It all started about a week ago, when I happened upon a post about the quality and nature of worship by Mama Squirrel over at Dewey's Treehouse. She used a quotation from a Christian author, and the image presented interested me greatly, and so I wrote a short reply, and went on to celebrate Shabbat. But the image has been there in my mind since, and I have been playing with it and how it might relate to Jewish prayer.
This week, I have been wrestling with some big ideas that affect how I think about my field of special education, but my thoughts on Jewish prayer have still been rattling around in my mind, and I have the niggling feeling that the two are somehow connected. But it is something that happened to N. yesterday that really brought the question of the experience of Jewish prayer back into focus for me.
Last night, it was my turn to drive A. and N. home from Machon. After dropping A. off to his mother at the Dairy Queen in Edgewood, N. and I had the drive back to Sedillo and home alone together. N. was unusually quiet on the way out to Edgewood from Albuquerque, but as we neared the Sedillo exit, he began sighing. Mothers with adolescents everywhere know the familiar exchange that followed:
Me: "What's wrong?"
N.: (Heavy sigh) "Nothing."
Me: "Did something happen tonight?"
N.: "Not really." (More sighs).
And so forth and so on....it is pulling teeth to drag something out of an adolescent, even when they really want to tell you about it.
What I got out of N. was that class (about the origins of Ashkenazi Jewry) was "boring, but okay," that he did not get teased about his haircut (which is too short for his liking), and that things were fine between him and A. as well as among his classmates.
The problem had to do with T'fillah, the short prayer service at the end of Machon. (I have already written about the problem of who owns that service, and you can find that at 'Making It Theirs'). N.'s current problem is that apparently one of the "clergy" (I hate using this term in a Jewish setting, it implies knowledge and power that traditionally belongs to all Jews, but this is what they call themselves) has been practicing what N. calls "mind control." Upon further questioning, what this means to N. is that the person has commanded all the teens to keep their eyes on the pages of the prayer book and follow the service with their fingers. Not content with making this demand, the person has taken to patrolling the aisles to enforce this, although I do not know whether this is done verbally or physically. Mind control, indeed.
So now I am thinking again on the experience of Jewish prayer.
And I am starting with two thoughts from Mama Squirrel's post. They are both from John Piper's essay, Desiring God.
"...The widespread notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest is a great enemy of true worship..."
"...when worship is reduced to disinterested duty, it ceases to be worship. For worship is a feast."
I am thinking that if the Christian Hedonist's worship is a feast, Jewish prayer is a homely and commonplace meal. Traditional Jews pray three services a day, Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma'ariv (Dawn, Gifts--the afternoon service, and Evening). How does one experience the homely meal? It is comfort food and it is often eaten as if by rote as the family talks around the table about other things. But every now and then, when a person is particularly hungry, or when the stew is particularly good, one will notice, in the midst of the ordinariness of it all, the sweet taste and texture of a perfectly cooked carrot, or the color and flavor of the spice, or the warm scent and soft feel of the homemade bread and butter.
And so it is when one is practiced in the art of T'fillah. The services are patterned, the nusach (cantillation) of the prayer is so familiar, and the pace is such that the one praying is often immersed in it as if by rote. One can lean into the prayer, unconsciously, "like a weaned child at rest on his mother's knee" as the psalmist sang in the Songs of the Ascents. And in that unconscious rest, sometimes a word or phrase will come to the fore, colorful and beautiful, asking to be noticed, to be heard, to be ruminated on, and understood anew. And in the way of traditional Jewish communal prayer, the coming together and drifting apart of the holy congregation that is praying, this need is accomodated in the standing, the swaying, the bowing and bending, the whole choreography of the service.
And so, of course, to get to this place of T'fillah, this holy time in which one stands with oneself (mitpallel--in judgement of oneself) before the Eternal, requires the discipline of praying regularly, and of learning the nusach, and the minhag--the customary choreography of the place--and also the use of the props of Jewish prayer, the tallit (prayer shawl) and t'fillin (phylacteries), and the siddur (prayer book). And it is the Jewish custom to focus on the words of the prayer book, words read and spoken in the holy tongue--Hebrew. And this is, or should be, an important part of Jewish education. Thus the importance of the study of Hebrew language, and Torah, and the experience of T'fillah.
But T'fillah is also an intensely personal experience, even though it is commonly practiced in the minyan, the quorum of at least ten adult Jews necessary for public prayer. And it seems to me, that when teaching T'fillah, one must provide instruction in the keva, the appointed discipline, as well as the experience of the kavanah, the aim of the heart and soul in prayer.
It is a delicate balance, one which cannot be attained by patrolling the Beit T'fillah like a Prussian schoolmaster, in search of the perfect: the perfect focus, the perfect stance, the perfect sequence of bows and sways. The desire for such perfection ultimately inhibits the dance of prayer. The desire for perfection is the desire for the unattainable, and it inhibits beauty and grace and life. And the beauty of individuality stems from the imperfect; the slightly crooked smile, the laugh lines around the eyes, that certain huskiness of voice that makes us love our lover above all others.
N. has become familiar with the keva and kavanah of T'fillah through the practice of the art of T'fillah. And maybe he has experienced those transcendent moments of realization and focus that come in the midst of the commonplace act of prayer. I don't know. I don't watch or inspect his practice. To do so, is to intrude on a most intimate moment. It is like inspecting and judging someone making love. Or think of it this way, participating in public prayer is like participating in a dance: if one goes to dance, one does not spend the time critiquing every move of the other dancers. T'fillah is not a performance to be judged and applauded, it is an experience to be lived.
So in teaching the practice of T'fillah, the teacher must leave much room for the individual, for the imperfection, and for the serendipity of those moments of transcendence that cannot be commanded or controlled. Prayer is ultimately a wild thing that dies when confined or controlled. And therefore, to return to the metaphor of the commonplace meal, the teacher must have the patience to allow the appetite to come with the eating.
I don't know what I am going to do about N.'s complaint exactly. For some time I have felt myself becoming dissatisfied with the forced feeding of one person's idea of what prayer and study are at our synagogue. Out of sheer self-preservation, I have distanced myself from worship services because of the emphasis on uniform practice, an emphasis that has become intrusive to the kavannah I need for T'fillah to nurture me. The heavy-handed and ungraceful "management" of the holy congregation's prayer has not been confined to the students in Machon. I have seen adults publically corrected--and I have experienced correction--in the middle of a service for the observance of a different minhag, a different custom, in the practice of the choreography of worship.
I am now coming to the realization of how important the culture of the synagogue is to my comfort with what happens there, and how fragile that culture is, and how susceptible it is to change and disintegration. As I have said elsewhere, Reform Judaim has a certain formalistic side to its practice that is at odds with its philosophy of individual choice about ritual observance to be made from knowledge. I guess I want N.'s Jewish education to feed him the knowledge and let him make the individual choice. And I want the same for myself.
Maybe it is time to consider moving to a different table for the commonplace meal?