These and Those

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

[Alumni Guest Post] Children Learning, Adults Praying?

Posted on August 5, 2014 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:
If only I could wear it as stylishly!

If only I could wear it as stylishly!

Campers and counselors are sitting on a grassy knoll partaking in Wednesday night barbecue. (R is an 8-year-old female camper.)
R: Why do you always wear skirts?
Counselor: Uhhhhh…… Because I’m religious. Because I’m Jewish. Because I’m a woman. Because of modesty.
R: What’s that?
Counselor: Tzniut. Umm… it means that I don’t show certain parts of my body.
R (noticing that Counselor is also wearing pants and long-sleeves today): But you’re covering your whole body. Except your face.
Counselor (prays for situation to pass): Well, it’s cold today (it actually is).
Because how do you explain modesty to an 8-year-old? Help.

naobilThis is just one of the many moments at camp when my insides pull me back and forth—and the pull is usually because of something religious.

This post’s “something religious” is prayer. I have recently been praying with my eidah: young kids who know some of the prayers but are still under bar/bat mitzvah age. Sometimes we do musical tefillah, in which the leader brings his guitar and plays through the highlights (click here: Mah Rabu to hear one of the melodies we sing every day). Sometimes we get into groups and talk about a few of the prayers or really drill the melodies. One time we played “Tefillah Apples to Apples.” With the youngest campers, we always ended with a rhyming song that goes “Thank you God for the [blank], thank you God for the [something that rhymes with blank].” It’s a perfect service for kids learning to pray. But what about the counselors and their obligation in prayer?

Sorry, no hitbodedut here.

Sorry, no hitbodedut here.

From an egalitarian perspective, both adult men and women are obligated to pray in a group of ten with a leader who has the same level of obligation in prayer (read: adult). I understand that in the Conservative movement women now have the same obligation as men. But do minors have the same obligation as adults? There has not been a responsum saying so. Therefore, when children under the age of 13 lead adults in prayer, the adults are not necessarily fulfilling their prayer obligation. Each adult has to be careful to say each word of the prayers—but how can we do this when we are actively helping the kids? And if we are all mumbling along silently, how will the kids learn how to pray? Hence we have a quandary that might take the form of a Talmudic argument:

See? It's right there!

See? It’s right there!

Should one educate children or fulfill his or her halachic obligation to pray?
Do the children belong to you?
Why does it matter?
Parents have a halachic obligation to teach their children Torah. If they are involved in one mitzvah (educating their children), they are exempt from another (prayer).
But does teaching prayer count as “teaching Torah”?
There are two answers:
Yes! There are verses from the Bible in our prayers.
No! Teaching Torah (“Talmud Torah”) involves learning Bible, Mishnah and Gemara. Prayer (“Tefilah”) is totally different! It is about petitioning and praising God. One who teaches his or her child to pray is praiseworthy, but still must fulfill his or her own obligation!
Really? Is teaching prayer really so different from teaching Torah? Also, why does it matter if you are teaching Torah? Isn’t all education of children a mitzvah? So it doesn’t matter what you are teaching – as long as you are teaching, you are exempt from praying!
But remember, we are talking about your OWN kids. What if you are teaching other people’s kids?… (and so on)

In summary: Some would say that our own halachic obligations can be put aside for the sake of education, (לשם חינוך). Others would say that an adult should make sure to fulfill his or her prayer obligation no matter what, even if it means rising early or staying late. Feel free to respond with your thoughts!

From a more traditional perspective (although it’s hard to get more traditional than the Talmud), only adult men are required to pray in a minyan. Women are obligated to do something—depending on whom you follow, the amidah, the shema, or some other combination of prayers. If I am present at the kids’ tefillah, I don’t have to worry about my obligation to pray in a minyan, but I do have to make sure that I am actually saying the required prayers, not just helping kids turn to the right page. Sometimes I stand alone awkwardly to finish my amidah; sometimes I wake up earlier to fit in all the prayers. In a burst of experience, I now more fully understand why women’s obligation in prayer was once (and often still is) so hotly debated: if a woman’s role was to nurture and educate children, when would she have any time to pray for herself? There. The rabbis were not being sexist. They were merely responding to a reality that they saw. In this day and age, however, the nurturing and educating roles have become more shared, so the lines are not as clear. But in any case, the question still exists: for camp counselors who see themselves as obligated in daily prayer, when, where, and how can they fulfill this obligation if their campers are under bar and bat mitzvah age?

Usually, kids don't behave this way during tefillah. If only.

Usually, kids don’t behave this way during tefillah. If only.

Now, I must confess that I do not usually pray three times a day; it is something I am still working on. However, I look up to those who do manage this feat, and I want to be in an environment where others around me are further on their journeys than I am—that way, I can push myself toward an ideal that I see in front of me: the ideal of achieving prayer that is both halachic and spiritual.

Unfortunately, I do not see this ideal here at camp. I saw it at Pardes; I saw it in Jerusalem synagogues; I even saw it at the University of Maryland. Here, I see people committed to egalitarianism, to Camp Ramah itself, to women wearing tefillin (sort of), and to Conservative Judaism. I would like to see people committed to praying services in their entirety; I would like to see a commitment to fluency with the Hebrew prayers; I would like to see a model of halachic and spiritual prayer that inspires me to be a better davener. I understand the need to shorten and enliven the service for kids. But even in the older age groups, the services are disappointingly (for me) abbreviated, and the occasional “oh baby” is sung in the middle of a paragraph of Hebrew. It’s hard for me to willingly educate kids into a philosophy of prayer that I find so lacking.

The conclusion? A quite obvious one, in fact: camp is not made for me. It is made for the campers, their parents, and the Judaism they want their families to have. I am here as an educator, a participant, and an observer. I have to stick to the belief that praying through adversity will make me stronger in the Judaism I want to hold onto – all of its different parts and pieces.