October 10th, 2010
If I didn’t know Hebrew, and I wasn’t devoted to Orthodox practice, there is approximately NO WAY I’d be praying three times a day out of a prayerbook. The bar is just too high! There’s just nothing instinctual about it. Even doing it in English – it feels repetitive. If I don’t know the difference between ‘praise, laud, extol, and exalt’, why would Yishtabach mean anything to me?
But people seem to want to make it work – or at least they think they are supposed to make it work. For whatever reason, they come, they open the book, they try to follow, they make sure they are on the right page. But my guess is that many walk away discouraged and forlorn. Maybe they come back again – maybe they feel like they are earning some kind of karmic credit for suffering through a service.
But this is just too risky, for so many reasons. They might not ever come back. They might become entrenched in the suffering servant motif, suffering through more services and practices. Is this the point of ‘religion’? I don’t know. Could go one of two ways: either prayer is about what I would call heart-resonance, whereby we use the words to evoke the feelings, and ‘G-d wants the heart’. Or, somehow these words work by some sort of magic – they just work because we say them. The words do the work, not the heart. I don’t know – it could be true. Or it might not be true. But I don’t want to risk it.
I don’t think Orthodoxy has a decent response to this. Some camps are the word-sayers – ‘say the words. Your soul knows what’s going on.’ Some just go as quickly as possible – ‘if I gun through it, I won’t have a chance to wonder why I am saying it.’
I’m looking for a deeper acknowledgment of what the Shulchan Aruch itself mentions – ‘whether you say a little or a lot, as long as you heart is directed toward heaven.’ I’m looking for an Orthodoxy that is interested in penetrating to the heart of prayer, to exposing the heart of prayer to everyone.
Kiruv may have made sense a while back in the context of people who at some point knew these prayers but have lapsed. But I don’t think we have a good system in place for reaching out to people who, all things being equal, would like to pray, but have no interest or capacity to make these words make sense.
So, they end up going to places where the service is easier, shorter, in English. For many, joining the liberal denominations is not a function of theology but of accessibility. They might even end up in a place that doesn’t believe in a G-d Who hears prayer, just because the service is easier to follow.
Who and what is being served? Which god, exactly? And how did I end up being a part of it? I love Torah. I love halacha. I think it is the truest G-d for a constantly meaningful life featuring dynamic relationships to each other, to the world around us, etc. And I do believe that halacha, in its purest form, accommodates this situation as well. I just don’t know how. Yet.