services?”
In a way, talking and davening are the same skill of the tongue but are seemingly mutually exclusive in their practice - how can we teach students to focus their brains and mouths for the correct purposes? 

One great solution can be found in the Mishna in Brachot (5:1) which states the following: 
  • A person must be in the proper frame of mind for davening. Therefore, one should not daven immediately after playing around or after an argument, but should wait a few moments to calm down.
I would argue that this is a great first step to make the 'switch' into a more meditative and reflective use of speech and one that I observe is often under practiced. Pause - wait to see if you can refocus on the purpose of your tefilla.  Otherwise, we are just producing a cohort of daveners with an attention deficit disorder to their own spiritual needs.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Daven for Me?

Sometimes I am tired and just do not feel like I can muster the energy to daven.  Occasionally it happens in the morning that I don't want to get out of bed when the alarm clock goes off and I have posted previously about this matter (interesting that this same Mishne Brura discusses excuses people make, 'in the summer, that it is too hot and in the winter that it is too cold outside).

Well have I got the solution for you!  Sort of.  I came across today Daven For Me. This site offers a way for petitioners to get their way with Hashem.  Here is their pitch:

Introducing, for the very first time, a beautiful new chesed organization that no doubt you will want to join: it’s called “Daven For Me And I’ll Daven For You.” “Daven For Me and I’ll Daven For You”, was inspired by a poignant song sung by David Gabay on his new CD, titled Omar Dovid. Some of the stirring lyrics read, “Daven for me and I’ll daven for you, Oh, how I know your pain, I feel it too… Let’s storm the gates of Heaven we will break through, “כל המתפלל בעד חברו ” yes it’s true, so Daven for me and I’ll daven for you... What a magnificent concept! How brilliantly simple, logical and profound at once! When we are r”l faced with a specific challenge, we uniquely understand the pain of someone in similar straits and thus, our tefillos for them are most genuine and meaningful, while at the same time assuring us our respective yeshuah too, as per the Talmudic dictum, כל המתפלל בעד חברו והוא צריך לאותו דבר הוא נענה תחילה

The site has testimonials and even an FAQ!  Now you are limited to what situations you can daven for here: illness, childless, Shiduchim (a mate), Haztlacha (success) for children, and parnasa (a livelihood) - no rooting for the Mets to win the world series!  But it seems to me that this organization doesn't just want to get more people to say tehillim.  Rather the baseline premise appears to be that if you say tehillim on someone else's behalf, you are guaranteed to have your own prayers answered.  I am not arguing that the Talmudic concept is wrong - but hiring someone to knowingly daven for your behalf so that you can get your way with God seems to improperly circumvent the system.  Also, it seems to me that some people's davening expectations are being inappropriately raised.  What are your thoughts?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mailing It In?

Does your minyan daven to fulfill it's obligation to pray or does it strive to serve the Creator?

I can feel the difference in the tone of the tefilla and atmosphere in the room when the vibe is the latter (by the way, such an approach also fulfills the first option of 'obligation').  Do the people who are just 'mailing it in' because they are used to doing it all the time - and that's what they always done and don't think about it anymore - really notice that the tefilla's lost that loving feeling?

Recently, I switched up my routine and went to a different minyan and the leader there really tried to express his service and special devotion and it was very much palpable - it also went 10 minutes longer than the usual place I go to daven.  However the ROI (return on investment) of the experience for me was the feeling that my tefilla was more connected to Hashem and those in the room.

Perhaps the routine of davening in schools has produced people who feel need to check off the box (I said shema) and we are lacking the pride and passion to make the tefilla experience transcendent and purposeful.  Let's get the feeling back for the rabbis say, "A prayer without kavana (intention) is like a body without a soul"

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?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fasting for?

Previously I have explored the concept of tefilla and fasting and wanted to take a different angle today.  Yesterday was the Fast of Esther which leads many people to associate the purpose of the fast to be united at least symbolically with Esther's three day fast before she enters the King's chamber to make her plea for her people (chapter 4).  This is not the case as even wikipedia notes:

The 13th of Adar was a fast day for the warriors while going out to battle, as it is believed to have been customary to fast during the battle in order to gain divine favor.

Rather than explore why some educators avoid emphasizing discussions of power and war with modern audiences, I find it worth noting that ancient Jewish warriors seriously davened to gain favor in their wars even to the point of going out to war in a state of fast - I have a hard time just going to work without eating the whole day...

There is a serious disconnect (beyond the mind/body) between our prayers and actions highlighting how far the concept of fasting is falling out of favor, especially on 'minor' fast days.  Mainstream Jewry (and by that I really mean a majority in number) knows about the big one - Yom Kippur - and might be familair with Tisha B'Av, but the minor ones are really seen as minor in significance (and not in degree of fasting).  There are some people even ask about the relevance to fast on Tisha B'av if there is a State of Israel.  In my humble opinion, this is partly because of a change in traditional  ideology (if there ever was unified ideology), a lacking in appreciation for Jewish literacy/history, and the fact that fasting is seen as an 'outdated' practice.  As educators, I think we need to address this issue and its relevance to how we build an identity around tefilla and spiritual growth.

