Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Prayer Petition to my Congregation

Image result for ecstatic chasidic tefilla

Today, I sent this letter to my wonderful congregation to inspire increased attendance while many of the regulars are away during the summer months.  I share it publicly knowing that we're not alone, and noting that the ideas are broader than our local community.

Dear Congregants,

This past Saturday night and Sunday, we mourned together on Tisha B'Av lamenting the absurd cruelties of Jewish history but primarily mourning for the destruction of our holy Temples in Jerusalem and everything else (religiously, politically, socially) that those absolute destructions entailed.  Should a sincere mourning have a lasting effect?  If so, what should it be?

The truth is, I'm writing primarily because of the situation out community finds itself in.  Though we have about 80 men in our growing congregation (maybe more, maybe less), I haven't taken the time to count precisely, we now have trouble each day acquiring the minimal prayer quorum of ten men. Yesterday morning, I was number six (6); today, I was number ten (10).  This past Friday night, we were never close, despite a robust turnout on Shabbat morning, Shabbat afternoon, and Tisha B'Av itself.  Granted, all of this is partly due to the fact that it is summer, where a number of our members (and sometimes our Rabbi) travel and take extended vacations.

This situation will only be exacerbated in the coming days, as approximately seven (7) of our regular ten (10) will be traveling for an extended period of time; I'll also be taking the rest of my vacation. As leadership, we are now inclined to temporarily suspend our daily prayer services, morning and evening, save Shabbat and possibly weekends.  At this time, I turn to you, the congregation, with a message that I hope will facilitate discussion but also inspire attendance, regardless of what we choose to do over the coming weeks.

Why Ten?

As Rosie the Riveter said, "[w]e can do it!"  We is the operative word in that sentence.  We call ourselves a "congregation" in English, or "kehillah" in Hebrew. Rather than a mere collection of individuals, we are prima facia something larger than that, and share the responsibilities and privileges of our awesome and holy venture together as a joint entity.

In addressing the question of quorum, Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook zt''l explained as follows. There's national service of God and individual service, and both are vital to the mission of Israel; individual service provides for an outlet for the proper service of each soul in a local context, whereas national service sets an example to the nations of the world in furtherance of our people's historic mission. Exile and the destruction of the Temples were a sensible Divine response to the particular private moral failings of individuals on a massive scale.  Private ethical behavior was weakened supplanted by perfunctory national religious ritual. The priorities were out of balance and misplaced, with an entire pole utterly neglected. It should be noted that this stinging message is delivered painfully by the prophet Isaiah:

10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. 11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. 12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. 14Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. 15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. {S} 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken. {P}

In essence, God was entirely sick of the vain "religious" service of a nation of corrupt sinners.  As a result, we were placed into a situation of exile, whereby there was no more nation with a clear center, but individuals dispersed on their own. Enter the mussar movement, a focus on religious study, and personal religiosity and spirituality as the primary avenues of Jewish expression.  In exile, we would more properly work to refine our private ethical character devoid of forums for nationalized public worship.  Eventually, when this imbalance was properly corrected for, the national urge would again rise, which Rav Kook believed corresponded to the rise of the settlement of the land of Israel he was experiencing.  Even during our exile, though, rabbinic reminders would signal our national historic mission.  With prayer as a replacement of sacrifice after the destruction of the Second Temple, the requirement of a quorum (derived for the word עדה, community, used in relation to the ten spies, an interesting subject in its own right) served to remind us that our private service of God, observed most prominently during prayer, an intimate conversation with the Master of the Universe, ought still occur in the context of a quorum representative of the entire nation.  Moreover, all of the blessings of the amidah are distinctly plural.  Many contain direct references to our national mission and eventual and ongoing redemption.  All of this to remind us that we're not merely individual Jews, but members of a larger holy community, proudly pursuing prophetic promises of global and historical redemption, tikun haolam.

As you're likely aware, most of our prayer services contain a reader's repetition of the amidah.  Rav Soloveitchik, zt''l, prominently asserted that talking and even Torah study during such was absolutely prohibited, and accustomed himself to stand for the entire repetition, feet together, as if he was in prayer. There is the tefillat hayachid, the prayer of the individualand the tefillat hatzibur, the communal prayer. They are equally important.

Personal Reasons to Pray

On the one hand, prayer with a quorum is a Jewish legal obligation.  Jewish men are required to pray thrice daily with a quorum, if possible, and women are required to pray the morning and afternoon services (with or without a quorum), according to Ashkenazic practice.  The Talmud rules that prayer in a synagogue with a quorum is qualitatively preferable to prayer alone.  Prayer in a synagogue even absent a quorum is preferable to prayer at home.  Experience tells us this is true.  It's a simple matter of fact that we're far more likely to pray and pray seriously if we attend the prayer service then if we try to fit it in on our own. Moreover, praying for others in the plural together, in the presence of others sharing the experience, is a holy experience of bonding and interpersonal communion that simply does not occur, spiritually, alone.

