Sep 16, 2009

3 amazing articles from the Jewish Week/NextBook Issue on Prayer

Standing Before God, Standing Before Community

by Sandee Brawarsky

On the shelves of Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon's office are many editions of the siddur, prayer book, including a Farsi version with Hebrew and Perso-Arabic side by side. "I don't like to speak in denominational terms," he says, "I think we all have to learn from each other—the tradition is the same, the challenge is the same."

In a recent interview in his office, he spoke about the function of the shaliach tzibur, literally messenger of the community, referring to the prayer leader. Known widely as Roly, he is a rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (BJ) in Manhattan, a congregation with a reputation for spiritual depth and vitality. The tradition there is that the rabbis and cantor jointly lead services.

Rabbi Matalon speaks with the accent of his native Argentina. After receiving his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1986, he joined his mentor, the late Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, at BJ, and together they revitalized the congregation.

How would you describe the role of the shaliach tzibur?

The role is to guide people in prayer—when you go on a journey, the guide is familiar with the road and the terrain, has studied the maps and guides people through the valleys and towards the peaks, warns them in subtle ways, motivates them and keeps the group together. If it's done properly, tefillah [prayer] is not always the same. It's always a different journey—depending on one's internal landscape, on the world's landscape, and where we are on the Jewish calendar.

Tefillah by itself is an adventure. One has to expect unexpected emotion, insights. We need to keep a balance between fixed prayer and the more spontaneous, allowing the spontaneous to happen.

In a technical sense, the shaliach tzibur should be knowledgeable about tefillot, about the order and laws; he or she should be competent, comfortable with the words, sensitive to the inner dynamic of the service. The shaliach tzibur keeps the community as one, not as disparate people.

The shaliach tzibur should also inspire people, draw them out, excite them. At the same time, he or she should not be so dominating as to suppress individual expression. It's a delicate balance.  One has to approach this role with humility—it could make you feel like you're in control, that it's all about you.

What's the responsibility of the sha-liach tzibur toward the community?

To help connect each individual into a community, to help fashion a praying community and to help to connect their hearts and their voices to God.

The shaliach tzibur is nurtured by the voice of the community, and vice versa, and together, they become something greater. Very often, what happens to me when I'm standing in front of the kahal [congregation] and—I've been here long enough that I have a significant trajectory with people—I know people in personal ways, I know about their struggles, the spiritual issues they are wrestling with, their anxieties and fears, loved ones who are sick. I know people who are sick, or who have difficulty making a living, caring for elderly parents; and also know their smachot [joys and celebrations]. That's all incredibly powerful for the shaliach tzibur, a precious gift, and very humbling.

How do you keep so many people in mind as you are davening?

Susannah Heschel once told a story at BJ about her father's great-great- grandfather, the Ohev Israel, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt. He was a tzadik [righteous person] and many people would come to him on a daily basis, telling him about their issues and requesting that he pray for them. He was asked how, when so many people came to see him, he remembered all these things. He responded: "Every time a person tells me of his or her pain it makes a mark in my heart. When I stand before God in prayer I ask God to look at my heart, to see all those marks and to help people."

This is such a sensitive and powerful way to express this. Although I'm not a tzadik, in many ways I convey this prayer to God, "Look what You have here! Look into the hearts of this amazing group of people and help us."

If you were visiting another community where you didn't know the people well, how would you feel about leading the service?

Perhaps I could do it, but I usually decline. I don't know the kahal well; I may not know some of the customs and minhagim [customs] of this particular group. It's important for a shaliach tzibur to be part of the kahal, not to be an outsider. I go to other places to learn. I often go for Shabbat Mincha to the Sephardic minyan in our neighborhood. There I connect to my own roots, the ways that were part of my family as I was growing up. When I sit there, I'm not their rabbi; I'm one of the congregation. I really like that and have learned so much from their shaliach tzibur.

Are you able to have a personal tefillah experience when you are serving as shaliach tzibur?

I am able to do my own tefillah while being aware of what's going on in the room, I think that through experience one develops a sense—it's like a musician playing in an orchestra. The musician is involved in playing his or her music at the same time he or she has to have a sense of what's going with the rest of the musicians, to create music together. I also play in an orchestra and am learning that art.

I have a problem facing the kahal. Heschel, in "Quest for God," talks about the fact that the cantor or shaliach tzibur should be facing the ark, not the congregation. It's a personal moment. For me, it's embarrassing to be seen in such a moment of intimacy with God. I don't like to look at other people when they are praying, I don't want to intrude on that intimacy. I recognize the problem in liberal congregations where facing the kahal is the expectation. So I keep my eyes in the siddur, or I close them.

