Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Post: The Vietnam of Day School Ed

You read the title correctly!  This post is authored by Michael Feuer, who is on the faculty of Sulam Yaakov and whom I recently met teaching a course titled Prayer: the inner journey that leads outward.  I welcome your reactions.  
The Vietnam of Day School Education

When I heard a respected educator apply these words to prayer, my jaw dropped. But after the shock faded, the precision of the phrase started to play on my imagination. Given that I share the sorrow and fear over the “field situation” which provoked the comment, but not its hopelessness, I figure some reflection is in order,  so – why Vietnam?!

Educators and community members rule the day, unengaged students rule the night. Our children are not absent from prayer; we can make a minyan and the shuls are full on Shabbat. But we grade prayer as attendance, and praise the appearance of focus. It’s true, sitting quietly is a praiseworthy habit in today’s culture. But we are not teaching them to cultivate silence, but to pretend to say words.

What are we fighting for anyway? Only a real soul-search after Gd and a lot of prayer can answer this question. How many teachers and parents have a mature, living relationship with Gd and an active engagement with our soul? How many of us find strength in prayer and have tasted its pleasure? If these are absent from us, or not deemed relevant,  then what are we asking from our students? Teacher’s prayer groups are the weapon of the next generation.

In context of the liturgy, this conversation becomes a minefield. Tracing a path through questions of doctrine, obligation, authority and tradition without losing your company seems hopeless. And yet, these very issues form the backbone of the Eighteen Blessings. Perhaps prayer is the primary context created for this struggle and we should encourage our students to take the fight there. If they don’t feel safe struggling with Gd, Torah and Am Yisrael then what kind of relationship can they build?

In asymmetrical warfare, victory is not achieved through force. Prayer is not an act to be imposed, it is a lifestyle to be cultivated. Teaching it is a battle of hearts and minds. We must invest in the context of prayer as well as its content. This means devoting more time for praying and more resources for learning. It means developing a model of mutual awareness and spiritual mentorship between all members of a school – staff, faculty and students. At its core prayer is the pursuit of relationship, and as such is the ultimate communal effort.

Awakening the emotions in service of prayer is essential. Are our classrooms vessels where students feel safe to share their hearts? To we encourage journaling, spiritual chevruta, giving and receiving of blessing?

The siddur is a complex and powerful tool for awakening the soul, connecting to Am Yisrael and turning to Gd. It must be engaged as an instrument to be mastered, and not as a book to be read. Repetition becomes practice when the students sense they are picking up a relationship where it left off each time they pray, and just not doing it all again. 

The attempt to reduce prayer to a deliverable educational product is bankrupt. It must be replaced by a critical dialogue meant to cultivate consciousness over the question of prayer. In order to accomplish this we have to be prepared to take risks, and even lose battles. But that’s what you do when you’re committed to winning the war. 
Michael Feuer has rabbinic ordination from the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva, under the guidance of Rav Dov Channan and has spent much of the past two years thinking intensively about the topic of tefillaSince making aliyah in 2001, he has been Program Director of a post-high school yeshiva, taught history, Jewish thought and Bible in several Jerusalem yeshivot and midrashot and halacha at the Pardes Institute.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Bizarre AND Awkward Tefilla Situation

The Yeshiva World News reported (24 July) the following headline: 
IDF Rabbinate Forbids Recitation of Avinu Malkeinu

If I didn't believe it myself than I wouldn't have cut and pasted the article here:
After Maran HaGaon HaRav Ovadia Yosef Shlita called for including Avinu Malkeinu in tefilos due to the gezeira hanging over Klal Yisrael, referring to efforts to compel tens of thousands of avreichim to leave beis medrash, it appears some IDF soldiers began reciting the tefilla as well, inside shuls on IDF basis. 
According to a Ynet report, after learning of this, the IDF Chief Rabbinate issued a directive prohibiting the inclusion of the tefilla on IDF bases. 
Some reports indicate that chareidi soldiers serving in the Kirya (Defense Ministry) in Tel Aviv began including the tefilla in their daily davening as they adhere to the instructions of gedolei yisrael. 
According to the Ynet report, this is now prohibited on IDF installations.
Yep - pretty unusual- as the comments at the bottom of the page seem to indicate.  If I was forced to create a list of inappropriately awkward tefilla moments, I feel that I must mention the 2003 YU tehillim gathering 'against' the appointment of the current president.  Are there any other nominations for this dubious list?

Your Prayers are Needed

Reading this article about Pamela Weisfeld's fight with cancer moved me to daven.  How about you?

Help Pamela fight cancer!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

9th (and 10th) of Av

Wishing everyone a meaningful Tisha B'Av (or the case this year, a Asheri B'av) fast and may we merit to learn the lessons of our past towards a more unified future in Jerusalem.

א  זְכֹר יְהוָה מֶה-הָיָה לָנוּ, הביט (הַבִּיטָה) וּרְאֵה אֶת-חֶרְפָּתֵנוּ.
1 Remember, Hashem, what is come upon us; behold, and see our reproach.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

To Learn or to Daven

Within Judaism, there is a significant tension between these two primary acts, to learn Torah and to daven.  The Babylonian Talmud, in Shabbat 127a states:

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פרותיהם בעולם הזה והקרן קימת לו לעולם הבא, ואלו הן:  כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות  חסדים והשכמת בית המדרש שחרית וערבית והכנסת אורחים ובקור חולים והכנסת כלה ולווית המת ועיון תפילה והבאת שלום בין אדם לחברו ובין איש לאשתו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם.

