Do we feel our prayers

In the ongoing controversy of questions regarding women and certain Jewish rituals which had traditionally been in the domain of men, I wanted to share a link to an opinion piece which I think transcends the conversation.  I want to be clear that I am not coming on against nor in favor of any of the particular ritual discussions at hand.  It is not my place on many levels to do such a thing.  Rather, I want to focus on something which I think is more fundamental.  One of the areas many in my generation struggle with is finding passion for Tefillah (prayer).  For some, it is because schools mandated morning prayer and would grade students (still unsure what criteria after all these years, though I served as a gabbai in High School and almost didn’t get my de facto A grade because I would talk when handing out honors).  For others, it is the nature of prayer being forced and not something that is taught as an expression of Ahavat Hashem (love of G-d).  Others, it was the speed of prayer, being unable to have the time to think and feel the words we are saying.  It is a shame because so many bright, capable otherwise practicing Jews find that Tefillah is one of those checkbox categories in religion.  I invite you to read the piece below and hear another’s thought on this topic.

Reigniting prayer’s passion

by Atira Ote

JANUARY 22, 2014, 3:39 PM 

Hashem works in mysterious ways and I am sure it is no coincidence that my daughter’s siddur play took place last night, the same day I had been writing an essay on women and tefillin and my own davening experiences when I was a girl. Last night’s celebration made me alter the direction of my piece. Perhaps at another time I will write about my personal experiences, which I curiously remember rather differently than those views quoted in current articles, but for now I feel there is a more pressing matter within this whole women and tefillin debate that is being carelessly overlooked.

The mesibat siddur (prayerbook party) was beautiful, fun, and moving! What enthusiasm the girls showed! Such glee they expressed while dancing for this book of prayer. Even though this is the third siddur play in a row for us as parents (B”H!), each time we are proud and excited anew. Each occasion is unique and each child brings his or her own distinctive personality to their individual experience.

The gleam in our daughter’s eyes, her smile so wide as she sang the words of her solo with such fervor, brought tears to my eyes. “Kabel eli et tefillotai ha’olot mibein sefatai, bahen akir l’cha toda, kabel b’ahava.” “Accept, my God, my prayers which emanate from between my lips. With them I acknowledge gratitude to you, please accept them with love.”

After a week of practicing her solo and the song, my six-year-old daughter turns to me in the car a few days before her performance and says, “Imma, why can’t it be ‘mibat sefatai,’ why does it have to be ‘mibein’? Can I change it?” I thought, wow. Wow that my daughter who is six years old is actually trying to understand the words she is reading. Wow that she wants it to be correct in gender; after all, she goes to an all-girl school and she is a girl, saying her lines as a girl davening to HKBH, in an only-girl’s siddur play.

Why, then, can’t the wording be in female person? What a logical question! Well, obviously, I explained the reason why what she was asking was in essence a misinterpretation (bein means between, not to be confused with ben, which means boy) and we both laughed and it was a great learning experience and a wonderful mother-daughter bonding moment.

Something more fundamental is at play here. Recently I attended a Shabbaton weekend with American modern Orthodox 18-years-olds who graduated from high school last year and out of 16 youths, only 6 went to shul. I hear similar stories from other places as well. Young people today seem to have little passion left for the purity of prayer. The contrast is stark. Little first graders are enthused, celebrating the siddur, super-excited about tefilla! Yet, these young adults seem to have little fire left in them. What happened?

Well, apparently, we forgot how we felt at our siddur plays. (And if you ever get the chance to crash one, I suggest doing it!) We can’t remember what it is like to be inspired in our daily dialogue with the Almighty. We are recklessly disregarding the pure passion and fervor these most impressionable first graders are displaying right in front of our eyes. It’s true that these kids are only six and seven years old and it is difficult for them to truly grasp the gravity of such an important commandment, but a few years later when they become bar and bat-mitzva these intense feelings are reinforced.

And it is we who must encourage this eagerness. We should be basking in the glory – all the nachat that these kids are giving us, all the love ofmitzvot our kids are expressing to us. We, as parents and teachers, should direct energy towards conveying a tone of “ahavat torah” (love of Torah) and transmitting a love of mitzvot. Seeing students who choose to do more Jewish observances in their daily lives could very well restore the passion these little faces revealed in first grade.

Instilling enthusiasm for davening in students is still a battle for most modern Orthodox day schools. Perhaps if schools were to commend, rather than ostracize, those students who actually exhibit a love for davening to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, including those girls who daven with tallit and tefillin out of genuine love of Torah and a desire to connect to Hashem, the battle may prove to be easier.

Facing a new situation may cause some initial anxiety for the school, but as with any new experience, the opportunity for deeper understanding and lasting chinuch (education) far outweighs any superficial resistance the school might encounter. It is in their best interest to allow girls who truly perform this mitzvah l‘shem shamayim and want to connect to Hashem in this meaningful way to do so in their school.

This concept is not a new one. Religious women have been performing time-bound mitzvot for a long time. They have been relating to mitzvot in ways that are permitted but are not always popular or publicly accepted, such as studying Torah, reading megilla, hearing shofar, sitting in a sukka, and davening with tallit.