 At the beginning of the service I see who is there, and get a sense of what each will bring to the tefillah.

Then, from time to time, like after Shema when I'm waiting for people to complete it, I may look up and see where people are at. In those moments I get a visual sense of who is where, and then I go back.

Do the words in the siddur ever get in the way, or hold you back, from expressing what's in your heart? Are there times when you would prefer to be in silence or using your own words?

I love the words of the siddur; they hardly get in the way for me. On the contrary, they help me open my heart, my soul and my mind, and at the same time they invite me to infuse them with what is in my heart, soul and mind. I do appreciate the moments of silence in the tefillah, but I love language and in particular the language of the siddur, even those parts that require that we wrestle with them.

What do you do when your mind wanders?

When I catch my mind wandering—you don't always catch it—I try to bring myself in, to focus on the words. There's a focusing technique described by the chasidic masters, to close your eyes and see the written words, envisioning the letters.

What if you have feelings of doubt?

Doubt is part of tefillah; it's a place to bring questions. Sometimes we say to God, "Ayekah? Where are you? Let me feel Your presence, just let me know You are here. We are here, now. You must be somewhere. Would You make Yourself visible to us as we make ourselves visible to You?" Heschel said that tefillah is making ourselves visible to God.

Are there certain places in the service that are guideposts, places that always take you to higher places?

Yes, but you don't always want to go to the same place. There are higher places, deeper places. When I reach a wonderful place and feel such a high, I want to think that I can stretch to go higher. I take inspiration from athletes, who are always trying to surpass their own achievements and their own records. We need to stretch and exercise every spiritual and mental muscle, as athletes do, to be able to get to a higher place, to get more insight, to be more open, to get even closer to God.

When you experience those wonderful, glorious moments, you feel like something transformative has happened. But tefillah is about not staying with the emotion. It's about what you do with the emotions and the insight when you leave. It has to be translated into action—otherwise it's just a high. How is life to be lived outside of shul? How has the tefillah transformed you so that you're a different person? How has it moved you to do mitzvot and to meet the challenges of the world? How will it be reflected in the way we treat others? How will we make our community stronger?

What do you say to those who complain about the length of services?

I recognize that sometimes services are long and drag on, but I don't believe in quick services. You cannot do your spiritual work unless you go through a number of steps to remove the layers around your heart until it is open and exposed to God. The hard work then begins.

You have to respect the inner form of the service: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Its inner dynamic has been developed, tried and tested over centuries and has a wisdom we have to respect.

Is the role of the shaliach tzibur different on the Days of Awe?

We put in a lot of preparation. In some congregations, the sermon is at the center but for us, the tefillah is at the center so we can do our work of heshbon nefesh [spiritual accounting] and teshuvah [repentance].

The very feeling of standing before God is different. It's Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. There's a great sense of awe, reverence, of the holiness of day; also a great sense of gratitude that we are here, we are alive, and also mindful of what happened to people who are part of our community and our family who are not here; the sense of who will live and who will die, a great sense of responsibility for our own teshuvah.

A rabbi candidly commented that if he gets in five minutes of real davening during a morning service, he's happy. Would you agree?

I would bring it from five minutes down to a moment. If there is one moment of real tefillah and real connection, that is the miracle of tefillah. That, in this huge universe, we are able to open up and feel God's presence is a great miracle.

Prayer As Poetry

by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

How can I pray what I don't believe? So much of Jewish prayer seems wrapped up in a religious worldview that takes God's active role in this world for granted: "God, heal the sick"; "God, grant us a year of plenty." What if I am not sure if God has a role in my life? Or worse—what if I actively disagree with assertions in the prayer ("God, bring the Messiah")? What if my very faith in God is uncertain? How can I possibly utter the words of the traditional siddur?

These objections have animated most of the alterations to the prayer book in many Jewish communities during the past two centuries. In 1945, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan called on prayer book editors to "eliminate from the traditional text statements of beliefs that are untenable." But this strategy fundamentally misses the point.

Let me state my approach up front: Prayer is not meant to be seen as a flat statement of belief. It is a literary creation with all the power, nuance and complexity of literary creations. It is perhaps most useful to think of prayer as poetry.

