Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shomea Tefilah: The Deep Roots of the Impulse for Participatory Communal Jewish Prayer

ויהיו נא אמרינו לרצון לפני אדון כל
May our words be acceptable before the master of all
Atah Horeita, Introductory verse to Simchat Torah Hakafot
אמרינו האזינה ה' בינה הגיגינו
Hear our utterances, God; understand our meditations
Sh'ma Koleinu, Selichot Liturgy
יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך ה' צורי וגואלי

May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable before you, God, my Rock and Redeemer
-Psalms 19:15, Meditation at the conclusion of the Amidah

Each of the above verses, taken from the most joyous, serious and rote portions of the liturgy, share a focus on having a personal connection to the act of prayer, and thus to God. In each case, the words are written in the first person, whether in singular or plural (though interestingly, the יהיו לרצון verse is actually pluralized within the same Sh'ma Koleinu prayer). There is no mention of the ability of anyone to pray through the proxy of another. It is out of the words themselves that the beauty of tefilah arises, and may be enhanced by music or aesthetics. But these aesthetic elements must be designed to inspire one to pray with feeling and kavanah, not simply for the sake of their own beauty or performance.


A number of events and experiences over the past week have inspired me to write this blog post/article bringing together a collection of diverse modern Jewish voices who passionately argue that meaningful communal prayer can only take place when it is truly a shared activity by all, and not a performance done by a rabbi, cantor or other figure on their behalf. It has been most fascinating that voices as diverse as master theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbis David De Sola Pool and Hayyim Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) in New York and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, founder of Mechon Hadar. Each, in their own context and particular community or audience passionately advocates for the importance of meaningful prayer by focusing on the centrality of the words and aesthetics which are conducive to kavanah. Many see the rejection of a 'high-church,' auditorium style sanctuary and non-participatory service as an innovation of the recent independent minyan movement. I would like to enhance this move towards more meaningful tefilah by demonstrating it as an ancient impulse, expressed by many prominent leaders of recent generations.

In 1953, Rabbi Heschel addressed the members of the Rabbinical Assembly at their convention with a speech entitled "The Spirit of Jewish Prayer." I believe that this choice of topic must have taken much nerve on the part of Heschel, based on the time period and the audacious nature of its contents (appropriate for its appearance in a book called Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity). In the 1950s, hundreds of Conservative congregations were building sprawling edifices in the growing North American suburbia Within them stood breathtaking sanctuaries seating hundreds, each anchored by an imposing bimah at which the rabbi and cantor face the congregation.
Coming from a hassidic background where prayer existed as way to express one's deepest feelings, these 'new' American synagogues likely seemed quite foreign to Heschel. He knows no boundaries in his words, as he expresses frustration with the spiritual void he sees in many of these synagogues and seeks to place hope in the potential which existed for change. At one point, he pleads to the rabbis to fulfill their ultimate spiritual mission beyond simply facilitating the stage directions of a Shabbat morning service.
The Rabbi's duty in the sacred hour of worship goes far beyond that of maintaining order and decorum. His unique task is to be a power for arousal, to endow others with a sense of kavanah. And as we have said, kavanah is more than a touch of emotion. kavanah is insight, appreciation.
After this plea that rabbis must lead their communities towards greater meaning and connection to prayer, Heschel directly addresses the aesthetics of the Conservative synagogue of his day, which still permeate in many places to our own day. He expresses a discomfort with the practice of having the rabbi and cantor face the congregation:

It was in the interest of bringing about order and decorum that in some synagogues the rabbi and cantor decided to occupy a position facing the congregation. It is possible that a reexamination of the whole problem of worship would lead to the conclusion that the innovation was an error. The essence of prayer is not decorum but rather an event in the lives of men...

A cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in whose presence he stands. The congregation then will hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name {according to a footnote, Heschel is likely referring to the repetition of the Amidah here, not a belief in the ability for one to pray through the cantor alone}. (121-122)
I believe that Heschel makes an important point, one with which I personally identify in my preference for a makom tefilah (prayer environment) where the leader faces the same direction as those praying. This arrangement automatically makes a statement, reminding those gathered that the cantor has not ascended the bimah to perform, but as a shaliah tsibbur, an agent of the community. And s/he cannot be an agent unless those gathered are taught, possibly by the rabbi addressed by Heschel, that the cantor cannot lead unless the congregation has the intention, the kavanah to be led, to unite themselves in this act of prayer.