The obligation itself should be enough to encourage more frequent attendance, as we strive to pass on a tradition, legal and otherwise not of rights but of responsibilities.  I dare say we're growing weak and wimpy, finding excuses for skipping prayer, and our piety and lives suffer because of it.  We treat other rabbinic laws (rightly) with the utmost seriousness, yet simply ignore this requirement as if it were a luxury option.  As we fret about the Jewish education of the children in our community and passionately advocate for observance, we must model the behavior we proclaim to promote and observe ourselves.

Now, I know perfectly well that perfection is nearly impossible.  I know further that we're all on a path of service, at different levels of observance, seeking to find the right balance in our lives.  I'm not unaware of the stresses prayer attendance can create on family life, the hour of sleep forfeited, and the tremendous time and financial pressures placed on all of us.  All the more reason we need more prayer and prioritization in our lives, all of us, regardless of background or observance.

Prayer as Prioritization

We lead hectic lives, all of us, with too much to do, and constant interruption. Technology provides the reality of constant interruption and communication, interrupting tasks, flow, thought, and focus.  Additionally, prioritization is challenging and often not entirely within our control.  Enter prayer, more important now than ever; we've got to check in with God more than our inbox if we want to maintain meaningful religious practice.

In his commentary on the Talmud in Berachot entitled Ein Ayah, Rav Kook zt''l notes the important and distinct role of each of the three prayer services.  Morning prayers allow for a focus on the soul and spirit as we begin our physical days.  I heard from Rav Avidgor Neventzal that this is one of the reasons for the sages' famous ban on pre-prayer breakfast.  We must pray for our souls before feeding our stomachs; in other words, we must prioritize matters of the spirit in organizing our day.  I'll make a pragmatic suggestion.  Each of the 19 blessings of the amidah, particularly the requests in the middle, can be used to think about the to-do list for the upcoming day, praying and reflecting on what's to come.  I now use the shacharit amidah to reflect on whether the outcomes I hope for are in fact reach nichoach Lashem, "a fragrant odor to God," and whether my priorities are properly aligned.  This understanding is based on the fact that the reflexive Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, sometimes translated as "to judge oneself."  The root can also mean to imagine, and would them mean that we're hopefully imagining the lives we wish to lead.  Properly done, this weighing of priorities can serve as an exercise in fostering humility and hope while catalyzing our attainment of well-being.

Immersed in the work day, we can be overcome by the pursuit of wealth, forgetting ultimately why we really need it, while also losing balance with other values (family time chief among them).  Mincha, the afternoon service, interrupts, allowing us an antidote to the potential toxins of the modern workplace.  Elijah the prophet defeated the priests of Baal in the afternoon, says the Talmud.  So too, we are likely to contend with foreign forces during the workday.  While this may sound somewhat cynical, reflecting negatively on the predominant culture, it is also poignant and often true.  Our world is absolutely full of negative and foreign values (obsessive greed, selfishness, narcissism, the objectification of women, and mass dehumanization come readily to my mind) that overtly and covertly seep into our psyche.  As Edward Abbey famously noted, "[g]rowth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."  Many of us are caught up, to varying degrees, in that western rat-race of ego and wealth.

Ma'ariv, the evening service, according to Rav Kook, serves to guard against lustful and sinful behavior most commonly occurring at night.  Psychologically, I'd like to offer a suggestion.  The mental capacity for self-control has been shown to exhaust itself, resulting in poorer decisions and a lack of self-restraint following other difficult decisions.  After the rigors of the day, we need renewed encouragement to renew our fortitude for good decision making based on the values we not only profess but care about. Ma'ariv encourages us to continue to live our values and be our best selves. Importantly, it also serves as an opportunity to measure our day and reflect.  We all know that self-evaluation and feedback are critical to job performance lest we lose sight of goals and fall into rote. Our spiritual/ethical feedback should be at least as strong as our professional measurements, but I fear is entirely absent.

These insights from or based on the teachings of the Talmud as explained by Rav Kook serve as a powerful explanation for the tangible benefits that prayer can have on our lives.  Restatement, reflection, and refinement of our priorities, meditated on at important times, can truly transform how we live and change our lives for the better in revolutionary ways.

Prayer for Everyone

Recently, in response to my request for morning minyan attendance, a congregant retorted, "[s]orry, but minyan is for alter cockers, mystics, and people saying mourner's kaddish."  I'd like to take written issue.

