Apr 2, 2008

Finding Spiritual Jewish Prayer

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Certain times in my life I've felt an indescribable emotional connection exploding within me through Tefilah/Prayer.

The first time came upon me when a group of fellow Yeshiva High School graduates and I sat in a dark, candle-lit room on Tisha Be'Av at Camp Ramah Nyack. We sang old and new soft Jewish songs and desperately tried to evoke the sadness of ancient Jewish loss with modern Jewish vitality. I only knew a few of the songs, but found myself carried higher – even by those I didn't know.

The second time occurred when I first visited the Carlebach Moshav in Israel, founded by those who followed Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach from the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco to establish a spiritual community in Israel, the Jewish soul's home. Friday night davenning was the first time I ever had a Mamish/real Kabbalat Shabbat. A native son of the Moshav and I began tapping and banging the tables in front of us during Lecha Dodi, more and more rhythmically, until he broke into a drum solo while the room full of men and women sang and danced with eyes closed and hearts open. I only had to learn one niggun that night, because that one niggun lasted a full hour. And it hasn't stopped for me to this day.

The third time I experienced prayerful ecstasy was in the home of my teacher, Dr. Devora Steinmetz, in Jerusalem during my year at Machon Schechter, the Jerusalem Campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Liz and I had heard about a monthly minyan at Devora's home, and our first time participating gave us hope that vibrant, soulful, Modern Jewish spiritual communities existed. About one hundred people showed up on the first Shabbat of every month, bringing with them their own siddurim, their own spiritual needs – and their own love of davenning. Devora never led, and rarely did anyone lead twice. Devora simply provided the space and her passionate presence. And the roof would just lift off of the apartment with the harmonies of learning, growing, Jews - young and old.

A more recent joyful moment occurred a few years ago while sitting in Yakar, a spiritual haven in Jerusalem for niggun-singing davenners, holding my father's hand. I already knew most of the tunes, having fallen in love long before with that precious community. I had never davenned with my father in Israel. We'd shared many powerful, emotional, transcendent, and loving experiences in our relationship, but I didn't realize how much his presence would touch my personal prayer life. My heart still aches with the memory of that ephemeral but exquisite visit to Heaven on Earth.

I believe that the following four ingredients, each learned from one of the experiences above, can enhance the intensity and health of our spiritual community:

1) Be willing to join an intense and new experience, with the acceptance of the personal vulnerability that comes with encountering newness.
2) Use your whole self to pray – when your body remembers the experience you’ve crossed the line from prayer to davenning. Hold tight to a general trajectory without concretizing any one moment in its course as the final destination.
3) Find a community with a dependable center that seeks to empower. Safe space for sacred experiencing need not be hierarchical.
4) Love your fellow davenner. Reach to individuals comprising your chevreh, acknowledging them as worthy of contributing without requiring sameness as a criterion.

The combination of these magic ingredients is something peculiar that transcends the halachic order of prayer, but can't exist without its guiding structure. It transcends the specific melodies for certain prayers, but can't exist without their interconnectedness. It transcends the immediate location, but can't exist without intentional sacred-space-making. It transcends the person who happens to be davenning, but can't exist without an old, incomplete soul's inviting voice. And it transcends the individual's kavannah/devotion, but can't exist without many people's individual spiritual yearnings.

May we feel invited to share in the search, the soulful experience of Tefilah, by remembering each other as we close our eyes and open our souls.

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