These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in This World but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come: 

They are: honoring one's father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between man and his fellow, and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all.

Clearly the status of Torah study (on simple reading of this text) trumps all, including the delving into the depths of davening.  To this note, I once heard this story told over about Rabbi Soloveitchik which I found a version of here
Torah learning would be more beneficial than saying Tehillim during the spare time on Rosh Hashanah. Rav Y. B. Soloveitchik states that once, his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l, saw him saying Tehillim on Rosh Hashanah and took the siddur from him, replacing it with Maseches Rosh Hashanah. He then said to his son, “My father (Rav Chaim) would learn the laws of shofar, etc.,  because that is what the day represents (and on Yom Kippur he would learn the rituals of that day) because that is where Hashem’s world is today.” 
Some see this approach as appropriate only for the most elite Torah learners which can be best expressed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's statement, also from the above article: “The talmid chacham should go as his heart desires, as it is said ‘the ones who learn Gemara, there is nothing greater.’”

For those of us who are not giants in Torah or Talmud - are we left just to chant tehilim?  After a recent conversation with a family member (@bradinsky) who shared with me a fascinating class on superstition and Jewish customs, I have been thinking deeply about which comes more natural, studying or davening? Which is more powerful and transformative on the individual? Which is easier and which is more difficult?  I am in the process of writing a longer post on this subject, but I wondered what others thought?  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Temple Minded

Believe it or not, a great many of Jewish rituals were designed to transmit the rules and habits of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, to those that never lived to see its glory.  For example, the custom of washing hands before eating bread (or even wet fruit) was established to recall the behavior of the priests in the times of the Temple.  When you preform this act do you think of the Beit HaMikdash?

During an impromptu discussion with a colleague today about the intensified mourning during the 9 days of Av, I asked this same question. He replied, "No, do you think most people when they say, 'Baruch Atah Hashem...' they often think of Hashem?"  

This cynical response - and perhaps accurate - reminds us that to teach davening is to teach sensitivity and awareness to time, space, and people.  In my early Jewish education, I often heard the word "holy" bounced around but never really understood what the word meant.  One good translation is to define it in terms of being separate, apart.  I think it is appropriate to translate the word kedusha as intimacy, a sense of unique closeness that is somewhat private and distinct to specific time, places, and people.  When teaching (or preaching) the importance of tefilla one must be conscious of the many layers of educational, ideological, and historical that are packed into each individual act - and many are actually routed in the service from the Temple.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Worst Kind of Prayer

The prophet Isaiah said it best, in his rebuke to the Jews:

The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord... “When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me ... I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.

Reading this passage I wonder if not praying is better than these types of offerings?  Pushing people to shul or to daven is not our goal - let's remain strident and focused to create a dynamic movement to daven!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Eating like Davening

I had a guest over for Shabbat lunch (good food was served) and the topic came up of tefilla and he shared a wonderful insight.  Just as we eat roughly three meals a day - without necessarily giving thought to the logistics and nutritional value the food - so to we should pause more to realize the spiritual opportunities that are presented before us when we break to pray.  Eating can seem natural and can be taken for granted (which is part of the interest of a fast day), but if abused can have a residual effect on your energy levels and health.  One does not strictly need to see a nutritionist, but in seeking their advice one can discover guidance for healthier living habits.  I have written about this subject previously regarding the need to see a davening doctor, but my guest pointed to the general need to pause and appreciate the cyclical opportunities that are readily present to be seized.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Blessings For Not Making Me A .....

One of the most fascinating aspects of tefilla for me is the simultaneous tensions between past and present, tradition and change, structure and passion, and the individual vs. the community.  I am reminded of this struggle each morning when I arrive in the siddur at birkot ha'shachar, the morning blessings that begin with a thank you for not making me a non-Jew, a slave, or a woman.

Yehuda Mirsky published last March a brief scholarly review of "The Three Blessings".  I encourage you all to read it and share what and why you say what you say in the morning.  The history of these blessings are complex and cloudy but I think reflects the agency to which people adopt, adapt or resist change in their tefillot.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A New Prayer for the 2012 Olympics

The soon to be unemployed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has composed a Prayer to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  While it might be his job as a chief rabbi to compose new prayers, I think it is a tough task.  What do you think of it? 

Additionally, I would encourage those of you on twitter to share #JustOneMinute as a way to spread the word on the efforts to have the Olympic Committee hold a moment of silence for the murdered athletes. One final recommendation is to read Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt's recent article in Tablet Magazine Jewish Blood is Cheap

Routine Prayer in a Routine Place

There is the Hasidic tale told about the Rabbi who went to a special place in the forest and said a special prayer, and as a result his people were blessed. In the next generation, when times were hard, the new Rabbi knew to go into the forest, but did not know the place, yet he did know the prayer, and that was sufficient. And later still, in times of trouble, the newer Rabbi did not know to go to the forest, though he knew the prayer, and that was sufficient. Until finally, it was not remembered to go to the forest, nor where the special place was, and the prayer had been lost, but the story was told, and that was sufficient.

