Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Point Of Davening

(Hat tip: JewishIdeas)

I love davening.  I absolutely love it.  Every since I got a decent Hebrew education in my teens and found I could understand most of the prayers I have very much gotten into praying with purpose and meaning.  Yes there are days when I'm rushed, tired or distracted by a headache but in general whenever I can I do my best to immerse myself in tefillah at the set times.  Whether davening alone or by myself I don't feel the time dragging when I'm speaking with God.
But there is something to be said about settings.  At home I have a specific room in which I daven.  I have everything arranged and set up so there is instant familiarity and comfort.  In shul I have my makom kavua as well which helps.
But there is more to a setting than a specific seat and this is where shul leaves me disappointed.
Many, many years ago the non-Orthodox synagogue I worked in (did their Junior Congregation) had a congregational meeting and the topic of how to make services more interesting came up.  More dynamic speakers, muscial instruments to accompany the singing, more activities to engage congregants, all sorts of ideas got thrown out from the floor until one guy on the board, not the most traditional in Jewish practice but still an intelligent guy with his head screwed on straight shouted out "Wait!  I come to shul to pray to God.  I'm not looking for a show or entertainment, I'm looking to commune and daven!"
The other board members just rolled their eyes.  Prayer.  What a quaint concept.
Unfortunately this lack of interest in the dignity and importance of proper prayer is getting increasingly lost in parts of the Orthodox world as well.  I think, for instance, of the Carlebach-type service my shul runs on Friday nights.  For me the service is a nightmare, a 90 minute affair that should only take 45 minutes tops in a real shul.  Song after song during Kabbalas Shabbos, two or three breaks where kids go up and dance around the bimah, and then a quick zip through Maariv so we can get to more singing for Kiddush.  I haven't attended Friday night services since I realized this format wasn't an occasional "treat" but rather the standard format.
Now I can understand why the Rav of the shul does this.  He's very much into outreach.  He runs an expensive shul and day school, he needs the money, ergo he needs members and how better to increase membership than to appeal to the non-religious?  After all, we frummers are stuck going to the shul whether we like it or not; it's the only one in town.  This means catering to the non-religious and how better to do so than to make shul fun?
It works too.  The little side chapel we use other than on Shabbos mornings is packed by folks who drive up conveniently right after Minchah has ended and who jump in their cars to go home after the last Aleinu.  In between there's the singing and dancing.  But when we hit Maariv everything changes.  Our Rav hasn't figured out how to turn saying the Shema into a loud, interactive experience (yet) so at that point people either daven (the few religious folks) or close the siddurim and stare blankly into space until V'Shamru, the next tune.
And I wonder: when did shul stop being shul?  I mean a place where there is a sense of dignity and propriety, a place where people stand in some sort of awe before our Creator and who recite the worlds from the prayer book as if they're interacting not with the shaliach tzibur and his happy tune but with God Himself?
Shouldn't there be a sense of majesty?  If not unending chazanus then at least tunes that carry some weight?  Shouldn't people be there to make a connection with the Divine instead of having the rabbinical equivalent of Krusty the Klown calling out "Hey kids!  Now for our next special song and dance..."?
The article that triggered my interest in making this post makes a similar point.  His most powerful paragraph for me was:
 A hazzan is not merely a precenter of the liturgy. He is a teacher of prayer. He interprets the mahzor or the siddur and renders it relevant and meaningful to his congregation. The prayer modes are the hermeneutics he employs. If all a hazzan does is sing some popular tunes for the entertainment of the congregation, or if all he does is sing big pieces to impress the congregation with his vocal abilities and musicianship, he is an abject failure, much like the rabbi who fills his sermons with jokes and teaches little about Jewish life and values. Leading prayer is not about timing the service so it ends before the cholent burns, nor is it about entertainment. It's not even about artistry for its own sake. It is about teaching the congregation what the prayers are, and what they mean. To do that a hazzan must wrestle with the text of the siddur. He has to ponder the depths of his soul and make the liturgy meaningful and relevant to himself. He must lead and teach both by exposition and by example (thus the halakhic requirement that a communal cantor must be known for his personal piety). If the cantor is unclear as to what prayer means to him, his message to the congregants will likewise be unclear. Once a cantor understands what the liturgy means to him, he must then go about presenting it, teaching that meaning to his students within the confines of accepted exposition of the text (with the liturgical hermeneutics, the nusah). Sometimes that meaning will be challenging to the congregation. It may make them tremble or weep. Sometimes it may be whimsical or entertaining. But the message notwithstanding, the cantor MUST always be interpreting the text of the siddur and teaching the interpretation to his students (i.e. the congregation). That is what the unconquerable Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky meant when he stated "I daven with the peirush,", I pray according to the meaning of the words.


We need to do something to reclaim the sanctity of shul, the kedushah of prayer.  Running in and runsing through the davening is unacceptable.  Why is it so hard to handle the middle ground, a decent service with the appropriate tunes that demands that the congregants focus on the real reason to be in shul?

