Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A conversation on Tefillah

The following is an email conversation between myself and LkwdGuy. I found it very interesting, perhaps you will as well.

Did you see Jameel's latest post about the Carlebach Minyanim?
I think that sometimes the spirit of tefilla gets lost (I'm not speaking about Jameel, it just made me think of it). Whatever happened to standing in reverence and awe before the creator of the universe instead of singing and dancing?

Davening is about connecting with God, realizing your personal relationship with God. What works well for one person might not work as well for another. I think that, within the framework of Halachah there can be more than one way of reaching that objective. Now, I agree that Halachah requires awe and reverence for some parts of davening (shemonah esrai, for one) and singing and dancing would have no place there, but pesukai d'zimra might be a legitimate place for someone who really feels such a level of joy and ecstasy, to express it through singing and dancing. I mean, it's called pesukai DZIMRA for a reason.

I'm not speaking about specific parts of davening where it's traditional to sing and dance such as Lecha Dodi. I'm talking more in general, how davening is losing the spirit it should have, as chazal intended it to be instead of sacrificing it for the great experience and warm, fuzzy feeling that a singing and dancing can bring. Davening is not a feel-good excercise.

Remember the famous chassidic story about the guy whistling because he didn't know how to daven? Come on!

I happen to love that story and I think it has alot of truth to it.

I also have my own version of it. Last Yom Kippur my wife was davening at home and my 3 year old daughter was watching her say all the Al Chet's. After a few minutes, my daughter ran off and came running back with her picture machzor that she made in school and began copying what she saw my wife doing. The problem was, she didn't know what words to say. It was all my wife could do to keep from laughing when my daughter started singing Adon Olam while looking in to her paper machzor and pounding her chest.

My point is, the guy in the whistling story was yearning to have some kind of relationship with his Creator. He saw everyone else around him involved in fervent prayer. He lacked the ability to express himself through traditional means. But he was not going to be left out. He tried to achieve that by doing what he knew how to do best. What could be wrong with that?

There's nothing wrong with it, the problem is that there's also nothing right with it. Davening can be done in any language, Hebrew is not required. The main thing is that you talk to God. When one talks to the King of Kings and actually realizes to whom he's speaking, reverence and awe will come on it's own. Your daughter is 3 years old, so she doesn't know the meaning of Adon Olam either. Does God listen to her? I don't know, but I do know that halacha tells us how to pray. Do you know why we daven the way we do? It's not so that God listens to us better that way, it's because that's the recipe for tefillah that is laid out in halacha. We're doing things the way we're supposed to so God will listen to our tefillos because of that. And whistling is not part of it.

I think it would be helpful do define "listen" as in "Does God listen to her?". We believe that God know whats going on in the universe on a micro level. I don't think that there is some kind of checklist of criteria that have to be met in order for Hashem to 'accept' a tefilah. If I recall correctly (I'll try to look around for a source for this), it was only because people found themselves incapable of expressing their needs that the Anshei Kineses Hagedola instituted a specific format for tefilah. But I don't think that would exclude all other means of communicating with God.

You write that Chazal institued tefillah because people didn't have a way to express themselves. Couldn't they whistle? Or say Adon Olam? Or whatever they wanted to say? Afterall, if it's just the thought that counts, not knowing how to express oneself should not be a problem.

I have my own whistling-type story as well. I don't know if there still is, but there used to be a nightly bus of Breslov chassidim that goes from Rechov Shivtei Yisrael to Kever Rachel and Me'oras Hamachpela. It leaves Jerusalem a little after midnight and arrives in Chevron via Kever Rachel at around 4 AM. They say tikkun chatzos on the bus and usually finish it by the time they get to Chevron. Then they do the strangest thing. They scream. Loudly. With no words. Just screaming at the top of their lungs for 10 minutes outside Me'oras Hamachpela. I asked them what it was all about and I got a speech about the power of Kol, and how it says "Vayitzak el Hashem" and Hashem listened. All I got out of it was a pounding headache. It's ridiculous. A primal scream may be moving to us but that's not what tefilah is about. Tefilah is about the words that you say and understand.

As far as God "listening", I admit I don't know exactly what that means. Yes, God knows everything going on, so why does he want us to daven?

Yes, they could have whistled or said adon olam ( I don't think it was composed yet) but then they would not have been properly expressing their needs. Just to clarify, I didn't say that whistling is the best form of teffilah. I was just saying that that story sums up what the spirit of real teffilah is all about, i.e. a yearning to relate on some level to our Creator.

Regarding your last point (why daven if God knows everything?):
I once heard from a very wise and learned man an interesting explanation of this. I'll try to summarize it as best as I can.

How can human beings relate psychologically and emotionally to God who is totally beyond comprehension?

It should be obvious that God is not in need of human service. Clearly, man's relation to the Creator is for the benefit of the creature not the Creator. Just as God has created us with needs
He also created the means of fulfilling those needs. As humans, our needs are not only physical they are also emotional, psychological and spiritual. An intelligent human NEEDS to feel an ongoing relationship with his Creator. True prayer is perhaps the most obvious example of relating to God. Chazal structured prayer in a manner that would resemble the way a human would relate to his human master-king. Relating to a human king requires praise, thanks, petition and supplication. These are basic to a human relationship. As humans we feel the need to do these things to feel secure in that relationship. To satisfy this human need our Creator has ordained that such a relationship exist, and that He responds to it as if He were that human master-king. In other words, it is not our prayers and our praise that sway God. Rather, He has set up a system where His response to our needs are contingent on our prayer, to satisfy our emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.