First, I'd like to share a passage from Worship of the Heart, a collection of thoughts from Rav Soloveitchik, zt''l, where the Rav questions seriously the notion that prayer is for everyone:

"A serious problem comes to the fore . . . is it confined to the religious genius - a curious and unique type of personality who is capable of attaining this ecstatic state of mind, of rapture an unification, a personality who rejects what seems clearly, logically and tangibly to be the natural order, for the sake of tending a reality which is beyond one's grasp?  Is prayer only for the mystic?  We, in contrast to the mystic, are all physically and mentally children of this external concrete world and therefore, if this be true, cannot make the leap from the sensuous and real into the transcendent and absolute.  Hence, avodah she-ba-lev, in the Maimonidean description, is an esoteric adventure, one that is not understandable to the average person.  Saints or mystics, whom God has blessed with an over-sensitized nature, with the capacity for violent and intelligible emotions, with an exalted sense of perceptions and fantasy-they may follow the mystical way, devoting their existence to the Infinite.  But we many not be able to do so . . . Unless tefillah as a Halakhic norm can find a place within the frame of reference of normal mentality, and lend itself to realization by every human being, regardless of his spiritual limitations, its meaning to us could never more than academic and remote . . . entrusted to an esoteric group, to the select few . . . ." (Worship of the Heart, 26-7)

The Rav's answer was simple.  Chazal were well aware of this concern, and therefore designed a tripartite prayer consisting of 1) Praise 2) Requests 3) Gratitude from among a wider array of possible subjects as most related to the needs of a common person.  "These three motifs-these three rays-offer remedial and inspiring energy for everybody.  Therefore, they were singled out and spelled out in our silent prayer."  We can all recognize the grandeur of God, think about and request our needs, and express gratitude for the blessing in our lives.  To do so daily provides "energy for everybody."

Second, I'd like to focus on certain ethical aspects of the notion that minyan is for those reciting the mourner's kaddish.  In our community, there are men and women regularly desirous of reciting this exalted prayer to elevate the soul of a departed loved one.  Doing so is both an act of love and dedication to the memory of  the deceased, while at the same time an act of faith very much focused on God's presence in our "real" world.  By attending the minyan, men help insure that others will be able to carry on this most sacred tradition, engaging in a de facto act of compassion and kindness for the those trying to recite the prayer.  There is a responsibility to do this as a fulfillment of Judaism's great primary principle, "[l]ove your neighbor as yourself."   

Which brings me to the next logical point.  If we ourselves would/will desire the quorum to recite kaddish when, God forbid, the time comes, we have an ethical obligation to attend during other times as well.  It's my strong feeling that it's ethically wrong to be willing to receive a donated organ but not willing to give one.  It violates basic ethical norms of fairness, Hillel's golden rule, and Kant's categorical imperative. Minyan is no different.  Basic fairness demands that those who would utilize in the hour of need must facilitate the same for others during their hour.               


Now, there are several frequent objections to Jewish prayer I have not substantively addressed in these musings.  You may find yourself saying, "[o]ur prayer experience does not map the lofty goals and aspirations described by sages ancient and modern quoted in this and other writings on the subject; our prayers are rote, rushed, full of talking, or otherwise not spiritually conducive in some manner or another." To that claim, I am quite sympathetic, and share it in large measure, but note that the abandonment of prayer itself solves nothing and also the exaggeration of the claims a bit.  Prayer is a practice to help us always live more fully aware of God's presence; to the extent it doesn't meet that aim, we must work to refine our environment to something more conducive.  Abandoning prayer does even less to further the aim.  I as your Rabbi will support communal suggestions for more conducive prayer wholeheartedly. It is also largely private, and can be taken seriously by willing individuals regardless of external factors.

You may find yourself saying, "I don't want to read words someone in a different place and time wrote, but want to pray my own prayers."  To this, I'd note that our sages required that we be mechadeish bah davar, that each of our prayers contain new elements, and suggested the framework as a baseline framework to be added to.  Minimally sufficient restrictions and limitations (like rules for children) foster the freedom to create and innovate more fully.  Add your own prayers related to the subject matter of the different blessings, please.  It's a Jewish law requirement.

I lay these out before you as preliminary thoughts on the obligations and benefits of regular prayer attendance.  You may disagree with some or all of what I've said.  That's well and good, and I'd be thrilled if this is a starting point for a communal discussion about what prayer is or ought to be, in our personal lives and for our community.  Perhaps we will develop congregational forums for discussing prayer seriously; after all, it's a fairly central part of what goes on in a beit kenesset.

Most immediately, though, I've set up a Google document for the coming weeks designed to chart prayer attendance.  At the bottom of the page, there's on tab for shacharit and one for mincha/ma'ariv.  This serves both as a way for our congregation to see if we have the requisite numbers for a quorum for each prayer over the coming weeks (so that those saying kaddish or otherwise desirous of a minyan may plan accordingly), while also serving as a way for you to commit yourself and hold yourself to it.  Women are welcomed and encouraged to sign up, though won't count in the quorum (that's for another essay).  Frequently, modern Orthodoxy is criticized as a movement more of convenience than commitment. This is symbolized by the fact that we need to rely on others to make our minyan.  I don't believe this to be true at all, and am confident that with time, training, and re-habitualization, we can rise to the challenge לטוב לנו, to our ultimate benefit.  I know that my attendance is and will remain less than perfect, and note publicly the inherent inconsistency always present in writing these kinds of thoughts.  Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, for your serious consideration, and for signing up.


Rabbi Dolinger
חיים בעריל בן מאיר שמשון ולאה ביילה

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