Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Yom Kippur – Reflections

September 29, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It’s that time of year again. Jewish pregnant women around the world are talking to their doctors and to their rabbis (or perhaps their Maharats) about whether or not they should fast on Yom Kippur. They are asking friends who have done it what it was like. And maybe they are becoming concerned about whether they will make it through the fast, whether they will get to shul, whether they might need an IV, and whether they might even go into labor early, as one study recently reported. Nursing women are having similar concerns, about whether their milk supply might be diminished, or whether they might become dehydrated. Many women say that fasting while nursing is even more difficult than fasting while pregnant, which makes sense – you’re providing nourishment for not just a small fetus, but a few-month-old baby!

For some women, this is a no brainer. They fast easily, pregnant or not, and they know other women who have fasted through two, or three, or more pregnancies with no trouble. However, for other women, the thought (or previous experience) of fasting while pregnant or nursing is anywhere from worrisome to absolutely frightening.

What follows here is not a formal Teshuvah. This is an attempt to lay out some of the halachic and medical considerations as well as the metzi’ut – the reality – that may come into play when considering whether pregnant or nursing women should fast on Yom Kippur. (Tisha B’av and minor fasts should be discussed separately.)

Halachic considerations:

  • Yom Kippur is the only fast that carries the weight of a d’orraita – a Biblical commandment. We generally do not override a Biblical prohibition unless there is a clear sakana, danger. Women who do not have high-risk pregnancies are in no immediate danger when they fast, and the same is true for nursing women.
  • Halacha allows a cholah, a sick individual, to break her fast on Yom Kippur if fasting might lead to sakana, a life-threatening situation.  Even if medical advice says that it is safe for her to fast, the halacha trusts the individual’s instincts about her own body’s needs and allows her to eat if she says she urgently needs to. For normal pregnancies, it is difficult to know if and when a pregnant woman might cross over into the cholah category. Although it is generally not a life-threatening scenario, this category might be explored.
  • Even though the assumption is that pregnant women should fast on Yom Kippur, the halacha takes into consideration a woman’s psychological need – her yishuv da’at. This is specifically discussed with regards to her cravings, but we might expand the idea of yishuv da’at to include her concern for the wellbeing of the fetus. This is not an objective medical need, but her own feeling of being unsettled or troubled. No matter how many medical facts you throw at her, it might not make her internally feel secure about fasting.
  • The halachic principle of B’makom tzaar lo gazru might also be applied here. This means that if an individual experiences significant pain (physical or psychological) then there is room to be lenient on Rabbinic prohibition. This is what might allow a pregnant woman to eat or drink shiurim (small amounts every 9 minutes) so that she is only violating the Rabbinic-level fast, but she is still fasting on a Biblical level. She has not eaten or drank enough to be considered halachically “eating”.*
  • A pregnant or nursing woman is actively involved in the great mitzvah of Pru U’rvu, bearing children. We should do everything in our power to support her ability to continue to do so unhindered.

 

Medical Considerations:

  • Pregnancy is a unique case because it is a medical status which is global (affects the entire body), and varies greatly from person to person. It also occurs in such a high number of people in the population that it is felt to be common, even though it brings on significant changes and sometimes difficulties.
  • The most common risk of fasting while pregnant is dehydration, which may induce contractions. These contractions may lead to preterm labor, which is of greatest risk to the fetus between 22-32 weeks. Even between 32-37 weeks, the fetus may experience significant health difficulties if delivered early (low birth weight, incomplete lung development, jaundice). 
  • For nursing mothers, fasting may temporarily reduce milk supply, but will not undermine long-term ability to breastfeed.
  • People’s ability to tolerate fasting varies significantly. It often correlates with a woman’s physical stature, but not necessarily. A pregnant woman’s ability to fast will also vary with her pregnancy history of this particular pregnancy as well as previous pregnancies, or pregnancy loss.