 I want more than just a story....

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Shared Post: Engaging (young) Souls

The following is a post published last summer on the Lookstein website. I reviewed Saul Wachs' approach in January but I think Golombek does a phenomenal job of drawing out his key ideas.  This essay is targeted for elementary school teachers and expresses a sincere desire to hedge off a potential davening crisis or drought for older students.  If there is scholarly or otherwise eloquent article that explains best practices for engaging high school students and tefilla, please share. Golombeks and Wachs' approach might help our tefilla situation in a few years, but I fear that the "autopilot tefilla" continues to quietly spoil the davening atmosphere.  

Engaging Souls: Bringing Elementary Tefillah to Life by Eric Golombek

Ask a teacher to teach the same short story to children every day for eight or more years, and they will likely look at you like you are crazy! Yet, in a sense, that is the challenge of teaching tefillah. We have the same tefillot, more or less, that we use with our children day after day for their entire school career. Unless there is a conscious effort to create a rich tefillah experience, group prayer is at risk of becoming a mindless task, with children (and adults!) on autopilot.

In truth, “autopilot tefillah” can appear good in elementary services because of the natural love of young children to sing. Tefillah expert, Saul Wachs, calls this “the Trap” of elementary tefillah (Wachs, 2009). This is because autopilot elementary tefillah leaves nothing in place when children get older and singing does not have any appeal. It is critical that elementary children form a relationship to tefillah so that by the time they get to middle school, they understand it and value it.

In my opinion, a successful elementary tefillah program depends on how well it addresses the three questions of the davener:

How do I pray?
What do the words mean?
What do the words mean to me?

The first question we address when we teach children to pronounce the words of the tefillah properly, to utilize nusach appropriately, and to be knowledgeable of the choreography of the service (eg. when to stand). The other two questions are often neglected in the elementary tefillah service. When we address the second question, we are teaching children to identify key lines and important vocabulary in the tefillot. We are also teaching them to identify the big idea of each prayer.

The third question is even more complex because it asks us to foster a relationship with the tefillah. We need to have children create personal meaning of the various prayers that they read. The arts are a key avenue for developing this relationship because personal meaning emerges from personal engagement with a text. The arts invite that engagement. Through soul stirring music, through story telling, through movement and through the visual arts, doors into the prayers are opened and children are invited in.
Let us examine these four doors in depth. In the following sections I will share successes I have had using the arts in teaching tefillah to elementary students at Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto.
Mix up the music: Elementary children love to sing, so it is a mistake not to make the most out of this avenue into the elementary child’s spirit. Take a look at the tunes being used for tefillah—are they the same as last year’s and the year before that? A great way to breathe new life into any elementary tefillah service is to change up the tunes. Search through YouTube, talk to the musical leaders from synagogue and camp, and talk with children. Do not be afraid to adopt an inspiring tune to new words. But, choose tunes that your kids will like as well as you. Look for jazzy beats and music that speaks to kids. If you can bring musical accompaniment to tefillah, it will add an incredible dimension.

One cautionary note: more is not necessarily better when it comes to introducing new tunes. I find that I can introduce two or three new tunes each year. I teach the tunes slowly, with children mastering one part at a time. I make sure that I connect the teaching of the song to overall learning about the tefillah. By moving slowly, children develop a relationship to the specific prayerthey are learning.

One underutilized musical tradition is niggunim.  Niggunim are wordless tunes that are chanted communally. They are from the Chassidic tradition and can be an incredibly powerful tool. Because niggunim are wordless, anyone can participate—even teachers who are nervous around Hebrew or who may even be non-Jewish. The chanting of a niggun can build the energy in a room and transform individuals into a community.  

A relative to the niggun, and an excellent accompaniment to the niggun, is communal drumming. Teach children to drum along on their laps, at tables, or on the floor. You can build unity by having children all drum the same patterns, or you can encourage individualism within the community by having them improvise their own patterns while maintaining a common beat.   After a drumming tefillah, I can often observe children drumming all day long.

Tell a story: Good story telling opens the minds of children to discussing difficult issues without it getting personal. It is much easier, for example, for a child to talk about a character in a story that should do teshuva, repentance, than for that child to share a time when he or she did a wrong that required teshuva. Of course, you need to choose stories with some meat to them—ones that require children to struggle with an issue and that connect to your learning objective for the prayer. Your sources for stories span the history of the Jewish people. I have used stories that range from the Tanach to rabbinic writings in the Talmud and Midrash to folktales to modern writing.

There are two keys to increasing engagement during story telling, especially with a large group. The first is to tell the story in a dramatic way. Regulate your volume to capture the mood of the story. Use voices for the characters that speak. Pause at dramatic moments. All of these techniques develop over time but practicing the story before telling it is an important way to prepare for good story telling. Also, inviting a “guest” to be the story teller can be a great way to engage teachers who are required to be at tefillah but often feel like their sole role is to police.

The second key to increasing engagement during story telling is to give children a task prior to beginning. For example, ask children a question that directs their focus to your objective for the lesson. This is the question that you will start your post-story discussion with. If tefillah occurs in a classroom with children at desks, you can have children actually write their answers as you are telling the story, or they can fill in a graphic organizer. If tefillah occurs in a large group such as in a synagogue, consider having children do something once they have an answer. I often tell children to put their hands together once they have discovered the answer to my question. Setting a task for children during story telling helps prevent most kids from zoning out during tefillah.