One of the ways in which poetry is different from prose is the multiple allusions within the poetic text. A poem is not meant to be considered only on its own plane, but on the plane of the allusion as well. Reuven Kimelman writes about prayer: "[T]he meaning of the liturgy exists not so much in the liturgical text per se as in the interaction between the liturgical text and the biblical intertext." (Kenishta Vol. 1)
Kimelman argues here that every prayer is in dialogue with a biblical text. By unlocking the biblical allusions in the liturgical text, meaning emerges. While this method can be employed for almost any line of prayer, as an example I will focus on the final line of the first blessing of the Amidah.

The fundamental theme of any blessing is often found in its final words, following the formula "Blessed are You, God." Here, those words are simply: "Shield of Abraham." Common objections to this line focus on the exclusive mention of Abraham—where is Sarah? Where are the other biblical characters? Of less concern is the word "shield," but a fundamental question is: in what way is God a shield for Abraham? God is a shield for Abraham in only one story: that of Genesis 15. It reads:

After those things, the word of YHVH came to Avram in a vision, saying: "Don't fear, Avram, I am a shield for you. Your reward will be very great. But Avram said: "Lord, YHVH, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless and the one in charge of my household is Damesek Eliezer!" Avram said: "Since You have granted me no off-spring, my steward will be my heir."

The word of YHVH came to him saying: "That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir . . . Then [YHVH] said to [Avram]: "I am YHVH who brought you out from Ur Casdim to assign this land to you as a possession." And he said: "Lord YHVH, how shall I know that I am to possess it?" (Genesis 15:1–8, based on NJPS translation).

The foundation of the relationship between God and Abraham is based on two promises: Abraham will have many offspring, and he will inherit the Land of Canaan. When God encountered Abraham for the first time in Genesis 12, these promises were made outright. But here in Genesis 15, Abraham is afraid that God will not make good on these promises. Abraham questions God: where is my child? God does not become angry, but simply reiterates the promise that children are on the way. But when God renews the promise of the land, Abraham does not fundamentally believe. He asks: Lord, God, how will I know? This verse is viewed in early Jewish tradition as the classic expression of doubt in the mouth of Abraham (see further, Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 32a).

We often think of Abraham as the "Knight of Faith," the one who was willing to sacrifice his beloved son on the altar to fulfill God's word. However the conclusion of the Amidah reflects a very different Abraham—the one who is plagued with doubts. In many ways this is the crux of the blessing that is the foundation of the Amidah. Read with the biblical intertext, the prayer can be saying: don't worry about your doubts. Even Abraham was filled with doubt, and he had a direct relationship with God. The project of prayer, this blessing could say, is that of holding your doubt and grappling with it, but not letting that be a reason to drop out of relationship with God.

Whether or not this particular interpretation speaks to you, the larger point is that an interpretive approach to prayer yields a tremendous amount of nuance to an enterprise that, on the surface, may feel like a piling-on of praise after praise for God. The experience of prayer is greatly enhanced if the siddur is treated like so many other texts in Jewish heritage, as a starting point for interpretation rather than a surface statement of dogma. We have the tendency to run down the words of the siddur and make a mental list of the phrases that do and—more significantly—don't speak to us.

But just as we engage in interpretation for Torah, we can hold the siddur in the same light. Seen as a book of poetry, with myriad allusions waiting to be unlocked, the question of "How can I pray what I don't believe?" becomes somewhat misplaced. We have not even begun to unlock the words of the siddur, so perhaps the real question is: "How can I interpret what I am praying?"

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the executive director of Mechon Hadar ( A longer version of this article will appear in his forthcoming book, "Empowered Judaism: Independent Minyanim and the Future of Jewish Life" (Jewish Lights).

Long Distance Calls

by Shelly R. Fredman

My mother is one of those twice-a-year Jews, but for some strange reason during a brief segment of my childhood, my sister and I went to bed each night with a prayer. A lavender elephant and a yellow giraffe that my mom and her best friend had painted on our bedroom walls floated above our heads as my sister and I chanted, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

The singsong rhythm of it, my sister's voice riding mine, the fact that it came every single night no matter what happened that day, were a balm to me, until the day we lost it—through apathy, or the hectic first weeks of my brother's life—a token of childhood, gone.

Although it is not a Jewish prayer, it is a classic children's prayer of the 18th century, and I still carry the phrase, unuttered, some 50 years later. I keep it, I think, as a vestige of a time when I dared to speak, one-on-one, with God. This was, once, how it may have been for all of us. Laden with the thousands-year-old heft and weight of the rabbinic take on prayer, the siddur, we tend to forget that prayer, originally, biblically, was about an impromptu moment of encounter with God.

Think of Jacob fleeing Esau in the dark desert night and pausing to build an altar of stone. Think of Sarah, when God's messenger told her, after some 90 years, that she was to give birth to a child. Her laughter. Not a simple yelp of glee, Sarah's was a sound rich with emotion.