 

Reality:

  • Women’s experiences of pregnancy and nursing vary significantly. Some women feel their bodies are robust and resilient during pregnancy, and are confident that their baby is in no danger if they fast. Others feel concerned and worried that fasting will compromise their own health or that of the baby. These are not only mental thoughts, but can be visceral feelings, especially when it comes to a mother questioning the safety of her baby. Whether a pregnant woman is experiencing confidence or concern, no one can convince her to FEEL differently.
  • For a woman who is absolutely committed to breastfeeding, being told that she need not be concerned about the possibility of a temporarily diminished milk supply, because she can just supplement with formula, is extremely troubling and is a very real form of tzaar (psychological distress) for that woman.
  • Some doctors are not concerned about fasting after 37 weeks because the fetus is full term at that point. Since the biggest risk of fasting is that she will go into labor, there is no real danger. However, for a woman who is absolutely committed to a natural birth, being told not to worry if she goes into early labor is extremely troubling. Going into labor when dehydrated will increase the likelihood that she will need IV, or other interventions, and will decrease her confidence in her ability to push through (pun intended) the intense experience she will face.
  • For many women, the conversation with their rabbi and doctor goes something like this:

Woman asks rabbi: Am I obligated to fast on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi responds: Does your doctor say it is safe for you to fast?

Woman asks doctor: Is it safe for me to fast on Yom Kippur?

Doctor responds: Yes, there is no danger to you or to the fetus. But if you don’t feel well, you should break your fast.

Women tells rabbi: My doctor says there is no danger and that I should fast, unless I start to feel sick.

Rabbi responds: Then you are obligated to fast, since your doctor says it is safe. Fast as long as you are able to. If you absolutely need to break your fast, then drink shiurim.

 

Here are the difficulties in this typical scenario:

  1. Medical professionals vary in their opinions on this and many other issues. Some doctors have told me that they never advise a pregnant woman to fast, whereas others regularly advise it. When there is a range in medical opinion, often doctors will take their cues from the patient. This is generally good medical practice – good doctors listen carefully to hear what a patient is experiencing, and what they need. However,  some doctors believe that their religious clientele want to be told that they can fast. One doctor who has many Hareidi patients told me that she is “lenient” and “allows” her patients to fast. Her belief is that she is allowing the patients their full religious practice. However, doctors may not realize that if they were more medically “strict” and cautious, the halacha would respect this. And some women might even be relieved to receive the medical advice that they should not fast. 
  2. The woman in this scenario now has the onus of deciding when she is “sick enough” to need to break her fast. On Yom Kippur, if she is sick in bed, she will not be able to phone the doctor to ask if she needs to eat. She takes Yom kippur extremely seriously, and she now carries the burden of determining her own medical and halachic status. Even though the halacha trusts her own instincts, chances are she will wait as long as possible before finally taking it upon herself to break her fast. At that point, she might be very dehydrated, and she might have begun feeling contractions (I know some women who have driven themselves to this point), and drinking small amounts every 9 minutes might not be sufficient. She may need to even break her fast completely.

NOTE: It isn’t just the women of our own generation who delay breaking their own fast. The Aruch Hashulchan OH 617 points out, “In our time, it is known that the women themselves tend to say they do not need to eat…”

Imagine a conversation between a woman and her halachic advisor that was more of a give and take, where the woman could share her thoughts and hesitations. Imagine if she was told to speak to her doctor, not only to ask whether it was “safe” for her to fast, but to discuss her fears and her previous experiences with fasting. Imagine she also asked her doctor to specify what it might mean to “feel sick enough to eat”, what particular symptoms to look for, so that she would feel more empowered to make that decision on the day of.

Imagine, also, that a woman was encouraged to begin utilizing the possibility of drinking shiurim when her yishuv daat was disturbed, even before she felt very physically ill. If she thinks that she won’t make it through the day, how much better it would be for a woman to drink shiurim earlier, before she feels extremely ill. Then she will be more likely to be able to make it through the fast and still have technically kept the commandment of fasting.

 Many generations of pregnant and nursing women have fasted on Yom Kippur. Our halachic authorities, including the revered Shulchan Aruch, would not have advised women to fast if they thought it posed a serious risk. Is this simply a case where we modern women are more anxious about our bodies, and less trusting in their resiliency? It is possible. We are more accustomed to treating any discomfort by popping a tylenol, rather than just riding it out and trusting our bodies will get through the difficulty. However, it is also possible that women were not an active part of the halachic conversations, and that their own subjective experiences were not fully considered. And even if women’s experiences have changed, and we are accustomed to feeling comfortable, (and even fall into the category of istinis – someone who is spoiled or particular), shouldn’t the subjective concepts of yishuv daat and tzaar still apply, even if some women’s experiences are different than those of generations earlier?

I hope to someday write a full halachic article addressing this issue thoroughly, and citing the extensive sources on the topic. For now, I suggest that we, as a community, consider these important questions: Why are we telling women to fast until they are sick? And why are women going into early labor on Yom Kippur? Even on the day when we are commanded to afflict ourselves “Ve’initem et nafshoteichem”, I still believe that the Torah is “deracheha darchei Noam” – its ways are pleasant and beautiful. Surely, the Torah’s path must protect and respect the most treasured and Divine process that a human being can involve herself with, the miracle of birth.