Movin’ Movin’: When you get kids moving, you are guaranteeing engagement. Dance and dramatic movement can be powerful ways of connecting children to tefillah. In this section, I would like to focus on one particular technique that I have found extremely powerful for engaging daveners of all ages. I call the technique the “human opinion graph”.   The idea is to pose a question and have children physically move to give an answer. One could argue that human opinion graphs are not really art. However, because human opinion graphs are a visual expression of the beliefs of the participants, I feel their inclusion here is appropriate.

Here are four versions of human opinion graphs that I use frequently:
            - Sit/Stand: This is a good technique for doing a quick survey. You ask a yes/no question like: do you believe God has a role in our day to day lives. If yes, please stand. If not, stay seated.
            - Corners: Set up four chairs in each corner of the makom tefillah. Put a sign (or have a child hold a sign) on each chair that is a possible response to a question. Daveners must then choose the response that most matches their answer. For example, if you had just been made king and God said he would give you any wish, what would you wish for: a long life, victory over your enemies, riches or wisdom? (I use this and the story of Solomon to introduce the blessing “Ata Chonen" in the amidah)
           - Human Bar Graph: Similar to Corners, in the Human Bar Graph, you set the chairs up in a row at the front each with a response. You ask a question and the children have to sit in a straight row behind the chair that matches their response.
           - Values Continuum:  The idea here is for the leader to make a statement that children can strongly agree with, strongly disagree with or be somewhere in the middle. An example of a statement might be: God is the source of all bad things in the world (I use this to introduce the blessing yotzer or). Children who strongly agree move to one end of the room, and those who strongly disagree move to the other end. Most children place themselves somewhere in the middle.

Visual Arts: There are ideas which are simply not captured through words. For this reason, artists throughout the years have attempted to express the meaning of tefillot through drawings, paintings, photography and other forms. At our tefillah, we can invite children to express their ideas about key lines in various prayers through the visual arts.

For example, when we studied the kedushah, I told the children the story from Isaiah 6 where the angels are calling to each other. But, what did this scene look like? What do angels look like? I challenged children to create pastel drawings of the line “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”. In this case, my first step was to show children a wide variety of artistic depictions of this scene. I did this to open their minds to the idea that angels are not necessarily chubby, little boys with wings. The creations of the children were creative and imaginative. We hung the angel pictures in our makom tefillah and one angel image became the centre of the parochet our fifth graders were making as their “moving on” project.

Eager to try some of these ideas in your next tefillah gathering? Great! But, before you do, examine your school’s culture of tefillah.  Using any of these may require a shift in the adult understanding of children’s prayer at school. It is important not to underestimate the attachment teachers, administrators, parents and even children have to the way tefillah is done. In particular, many people have strong feelings about how much praying should be “sacrificed” for learning about tefillah.

A good way of thinking about this issue is as a tension between kevah and kavanah. Kevah are those parts of the prayer experience which are defined and unchanging. Kevah focused tefillah is filled largely with the recitation of prayers from the siddur. Kavanah is the part of the prayer experience where daveners are engaged in understanding and relating to prayer.

There is no way to introduce arts-based learning to your tefillah without sacrificing kevah for kavanah. If this is an issue at your school, I strongly suggest having this discussion with your stakeholders before you shift the kevah—kavanah balance. You can introduce this idea of kevah and kavanah and you can even do a “values continuum” activity with them—although adults tend to prefer to do this on paper rather than with movement.

In the end, you should come away with an idea of how much time should be spent on kevah and how much time on kavanah. At my school, I spend a third to half of tefillah on building an understanding of and a relationship with the text. While this may seem like a lot, in a thirty minute time slot which includes getting settled at the beginning, I am left with ten to fifteen minutes.  However, with good planning, and by breaking activities into smaller chunks, it is possible to do great things in this time.

Through engaging our children in their tefillah, we inspire your children to be great daveners because they have a personal relationship with their prayers. And, we set the groundwork for the successful continuation of tefillah in middle school, and for the rest of our children’s lives. Truly holy work.

Reference: Wachs, Saul P.  (2009). Towards a theory of practice. New York (NY): The Solomon Schechter Day School Association.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gaming, Willpower, & Davening

I hear that one of the biggest reasons that people don't daven more is that there just isn't enough time.  Who doesn't wish that they could have few extra 'bonus' hours in the day to sleep, read, relax or get work done.

I recently watched a TED talk by Jane McGonigal titled The Game that Can Give you Extra Ten Years of Life in which she discusses how her background in gaming, research in psychology, and recent illness brought her to a discovery of how to lengthen one's own lifespan.

The lecture is interesting and engaging and my motivation in sharing this speech was McGonigal's comment that "willpower works like a muscle; it gets stronger the more you exercise it".  Isn't this one of the basic tenets of teaching?  When I think of my personal davening habits, I often conceptualize it as a type of spiritual fitness.

