“And the Lord said: Because this people has drawn near, honoring Me with their mouth and lips while distancing their heart from Me, and their fear of Me is commandment of men learned by rote…”
In this biting critique, the prophet protests against one of the most common missteps we make during prayer. In Jewish tradition, the art of prayer carries a paradoxical demand, which by now has resulted in a religious crisis. There is the need to carefully follow the words of the prayer book and never deviate from them, while at the same time praying with great devotion. For most of us, it has become almost impossible to follow these texts without it becoming tedious. It may well be true that the earlier Sages had remarkable insight into the human soul and were able to compose words of prayer that could touch each human being in a unique way. Based on that, they determined what combinations of words were best suited to produce the prayer book.
But who can live up to this today? The repetition of words can easily become rote, causing them to eventually lose meaning and inspiration, thereby turning prayer into a mechanical performance. Martin Buber, who was not an observant Jew but was nevertheless a keen reader of the religious mind, called this der fluch der gelaeufigkeit, the curse of fluency.
Forgetting Who our audience is
Indeed this has never been an easy matter, not even for the most pious. All of us frequently succumb to the danger of prayer by rote, which can easily lead to other serious problems. We may be so arrogantly satisfied with ourselves that we completely forget before Whom we stand while praying. We no longer speak or listen to God, but rather to ourselves. Our prayer becomes a performance in which we ourselves are the audience.
At other times this prayer by rote may lead to a situation in which we don’t even hear ourselves, because our minds are somewhere else altogether. In that case, there is no audience at all, and the prayers end up in no-man’s land. It is not uncommon to have a situation where an element of competitiveness sets in and a worshiper tries to outdo his neighbor. This may result in a game in which the objective is who can pray longer (or faster). We no longer thinks of God but of our neighbor. We may call this a kind of atheistic prayer. Some people seem to believe that God is deaf and begin to pray more loudly, almost yelling.
Besides the need for the worshiper to use all available techniques to overcome these problem—careful study of the prayers, meditation and singing, to name a few—it is also the task of the chazzan to save his congregation from these pitfalls. He is to provide a living commentary on the prayer book while leading his congregants through the service. The intonation of his voice, his emotional connection to the prayers, his body language, and even his facial expressions should give new meaning to the services and transport his congregation to a different state of mind and heart. He must try to create a revolution in the souls of his fellow Jews.
The Torah as poem
It is not only prayer that is often the object of this curse of fluency, but also the reading of the Torah in synagogue. Some ba’alei korei (those who read the Torah before the congregation) have become such fluent readers that they run through the Torah text with great ease, at an amazing pace, and making no mistakes. You get the impression that they are skating over smooth ice while their minds are in a faraway world. Often the ba’al korei’s reading is done without the slightest show of emotion, or connection with the text, and you may sometimes wonder when he will actually fall asleep right on top of the Torah scroll, as he seems to be totally bored.
A Torah text must be rendered as a poem, read with all the intonations and vibrations as indicated in the trope (the traditional chanting of the readings, as notated by special signs or marks in the printed text but absent in the Torah scroll). The ba’al korei, like the chazzan, must totally throw himself into the text and experience it as if he has never read it before. He must feel involved, accompanying Yosef in Pharaoh’s prison and traveling with the Israelites in the desert on their way to Mount Sinai. The Torah text must hit him so that he walks away from it in a state of exaltation, overwhelmed by its message and implication. Only then has he actually read it as it was meant to be read. In fact, the reading should have such an impact on him that it may necessitate his stopping in the middle just to calm down from the emotions evoked by the text, and to ensure that he does not lose consciousness upon being struck by the divinity of its words.
It is the task of every chazzan and ba’al korei to educate themselves and discover ways in which they can inspire themselves and the congregation, so as not to get trapped in this curse of fluency. Praying and Torah reading should be experiences never to be forgotten.
Religious leaders and thinkers today may have to seriously consider shortening the prayers, and even the Torah reading. In our times, when secularity has penetrated every facet of our lives, earlier standards of religious devotion are becoming more and more difficult to maintain. The quality of our prayers may have to take precedence over the quantity, and some of them may no longer work for us. They may be too exalted, or too emotionally distant from the minds and hearts of most worshipers for whom the services are long and often tiresome.
Praying to God can be risky.
We must make sure that we are not guilty of religious plagiarism and imitation. Even of ourselves.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
- Do you think that shortening the prayers will address the issue of it becoming rote and meaningless? Won’t the newly shortened prayers just become rote as well?
- Would you go as far as the prophet Yirmiyahu did (Yoma 69b) and consider adding or deleting words in an existing prayer to make it more meaningful and inspirational?
- There is a famous Chassidic story about a Jewish peasant who does not know how to read but can recite the alphabet and prays by reciting it with gusto and trusting God to put the words together. This story presents a very different model of prayer than the one suggested in this essay, which is one of complete literacy and deep understanding of every word. Do you personally relate more to the essay’s model, or to the story’s model? Why?
- There was a practice known as bittul ha-tamid—prevalent mainly in the Middle Ages among Ashkenazi Jewry—of interrupting public religious services as a form of protest, afforded to those individuals who felt that an injustice had been perpetrated upon them. (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0003_0_03034.html)
This custom points to an irrevocable connection between the Jewish values of prayer and justice. Could re-establishing this custom help address humanity’s struggle for meaning in prayer?
Here is a short Podcast (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HueQxThwQpE) which discusses the halachic and ideological consequences of what my dear friend Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg calls “The Third Epoch of Jewish History” starting with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
My observations do not do justice to Rabbi Greenberg’s profound observations. I only touch on one or two aspects which need much more explanation. Hopefully I will able to discuss this at a later stage to a much greater extent.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo