Teaching Prayer: Obstacles, Goals, and Strategies

Titters and giggles are clearly audible from the back row. The teacher prowls alertly up and down the aisles of the small synagogue, rushing over angrily to squash the small rebellions that sporadically break out as the minutes of obligatory silence creep by. Creases in the siddur expertly shield cell phones from view. Some students settle for a more passive approach, staring sleepily into space, siddurim opened laxly to any arbitrary page. Some mutter the words, eyes focused absently, uncomprehendingly. The lone, pious few close their eyes tightly, swaying back and forth, trying to concentrate, battling an overwhelming tide of disregard, apathy, and open resentment. The all-too-familiar picture of a tefillah classroom.

Teaching the next generation of Jewish thinkers, leaders, and community members about prayer is an undertaking of irrefutable magnitude. Questions, complexities, disagreements, and failures are an inevitable part of the delicate, intricate process. There is no doubt that the system of tefillah education hailing from our classrooms today is deeply flawed. Steps towards positive reformation demand the crystallization of terms and goals. What is the goal of tefillah? What is the message that administrators and teachers are trying to impart to students through an organized tefillah’ education? Are the strategies being employed to achieve those goals effective? If not, how can they be improved? Examining the methodology and intended goals fueling prayer education in Jewish schools today is a critical step towards fixing a system calling out desperately for repair.

What are the problems that so deeply underlie and complicate the process of teaching prayer? According to longtime teacher and researcher in the field Dr. Devra Lehmann, the inefficacy of teaching prayer is rooted in a fundamental disconnect between students and teachers. In her detailed article on the topic, Student and Teacher Responses to Prayer at a Modern Orthodox Jewish High School, Dr. Lehmann explains, “Conflicts around prayer in a traditional Jewish school can be understood as a concrete illustration of a challenge confronting not only Jewish education, but contemporary Religious Education more broadly: the need to bridge the gap between authoritative doctrine and personal autonomy.”1 As our generation increasingly stresses individual voice and personal preference, most outstandingly noticeable through the rapidly multiplying venues of social media, the emergence of a tension between inflexible dogma and complete self-determination is understandable, even expected. Prayer, a subject so innately personal, strikes at the core of the conflict.

Pooling her data from a long career of investigating the inner workings of Modern Orthodox institutions, Lehmann found that even those students most intent on receiving a tefillah education felt that the methods of implementation were threatening to their sense of selfhood and assumed personal liberties. For example, upon being asked to elucidate what it was about the tefillah-teaching process that aroused such antipathy among the student body, one student interviewed by Lehmann responded, “We should not be pressured to talk – we should not be pressured to say words. That is no one else’s business.”2 Another student replied, “They force us into mincha [afternoon services]… Personally, I’m going to resent it if you force me to do something.”3 On the most elementary level, prayer has become so intricately intertwined with assertion of authority that students have started to mistake one for the other, lines tragically blurring where no overlap was intended. Interestingly, Lehmann goes on to note that “not a single student with whom I spoke explicitly mentioned the traditional Jewish obligation to pray.”4 For students, the issue of prayer had become one of asserting or submitting personal autonomy, rather than a matter of halakhic obligation. Teachers approached prayer as a matter of religious obligation, using this view as their primary justification for the strict, unyielding rules with which the students had such negative associations. In contrast to the teachers, the students felt the school’s responsibility went no further than helping them to develop a desire to pray, force an unfounded part of the equation. The issue was not commitment, but control.

Lehmann’s cumulative thesis points to an underlying generational divide symptomatic of combining predetermined form and edict, i.e. Halakhah, with an overwhelming focus on self-determination ushered in by the age of modernity. As acclaimed author Chaim Waxman points out, “One of the ways in which Modern Orthodox American Jews manifest their modernity is in the realm of self-determination, especially vis-à-vis religious beliefs, and this has had consequences for the nature of rabbinic authority in the Modern Orthodox community.”5

The topic of tefillah was not spared from the difficult and often paradoxical balance between “modern” and “orthodox.” The messages often professed as rudimentary elements of a secular education can exacerbate the challenge of teaching prayer. “We did Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience,” relayed a student interviewed by Lehmann. “One of his points was that people who think the way of the majority aren’t really thinking for themselves. So if everyone’s thinking, ‘Go to davening “cause you should,”’ you don’t necessarily want to go to davening. You don’t necessarily believe whatever you’re doing, and—and what you’re reading in the siddur [prayer book].”6

The concept of “religious imperative,” introduced by well-known sociologist Peter Berger,7 asserts that the plethora of choices available to the modern, secular mind makes what used to be the default religious decisions much more rigorous resolutions. The word “heresy,” Berger points out, is derived from the Greek word hairein, meaning “to choose.” Although the heretical imperative may seem an obstacle, especially to the age-old, taken-for-granted practice of prayer, Berger suggests that the imperative to choose prayer ultimately makes the experience that much more rewarding.

So why choose prayer? What is the rudimentary goal of tefillah education? The answer, to no one’s surprise, is a matter of significant debate. In a recent article published in The Journal of Jewish Education,8 Nicole Grenniger divides the varying objectives of prayer education into three delineated objectives: believing, behaving, and belonging. She backs up each objective with an accompanying case study of a community synagogue in tandem with the community school.

Temple Sinai, a large urban Reform synagogue in the Western United States with more than 2,000 families, professes a pronounced focus on believing—on ensuring students a spiritually and emotionally satisfying prayer experience, whether or not they understand the words. To this end, classes and services stress personal participation, musical accompaniment, and individual interpretation of prayers. “I feel very strongly that being able to pick up a siddur and read any prayer in Hebrew is not the skill I want my students to get out of the program,” explains Tirza Friedland, director of Youth and Family Education at Temple Sinai. “[Of course,] I want them to be able to recognize and identify and read key prayers, but more importantly, I want them to have an idea of what these prayers are about, where they come from, why Jews pray in community, what it’s all about, and ultimately what does it mean to me as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, or 11-year-old growing up in the 21st century?”9 Understanding trumps fluency; connectivity overrides familiarity.