One final teaser for those that haven't been convinced to take the 19 minute plunge, McGonigal explores the concept of post-traumatic growth, a psychological concept that often gets overshadowed by post-traumatic stress syndrome.  "Is there a way to get all the benefits post traumatic growth without the trauma - without hitting your head in the first place?" McGonigal asks.  She explores four kinds of strengths or resilience that contribute to post-traumatic growth - and shares exercises that you can practice (many of which are part of our normal tefilla experience).  One example is her advice to "not sit still" - seems like a good prooftext for shuckling (rocking in prayer)! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pslams by the Sea

I came across the following question answered by Rabbi Yaakov Cohen of the Beit El Yeshiva:

Question: Can I say Tehilim on the sea side without a shirt on?
Answer:  One should dress respectably when praying or saying Tehilim. But there is no Isur (prohibition).

I love this particular question and the response - which is totally appropriate and subjective. The questioner is comfortable enough to daven at a beach or felt moved to pray after bathing topless.  The rabbi recognizes that there is a need to promote proper decorum in prayer but that there is no real restriction to spontaneously say psalms.  

Think about it - who wouldn't be at a beach, pondering the eternity of the tide and not think to praise Gd and nature's amazing cycle?  Just to bridge to a post last week on davening on airplane - I am not sure I would recommend gathering a minyan of people to pray as it might bother the other sun worshipers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Moving Davening off your Checklist

In a recent bookjed review of We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It by Gidon Rothstein, Franics Nataf writes:
In We’re Missing the Point, Rothstein correctly tells us that much of the Orthodox community has lost its way. Echoing A. J. Heschel's castigation of our community as pan-halachic, he writes that by becoming "checklisters and ritualists," we not only miss the forest from the trees but are not even able to differentiate between big trees and small trees. His answer is to try to identify a blueprint of the goals of Judaism and explain how various mitzvot connect with these goals. As he writes in his introduction, such an agenda should be obvious and to this reader it was. Yet I am reminded of the introduction of Messilat Yesharim which says the same and yet became a classic for much the same reason one would like to see the current work become a classic – because people often ignore the obvious.
I would go one step further and suggest that many of the fights that are raging between various sectors of Orthodoxy would be less divisive if halacha was viewed contextually as Rothstein suggests. By this, I mean that the community would do well to understand more overtly that we should not see our aim as doing a particular mitzvah per se, but rather achieving the goal it – as part of a larger system – is supposed to accomplish. Were that the case, Orthodox feminists would likely feel less desperate to legitimate women’s participation in all sorts of mitzvot that remain controversial. At the same time, more conservative elements would likely get less hot under the collar if certain communities struck a certain halachic position that allowed such participation.

I haven't read the original work by Rothstein, but I think that Nataf's comments must cause us pause about the trending over ritualization of our teffilot. I once heard it said that the conservative streams of Judaism overly emphasize structure and lack a proper teaching of the spirit while the liberal streams overly emphasize the spirit but lack the proper teaching of structure - how can we practice, teach and maintain this balance?  This is at the top of my checklist!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Guest Post: The Amidah Project

This post is originally from Chicago Carless, a blog by Michael Doyle, address many important issues for tefilla educators.


For the past few months, my Reform synagogue has done something most Reform synagogues don’t: we’ve stood and recited a partially silent Amidah, Judaism’s sizeable central prayer. You find the Amidah–which means “standing” in Hebrew, because you stand when you say it–in every Jewish service, whether shacharit (the morning service), mincha (afternoon), or maariv (evening.) Tradition suggests most if not all of the Amidah is recited silently, and most Orthodox and Conservative congregations follow suit.

Yet even with the traditionalizing trend of the past three decades, many Reform congregations pray an abbreviated form of the Amidah, always out loud, and often seated for the prayer’s latter parts. Meaningful passages in Hebrew are often skipped in favor of English intepretations or, simply, left out entirely.

Aside from a few seconds for “silent prayer,” there isn’t often the same opportunity our Orthodox and Conservative brethren have to really be alone with your heartfelt intention.  In fact, a typical Reform Amidah can be far from heartfelt. It’s hard to really go deep with your tradition’s central prayer when your denomination seems afraid of it’s deepest parts.

When we decided to test out a partially silent Amidah (we still chant the first three, long blessings out loud), several people pushed back. Some were afraid they wouldn’t understand the “new” parts in Hebrew. (We use Mishkan T’Filah, Reform’s latest, fully translated and transliterated prayerbook.) Some were afraid they wouldn't know how long to stand or when to sit down. (We sit when we’re individually done.) Some said they’d miss formerly chanted or sung parts. Overall those who pushed back were afraid that they’d miss, essentially, meaning.

What we’ve found is instructive. Some people still want the “old way” back. And, frankly, I would prefer our newly silent Amidah to be one arrow in an overall quiver of ways to approach the Amidah–including our “old way.” Especially in Reform, there’s no reason to leave anybody out. (And I happen to feel quite touched when our cantor sings R’tzei.)

But overall, people seem to like our newly silent Amidah. Why? Because in those long, pungently silent minutes of silent prayer, we are finally (and in Reform, for once) rendered alone–with our thoughts, with our prayer, with our tradition. The experience has knocked many of us out, initially rendering some of us to tears. And that outcome was totally unexpected. Wonderful. Incredible. A blessing. But unexpected.

Maybe that’s how far as Reform Jews we’ve let ourselves become removed from the meaning behind the words we pray–no matter what language we choose to pray in. But the meaning is there if we just listen for it. For some in my congregation, taking ourselves off of our liturgical autopilot for a little while was enough to start to sense why we say the Amidah in the first place. The prayer is truly an emotional journey if you let it be.

