On Prayer and Meditation
My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.
I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words. Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”
The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?; to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.
This prayer system does not sound like ours. We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish. It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down. I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own. I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer. But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.
I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative. Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law. Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words. Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.
Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice. There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism. Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost. Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation. That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).
I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools. In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.
Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign. I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.