Aryeh Ben David

Giving prayer a prayer of a chance

Not connecting spiritually during services? Don't stop, try harder! That's most rabbis' approach and it's a colossal failure

Rav Kook writes that one of the signs of the coming of the Messianic Era is that people will begin to hate rabbis. I think we’re getting pretty close.

Why hate rabbis? Because they will still be consumed with the small stuff, the details – and people will want more.

Organized prayer is an example. It’s just not working.

The overwhelmingly widespread disaster of organized prayer in religious high schools and synagogues is impossible to ignore – yet the rabbis keep offering the same worn-out clichés.

  • It’s not the system’s fault – you just have to try harder
  • This is how we’ve always done it and it worked for our grandparents
  • It’s a slippery slope and if we tamper with anything, the whole system will fall apart
  • From “lo l’shma – ba l’shma” (doing without connection will eventually bring connection)
  • It provides community-building

The system is not working – and we’re living the Emperor’s clothes story by choosing to ignore the extent of the problem.

As educators, we know that if one student fails a subject, it’s his fault. But if the whole class fails – then it is the teacher’s fault. Well, what if the whole school fails? What if the whole district fails? What if the whole city fails? Then there is a systematic problem going on which is bigger than any individual student, class, school, or district. That is what we have on our hands.

I was shocked by one particularly ghastly personal educational experience. I asked many orthodox rabbis and educators the following question: If a kid was having trouble connecting to organized prayer and you could look into your crystal ball and saw two potential alternatives – which path would you advise him?

Either: The boy could take a month off from praying the prayer book and just sit, meditate on God, look for God’s footprints in the world, and then after a month begin to say just a few lines – but only lines he was personally connected to and had meaning for him. Then he would keep slowly adding lines for the next months. And your crystal ball told you that this would dramatically improve his prayer focus and depth for the rest of his life.

Or: He would keep praying, trying harder, but there would be no significant deepening of his prayer life for the rest of his life.

To my shock and dismay – EVERY single rabbi and educator answered me that they would not advise taking the first route, even if they knew 100% that it would have positive effects for the next 50 years!

Well, I guess I am a heretic or maybe just an apikoris – but I don’t get the educational wisdom of that approach.

Personally, I took the first route, stopped davening for several month. I sat in tallit and tefillin, reflected on my relationship with God, and very slowly began to add selected words and phrases from the prayer book. The effect on my prayer life has been astounding. I really look forward to praying now. It is personal, meaningful, and from my heart.

The Talmud itself says that the core prayer experience should be “the work of the heart.” We have to bring our hearts into prayer – and today, a vast majority of guys keep telling me that they are just going through the motions.

The relationship with God is a core Jewish and human experience. The morning conversation creates a template for all the other conversations during the day. When kids (and adults) begin the day by having a mindless, unfocused, mumbling, “how long is this going to take and why is the shaliach tzibur taking so long” conversation with God – how does this portend for all of that day’s succeeding relationships?

Fixed and organized prayer serves a need to bring the community together and provides a structure for the formal, external exigencies of prayer. But now kids and adults are wanting more – wanting something that also evokes and responds to the inner voice of their heart and soul. Something that they are connected to and has personal meaning.

If we do not stop and consider how to give it to them – they will simply check out, or go somewhere else. It’s happening all around us.

Let’s not be consumed by the details – the time has come for more. The slope isn’t that slippery. Isn’t it time we started recognizing that we have a systemic failure on our hands and start seeking beyond the clichés?

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals to bring Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and into our lives. He recently published: The Secret of Love - A Glimpse into the Mystical Wisdom of Rav Kook. He lives in Efrat with his wife, Sandra.