Thursday, August 20, 2009

Talking to God

There is yet another review article on the Sacks-Koren Siddur. This latest one is by Rabbi Saul Berman in the Forward who does a superb job. His review is one of the best I've seen to date. And I include in that my own review.

It includes a fascinating overview of the evolution of modern era translations of the liturgy. But the most significant part of his artilce is the context in which he reviews it – the concept of Kavanah - the sincerety if one’s communication with the Almighty. That is after all what prayer is – communication with God.

Prayer is alluded to in the Shema in the phrase ‘You should love God… B'chol L’Vavcha’ - with all of your heart. This is Avodah SheBlev – service of the heart which is interpreted to mean prayer.

But prayer as we know it today was not always a part of our daily lives. The liturgy that our standard prayer consists of was formulated by the sages who were part of the Anshei Kenesses HaGedolah – the Men of the Great Assembly. Halachic body dated back to biblical times and lasted through the beginning of the Diaspora. It was during this period that we lost Nevuah – prophesy – God’s direct communication to us. After the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed we also lost our ability to offer sacrifices.

In order to maintain at least one side of our communication with God – these great rabbis standardized prayer and mandated daily prayers. They incorporated various sections of the Torah and Tehilim and established various accompanying blessings. This is the basis for the many versions of prayer texts that have evolved over the centuries in our day.

All current variations of prayer text is therefore of rabbinic origin. Even the Rambam who says that our obligation to pray daily is on a biblical level - concedes that standard liturgy texts are only a rabbinic requirement.

While the goal of the sages who comprised the Anshei Kenesses HaGedolah was to maintain at least our one-way connection to God, the very nature of repetitive daily prayer can have quite the opposite effect. Daily repettion of same same prayers can - and often does lead to rote recitation and minds straying.

A common joke heard about Davening Shemonah Esreh is that 3 times a day one can go ‘around the world’. I am no different. No matter how much I try to think about the words every so often stray thought enter my mind during Teffila that have absolutely nothing to do with the prayer at hand.

This is in fact one of the goals of all these translations over the past century or so - to enhance one’s understanding of the words and meanings of prayer – and thereby one’s Kavanah.

But as Rabbi Berman points out all these translations – no matter how wonderful - have not really advanced our efforts in this regard.

He directs his critique to the Modern Orthodox world and that is well founded. I would extend that apathy to most all of Orhtodoxy. My very strong hunch is that those who have proper Kavanah during their Teffilos are in the minority across the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. And I dare say that there are many identified as MO who do have proper Kavana. I don't think one can define characterize this as an exclusively MO phenomenon.

That said I will admit that decorum in MO Shuls is generally far more lacking in an MO Shul than it is in a Charedi Shuls (…not that there aren't Charedi Shuls that also lack decorum - as is the case with many Chasidishe Shteeblach - as I'm sure there are some MO Shuls that are quite decorous). But decorum is another subject.

Rabbi Sacks in discussing why he undertook this project (available on Hirhurim - scroll down) is quite perceptive of this problem. He references the Mishna in Avos (1:2) that tells us that Jewish life is comprised of 3 things: Torah(learning), Avodah (prayer), and Gemilas Chasdim (acts of kindness). Of those three very important building blocks - Avodah is the weak link in our day.

How to fix this problem is way beyond my pay grade. But I do agree that it is a significant one. And I agree with Rabbi Berman that Siddur translations no matter how good do little to advance this cause.