Traversing to the other side of the spectrum, at Kehillat Beth Israel, a suburban Conservative synagogue in the Eastern United States with a membership of approximately 900 households, there is a strong focus on knowing how to behave as a community member. Learning correct behavior requires exact and expansive knowledge of the prayers themselves—learning how to pray and how to lead traditional services. Beth Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Goldberg, describes the community’s educational goals for tefillah as a matter of mastering the language and developing a comfort with the text. 10 Emotional fulfillment is not on the agenda. For many, the process and intent of a tefillah education goes no further than teaching the children the prayers in order to develop a fluency that will serve them in good stead throughout their observant lives.

The third and final prayer education objective explored by Greninger focuses on belonging, tefillah serving as a critical venue to achieving social solidarity. Echoing Mordecai Kaplan’s coinage of the term Jewish “folkways,”11 this third and final view of the pedagogical goals of prayer frames tefillah first and foremost as a social adherent. The Bay Reconstructionist Synagogue, burrowed on the East Coast, adheres dogmatically to this viewpoint. As relayed in their school handbook, the community seeks to create a cohesive, caring community, accomplished by mandating tefillah attendance.

Naturally, the goal of tefillah to which an institution subscribes dictates the tactics used by the institution to accomplish that objective. With so much hanging on the projected goal, the question begs to be asked: from a halakhic standpoint, what is the purpose of tefillah? The Shulhan Arukh states,

The prayer must direct his heart to the meaning of the words which he pronounces with his lips and imagine that the Divine Presence [Shekhinah] is before him; and he should remove all extraneous thoughts which preoccupy him until his thoughts and intention [kavvanah] remain devoted purely to his prayer. And he should imagine that if he were standing before a king of flesh and blood he would set out his words and say them with painstaking application so as not to stumble; all the more so [when standing] before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, Who investigates every thought.12

Both the fastidious formulation and presentation of language, as well as an of one’s actions are highlighted. Precise annunciation substantiates comprehension and focus. A comprehensive knowledge of the prayers facilitates the mind-blowing realization of what prayer truly is: The unique opportunity to stand before the Creator of the Universe Himself. An ideal tefillah education would therefore synthesize these two goals – a fluency in the texts that weave together to form a dialogue, the fabric of man’s most essential relationship.

Tefillah is a halakhic obligation, and must be presented and represented as such to students within the Jewish educational system. Perhaps, in accordance with Dr. Lehmann’s article, there has been a failure to do so efficiently; however, students should never make the tragic error of concluding that tefillah goes no further than the halakhic realm. On the contrary, the essence of prayer arguably lies far beyond its halakhic outline. To conclude with a passage from R. Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith:

The Halakhah has never looked upon prayer as a separate magical gesture in which man may engage without integrating it into the total pattern of his life…This is the reason why prayer per se does not occupy as prominent a place in the Halakhic community as it does in other faith communities and why prayer is not the great religious activity claiming, if not exclusiveness, at least centrality. Prayer must always be related to a prayerful life which is consecrated to the realization of the divine imperative and, as such, it is not separate entity but the sublime prologue to Halakhic action.13

In Jewish tradition and thought, most saliently reflected in halakhic practice, God was never meant to be left in the synagogue. Prayer must be integrated into the fabric of daily existence. Prayer does not merely embellish a spiritual existence. It establishes a spiritual existence. As the Rav so eloquently expresses, prayer is not an end unto itself, but rather a means through which to achieve a “prayerful life.” Tefillah restricted to the realm of halakhic obligation has been robbed of its most transcendent quality. As Chaim Zvi Enoch (1904–1977), one of the founders of the religious Zionist education, maintained, a teacher’s role is to help a student find his or her own voice within tefillah. 14 Success has been achieved when an educator is able to successfully communicate to the next generation of Jewish parents and leaders that tefillah is no burden, no hindrance, but a world of opportunity; the bedrock to a life of spiritual connection.

Hannah Dreyfus is a sophomore at SCW majoring in English Communications, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

1 Devra Lehmann, “Student and Teacher Responses to Prayer at a Modern Orthodox Jewish High School,” Religious Education 105.3 (2010): 299-316, at p. 299.

2 Ibid. p. 306.

3 Ibid. p. 305.

4 Ibid. p.306.

5 Chaim I. Waxman, “American Modern Orthodoxy: Confronting Cultural Challenges,” Edah Journal 4, 1 (2004): 2–13, at p. 4.

6 Devra Lehmann, “Student and Teacher Responses to Prayer at a Modern Orthodox Jewish High School,” Religious Education 105.3 (2010): 299-316, at p. 306.

7 Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1979).

8 Nicole Michelle Greninger, “Believing, Be­having, Belonging: Tefillah Education in the 21st Century,” Journal of Jewish Education, 76.4 (2010): 379-413.

9 Ibid. p. 384-385.

10 Ibid. p. 395.

11 Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American- Jewish Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).

Kaplan (1881–1983), founder of the Recon­structionist movement of Judaism, interprets Halakhah as a group of utilitarian social mores, in contrast to Orthodox Judaism, which consid­ers Halakhah to be a binding legal code.

12 Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 98:1.

13 R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition 7,1 (Winter 1964–1965): 5-67, at p. 41–43.

14 Jay Goldmintz, “Helping Students Find Their Own Voice in Tefillah: A Conceptual Framework for Teachers,” Tradition 37.4 (Win­ter 2003): 240-241.