Between Sarah and ourselves lies the liturgical history of the Jewish people, a legacy that attempts to put us in touch with our highest selves and is potentially redemptive, and yet for many of us the liturgy often feels to be a burden.

Enter the 18th-century chasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Partaking as it does of both faith and doubt, an almost constant awareness of the absence of God from the ordinary universe of human experience and an equally intense yearning for intimacy with that Source of our being, Nahman's quest is one that mirrors my own. Born on the Sabbath into the family of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the young Nahman was dissatisfied with the prescribed prayers of the liturgy and so, alone in the attic of his parents' house, he composed his own prayers, in the Yiddish that he spoke, pleading with God to draw him closer.

This lone outpouring of the soul before God, a surging emotionalism that Nahman experienced in his prayer life is one I've touched upon only rarely, and not unsurprisingly, in my darkest hours. Falling airplanes and hospital rooms tend to bring out our most prayerful moments. Yet most of us show up in that room at a disadvantage—we arrive at the place where reason fails us as novices. Nahman's brand of engagement with God is one he suggests we attempt, at least, regularly. At the heart of it lies discipline—a willingness to enter into Divine relationship.

In the early days of my own spiritual quest, I lived for a time within the Orthodox community of St. Louis. Yom Kippur at the Young Israel synagogue on Groby was a place Nahman might have felt at home in. At the Ne'ilah service, as the last ribbons of light streaked the sky outside, over on the men's side—and yes—this only happened on the men's side, as the chazzan called out, "Adonai Hu Ha Elohim," one man at a time gave a g'shrai, a cry, a shriek, "Adonai Hu Ha Elohim," (God is God).

I, too, had been fasting for an impossible 26 hours, and in that vacuous, drifting emptiness that was my body and mind at the tail end of this prayer marathon—a sea of black-and-white prayer shawls swaying, rocking, stamping their feet before me—all the voices now, rising, it seemed the shul itself hovered just a few inches above the earth.

I could hear in these prayers the broken hearts we all carry, piercing the surface, finally, of our intensely secular lives. What the Orthodox Jews taught me, and any musician or ballet dancer worth her toe shoes knows, is that prayer, no matter how expansively I want to define it, that is, some act of relinquishing yourself to a higher Source of Mystery, whether that's Heschel praying with his feet in Selma or a poet with her pen in Cape Cod, has to occur every single day.

For Nahman, the most essential religious practice was that of hitbodedut, lone daily conversation with God. Akin to meditation, with one striking difference, Nahman said we should set aside a certain period of time each day, preferably out of doors, and always alone, amidst sky, pine, ocean, to "pour out before God," our most sequestered longings, desires, needs and frustrations. Nahman parts ways with the Buddhists, but asserts himself as a precursor to Freud when he says that we need to do this out loud, to verbalize our unspoken inner swirlings.

The Bratslaver seems to be speaking to our contemporary selves when he tells us that there will be times, perhaps many, when we set out to converse with God and will be able to do no more than call out. Other days, just repeating a single word over and over may be the most we can manage. And he told his chasids to do so not in Hebrew, but in their native language of Yiddish. He said, "In the Yiddish we use for ordinary conversation, it is easier to break one's heart."

Nahman seemed to know there is a purer distillation of who we are waiting at the still, broken center of each of us. The trappings and masks that adorn our everyday selves fall away when we dare to meet the Divine. This is a God I have known only in my most radiant, faith-driven moments, and I've only had glimpses. I came to know Her in my body—lying in savasana, or corpse pose—at the end of a yoga class. That sense of peace and wholeness and pure exhaustion the best of yoga teachers can give you. What's left when you let go completely of everything you don't need.

Or in the hospital room of a dying friend—her husband's book of Psalms, only half read—open on the hospital cart before me. Or in the marshes of Wellfleet in Massachusetts, with the poet and priestess Mary Oliver as my guide, feeling in the slow, patient filling-in of silver-green grasses and dark, muddy earth, the returning tide waters, a hint of Godness, a realm beyond reason, a place where faith is not so foreign. At moments like these, if we've been paying attention, the prayer will come.

And I think, perhaps, there is something transformational in these moments—a tie back to Sarah, Nahman, a childhood self in a room with lavender elephants—hoping for a connection, long-distance, even, a glimpse, at least, of Home.


Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Barnard and at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning.  Her work has appeared in "Best Jewish Writing 2002," the Chicago Tribune Magazine and a number of anthologies and literary journals.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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