This past shabbat, I returned to Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (and oldest congregation in North America, founded 1654) with two friends. As I described in an earlier post, I am repeatedly attracted to the service for its beauty, dignity, formality and structure. One might immediately ask, that if I was so inspired by Heschel, how can I be so moved by such a formal and orchestrated service? I believe that the minhagim (customs) of our Western Sephardic brethren have succeeded, where those shuls criticized by Heschel failed, in striking a beautiful balance between formality with participation and meaning.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the rabbi of the congregation and a brilliant speaker, author and teacher of Tanach, recently published a short booklet of the congregation's minhagim. One of the topics addressed is the special custom of the leader bowing to the officers of the congregation at the beginning of each service. This practice, which might seem strange to those unfamiliar with it, is actually a centuries-old demonstration of Heschel's idea that the cantor/leader must lead the congregation and not perform for them. Rabbi Angel writes:

One of the interesting customs that we have is the little bow from the Hazan to a trustee at the beginning of each service. When there is an officer... the Hazan will not begin the service without first standing, getting the attention of the presiding official, and exchanging a bow. While a seemingly trivial gesture, it carries with it important symbolism.
In Jewish tradition, the person leading the service is not a functionary or a performer. Rather, he represents the entire congregation in prayer. In Hebrew, the term used for the reader is sheli'ah tzibbur-- the appointed agent of the community. [At Shearith Israel,] the sheli'ah tsibbur stands at the center of the congregation. In this manner, the reader is surrounded by the congregation, acting as its agent rather than as its leader. In this spirit, our congregational melodies seldom accord arias for the Hazanim to sing solo (with a few notable, beautiful exceptions); rather we generally follow an antiphonal (Hazan-congregational response) format to indicate this mutual relationship as a community united in prayer.
When the Hazan receives permission from a representative of the communal leadership (represented by that bow), it is an act of accepting appointment to lead the congregation as its agent. in this way, the reader truly is designated as sheli'ah tzibbur and feels the significance as he begins the service. (Minhagim, 17-18)
As suggested by Heschel, when the aesthetics of prayer are 'done right', they will not only enhance the words of our prayers, but even serve to remind us of the purpose of our gathering is not to listen, but to actively pour out our deepest thoughts to God, led by a reader appointed by and agreeable to the community.

Rabbi Angel's sentiments about the meaning of gathering for tefilah echo the words of his illustrious predecessor Rabbi David de Sola Pool, Rabbi of of Shearith Israel from 1906-70 (and author of a number of Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim). In an address to the synagogue's Men's Club on his 75th birthday. He too presents his own vision for why Jewish prayer is a unifying, communal act is a speech entitled "The Meaning of Prayer":

When we pray with a congregation, our prayer is not self-centered. It takes on the character of social idealism. It voices the religious aspirations of the whole Jewish people. Our praying together expresses the urge of each of us to take his part in helping to bring into being an ennobled spiritual society. Our prayers, which are overwhelmingly in the plural, express the striving of all the people to reach God. In unifying brotherhood of collective worship and communal praying, every one of us as an individual draws inspiration and strength from others, while at the same time every one of us stimulates the congregation by bringing to it his individual increment of spiritual purpose and devotion. (Rabbi David de Sola Pool, 140)
Rabbi de Sola Pool describes in beautiful language the situation which can result when Jews are taught tom pray in the way desired by Heschel, when we might see the day that many flock to sanctuaries across the country not only to share shabbat with family and friends, but ready to express deep hopes and inspirations, both in the words of the siddur and the meditations of the heart.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Kehilat Hadar and Director of Mechon Hadar, recently published a celebrated book Empowered Judaism, which I hope to read quite soon. He speaks about the rise of the independent minyan movement over the past decade. He speaks much of the time in practical terms, explaining his understanding of the challenges facing Judaism today, and how independent minyanim have attempted to face them. In a quote used by my friend Sandy at Columbia/Barnard Koach in a D'var Torah last Shabbat, Rabbi Kaunfer writes what he sees as the issue with why contemporary North American synagogues are often not engaging young (and old) Jews. He writes.

“The classic layout of the liberal American synagogue is one in which the clergy face the congregation from an elevated bimah, and all the davening and Torah reading take place at the front of the room. The layout of the room enforces the feeling that this prayer service is a performance to be watched, with the actors onstage at the front and the audience dutifully listening in the rows below.”


When read in isolation, these words may seem as if calling for an unprecedented revolution against the status quo of the large North American synagogue. but read in the context of Rabbi's Heschel, Angel and de Sola Pool it is not hard to see the long tradition from which Rabbi Kaunfer's impassioned call arises. Like his predecessors, he is calling on Jews to awaken and taste the meaning and communal bonding which can be derived from prayer if participants are willing to put their hearts and souls into it. I believe that each of these quotes sends a clear message about the ideal format and function which Jewish prayer may serve if those who come to pray are inspired to take part in this holy act. It may take time, patience, aesthetic, layout or architectural changes, but I believe that traditional prayer can be made meaningful and reachable to many who seek meaning in their lives.

ויחד לבבנו לאהבה וליראה את שמך, may You unite our hearts to express love and awe for Your name. Amen.

33 comments:

RexTemples20144 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
don1012nym_nicks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
品華yur1095is_newson1 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
佩璇 said...

Necessity is the mother of invention.......................................................

韋于倫成 said...

^^ 謝謝你的分享,祝你生活永遠多彩多姿!........................................

建霖 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
寶堅強皓 said...

向著星球長驅直進的人,反比踟躕在峽路上的人,更容易達到目的。..................................................

DedeJ文辰_Fe said...

若有人問你成功時會不會記得他 試問若你失敗時他會不會記得你 ............................................................

SadeRa盈君iford0412 said...

Good!............................................................

許美玉 said...

愛,拆開來是心和受兩個字。用心去接受對方的一切,用心去愛對方的所有。.................................................................

淑慧 said...

Where did you purchase this product?..................................................

江婷 said...

河水永遠是相同的,可是每一剎那又都是新的。......................................................................

萱祥 said...

人不能像動物一樣活著,而應該追求知識和美德............................................................

俊豪袁阿危惠敏 said...

君子立恆志,小人恆立志。.................................................................

吳婷婷 said...

人不可以求其備,必捨其所短,取其所長............................................................

吳婷婷 said...

No one knows the weight of anothers burden. ............................................................

承蘋承蘋 said...

很棒的分享~~~來留個言囉~~~~.......................................................

國昆 said...

責人之心責己,恕己之心恕人。..................................................................

江桂宸江桂宸 said...

No garden without its weeds.............................................................

王美妹 said...

[做人難,人難做,難做人] 人.事的艱困與磨難,是一種考驗!要以樂觀歡喜之心,很珍惜地過每一天!^^..................................................................

魏江伶魏江伶 said...

這不過是滑一跤,並不是死掉而爬不起來了。..................................................

RicoLisi0802志竹 said...

幸福不是一切,人還有責任。............................................................

蔡苡玄 said...

好的開始並不代表會成功,壞的開始並不代表是失敗..................................................

解恆蔡靜芳念 said...

大肚能容,了卻人間多少事,滿腔歡喜,笑開天下古今愁。..................................................

凱v胡倫 said...

一棵樹除非在春天開了花,否則難望在秋天結果。..................................................

凱許倫 said...

More haste, less speed..................................................................

偉曹琬 said...

讓好心情回味發酵;壞心情留在文字裡隨時間消逝吧!............................................................

智柏林婉林亞 said...

心中醒,口中說,紙上作,不從身上習過,皆無用也。..................................................

翊翊翊翊張瑜翊翊翊 said...

上班好累哦,看看部落格轉換心情~~~先謝謝啦!!............................................................

翊翊翊翊張瑜翊翊翊 said...

世間事沒有一樣沒有困難,只要有信心去做,至少可以做出一些成績。..................................................

瑰潼 said...

吾錯吾錯...我平時都好鐘意用呢d~而家學多好多~thx+0+......................................................

姚义丰 said...

加油-不論如何都期待您的新發表!

幸平平平平杰 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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