 

*It is not clear that eating in shiurim constitutes only a Rabbinic prohibition. There is a machloket recorded in the Gemara (Yoma 74a) about this, and normative halachic codification accepts the opinion that eating less than a shiur is still a Biblical prohibition although not punishable. However, the Gemara elsewhere (Kritut 13a) permits a pregnant woman to eat less than a shiur. A further discussion of the various opinions is required. Please do not consider this blog post as “psak” or as a substitute for consulting your own halachic authority as well as your doctor or midwife.


The Waning Moon of Elul by Yosef Kanefsky

September 15, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an essay entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap written by a fellow named Tim Krieder. Although I hadn’t thought about the essay much since then, it came flooding back to me in a sudden torrent last week, as I watched the moon of Elul wane.

Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Yeah, that’s me. That’s probably a lot of us. Crazy busy. And it’s probably not such a good thing. Especially this time of year.

I’ve often thought, that in an ideal world a total stranger would be able to look at our appointment books and our to-do lists, and through these alone understand who we are, and what our life is about. He’d be able to describe our most cherished goals, maybe even catch a glimpse of our deepest dreams. In this ideal world, our daily calendar would be the concrete expression of our life’s vision, and the entries therein would be the pixels which together form a snapshot of our highest aspirations – the contributions we want to make, the impact we want to have, the progeny that we want to be able to offer to the world. But in this world, the one we actually inhabit, this “stranger” experiment wouldn’t work out. I can tell you that were a stranger to have tried this with my appointment book and to-do list this past week, he’d have concluded that my most deeply cherished goal is to replace the burned out fluorescent bulbs in our kitchen fixture, and that my grand personal vision revolves around securing an appointment for a colonoscopy.

There are two reasons for the disparity between what ideally might be, and what is. One is that we are basar v’dam. We are human beings with material needs and material problems that we need to spend time addressing. No less a giant of the spirit than Rambam divided God’s Mitzvot between those which are aimed at developing our moral and spiritual/intellectual selves, and those intended to improve our society’s material conditions. There’s no shame in this. This is the way we were created.

But the other reason that our daily schedules don’t tell the story of who we are and what our life’s vision is, has nothing to do with our flesh-and-blood composition per se. It is rather that we have all become – to one degree or another – crazy busy. We have, usually out of sheer necessity, surrendered to the un-time bound nature of modern-day work. And it now fills out our daily calendar wall-to-wall. It’s not that work isn’t meaningful. It should be, and hopefully is. But as we’re all keenly aware, work cannot all by itself constitute the story of a life. Work cannot all by itself comprise a vision for our short time here on this planet. You and I alike have experienced that dreadful feeling of running through life at break-neck speed, but without a firm handle on where we’re going, or what we really want to achieve. To borrow Moshe’s image from last week’s parasha, we often feel like the fully-sighted person who is “groping around beneath the noontime sun, as a blind person gropes in the darkness”.

And it might even be even a little worse than just that. At the end of his essay, Kreider alleges that as a society we’ve not only allowed busy-ness to steamroll our living with vision, we’ve actually adopted busy-ness in place of living with vision. He describes “Busyness” as serving “as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously our lives cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”. This is a rather pointed allegation, taking “groping in the light” to a whole other level. Of course it may be that he was referring to other people here, and that this isn’t true for us. Or maybe, it’s a little bit true for us too.

The moon of Elul is already waning. And what the waning Elul moon means for us is that the time has come, today, right now, to step out of our Busyness, and to reacquaint ourselves with our personal vision. To ask, “what is my story? Where am I going? How can I find my way back to those things, the mere thought of which causes my heart to pulsate and my soul to vibrate? What are my dreams? What is my vision?

It’s that time of year again. The moon of Elul is waning.


There’s Enough Room in the Heart. by Yosef Kanefsky

August 4, 2014

I know it’s an absurd question.  So I’ll only entertain it for a moment.

The eighth verse of Eicha (Lamentations) simply and plainly states that the Jews of Judea were themselves responsible for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from the land.  “Jerusalem sinned grievously, and therefore became an abandoned outcast”. This assertion is central to the theology and religious worldview of Eicha, and is consistent with the predictions and pleadings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and virtually all of Israel’s prophets.

