Monday, May 26, 2014

Shiur Theatre: 21st Century Tefillah, Part 1

One of the various pursuits that has taken me away from this blog recently has been the effort to produce a new edition of Shiur Theatre, this one on "21st Century Tefillah". The challenge: To make the arguments for and against modern customization of communal prayer. This isn't about halachic debates regarding inventing berachot or egalitarian ritual, as you will see in the text; it's about changing the language of davening - its requests, its expressions of gratitude, and so on - to fit modern reality.

I'm not sure I am entirely comfortable with what I came up with, but I think there is a lot of truth in it. Here is Act One:

ADAM, SARA, JOSH and RABBI are all standing at the Shulchan, in the middle of a meeting. Please try to look at the crowd and each other, not the script.

ADAM (facing the Rabbi): Believe it or not, the waiters want to add a berachah for the stock market for the new Contemporary Minyan. Without Gd's Name, of course, just a מי שבירך.

SARA (also addressing the Rabbi): And the lifeguards want a berachah for the weather, too; we can have Barech Aleinu for farming weather, and Beach Aleinu for swimming weather.

JOSH (bemused): Seriously? So they want a berachah for the stock market, and a berachah for beach weather. What else?

ADAM: Personally, I think it would be a good idea to add HaTikvah.

JOSH: But we already say three separate prayers for Israel and her soldiers. And we daven for HaShem to return to Tzion, and for Yerushalayim to be rebuilt with a Beit haMikdash. So where are you going to fit in Hatikvah?

ADAM: Fine, so maybe we should just require the tune of Hatikvah. Like, the chazan for Musaf must use the tune of Hatikvah for some part of Kedushah. What do you think, Rabbi?

RABBI: I'm… (hunting for tactful words)… not so comfortable.

ADAM: What's your objection to Hatikvah?

RABBI: It's not an objection to Hatikvah; I'm uncomfortable with this whole thing, this Contemporary Minyan idea as a whole.

ADAM: But we've been through this. The kids will absolutely conform with any halachah you present, but they find it hard to relate to the davening as it is. You see them staring off into space, straggling in late, not putting on tefillin, talking to each other with their siddurim closed, don't you?

RABBI: Yes, but are they staring into space because they can't relate to the words or because they don’t think tefillah works at all?

ADAM: Probably some of both.

JOSH: He has a point, Rabbi. We expect these kids – or their parents, for that matter – to connect with words written thousands of years ago, on a different continent, in a different culture and economy and  climate. These kids are reciting words about persecution and farming and a Temple, but they're thinking Internet, reality TV and social media! The world is changing, Rabbi -

SARA (Cut off Josh): And it's not just that society is changing, but we are changing society, ourselves. We don't do things the way our ancestors did, we insist on changing them. All of the great movements of recent history – nationalism, humanism, feminism, racial equality, even Zionism – all of these express the belief that We can shape our world. We construct our own identities.[1] It's time that Judaism let us shape the way we pray.

ADAM: It's true. Look, I'll speak for myself. A few months ago, I had a friend in the hospital, facing a life-and-death surgery. Do you think I connected to G-d with רפאנו?

RABBI: So what did you do?

ADAM: I said the normal amidah, but then I added my own prayer. It was much more meaningful for me. And yes, it would have been more meaningful had I been able to do that communally, maybe having some kind of responsive reading with a tefillah I wrote myself.

SARA: And it's about more than the words. It's about the whole structure. I have a hard time growing close to Gd, or feeling moved, by a prayer that gives me rules for bowing, stepping backward, stepping forward, standing with my feet together.

RABBI: What  - you want interpretive dance instead?[2]

SARA (faux enthusiastically): Yeah! (Josh and Adam swivel around to stare at her, as if to ask, "Seriously?")

RABBI: Look, I get it. When the Shulchan Aruch[3] writes that one shouldn't even change the tunes of davening on Yom Kippur night, it does seem like he is going very far to freeze the way we daven. But if that's what Judaism is, then all of these changes are simply off-base!

SARA: Then we're going to lose these kids, Rabbi. Listen – these aren't cynical kids. These aren't the ones who are dropping out. These kids are in the system, they want to daven, they want to connect to Gd. They don't look at tefillah as some magical way to get Gd to work for them, they believe in growth and getting close to Gd. They aren’t even challenging halachah. Their only "sin" is that they want to add prayers that fit where their hearts are.

RABBI: I hear.

SARA: Look - Rabbi, do you know Jason?

RABBI: Jason Schwartz? Skinny kid in the Grade 6 division?

SARA: Yes, him. Remember how much trouble he was from the start of camp? Refusing to participate in activities he didn't like, picking fights?

RABBI: Sure; but then he seemed to adjust nicely.

SARA: He didn't adjust on his own, Rabbi. (turns to Josh) Josh, tell him what you did.

JOSH (shy about his own role): It wasn't really much; I ran into him one night, sitting in the grass by the main road in a thoughtful mood, and we got to talking. Turns out, his family was going through some bad financial problems.

RABBI: So you talked it out?

JOSH: Actually, no. He asked me… (emotional, pauses) he asked me for a prayer he could say for his father to find a job. He genuinely wanted to talk to HaShem about the situation. I told him he could add a line in Barech Aleinu, but he decided to write his own version of Barech Aleinu. And yeah, since then he does seem to have settled down.

