Hashem Sifati Tiftach: Paying More Than Lip Service to Tefila
Walking into a preschool program during tefilla, a visitor will see children sitting in a circle, belting out the words to songs like “Modeh Ani” or “Torah Torah.” That might be about as good as davening gets in our schools. If a visitor were to enter a third grade classroom in a typical Modern Orthodox school, she will likely find students seated at desks, with siddurim open, and hear the teacher remind the students “etzbah ba-makom” (fingers on the place). Some students might actually be pointing to the correct line, and may even be reciting it. Others will be squirming or daydreaming. Seventh grade tefilla will more likely take place in a communal setting but the results are not necessarily any better. By this age, students are no longer adjured to keep their fingers on the right page, but are constantly admonished to sit still and to stop talking. And as those who work in our high schools know, it is often a battle just to get students to show up for tefilla.
It is not (or should not be) news that there is an ongoing struggle with tefilla that characterizes most Modern Orthodox Day Schools. While students may start off as passionate practitioners, they tend gradually to tune out of tefilla. Tefilla deteriorates year by year, from a joyous time of song for the youngest students, to a struggle for attention and decorum that is painful for both student and teacher by the time middle school rolls around, never mind high school.
The problem, of course, has not gone unnoticed. Administrators and educators have tried various practices to engage the disengaged. They have experimented with different siddurim; they have shifted the start time of tefilla; they have shortened the length of tefilla. They have tried new techniques like introducing music during tefilla and kavvanot (setting intentions) before. But while some of the changes work for some of the time, overall the effect is not unlike placing a single band aid over a severed artery. The more I hear of supposed new methods for solving the problem, the more I am reminded of Rav Yehuda Amital’s observation “ein patentim” or, “there are no shortcuts (or tricks).” Addressing the subject of tefilla requires not just a quick fix, but a complete shift in mindset about the nature of tefilla and how we relate to God. That is not something that a new siddur can do and probably not something even dedicated teachers and administrators who make it a priority can do on their own, without something changing in our homes and in our communities concerning our fundamental relationship with God (or the absence of one). Try, though, we must. So, what can our schools do to address this most frustrating issue?
In many schools, the tefilla curriculum consists of two elements- the content (understanding what the words and tefillot mean) and skills (knowing how to read the words and knowing what to do at the various tefillot). But there is another crucial element that is not addressed (and it is easy enough to see why not)- namely, the affective or emotional side of davening. What should a student be feeling when praying? How do we teach feeling? What (if it is not impertinent to ask) do we feel when we daven?
Tefilla, according to Rav Soloveitchik, is a means of communicating with God. While he describes other ways in which man interacts with God (the intellectual, the emotional, and the volitional), prayer, according to the Rav, is unique because it is a dialogue. The other ways are:
(o)ne directional, unilateral acts performed by man… where man transcends his finitude but God does not respond by meeting him halfway… (while prayer is a) dialogue which is bilateral and reciprocal; a dialogue that exists when one person addresses another, even if the other is silent.
The Rav continues:
In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request as much as we desire a fellowship with God… when we pray, God emerges out of His transcendence and forms a companionship with us- the Infinite and finite meet and the vast chasm is bridged.
A dialogue does not always presume that both participants are talking, but does assume that both are present and are invested in the relationship. As Rabbi Hayim Halevi Donin so eloquently and honestly put it in his introduction of his To Pray as a Jew:
It is true that at times I pray only because it is my duty to obey the Jewish law that requires me to pray. But there are also times that I pray because I sincerely want to pray. These are the times when I want to reach out and talk to my Father in Heaven, to my Maker, the Holy One, blessed by He. These are the times when I want to cry out to the Supreme Being, to communicate with Him in a way that I can communicate with no one else. I cannot see Him but He is real. He is there…. Whether God will accept my prayers and affirmatively respond to them, I do not know. That He hears my prayers, I firmly believe!
Knowing that God hears our prayers is part of understanding that prayer is built on a relationship with God. Introducing a new edition of the siddur, however student-friendly, is not a solution on its own. What we need to incorporate in the classroom are lessons that teach students how to develop a relationship with God. It sounds quite “chutzpadic,” as Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo notes, “How does man dare to speak to God, the Master of the Universe?” We dare, contends Cardozo, because:
We just continue a conversation of more than five thousand years, started by men and women who really dared and knew the art of prayer… We can stand before God only when we remind ourselves that we continue this daring conversation because others started it.
How do we teach our students the language of this conversation? How do we teach them how to enter into a relationship with the Divine? Somehow, we need to teach them not only the language and the mechanics of this conversation, but also need to provide them with tools for developing a relationship.
The mechanics of tefilla, which is now part of many curricula, includes the skills of reading the words, the understanding of what the words mean, and a knowledge of the appropriate laws regarding tefilla. Rather than teaching these in separate lessons, it may be more effective to incorporate those sessions into the tefilla experience itself (think the better beginner minyanim).
The relationship aspect of tefilla is more difficult to teach. As is suggested by the metaphoric understanding of Shir Ha-Shirim, and as Rambam famously wrote about learning to love God, we learn about relationships with God by analogy with relationships we have with other people. As such, one could begin by teaching the art of human relationships- what it means to be a friend, how to talk to a friend, how to listen to a friend (elements that are part of the Responsive Classroom curriculum, and specifically the Morning Meeting.) It is hard to develop a relationship with the Divine, so incorporating lessons on grit and developing an open and reflective mindset in the classroom would be helpful. And, as always, one should model for one’s students- the difficulties in prayer, how you as an individual overcome them, and by showing (not just saying) how important tefilla is to you personally.
Any new approach to tefilla will need to be paired with the realization that meaningful prayer is a constant struggle and requires education, patience, compassion and grit. Even once one learns how to daven, meaningful tefilla is hard to achieve. Rav Amital used to say that he davened three times a day in order to achieve that one meaningful tefilla a year. Schools need to invest a lot of resources to making tefilla a major priority, and not merely paying lip service to the notion.
Dr. Deena Rabinovich is the director of the Legacy Heritage Fund Jewish Educator’s Project at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women where she has also taught Tanach since 2004.
 Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought adapted from the Lectures of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1990), 77.
 Hayim Halevi Donin, To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 3.
 Nathan T. Lopez Cardozo, “On Speech and Prayer” in Between Silence and Speech: Essays on Jewish Thought (Lanham, Maryland: J. Aronson, 1995), 198.