I don’t blame any Reform Jew for feeling disconnected from an Amidah recited silently in Hebrew. It just hasn’t been our practice, and not a lot of us talk about our prayer experience publicly. So I will. Over the next few weeks I intend to post a series of blog entries that lay out the Reform versions of core Jewish prayers, beginning with the Amidah (both the Shabbat and weekday versions), in Hebrew transliteration and English translation, accompanied by my thoughts on my emotional experience during each specific blessing or rubric of the liturgy. (Perhaps with video, as well.) After all, I definitely feel an almost exhausting emotional journey during the Amidah. It’s a feeling worth sharing–and most of all, describing. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’m calling my new series “The Amidah Project.”

We can’t all be Debbie Friedman, z”l, able to find the most miraculous meanings in seemingly hidden Hebrew corners of the liturgy and set them to catchy modern music. But we can all pause, and read, and listen, and then write and talk about our experience. I invite all of my Jewish readers to do just that. Open your nearest siddur–on Shabbat, the one covered in dust in your closet, or online. Find a part where you always tune out. This time, though, tune in. Read it slowly. Sit with it. Consider what those words might really mean–from Deity, to you. You might come up with nothing. But you might come up hearing that still, small voice.

The basis for our entire tradition.

This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Intentions and Performance

In reaction to recent post about davening and travelling, a reader shared the following source and insight and I wanted to pass it on for your intellectual digestion:
The Shulchan Aruch w/Mishnah Brurah 183:11 states: If one was traveling, and ate while walking/moving, one need not sit for Birchas Hamazon if the delay caused by sitting for Birchas Hamazon will disturb the concentration on the beracha, and one may bentch while walking/moving.
The emphasis being concentration. IMHO in the area of davening chazal (our sages) were always more concerned with kavannah (intention) then the technical execution. It is, l’tzaareynu (to our sadnessa more recent phenomena where the external appearance has taken precedence over the internal connectedness.
Intention is one of the most difficult aspects to teach a child; considering the numerous outside social pressures and outlets that influence children to act, pretend, or deceive, how are educators to go about teaching not only the knowledge of ritual, but the heart of the matter behind such crucial performances? 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Praying for Food

I have written before here and here about the struggles to find meaningful tefilla while abstaining from food.  Today is another one of these days and it brings to mind the ongoing tension of the needs of body vs. the needs of the soul.

Indeed it states in Deuteronomy (8:3) that, in this case the miracle preformed in the wildnerness, that through it you should "know that man does not live by bread alone, but by the every word that comes from the mouth of Hashem does man live".  Additionally the Mishne from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 3:21 states:

"Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Azariah said: If there is no Torah [study] there is no proper conduct; if there is no proper conduct there is no Torah [study]. If there is no wisdom there is no fear of G-d; if there is no fear of G-d there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge there is no understanding; if there is no understanding there is no knowledge. If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour."

The last aphorism equates a relationship of sustenance related to some issues ripped from today's headlines - that without a job, one's Torah learning will not be sustainable.  But in the tefilla frame of mind, one must also remember that we are not monks who frown upon food and the material world - but rather we relish and sing in the delight of Shabbat and holidays as well as in the houses of study and prayer.

So it brings me back to what I think about on a fast day - the historical shadow of the day or my craving to nosh on food....  I think about both.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Minyan and Anxiety Disorders

Since my time as a teacher and informal education for a program that required students to attend minyan, I have been collecting classic excuses that would exempt someone from participation. The most popular excuse is "I have to go to the bathroom" as it not only gets one away from of the judging eyes of the teachers but has a strong legitimate precedent to disqualify one's tefilla.  

Today I came across the following anonymous question and answer on AskRevach. The "about us" section self describes this Orthodox Jewish resource as "created for Bnei Torah who have a question in any area.  Whether it's halacha or hashkafa pertaining to your work or anything else on your mind you can ask one of qualified staff for answers."  Not so many other details are shared on their actual hashkafa, outlook. 

In trolling for tefilla material I came across this question which may take the prize:
If a person has been diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder, is he excused from davening with a minyan?
Answer: An emotional illness is also considered to be a condition that would exempt one from davening with a minyan, if attending shul would be likely to aggravate his condition. However if davening with a minyan is not likely to have any negative effect, he certainly should daven in shul. If he would be able to handle a small minyan of 10 men but not a large shul with many dozen, then his condition would outweigh b'rov am hadras Melech. Answered by Rav Peretz Moncharsh

Admittedly I normally wouldn't think much of such an issue but I had just come across the following headline America's Anxiety Epidemic on TheAtlantic online. The actual articleTrickle-Down Distress: How America's Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic by Maura Kelly, caused me to think about how our students deal with pressures and the outlets we create for them to juggle the societal and religious challenges.  Tefilla is a natural outlet if properly taught, but apparently some people may use it as an exemption as well.  Let me clear as to only inspire and not to offend:  Anxiety disorders are real!  Many people who do not suffer such an illness struggle to use the time gathered in a quorum of worshipers to its full spiritual potential.  How can we make the most of this experience?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Davening at 40,000 Feet

Everyone who has flown to Israel, usually on El Al but not exclusively, has a davening story. Whether it was being surrounded by shucklers, awoken with a request to join a minyan, attacked by a bag when someone opens the overhead compartment to take out their tallit and tefillin, or just mesmerized but the struggles of people to pass the beverage cart to get to or from their seats for a minyan.  And these are just anecdotes from my most recent flight on El Al (which by the way does offer some tefilla guidelines).  By all time favorite anecdote was the religious woman next to the window who had a blush kit with a mirror and a special Tefilat Haderech engraved into the leather case.

