Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 10, 2009

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.


Breadth and Depth, Openness and Passion

June 5, 2009

Morethodoxy.  One more label to add to an already thinly divided Jewish world?

In subtitling our blog “Exploring the Breadth, Depth and Passion of Orthodox Judaism,” I think we aim to overcome the limitations that labels impose.  To see Jewish life not as it often is seen today as a linear spectrum from insular to open, tolerant to judgmental, committed to uncaring; but with the complexity and subtlety that “divarim sh’omdim b’rumo shel olam,” things upon which the world hangs, require.

Moving away from labels and defined Jewish groupings can help us be open to the treasures within each Jewish community that can help us serve God, while identifying the weaknesses of each community or theology and setting those aside. 

For instance, the strength of more insular “Charedi” Orthodox communities is their passion.   One learns a lot of Torah when it is undiluted by time studying about the world in a university; one is little influenced by the beckoning of secular society’s evil inclination if one is wholly separate from it.   Payer in Charedi circles, especially Hassidic ones, is often passionate, focused and fervent.  We must learn from these strengths and adopt them.

On the other hand there are the weaknesses of more insular Orthodox communities.  They can not benefit fully from the wonders of Gods universe since they do not study about them in depth (which Maimonides says brings us to love God).  They can not fully welcome the Jewish people into Judaism since their welcoming is only on their own terms.   They can not fully be a light unto the nations since their interaction with “the nations” is minimal and often rejecting.  

Modern Orthodoxy’s strength lies in its openness to the things listed in the paragraph above and its attempt to synthesis that openness with Torah.   But its weaknesses are many.   There is a widespread lack of passion in prayer.  To be present in a Modern Orthodox synagogue during prayer is sometimes to wonder who people are conversing with, God or their neighbors.  The Kiddush club, a phenomenon which afflicts some modern orthodox synagogues on Sabbath morning in which members leave the service to drink alcohol and eat a meal instead of listening to the full Torah service.  

I would propose that Morethodoxy be a philosophy of taking the ochel (the edible) and leaving the p’solet (the shell).  Of integrating both, breadth and depth, openness and passion. 

Let us be passionate in Torah study, and open to all tools possible in pluming its depths, from biblical criticism to kabbalah.   

Let us be passionate in prayer, and open to studying the works of Rabbi Nachaman on utilizing meditation and nature to find God, perhaps even open to learning from non-Jewish instruction about kavanah, and a thousand years of eastern meditative practice.   

Let us be passionate about protecting our children and ourselves from the materialism and superficial values so prominent in the wider culture, and open in the extreme to all our brethren the Jewish people and to our cousins the non-Jewish world.   Let us be so passionate about welcoming and loving others that the homeless person who wanders into our house of worship feels like one of us.  

Let us be passionate about connecting to God so that there is no idle chatter in our shuls, and open, even in the middle of prayer as Abraham was, to any new person that walks into shul.