Nonetheless, despite this clear assignment of blame and responsibility, despite the assertion that the military defeat was justified in spiritual and moral terms, the book immediately proceeds to mourn over the loss of all the children who were caught up in the war. “For these I weep, my eyes run down with water. My children are lost, for the enemy has triumphed.”

On then, to the absurd question:  Why does the book mourn? Isn’t this sort of mourning misguided and wrong? Doesn’t it reflect ignorance and willful disregard for the larger moral narrative? Isn’t it an expression of a dangerous – even threatening – emotional softness, when what it required is a hard, unflinching focus on the right-and-wrong of the story?

I know. It’s an absurd question. It’s an absurd question because the death of children, no matter how it happens, is a profound tragedy.  Woe for the horrible waste of it. The undeserved suffering. The loss of innocence and beauty. What heart is there that can look the other way?  The book of Eicha reflects what we all know. That no matter how compelling or morally weighty the explanation for it may be, the death of children is still heart-wrenching.

Each one of us has privately quietly mourned, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories of children who have died in Gaza. We have mourned because we are humans, and because we are Jews. And we have mourned thus, despite our knowledge that the blame and responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the enemy, an enemy which holds children on its own lap while it fires at ours. We have mourned, because this knowledge does not make the outcome less tragic.

But while we have mourned in our hearts, we have been afraid of admitting to others that we have done so. We tend to feel that we mustn’t say it out loud. That we mustn’t include Gazan children in our public prayers for Divine protection.  Because we think that this would be perceived as a betrayal of our people, a betrayal of our selfless and courageous soldiers.  While in reality of course, such a failure to mourn would only be a betrayal of our own souls, of our deepest nature.

Each one of us is mourning the loss of every precious fallen chayal. Which of us could not see his own child in the sweet face of Hadar Goldin, or in the smile of Yuval Dagan? And we have, all of us together, just now completed the shloshim for Naftali and Gilad and Ayal. And the mourning for our own will always be more profound and more wrenching than the mourning for the other. But chevre, let us not be afraid to say publically that we also mourn for the dead children of Gaza. Because what kind of Jewish heart would not? What kind of Jewish nation could not?


Jewish Strength and Jewish Beauty in a Time of War by Yosef Kanefsky

July 25, 2014

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul. The Jewish moral core and innermost soul are the ones that have been shaped and formed over thousands of years by the words of our teachers and sages.

Consider the following rabbinic teaching. When the Biblical King Avimelech was warned by God to not touch Sarah for she was a married woman, the king promptly returned her to Avraham in the morning. But as a residual consequence of God’s displeasure, all of the women of Avimelech’s household became infertile. Avraham prayed for then, and in response to Avraham’s prayer, God restored their fertility.

The Torah’s next chapter begins with God remembering Sarah, and blessing her with conception. As our Sages read the stories, Sarah conceived precisely during that short window between when Avraham prayed, and when God restored fertility to the women of Avimelech’s household. From which we are to learn that, “Whoever requests mercy for another, and is himself in need of the same mercy, he is answered first” (Bava Kamma 92a). Which is to say, that what  God admires most in a human being, what makes a human being worthy of God’s response, is his ability to pray for someone else who has the same need that he does. In this case, the need was for fertility. But it could equally be the need for one’s children to be protected from dangerous explosives that are dropping out of the sky. This is what our sages intended for us to understand. That the most beautiful tehillim gatherings are the ones which also include prayers for the protection of all the innocent Gazans who are in harm’s way. This is the beauty that radiates from our innermost soul, the soul shaped by the teachings of our Sages.

Another sage whose teachings have shaped our soul is Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, the Rabbi of Königsberg in the 19th century, and the author of a Torah commentary called HaKetav V’HaKabbalah. When Rabbi Mecklenberg reached the 16th chapter of Devarim, he puzzled deeply over 4 particular words there, part of Moshe’s instructions concerning the conquest of the Canaanites. Instructing the warriors Moshe said,  לא תחיה כל נשמה, “leave no soul alive”. Not woman, not children. Though not the first sage to be stunned by the moral implications of this command, Rabbi Mecklenberg invested an unusual amount of energy in struggling with it.