I think that reading some rabbis responsas on travelling tefilla frames the character of prayer in general for the individual as they relate to the group of worshipers.  Rabbi Herschel Schachter refers to it as a common mistake people make when travelling by airplane.  He writes clearly in strong Orthodox terminology: 

Another common mistake people make is regarding davening with a minyan. The Talmud emphasizes the importance of tefillah btzibur; and one who davens with a minyan stands a much better chance of having his prayers answered than one who lacks a minyan. However, it is highly improper for the chazzan of a minyan on an airplane to shout at the top of his lungs to enable the other mispalelim to hear him over the airplane noise, and thereby wake up all the passengers around him. It is true that there is a halachic principle of kofin al hamitzvos, i.e. that beis din has an obligation to force people to observe the mitzvos even when they're not interested in doing so, but this only applies when pressuring an individual will result in his becoming observant. However, when Orthodox Jews disturb non-observant Jewish passengers with their davening, the non-observant passengers sill remain non-observant and now just have another point about which to be upset with the Orthodox. The practice of the Orthodox passengers under such circumstances appears simply as an act of harassment. Rather than having accomplished the hidur mitzvah of davening tefillah btzibur, they have violated lifnei iver by causing the non-observant passengers to become more antagonistic towards shemiras hamitzvos. The shouting tone of voice employed by the shaliach tzibbur to overcome the noise on the airplane clearly does not constitute a kavod hatefillah.
The halacha states that when traveling, if it is too difficult to stand for shemoneh esrei even the "amidah" may be recited while seated. On a short flight of an hour and a half to Canada, it is more correct to daven the entire tefillah while still buckled in, in a sitting position. On the long flight to Eretz Yisroel it is healthier not to sit the entire time; walking about somewhat helps the blood circulation in one's legs. As such, there is nothing wrong with standing for shemoneh esrei, provided that there's no turbulence at that time. However, it is still not proper to gather a minyan together near the washrooms, disturbing all the other passengers and the stewardesses. As much as various Torah giants of our generation have expressed their opposition to such minyanim on airplanes, their message has not yet been accepted. 

He concludes with a nice blessing for safe travels and then cautions "all those traveling to Eretz Yisroel should have a safe trip, but keep in mind - these minyanim are shelo b'ratzon chachamim!"  I find this last statement the most terrific sentiment - that by joining in these prayer groups one is violating the wisdom of the sages. This always seemed counter intuitive for those that feel pressed to daven out of obligation.  Another point worth noting is that some sages and rabbis disagree (Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg to name one) and feel that there should be a minyan on the plane and that is a "preference" to join. I also enjoyed reading the comments in the Yeshiva World News forum on this topic with some outstanding perspectives shared there.

Elli Fischer, in his blog On the Contrary discussed the topic at hand (posted in 2008) and points to a phenomenally challenging question of when to daven on plane:
 Are zmanim (halachic appointed times) calculated based on geographical realities or human realities? Is it about the place or the person?

I did witness to elderly men arguing about this last week, which in itself was bothering the passengers around them.

Let me conclude with a happy Chabad story of a man davening in front of 300 people in his bulkhead seat that will be more of an inspiration to daven, than answer where or when you should do daven.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Guest Post: James Jacobson-Maisels

The following was originally published in the Pardes June Newsletter as a Dvar Torah by James Jacobson-Maisels. In the coming months, the blog will share some more concrete insights along this thematic angle. 


R. Pinchas of Koretz, an early Hasidic master, taught, "The world thinks that one prays before/to the Holy One, blessed be He, but it is not thus. For prayer itself is truly (mamash) the essence of divinity. As it is written: He is your prayer and He is your God (Deuteronomy 10:21)." (Midrash Pinchas, Sec. 1:52, p. 37-38) 

I clearly recall my first time reading this text and the excitement and wonder its radical call to rethink my entire approach to prayer engendered in me. Here R. Pinchas asks us to focus on the process of prayer itself. He challenges us to consider what it would it mean to not think of prayer as a secondary process, as an act of communication which reaches beyond itself, but to experience the process itself. He calls on us to experience the very words, movements and consciousness of prayer as divinity.

Such an approach opens our eyes to see that the divine is not out there somewhere but right here. Although it is also true that the divine is right here in the sense of being within each one of us, this is to say that the divine is right here in the sense of the full gestalt of the moment. When we take our three steps forward into the amidah we normally imagine ourselves as entering the presence of God, approaching the King.

Here, however, when we step into prayer we enter the very body of God. We merge into God's presence. Indeed, the very stepping itself is the flow and movement of the divine in and through us. 