Instead of praising these people, we are treating them with anger, suspicion, and contempt. Or, perhaps we just aren’t paying them enough attention. It is at the early stages in their lives that they need guidance. It is in these important years of elementary and high school when their connection to Hashem is cemented and their love for holy words are sealed. Our children start their Jewish adult lives craving inspiration when in reality the flame still burns inside them – it is the vigor they openly expressed years before as stars on stage! They need to be reminded of that zeal and we need to give them accurate messages about prayer, spiritual commitment, and connection to God.

Hashem works in mysterious ways and the second set of lines which my daughter recited aloud in front of everyone, was very poignant and fitting to this discussion. “Kama nifla! Eizo matana! Hasiddur shelanu mechil bakashot hamatimot l’chol yehudi, b’chol zman u’b’chol makom, gam lachem, v’gam li.” “How wonderful! What a gift! Our siddur incorporates prayers of supplication appropriate for all Jews, at all times and in any place, for you as well as for me.”

Talking to Hashem, knowing that our prayers, even in our own words, are always heard, believing faithfully that we always have a straight line to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and that even unanswered prayers are a gift, is something so essential, yet so neglected nowadays, it is frightful. There is a thirst, a desire and passion so strong when we are younger that must be nurtured, fostered, and cultivated with all the love and energy we can muster. That is our duty as educators, our responsibility as role models, and our jobs as parents.

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Can praying be an act of murder

In today’s Star Ledger, there was an article about a woman who was charged with her son’s death because instead of giving him antibiotics, felt that prayer alone would heal.  While I find her decision troublesome, I also  question whether there is legal basis to convict someone for murder out of negligence due to religious conviction.  This also goes to show that just because one assumes prayer to be the true mode for healing does not mean one should neglect using the physical discoveries of modern medicine as the conduit to health.

When Kay Burdette’s 17-year-old son became sick with flu-like symptoms, the faithful mother chose the same prescription she has used for years: prayer.

This time, though, her son Jesse did not recover and Burdette was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to lesser charges and avoided prison, in part because authorities lost a tissue sample that was crucial to proving that her son died of bacterial pneumonia, which is treatable, rather than viral pneumonia, which generally isn’t.

Pale, coughing and weighing only 130 pounds at the end, Jesse died in his mother’s bed the night of March 19, 2008. His mom called a friend from their charismatic, non-denominational church, then her daughter. She never called 911 nor sought medical assistance.

“Because of my religious beliefs I trust in God to forgive my sins and for physical healing,” she told investigators. “We’re not discouraged … from seeking medical help, but I chose to totally trust God for Jesse’s healing. Jesse and I both prayed for his healing.”

Burdette had used prayer as an antidote since Jesse was little. Once, he bumped his head on a hearth and Burdette asked a fellow church member to pray for him. Soon, he was acting like nothing ever happened…

There were other problems, too. An investigator had been deployed to Iraq and couldn’t testify, and a conviction of a devout Christian mother would be difficult to win in the Bible Belt…
“My reason for not giving my son medical treatment was because of his and my conviction of trusting God for healing,” Burdette wrote to the judge. “I loved my son dearly and his loss has brought great pain and grief to my heart.”

Jesse’s father was angry over what happened.

“His death was tragic, but I also hated the fact that his body was cut up …,” David Burdette, Kay Burdette’s ex-husband, wrote to prosecutors. “Now part of the evidence that came from that autopsy has mysteriously vanished. … It is pathetic!”

Problems are not new in the forensic department, which has long battled staffing and budget shortages. In 2004, a forensic pathologist resigned, leaving hundreds of unfinished reports. One of those resulted in a judge refusing to admit an autopsy report in a capital murder case. The defendant ended up being convicted of a lesser charge of murder, which does not carry a death sentence.

Forensics officials did not return emails seeking comment about the Burdette case. Kay Burdette also declined to comment through an attorney.

David Burdette said before Jesse was born, he and his wife visited Sandhill Bible Church, located in the country a few miles from Auburn University. The church seemed fine at first, but he left after about a year because the pastor was too controlling and the members too self-righteous, he said.

The church taught that members should rely solely on prayers, not medicine, for healing, he said, but Kay Burdette and other church members denied that claim to investigators.

David Burdette described himself as a Christian and said he has no doubt that God miraculously heals people.

“I’ve seen it happen. But God also uses the medical community for healing,” he said.

David Burdette grew distant from his family, divorcing his wife in 2000. He learned of Jesse’s death only after Kay Burdette’s mother called his mother with the news. He went to the funeral home and saw his son in the casket.

“It was the first time I’d seen him since 1994,” he said…

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 3

The Netivot Shalom quotes a piece of Gemara based on the last week’s Torah portion, בשלח.  BT Sotah 30a describes how at the splitting of the sea, even the infant on its mother’s knee and the baby breastfeeding, experienced the שכינה and sang out in praise the words זה אלי ואנוהו, this is my G-d and I will glorify Him.   R. Berezovsky discusses how this shows that it is an essential element of the Israelite to feel an innate sense of needing to praise G-d in song, through the use of poetics.  This Gemara also teaches the idea of a sophisticated simplicity.  The infant recognizes the granduer of the divine but as an infant, there is no rationalization.  It is simply “This is My G-d and I will glorify Him.”