“It appears”, he says, “to be an act of great cruelty to spill the blood of innocents. If the men sinned (took up arms) what sin was committed by the children or by the women??” And after reviewing earlier rabbinic grapplings with this question he proposes a radically new interpretation. He first points out that the Biblical verb used here (l’hachayot”) often means “to sustain”. And then he proposes that Moshe was here reacting to the then-common practice of taking the vanquished women and children, and sustaining them with food and clothing only to then utilize them as maid-servants and slaves. Moshe is here prohibiting this practice, urging Israel to “send them free so that they can flee outside the places of  Israelite settlement.”

Recognizing the novelty of his interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg concludes, “And even if you do not accept my interpretation…you have no choice but to agree that the meaning of the verse cannot possibly be that they were to kill all the people (even the men) in the city without distinction. Did all of them agree to initiate hostilities?? There are times when the army imposes its will upon the population. Could it even enter your mind that in such a situation the Torah would say “Leave no soul alive?!”

This is our moral core, as shaped by our Sages and as codified in the IDF’s ethical code.  As Professor Moshe Halbertal wrote (in his 2009 critique of the Goldstone Report)

Three principles are articulated in the IDF code concerning moral behavior in war. The first is the principle of necessity. It requires that force be used solely for the purposes of accomplishing the mission…The second principle is the principle of distinction. It is an absolute prohibition on the intentional targeting of non-combatants…. The third principle, the most difficult of all, is the principle of proportionality. Its subject is the situation in which, while targeting combatants, it is foreseeable that non-combatants will be killed collaterally. In such a case, a proportionality test has to be enacted, according to which the foreseeable collateral deaths of civilians will be proportionate to the military advantage that will be achieved by eliminating the target” (The New Republic, 11/18/09)

One final teaching, this one from the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages disagree as to whether a man may wear his sword on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv, in the same manner that a woman may wear jewelry under such circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer notes that the social stature achieved by the warrior and the glory that battle accords him, and rules that implements of war are indeed to be deemed as ornaments and may be worn on Shabbat. The Sages however cite Isaiah’s vision of the day when people “shall beat their swords in to ploughshares and learn war no more”, and on that basis rule that weapons are not ornaments, rather implements of shame.

Obviously, Rabbi Eliezer was also aware of the passage from Isaiah. But he could see no reason why a vision of a world far in the future should impact the Halacha in the here and now.  But the Sages taught that the vision of a future world can and must inform the way we see and understand the present world. Yes, in this world, war is necessary. In circumstances like the ones we face today, the refusal to fight would constitute a reckless abdication of moral responsibility. But the Sages insist that we must never confuse the necessary with the good.  Even as we fight, the battle screams of how unredeemed the world is, of how spiritually undeveloped humanity still is.  And when the battle ends, they contend, we are bidden to go back to the drawing board and search for a new paradigm – as stubbornly elusive as it may be – in which people can live with each other without lifting swords. According to our Sages, weapons do not qualify as ornaments. They are reminders that we are a yet-unredeemed species. Here again, our teachers are molding our moral core and shaping our innermost soul.

It is not easy at times like these to pray for the other, to care for the non-combatant, to experience the sword as necessary but not good. What we need to remember though is that we must do things not in order to adhere to modern western values, or to respond to international pressures that often come dripping in hypocrisy or wrapped in barely-concealed anti-Semitism. We must do them in order to remain faithful to our own moral core and innermost soul, which our teachers and sages have painstakingly curated for us over thousands of years.

A few days ago, I davened and recited Tehillim with our teenagers, and toward the end I asked them to share what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. One precious young man, just back from Bnei Akiva summer camp, simply said, “How could anyone have thought that it made sense to kill a Palestinian teenager?”

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s innermost moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul.

May God give strength – and beauty – to His nation. May God bless His nation with peace.


Muslim and Jewish Leaders Jointly Reject Violence posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 8, 2014

Late yesterday, my LA-based Muslim and Jewish colleagues and I released the following spiritual statement. Remarkably, it wasn’t difficult to put the statement together or to gather signatures. In fact, it was very easy. A testament, I think, to what years of patiently cultivating Muslim-Jewish relationships can achieve.
In a dark and difficult time (may God protect Israel and our chayalim), I hope that it gives you a moment of light.

(You can also view the statement at
http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/muslim_jewish_statement_on_the_murder_of_innocents_in_israel
and at https://www.facebook.com/scmjf )

Press Release from the SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum regarding the murder of Israeli and Palestinian Teens

We are a group of Muslim and Jewish community and religious leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County. Although we have important disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it ought to be resolved, all of us together affirm that the murder of innocent people, be they Muslim or Jewish, is a desecration of God’s name and violation of the most basic tenets of our faiths. There is no possible justification for such acts and we utterly reject them. We are all children of Abraham and are beloved of God.