Do your students seem more focused or less focused in tefilla on a fast day?

Do you discuss with your students how to rise above the hunger pangs to better strive to connect?  What techniques do you use?

Have you had a voluntary fast day in your school for a special occasion?  How was the reaction by the student body? Was that tefilla unique?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Should We Take God More Seriously?

For those of you the read or peruse Haaretz online, you might have noticed a regular paid advertisement stuck into the heart of the page taken out by the Shalom Hartman Institute. I personally never click on advertisements (but apparently people do otherwise google and facebook would not be so successful) but I clicked on it last week.

The reason I clicked was that I noticed the name and face of Tal Becker, a fellow at of the Shalom Hartman Institute, who I heard speak for the first time at a symposium just a few short weeks ago (turns out that we are neighbors as well).  He is a pretty good orator and has a good sense of the key issues facing Israel and Judaism today.  His present piece he writes about "Taking God (a little More) Seriously".

Near the end of his essay he states:

Imagine if this were the way religion and religious leaders were recognized in the public arena. Imagine if bringing God into the public square meant a supreme concern for the welfare of the collective, rather than the restricted needs of separate religious communities. 
I find this point worth highlighting because I think this is a negative byproduct of a poor educational system and reflects many of my concerns about the state of tefilla today.  Many young people look to or are influenced by popular culture for spiritual icons and/or role models.  Where are the religious leaders that can offer an engaging sense of identity for growing, modern adults?

When I attended an Idan Raichel Project a few years ago, and the audience sang along with the band to his poetic verses from Jewish liturgy, a felt a great, sad disconnect - that this music band had the ability to cause such a spiritual high and this feeling is rarely felt in a shul (perhaps only during a Friday night service).  Who are the rabbis and teachers that inspire greater faith and stretch their activities into the public arena? 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dare We Change Our Educational Approach

One of my personal favorite bloggers and marketing gurus is Seth Godin.  Around my office we call him Rabbi Seth out of appreciation for some of his insights and perspectives.  Which prompts me to share the following anecdote about the job of a rebbe:
A college student once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe what is his job. The Rebbe gestured to the ceiling of his room and replied:  Do you see that light bulb? It is connected by wires to a power plant that powers the whole of Brooklyn. And that plant is connected to turbo generators at Niagara Falls that power the whole of New York State and more.  Every one of us is a light bulb wired in to an infinitely powerful generator. But the room may still be dark, because the connection has yet to be made. The job of a rebbe is to take your hand in the dark room and help it find the switch.
Seth Godin has a new free book, Stop Stealing Dreams - it is a manifesto, or in his own words, "This is more of a rant than a book".  I think it is a must-read for educators and believe it has much to say about the structure of our schools and how we improve on what we are trying to do.  In graduate school I remember being strongly impressed by John Dewey's works as well as George Counts who questioned the motivation and overall purpose of trying to teach children.

One point that Seth makes in the beginning of the manifesto is that our schools are essentially training students to be obedient and the skill set for an economic reality that has since disappeared.  On the topic of tefilla, I firmly believe that a significant number of Jewish schools, both day schools and supplementary, have similarly not fully adjusted to the reality of a new economic and cultural reality and how to best prepare their charge for living Jewishly post-graduation.  By this I mean the fast pace nature of today's communication systems, the interactive nature of social networking and sharing of information, and the powerful forces of agency working on the individual identities in a post-modern era.  So it is worth reflecting on the meta-educational approach to what it means to teach kids how to daven and how to prevent their proverbial dreams from being stolen.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Prayer to Raise Good Children

Privilege me to raise children.... so begins a small tefilla said after candle-lighting on Friday nights.  This moment, when shabbat enters, or better, when we welcome shabbat into our lives, is purposely a moment of pause and prayer.

There is a song to this tefilla that is popular in the Orthodox and yeshivish world and I wanted to share it with the readers here because, as I have written before, sometimes music transforms tefilla and makes it so much easier for us to transcend.

 וזכני לגדל בנים ובני בנים, חכמים ונבונים, אוהבי השם, יראי אלקים, אנשי אמת, זרע קודש, בשם דבקים, ומאירים את העולם בתורה ובמעשים טובים, ובכל מלאכת עבודת הבורא.
Privilege me to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who love Hashem and fear Hashem, people of truth, offspring that are holy, who to Hashem are attached, (who) illuminate the world with Torah and with deeds that are good, and with every labor in the service of the Creator. 

Shabbat Shalom