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 2

In discussing the concept of prayer being worship of the heart, R. Berezovsky presents a fascinating interpretation of a passage in BT Berachot 8a.  The Talmud states:  “R’ Hisda said that a person must always enter through two entrances and then pray.”   This passage has a few meanings.  Some read this literally, that a synagogue needs two entrances before the sanctuary.  If we look at most synagogues, the sanctuary is not immediately at the entrance of the synagogue.  There is at least one additional door to enter before the sanctuary.  R. Berezovsky reads this passage as referring to two levels a person must achieve before reaching the place of prayer.  The first is to rid one’s mind of all extraneous thoughts, only focusing on our worship of G-d.  The second door is to then work towards unifying and pairing with the divine. Only once we reach those two levels can we truly be praying, which is the worship of the heart.

Netivot Shalom on Prayer

In the modern Hasidic work, Netivot Shalom, R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem, discusses the concept of how asking for our needs can be considered part of תפילה.  His question is predicated on the equation of prayer with service of the heart (עבודה שבלב).   If we are serving G-d through our words, it would seem antithetical to be asking G-d for our needs.

R. Berezovsky argues that part of prayer, based on the R. Chaim of Brisk’s famous essay on Rambam’s view of prayer, is to be focused on standing before G-d.  When we are truly focused on where our prayers are directed, we bring about a connection between ourselves and G-d.  As such, when we are pouring our hearts out the G-d, we are connecting to G-d, for we are recognizing that it is only G-d that can truly provide for our needs and remove our troubles.

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Angel’s dvar Torah contains one of my favorite Hasidic stories dealing with prayer.  The story is about Rabbi Levi of Berditchev and his experience of a synagogue in which are the prayers remained instead of going up to heaven.  What are we thinking about when we pray?  How are we directing our prayers?  Are our synagogues conducive to creating a spiritual space to allow our prayers to go beyond words we are saying by rote?  These are the challenges spiritually inclined people face on a daily basis.  We must always strive to carve out privacy in the middle of a public ritual.

Orthodoxy and Innovation – book review and thoughts

One of the most challenging aspects of Judaism is its male centricity.  If one looks at our liturgy, there is a clear male bias.  The challenge we face today is the question of changing the liturgy or keeping the status quo.  R. Dr. Daniel Sperber (hebrew wikipedia) offers his argument in a new book,  On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations (disclaimer, I bought this book and did not receive it to review). 

I will begin by highlighting some of the positives of the book.  As usual with Dr. Sperber, he is well researched and and includes proof texts for his arguments.  He makes a strong case for the notion that liturgy has changed over time, some due to scribal errors and others due to particulars customs and traditions.  His primary argument is that since change has occured throughout history, we should be allowed to make other changes in the text of the liturgy as long as the traditional premises remain.  For some general discussions about how Sperber confronts modernity see: Orthodoxy and Innovation, A Torah expert faults the rabbis and Our Dialogue with G-d: Tradition and Innovation.

With that said, the book was highly troubling to me.  For starters, his arguments, while filled with proof, are very weak.  Some of that has to do with the fact that the writing is poor.  You could clearly tell that this work was written by someone who is not a native English speaker.  The other troubling part if his argument is that he is advocating for liturgical changes for societal reasons.  The problem here is that his proof texts generally relate to changes due to grammatical error or some mystical reason, like the numerology of Hasidei Ashkenaz.  To me, arguing for change because of the sensitivities of women, while admirable, doesn’t seem to fit with how liturgical change occurred. 

 Dr. Sperber, if he wants to make certain changes, doesn’t outright tell you what is offensive.  He makes reference to three potential changes to be made.  The first would be the removal of שלא עשני אשה in the morning blessings.  The second seems to be the inclusion of אלקי שרה… as part of the first blessing of the Amidah.  His third is the removal of a line in Tachanun that relates sin to menstruating women.  However, never does he outright say, this is the change we should make.  To me, if a person is going to go so far as to conclude his/her book with a call for a liturgy sensitive to women, then tell us what that would like.  The problem he faces is that if he were to make the outright claims, his book would probably not have been by Urim publications and he would also have been accused of being a Conservative Rabbi, thus ending the discussion right there. 

Every year, the less traditional movements continue to produce new, innovative siddurim while the Orthodox world, when they do make changes, tend towards adding more material that can become sacred even if the liturgy was not meant to be an absolute requirement.  For example, the new Artscroll Siddur, by including prayers like פרק שירה, will now lead to more people reciting this text without them understanding what it is they are reciting.  It will become part of the standard liturgy.  From that perspective, Dr. Sperber is onto something.  However, as I have already mentioned, to make liturgical changes for sociological reasons can be a very dangerous area to walk down. As far as the book goes, to me it is a good reference work but I am not sure it really accomplishes presenting a strong case for changing prayer to meet Modern orthodox sociological needs.