We together extend condolences to the families of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. We pray that their memories serve to spur both of our communities to loudly and definitively reject the paths of violence and revenge, and to embrace negotiation in the spirit of mutual respect as the only way forward.

Signed,

Melissa Balaban, IKAR

Rabbi Karen Bender, Temple Judea

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

Noor-Malika Chishti, Sufi Order International

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom

Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Orange County Islamic Foundation

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Senior Claremont Lincoln Fellow for Interreligious Curriculum

Rabbi Judith Halevy, Malibu Jewish Center

Atilla Kahveci, Pacifica Institute, Westwood

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea

Mohammed Khan, STOPP. Society To Offer Prosperity And Peace.

Rabbi Peter Levi, Temple Beth El of South Orange County

Mohannad Malas

Dr. David Myers, Chair, Department of History, UCLA

Dr. Sadegh Namazikhah, Iranian-American Muslim Association

Rabbi Laura Owens, B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion California

Barrie Segall, Segall Consulting

Imam Jihad Turk, President, Bayan Claremont, an Islamic Graduate School

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein MA LMFT, reGeneration

The SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum was convened in association with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier, President


Will We Look in the Mirror? posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 6, 2014

We did it. We carried out the revenge killing, just like we shouted we would. We slowly, over time, slid down the poisonous chute of racism and dehumanization, until murder could be rationalized. We tolerated the writing of Halachik treatises permitting the killing of non-Jews, and then, as we always do, followed the dictates of Halacha. We did it.

The only question now is whether we will look in the mirror. There are definitely alternatives to doing so. We can say that it was extremists; it wasn’t us. We can say that it’s all a conspiracy in which Obama pressured Israel to arrest Jews, but in fact Muhammad Abu Khdeir was killed by his own family because he was gay. We can say that given the intensity of the hatred that is directed toward us, any act of introspection on our part will be perceived as dangerous weakness. We can say these things and some of us undoubtedly will.

Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh l’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.

Will at least some of us look in the mirror?


Davening With Kavanah – Thoughts on the challenge and some solutions. Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 19, 2014

Praying with Kavvanah (concentration) is very difficult.

Lest we think this is a modern problem reserved for the common person, think again.

Said R. Hiyya the great, “In all my days I never concentrated [properly on my Prayer.]One time I wanted to concentrate [properly]. So I meditated. And I said to myself, `Who goes up first before the king? The Arkafta [a high dignitary in Persia]  or the Exilarch?'”

Samuel said, “I count birds.”

R. Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count rows of bricks.”

Rabbi Matna said, “I am grateful to my head for when I arrive at the Modim prayer, it bows on it’s own.”

[Y. Berakhot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.]

Rabbi Hiyya, Samuel and Rabbi Bun. bar Hiyya all tried to concentrate on prayer, but their thoughts wandered, one to politics, one to nature and one was so bored that he simply started counting the bricks in the wall. Rabbi Mata’s expression of thanks to his head testifies to another common challenge to praying with Kavvanah – rote action. Often our mouths are saying things that are disconnected from our mind.

When we read this passage we should feel a sense of common struggle – everyone struggles with prayer, even the greatest of religious figures.

But, we should also realize that despite their struggles we do not find that these rabbis gave up on prayer.

How can we overcome some of these struggles? How can we succeed in praying with Kavanah.

While there are many strategies, I would like to start with two (I plan on writing more about this).

One of the biggest challenges to prayer is that people are often not “in the mood” to pray. Some may not be feeling particularly grateful, others many not be in an introspective state of mind and others may simply be too busy.

The key here is to use prayer to make us feel prayerful. There is no doubt that it is hard to instantaneously get in the mood to pray. It is also true that the text of the prayers are there to move us. Words like, “Blessed are You, Lord, who forms the radiant light”, are there to awaken us to the marvels of the world. “You have loved us with great love, Lord our God, should move us to gratitude for the special relationship between God and the Jewish people as expressed by the Torah. Each and every prayer can be viewed as a means to rouse us to new and deeper understanding and appreciations of life. Do not wait to be in the mood to pray, use prayer to put you in the mood.

The second strategy is to realize that prayer is a cumulative experience.

Each prayer experience is a layer in the prayer career of an individual. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.

In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next.  Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.

To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.

Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.

Try these strategies for a few weeks. I think they will work. They work for me.


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