What if, before we prayed, we paused and recognized our body, words and movements as the body of God? What if we paused and saw the full totality of our experience as the presence of divinity in all its majesty and subtleness? What would it mean if we entered prayer with the intense mindfulness of this process being God, of walking through an ether of God, of our breath being God's breath, of our words being divinity itself and with the fundamental insight of non- separation and non-duality? How much care and mindfulness does such a conception draw forth when every letter, every sound, every phoneme, every shudder, every shuckle, every thought, every bow, every step and every moment is God's very being? Can we enter tefilah (prayer) with that consciousness and in doing so be radically brought up short, shocked out of our complacency and the sometimes rote nature of prayer?

We can all do this. It doesn't require us to believe anything in particular or to commit ourselves to some mystical perspective. It requires only the fundamental commitment to be fully present with the experience of tefilah, to recognize its permeated sanctity and to be unwilling to neglect any aspect or detail. It challenges us to cherish every instant as immersed in a sea of divinity.

That is the opportunity and challenge that R. Pinchas gives us - to see the very matter of our practice, its physicality and its process along with the thoughts, emotions, movements and sensations which make it up as the very presence of God's self.

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Judaic Studies from Brown University and an M.St. in Modern Jewish Studies from Balliol College the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Jewish Studies specializing in Jewish mysticism.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Prayer is in the Air

Below is a poem by the great Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai.  The poem leaves me asking the following questions:

  1. What does it feel like to live in a place saturated with prayer?
  2. How does one daven often without making it an industry?
  3. One knows when that 'moment' arrives, but how does one regulate it to happen in the future on a consistent basis? 
Answers and more questions welcome.

The air over Jerusalem is saturated
with prayer and dreams
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breath.
And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives
and the houses and towers are its packing materials.
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people
and then it’s quiet.
and sometimes people come instead of candles
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine
foreign consulates,
like wicked brides that have been rejected,
lie in wait for their moment.
Yehuda Amichai

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Back from a Short Respite with Some Good Life Advice

I have been on the road the past week+ and I apologize for the lack of new posts and relatively few tweets (for those that follow the twitter feed).  In my July return I thought I'd share a recent post (23 June 2012) of the soon to be unemployed Dr. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and his article Looking Closely at the Road Less Traveled.  Fascinating that he emphasizes a 'go against the grain' mentality and I humbly agree and believe that prayer is one of the best methodologies to "seek and celebrate the spirit".


The wisest rule in investment is: when others are selling, buy. When others are buying, sell. Usually, of course, we do the opposite. When everyone else is buying, we assume they know something we don’t, so we buy. Then people start selling, panic sets in, and we sell too. That is how booms and crashes happen. Charles Mackay called it “the madness of crowds,” William Trotter “the herd instinct,” and psychologist Solomon Asch showed how vulnerable we are to the urge to conform.

So when everyone is going in one direction, it’s worth taking the opposite route, the contrarian option, the “road less travelled.” Here is my recommendation for the next few years. While everyone else is thinking about economics and politics, executive salaries and the future of the Euro, do the opposite, even if it’s hard. Invest in the spirit. Focus on the mind and the soul. Read. Study. Enrol in a course of lectures. Pray. Become a member of a religious congregation. Study the Bible or other ancient works of wisdom. Find people not to envy but to admire. Do not the profitable but the admirable deed. Live by ideals.

For the next few years European economies are unlikely to grow. Government spending will continue to be tight. Standards of living for most of us will either fall or at least not rise by much. National governments will discover that their power of action is ever more circumscribed by the mobility of capital and people and the interdependence of Europe’s economies and banks. Try setting out on a new economic policy of your own when you are linked by heavy chains to twenty or more other nations each trying to go somewhere else, and you will end up angry and frustrated.

That is when we need to switch to another dimension. When one road is blocked, it’s time to take another. When material conditions are tough, the best investment we can make is spiritual: in the happiness we don’t buy but make. Join a religious congregation and you will find people who care about ideals and are willing to make sacrifices for them. You will make friends on whom you can rely and become part of a community on which you can depend. Study sacred texts and you will find yourself transported to a palace of the mind, the ancient but still compelling wisdom of the past. These are powerful sources of inner strength.

Stop worrying about wealth and success, and think instead of the blessings that surround you and you will find your life flooded with meaning. You will sleep easier at night and wake full of hope the next morning. You will look out on the world and see God’s glory. You will smile at strangers and they will smile back. You will worry less and find your fears subside as you entrust yourself to God’s everlasting arms.

You will realise that your life is filled with blessings you had until now taken for granted. You will discover – or perhaps you secretly knew it all along – that happiness has little to do with what we get and everything to do with what we give. You will rush less and savour more. You will stop wasting time doing the things you should never have done in the first place.

Eat only when you are hungry, and stop as soon as you are sated, and you will lose weight. Buy only what you need, and travel light through life, and you will save much of what you now spend. See the good in people and you will, without intending to, make them a little better than they were. Praise others and do not seek their praise, give to others and do not seek their thanks, and you will grow in spiritual health. At least once every day take time to thank God for the privilege of life itself. Don’t judge people by what they wear or drive or earn. In fact, don’t judge people at all. Leave that to God. He is better at it than we are, and more forgiving too.

Your return on investment – not in monetary terms perhaps, but in terms of happiness, fulfilment, flourishing, joie de vivre, and a sense of blessedness – will, I promise you, be better than any alternative on offer today. While others are pursuing material happiness, do the opposite: seek and celebrate the spirit. The price is low. The value could not be higher.