By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
Every week, I peruse one of the large secular Jewish newspapers, which highlights the twists and turns of the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities and details the inner struggles that they are going through in order to remain relevant. I do this not to gloat over the fact that, despite the many societal problems the Orthodox community struggles with, nevertheless we are experiencing explosive growth, unlike our brothers and sisters in the other communities. It is more of “da mah l’heishiv” (know how to respond) as I interact with many Conservative and Reform Jews in shared communal issues, and I like to be informed of their successes and failures as well.
There was one particular event that took place recently in the Reform and Conservative communities that really hit home. While clearly the solutions to their common problem would not be applicable to the Orthodox community, I was struck by how we suffer from a very similar problem.
In November, a daylong conference took place at Cong. B’nai Jeshurun on the West Side of Manhattan for rabbis, cantors, educators, and concerned lay leaders titled “The Yom Iyun: Engaging in Prayer as Practice.”
In the statement prepared for the conference, “Rabbi” Nancy Flam, co-director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, points out: “Most American Jews regard Jewish prayer as irrelevant, outdated, misguided, inaccessible, and/or ineffective. Although some Jews do participate in communal prayer services, many find them boring, difficult, or of limited value. Very few engage in Jewish prayer, whether communal or individual, liturgical or non-liturgical, as spiritual practice. That is to say, as regular discipline with particular form aimed at specific goals in the cultivation of consciousness and/or character.”
Generally when I read about the struggles of intermarriage that the Reform/Conservative communities have to deal with, I make a note that though every Yid that marries “out” is a source of great pain, nevertheless it’s not for the most part an Orthodox community family issue. When I read about their coming to grips with same-sex marriages (or clergy with alternate lifestyles) again (for the most part) it is not our daily issues. Yet when I read the article on their struggles with making “prayer” relevant, I realized that here is an issue that we equally struggle with as well. For many in our community, excluding the recent ba’alei teshuvah who have joined us, prayer, tefillah, has become boring, irrelevant, and of limited value.
Many shuls of all types—Modern Orthodox, yeshivish, chassidish, young and old—have some who manifest this indifference in many ways, whether it be latecomers, those who make early exits, Kiddush clubs, incessant talking, etc. During the weekdays it is spending a majority of the time on the BlackBerry or iPhone checking the latest e-mails (or worse).
This is not a “chiddush” or even a new phenomenon, as Chazal say that there are three things that people are “nichshal” (stumble with) every day, and one of them is “iyun tefillah,” concentration on tefillah. Yet I hear from many colleagues that the lack of connection to tefillah is at a whole new level.
Yes, it is true that it’s not really just tefillah; our entire generation has lost the ability to concentrate much on anything these days. I recently attended a chasunah at a major New York hotel, and there were close to 800 people sitting at the chuppah and being treated to a mini-concert of a chassidic choir performance. During the dinner, one of the photographers who had gone up to the balcony to take a photo of the whole crowd at the chuppah showed me a shot that he captured of about three-fourths of the audience on the men’s side busy with their cell phones and not paying any attention to the chuppah going on in front of them. Still, I am limiting this article’s focus to tefillah itself.
Some explain this is due to the manner in which tefillah is forced upon children in yeshivos without focusing on its meaning or essence and therefore those children, now adults, have a resistance to it. That may indeed be so. One of my ba’alei batim once confided to me that he was a chronic latecomer to davening in his high-school years and was often made to pay a monetary fine or sit in the hallway for hours at a time if he couldn’t pay the fine. He told me that now, more than 25 years later, he still resents coming to shul.
Others explain that, to the contrary, since tefillah comes so easy and is so accessible to us, its significance is lost on us. This also has some truth to it. A person who was not very learned and had limited background once explained to me why he is totally dedicated to coming and participating in a minyan three times a day despite whatever he has going on in his life. He explained that from the age of 6 until 16, his parents had moved (for business reasons) to a different city with no Orthodox shul, and he was unable to participate in a minyan for most of those 10 years. It pained him and he vowed that when he was older and would live in a community with a shul, he would attach himself to tefillah in a deep sense. He has kept his vow to this very day.
While all these theories are true, I believe that there is a more fundamental reason why so many feel so disconnected to tefillah today, something we have in common with our brothers and sisters in the Reform/Conservative community. That reason is simply that we have totally disconnected from HaKadosh Baruch Hu in our daily lives. Despite being Orthodox Jews who say Shema three times a day and make berachos at least 100 times a day as prescribed in Shulchan Aruch (unlike our fellow Jews from the other communities), we still do not feel that connection to the Ribbono shel Olam.
Just imagine that you are on the phone having a conversation with a friend and you just spent the last 10 minutes sharing with him some heartfelt things that are on your mind, only to find that contact was lost more than 15 minutes earlier. How foolish you would feel—you just spent 10 minutes speaking your heart and no one was on the other end.
That is how many of us feel when we daven. We really don’t feel the connection that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is really listening on the other end. If we really don’t feel it, how can we take it seriously?
Rav Shimon Schwab, zt’l, once shared with us a personal story that shocked him and taught him a valuable lesson about connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. He once traveled to England for a family simcha. Taking in a little sightseeing, he went to catch the bus to take him to the home of his host. As he stood by the bus stop, which was right in front of a large church, an elderly woman exited the church and came to stand right next to him.
He turned in her direction to offer a polite hello and was startled to see a Magen David necklace hanging around her neck. She noticed his startled look and said to him, “Rabbi, you should know that there is something that the church has that Yiddishkeit does not have, and that is someone to ask for forgiveness.”
Rav Schwab responded, “But Yiddishkeit does have someone to ask for forgiveness—and that is Hashem himself!” The elderly woman responded, “Yes, that’s true, but there is still a difference. By the church, someone is really listening.”
Rav Schwab, with great pain, responded to her, “By us, someone is listening, but it’s not a basar vadam; it’s the Ribbono shel Olam Himself!”
When we all see people disconnected from tefillah and the davening in shul, it brings home how much we are really like this elderly woman in Rav Schwab’s story. Not that any of us would chas v’shalom ever go to a church to pray, but rather in our heart of hearts believe that when we daven, no one is really listening.
I have lost count how many times over the last few years people have called me with a request to make a call to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, to please daven for a loved one who is ill and facing a serious medical complication. This is often from people who understand that everything is in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s hands, yet even in a crisis they don’t daven themselves, because they feel that there is no connection between them and HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The Ribbono shel Olam only responds to tefillos of gedolei ha’dor and our tefillos are a waste of time.
Chazal are filled with references about how HaKadosh Baruch Hu sits and waits for just one word of tefillah, even just one Amein, before he rips up terrible decrees directed at us. Who knows if just one focused, kavanah-filled tefillah from just one individual who has never yet been able to do so can heal one very sick child. Maybe even your own.
At that Yom Iyun, there were many different workshops with various ideas on how to make prayer more relevant, including ones on “reconstructing prayer,” “the magic of Hebrew chant,” and “niggunim and building singing communities.” I don’t know if any of these were effective for them, though I know they would not be effective for us.
What we need to do is find ways to reconnect to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and to feel that connection. Then and only then can and will our tefillos improve.
Nancy Flam explained the focus of the goals of the Yom Iyun: “There is no getting around that when prayer is done right, prayer is hard. It requires dedication and concentration and practice, not necessarily what we have been trained to do.”
For once, I couldn’t agree more. v