ADAM: We all have individual needs. Look at the Torah reading from this morning, with the Jews camped in the wilderness by tribe. Doesn't Ibn Ezra[4] say that each tribal flag had a unique image, reflecting its special character? And doesn't Rabbeinu Bechayye[5] say the same thing about the unique stone that each tribe had on the Kohen Gadol's breastplate, that it was chosen to reflect their distinct traits? Judaism admits that each of us is different.

JOSH (also addressing Rabbi): And consider this: Rambam wrote[6] that the reason the sages set specific words and form for davening was only a concession to reality. Individuals didn't know how to daven, so the sages gave them a davening, but it's not לכתחילה, ossification isn't the way things were meant to be.

ADAM: So let's allow the kids to change it. Rabbi Eliezer said that one who davens in a way that is fixed, rote, is not davening an acceptable tefillah.[7] חנוך לנער על פי דרכו,[8] let each kid grow in his own way, with his own character![9]

RABBI: I hear you, and I respect what you're saying. I respect what the kids are saying. But at the same time, this sounds an awful lot like Sheilaism – you know, that woman who created her own religion around the idea that we should love ourselves, be gentle with ourselves, and take care of each other.[10] Reject the status quo and do whatever you want, right?

SARA: Rabbi, Judaism was founded on rejecting the status quo and shaping things ourselves. Avraham rebelled against his society, and was known as an עברי for it.[11] Chanah davened her own way at the mishkan in Shiloh. We charted our own path then, and we should do it again. Enough with the limits!

RABBI (growing frustrated): But there are limits! We aren't allowed to add to the Torah,[12] even a prophet can't add to the Torah![13]

JOSH: So is that your ruling? The kids can't create their Contemporary Minyan?

RABBI: (pause for thought, sigh and exhalation) No, I'm not going to block it. But I've reviewed the rest of the ideas the kids have submitted, and there is one I will have to cut.

ADAM: Which one?

RABBI: The מי שבירך for the Maple Leafs – that ought to be a קל מלא רחמים.

SARA: But they can keep the berachah for Rob Ford's political future?

RABBI: No way, Sara; that's a ברכה לבטלה if I've ever heard one.

Act Two and Act Three may follow...

[1] Charlotte Krolokke and Anne S. Sorensen, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses;; Ilan Stavans Lost in Translation: An Autobiographical Essay
[3] See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 619:1; Mishneh Berurah 619:7, Maharil Hilchos Yom Kippur 11
[4] Ibn Ezra to Bamidbar 2:2
[5] Shemot 28
[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 1:4
[7] Mishnah Berachos 4:4
[8] Mishlei 22:6
[9] And see Orot haTeshuvah 5, and Rav Kook's poem אל חכי שופר, on each person's unique character
[10] Bellah and Madsen, Habits of the Heart, cited in
[11] Bereishit Rabbah 41
[12] Bal Tosif
[13] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 8


  1. Garnel-
    That's a good philosophy in certain circumstances, but not in all - witness R' Yochanan's ולואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום כולו, or כל המרבה לספר ביציאת מצרים הרי זה משובח.

  2. Kol hamarebeh is offset by echad hamarbeh ve'echad hamam'it, ublivad sheyichavein libo laShamayim.

    I think we're well into halakhah ve'ein morin kein territory. Because of the social aspects, this isn't a time in Jewish History where it makes sense to open the siddur to conscious amendation. If someone has a need, I can see quietly accomodating it though.

    This is like my idea that we need a siddur for the ADHD mispallel, which is more problematic because I think we'll all agree that kol hagorei'a, gorei'a. However, it's better than the ADHD learn how and where to skip in the siddur than to try to do the whole thing and eventually end up disenfranchised from doing any. The problem is, you could never publish the resulting siddur, because then the merely impatient, who could and should be working on strengthening their skills, won't. (An easy change is simply to move Qiddush to before Mussaf, like in the yeshivos of Lithuania. Have the rabbi speak at Qiddush, break up the length of sitting at benches / along tables...)

    I would like to see more techanunim; people getting used to saying what is appropriate for where they are, in addition to the siddur. Breslov took that whole idea and put it in a different forum than shul services. But here too, this attempt to institutionalize it as a norm rather than the people actually moved to say it taking it on as their own defeats the whole point and weakens fealty to the established forms. No? Or is this a minyan aimed specifically at spiritually inclined youth?

    1. R' Micha-
      Certainly valid points, and I think much of this is reflected in Act 3.
      Worth noting - Some very wise and frum people published יראה טהורה in Bnei Brak for those who suffer OCD, giving them guidance regarding kulos for handwashing, tefillah and other matters. They took great pains to repeat throughout that it's not for non-OCD people. Perhaps it can be done for less drastic issues?

    2. As I was trying to convey, I believe it can be done ("halakhah..."), but only with much care as to presentation ("ve'ein morin kein"). Particularly when permitting things for those less drastic issues, where people who aren't in your intended population might take that precedent into their own hands.

      For example, I might put together that siddur for ADHD people but wouldn't put it up on my blog for public download.