9 comments:

Bob Miller said...

I ofetn sense that the traditional Orthodox nusach (whichever tradition) is more moving than the alternatives, old and new. The novelty and excitement of insertions from pop or folk music, even when done well technically, wear off in a hurry. People who like to do a rikud to a zippy nigun can best do it after the service proper.

Micha Berger said...

I think much of the problem is in universal education:

1- I can't figure out an effective way to teach tefillah to kids you don't expect to become BTs when they're older. If you wait too long, then they don't have the routine -- and these are people you're assuming won't reevaluate their lifestyle. And if you don't wait, you are teaching a habit of saying syllables that have no meaning. And then even once they learn meaning, it is too easy to slip back to rote utterance of the sounds.

2- We teach our kids, at least implicitly, to associate religious experience with learning. (Something I didn't notice until I tried teaching adults how to relate to Mussar texts, where the point is to inculcate what you already know, and little of the material is new.)

Thus, doing the same thing, with nothing new, doesn't become reassuring ritual, it becomes boring. That's why people (including myself) are looking for ways to turn Qabbalas Shabbos into a qumzitz or something else more blatantly experiential.

Although personally, I can't handle the local Carlebach minyan, where they do the same routine from RSC's "Shabbos in Shamayim" posthumous CD every week. When I ran a singing minyan, it was more qumzitzy -- the Chazan had to pick tunes for each pereq, and wasn't limited to a single composer. But that too must have been too routine for too many people -- it fizzled out.

Adam Zur said...

I must say that today I find a lot more inspiration in the Talmud and the Torah. There was a time that I liked the davening moire and in fact I did it with the different commentaries like Yaakov Emden and the Yesod veShoresh haAvoda. Eventually I even did it with the Reshash and his grandson. But eventually, it all fizzled out. The reason is simple. It was a lot of work to do something that I saw little results in. To my way of thinking today, I would have to say a few minutes of private prayer alone (where no one else can watch me) I think have a lot more effect. Though I admit I also like the prayers of Reb Nathan from Breslov.

SJ said...

I think little kids having endless access to junk food at synagogues is unacceptable.

Micha Berger said...

RAZ: It seems you and I are on the same page, if I may play armchair psychologist. Finding meaning in tefillah through the constant searc for new commentaries comes from our orientation that a religious experience means learning something new, and thus doing the same thing for months and years on end grows tedious.

Davening is an experience, like eating chocolate, but for the soul. Somehow, we have to learn to connect to it on a non-cerebral level.

Adam Zur said...

non cerebral--that is why i like the prayers of reb natan

Benjamin of Tudela said...

I haven't been able to pray for years, though not praying is a central part of my religious experience. My own pain at not being able to pray tells me that "I'm still there".

Neil Harris said...

Great post. I happen to attend a Carlebach-lite minyan Shabbos nights (starting with mincha it runs exactly an hour).
It's a good compromise, but is only attended by about 20 men.

I think one answer to "reclaiming the sanctity of shul/prayer" is to just make tefillah a priority. When you're in shul, daven. If you find your self losing focus, bring a sefer of davening with you. Make a point not to talk (aside from a "Good Shabbos Kodesh" at a halachically approved time).
I happen to be a fan of niggunim and find that they help with my davening, but others are not too into them.

Jshalet said...

If you are interested in synagogues that are dedicated to to inspirational music but with attention to dignity and decorum, then I suggest a visit to a Yekkish synagogue. I don't know where you live but if it is ever possible to arrange such an opportunity - go for it! I am personally a ba'al teshuva Yekke who lives in Jerusalem. I discovered these shuls in yeshiva when I was searching for something to belong to that was seriously frum but reminded me of my United Synagogue ubringing from England.

The Yekkish devening experience is the perfect blend of intellect and emotion. Every melody has it's own unique theme and rythm that matches the seasonal mood perfectly.

There is simply no need for innovations such as the superficial ecstatic worship that is Carebach, which has hijacked the traditional shul atmosphere as you so accurately described.

Pesach is coming soon and I am looking forward to being in my favourite shul in the whole wide world. I can daven nowhere else. It is like a rare delicacy: once you taste it, you can't get enough of it.

It is impossible to describe the beauty of the yekkish nusach.

You have to try it for yourself.

If you are, however, the kind of person who is used to the popular kind of davvening it will take some time to adapt your ears to the sophistication of the music.

You will also not hear the tunes that are heard in almost every other ashkenazic shul and our staunch adherence to Minhag can be overwhelming for some. Such as only one person saying Kaddish at a time and being very selective on who may lead the prayers.

For info on where to find these shuls in Israel and elsewhere, just google MACHON MORESHES ASHKENAZ.

To listen to recordings of the nusach: kayj.net and click on nusach project.