These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Thoughts & Teachings about Prayer

Posted on May 14, 2012 by Austin C.

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The following is from all of the notes I’ve taken this year during my studies at Pardes.
The subject of prayer has been of particular interest to me…
(first presented at the final Pardes Shabbaton)

Liturgy/Prayer –

  • Liturgy/Prayer is a basic way for us to get in touch with God, fellow Jews, Jewish values, and Jewish tradition.
  • Liturgy/Prayer gives us words we may not otherwise have in our vocabulary to get in touch with God and our relationship with God, or to put it another way, with that which is beyond our understanding, beyond ourselves, and beyond our control.
  • Liturgy/Prayer gives us a guide, something to serve as a reminder of what we should be thinking about when attempting to encounter these thoughts and these ideas.
  • Liturgy/Prayer when phrased in the plural allows us to remove ourselves from our individuality and helps us to consider our connections and obligations to people other than ourselves.
  • Liturgy/Prayer recited only in the presence of a minyan come to teach us that we are different people in the presence of others. When proclaimed publically, the very same words, ideas, and choreography mean more to us and take on different meanings than when we are alone.
  • “Liturgy/Prayer, as Heschel states it, is poetry, not prose. It is neither science nor magic and most be separated from superstition.”
  • While the Torah is the foundational document of the Jewish people, whether you see it as God’s word, as true and the truth, as our people’s history or even an extremely meaningful foundational myth, the Siddur is our guide for what it means to be and live as a Jew today. As Harold Kushner says it, “If the Torah is God’s address, God’s words and gifts given to the Jewish people, the Siddur is our, the Jewish people’s, response to and thank you to God.”

Understanding the words of prayer –

  • Just how important is it for us to understand the words we use while we pray? How important is it that we have the vocabulary and ability to understand actively what we are saying as we careen through our services? How important is it that even if we sat down and slowly went through each word of each prayer, that we could translate and garner the meaning and even nuance of what is scripted for us to say? Once that question is answered we must ask ourselves, how important is it then that we appreciate and connect to, believe and truly feel the words we say?
  • Harold Kushner says that, “[W]e must bear in mind that although prayer uses words, their impact is ultimately significantly more emotional than intellectual. (For Kushner), and I hope for you as well, asking a question such as “what does prayer mean?” is like asking “what does flower mean?” or “what does symphony mean?” My mantra is: “Liturgy unites, theology divides.”
  • The proscribed and specific meaning of an individual prayer is not the same as the meaning of the words of the prayer. While the ideas, thoughts, and desires expressed by either God or the great and wise men who wrote the Tanakh and our Siddur are very important, all of these words were and are meant to be much more than of a singular meaning. That being said, nor are they meant to lose their meaning and become mere music and chanting that we come together to do throughout the weeks.
  • Just as the content of the Torah can be studied over and over and new meaning and insight can be found and applied to our lives, the content of the Siddur, its poetry, can be, should be studied in the same way. One must not fall into the trap of taking the words simply at face value, especially in a world where so much of the content of the Siddur (as well the Torah) seems not only out of place or out of date, but even offensive, exclusionary, or discriminatory. The words of the Siddur are poetry and the overwhelming majority of modern Jewry has not been educated in how to read these poems carefully in order that their meaning and value in this time, in their lives come forward. We must avoid taking the entirety of the words literally and learn to allow the spaces between the letters and words come forward. To take an idea from Midrash Tanhumah, Beresheit perek 1, we must allow the black fire of the letters and words to fade from our focus allowing the white fire of the spaces, the canvas they are written on that contains the unspecified and hidden meanings which are infinite in number, come to the forefront.
  • By reading the Siddur in these ways allows the for the Siddur to bring to the table an view of Judaism which is ever-evolving. This can take place whether you read the Torah and Siddur through the lens of a belief in God who exists and is present, yet unknowable, who created the universe and all its inhabitants, and that Jewish thought and writing are therefore insights into God’s ways and desires for humanity housed in our treasured texts, the Torah, the Talmud, Halakha, and our Siddurim; or you read the Torah and Siddur through a lens based in the thought that the Jewish foundation myth and the subsequent writings, ways of life, and history are steeped in wisdom and teachings that can be learned from and applied to one’s life presently and into the future.
  • One of the most important things I have learned from my time here at Pardes is that when one reads and studies Torah and prays from the Siddur that one should study the words of that Siddur with the same vigor and intent as you do the Torah, because no matter what side of the theological table you come from, know that so long as you do so with the intent of bettering yourself, your community, and the world at large there is a lifetime of content, a lifetime of wisdom that will always be there to be imparted on you whether for the first time today, the first time this month, this year, this decade, the first time on your life. One of the most important things I have learned from being part of the Jewish community is that it is never too early or too late to introduce or reintroduce yourself to Judaism for the first time.
  • This all demands serious attention. The most important thing we can do to make the time we spend with the siddur meaningful is to establish a dialog with it, much like we do the Torah. Whether we agree or disagree, we must listen to its words and not ignore it and in the end we will all be richer for having done so.