Monday, August 6, 2012

Does Tefilla Make Better Jews?

There is a Jewish Press article making the circuit the past few hours titled Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews by Rabbi Dov Lipman (now more well known for his articles in the Times of Israel and as one of the vocal opponents to religious radicalization in Beit Shemesh last year).

I recommend that you give it a full read for I think he raises several crucial issues that educators must face when you take an honest look at the final product graduating from your schools.  Lipman beings with a startling anecdote about a rabbi friend who tries to repay a kindness to another Jew who seemingly shakes said friend down for my money and a heavy dose of guilt.  He takes this frustration to the realm of tefilla and our pedagogical approach:

My friend related how just that morning during Shacharit he was thinking about how “off target” we are as he watched rabbis barking at children to stand during “vayevareich Dovid” and the “vihu rachum,” part of Tachanun at a youth minyan. He was not suggesting we shouldn’t find ways to encourage our children to stand when our custom dictates standing during prayers. But the degree to which the kids were being scolded for not standing struck a chord that led him to reflect upon what we teach as important and what is not important.
Not just writing to complain, Lipman boldly offers a solution to reinvigorate our students as well:
There should certainly be a Talmud track for the elite students with the intellectual, language, and attention skills necessary to enjoy and benefit from it, but for the mainstream yeshiva high school student this almost exclusive focus on Gemara wastes precious time from more productive study and actually turns most students off from interest in Torah and even Judaism. 
Tanach study should lead to meaningful discussions about the lessons each chapter seeks to convey about proper moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. We should teach our students about meditation and connecting to their deeper selves along with the concept of personal prayer. 
Once they understand that the most important part of davening should be their personal prayers and pouring their hearts out to God in their own words, this has the capacity to change and uplift their entire prayer experience. The topic of prayer must be accompanied by Jewish philosophy courses and providing the framework for students to ask their questions and receive well-thought-out answers.

While I don't agree totally with his thesis, and others have begun to divide his points and critique, I do so appreciate Lipman sentiments about about how central prayer is to reflect to the true achievement of a Jewish education and one's personal growth.  The chief goal of this blog is to discuss how to evaluate the success of teaching tefilla and so far I have not found adequate answers from educators regarding a viable system to share and reproduce (which, by the way, is not the case for teaching Tanach, Talmud, or Jewish Thought). For too long  many of the minyanim in schools (and for that matter, community shuls) do not reflect the pinnacle Jewish experience of that very day, yet we continue to press our students with the centrality of this ritual and its spiritual potential.  If not Lipman's approach, let's reapproach the situation of the spiritual behavior of our graduates - if not now, when? 

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