Knowing Too Much and Not Enough: The Prayer Quandary


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School   

Elie Kaunfer

We know both too much and not enough about prayer. That is our challenge, whether as adults or as children. 

We know too much about prayer because we assume that prayer experiences are defined primarily by our relationship to the words and their meaning. A generation ago, the primary function of Hebrew education was to transmit the skill of how to decode the words of the prayer book, often in preparation for b'nai mitzvah. I remember being in third grade and sounding out the words to Ashrei with the teacher. There was no discussion of the significance or value of the words, just a technical ability to pronounce them. This, of course, had a practical application: the ability to lead certain parts of the main service. One didn't need to know what Ashrei meant in order to get up in front of the congregation and lead it responsively; one needed to simply sound out the words with accuracy. 

This approach has fallen out of favor. And why not? After all, isn't it irresponsible to teach children the words of prayer without the meanings behind them? And yet, this assumes that understanding the words is, in fact, achievable or even desirable. As Patricia Cox Miller wrote: 

When Alice encounters the whiffling and burbling Jabberwock, she remarks: "It seems very pretty, but it's rather hard to understand!" Alice's comment is insightful: such linguistic play is difficult to understand, and that is precisely the point. The idea that words create a meaningful universe is, as a poet said, the "supreme fiction"; language is phantasmal, not transparent to whatever "reality" might be . . . God seems to dwell in the making and unmaking of language. ("In Praise of Nonsense" in Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, ed. A. H. Armstrong [New York: Crossroad, 1986], 487-8)

Sometimes the most powerful association with prayer comes not from understanding its words, or even its context, but simply by experiencing the aesthetic performance of these words. Music, space, tone, rhyme, and volume all contribute to the experience of group prayer, even when meaning is left aside. But without familiarity with the words on a technical pronunciation level, this aesthetic experience is perhaps unreachable. It is one thing not to know the meaning of Ashrei, it is another not to know how to daven it. In the words of Heschel, "What I plead for is the creation of a prayer atmosphere" (Man's Quest for God[Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998], 86). This training around the words might be the surest way of creating the raw material for that "prayer atmosphere."

And yet, we also know too little about prayer. For even when we teach the meaning of a prayer, we frequently fail to uncover the deep layers of associations and allusions that are embedded in almost every phrase of the siddur. A brief example will have to suffice. We often teach the morning blessings as a series of thank-yous connected to our morning routine. Embedded in this list is the blessing " . . . who opens the eyes of the blind." An initial understanding of this prayer, for those who are sighted, might be, "Thank God for allowing me to see in the morning." Indeed, the liturgical context is tied to this act of opening one's eyes (see Berakhot 60b; but compare the Oxford manuscript, preserved in some rishonim, that connects it to covering or rubbing one's eyes). But why use the language of opening the eyes of the blind? Since most prayer is actually biblical quotation, it is worth looking at the use of the original biblical phrase.

The phrase "opens the [eyes of] the blind" comes directly from Psalms 146:8. But there, too, the force of this phrase is not clear. Two examples from Isaiah add to our understanding. In Isaiah 35:5, the prophet describes the ultimate redemption, in which God triumphantly returns to history (previous times in which God was part of history included the exodus from Egypt and other miraculous moments in the Torah). "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped." Here, it is a manifestation of the return of the Glory of God. Perhaps this is the force of the blessing in the morning: an anticipation or reminder of God's promise to return. Isaiah uses the phrase in a different context in 42:7. In this example, the prophet explains how the Israelites are meant to be a light unto the nations, and to "open the eyes of the blind, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." Here again, the opening of the eyes of the blind means more than simply waking up and seeing. It is the charge to "enlighten" by being a light to the nations. The blessing, read in this context, has overlays of a call for universal moral education. Limiting these words to the feeling of gratitude for being able to see restricts the force of the allusion to "opening the eyes of the blind." By explaining the meaning of the prayer in only one dimension, we often put forth only one valence of the words, blocking off multiple explanations, and artificially flattening the force of the poetry that is prayer.

We both know too much and too little about our prayers. By focusing on the deeper understanding of the words, as well as the value of the noncognitive sounds of the words, we can significantly enhance prayer for our students and ourselves. Teaching prayer to children is defined by a major challenge: how can we unlock the meaning and relevance of the ancient words of the siddur? Typically, we focus on the structure of the prayers, the history of the composition, or the laws related to their recital. I propose that we shift the way in which we relate to the siddur: instead of it being a text to be taught, let us view the tefillot as poetry to be interpreted. The pedagogical framing then becomes that of how to teach poetry; it just happens that the poems are the words of the prayers. What is unique about the poetry in the siddur is that it is in direct dialogue with another very familiar text, the Bible. The experience of prayer is greatly enhanced if the siddur is treated like so many other texts in Jewish heritage, as a starting point for interpretation rather than a surface statement of dogma. Seen as a book of poetry, with myriad allusions waiting to be unlocked, the siddur can become a thrilling text for students to study and develop their own interpretive understandings.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the cofounder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. He received a master's degree (2006) and doctorate (2014) in Liturgy from The Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as rabbinic ordination (2007). A Wexner Graduate Fellow and Dorot Fellow, Rabbi Kaunfer is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights). He has been named multiple times to the "Forward 50" and the Newsweek list of "Top 50 Rabbis in America."