Trying to maintain the delicate equilibrium between the regular
routine (keva) and the pure, spontaneous intention of the spirit
(kavvanah) is an ongoing challenge for Jews individually and communally.
By Arnold Jacob Wolf
Arnold Jacob Wolf wrote this meditation on the
balance between the fixed and the imaginative as an introduction
to a reflection on the life and teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Wolf points to the danger of trivializing prayer if it is allowed
to become routine, while recognizing that it is precisely the routine
aspect that transforms the occasional interaction with God to the
continual and eternal covenantal bond. From "Abraham Joshua
Heschel after twenty-five years" in Judaism:
A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter, 1998.
Professor Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, our most astute student of Jewish liturgy,
describes the three great periods of creative Jewish prayer-making.
The first, the classical period of the rabbis, provided what that
age needed: limits. It offered interpretations of when, how, and
in what way the prayers were to be arranged and recited. It gave
us structure, keva, the framework and the details of Jewish worship.
The second age, the beginnings of modernism in the 19th century,
gave us a philosophy of Jewish prayer: what was meant and what could
be meant by the words of our siddur (Jewish prayer book), as well
as the "ideas" of the Bible and Talmuds. Concepts were
an important need, and ideas in plenty were provided by European
Jewish thinkers who gave Judaism a place in modern thought.
Now, says Hoffman, our community is no longer
in particular need of limits or of ideas so much as of meaning,
a way to connect the scattered threads of our separate lives and
tie them to a meaningful pattern, what he calls "connecting
the dots." The tasks of structure and signification have been
accomplished. Our generation and the one to come must perfect the
performance of our liturgy, the realization of all our past by bringing
our needs to God and sharing our deepest spiritual concerns with
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the greatest interpreter
of Jewish prayer in our century, has a somewhat different notion
of prayer. He balances keva and kavanah, the fixity of our prayer-book
and the spontaneity of our heart. He will surrender neither of the
poles of Jewish worship. He believes that we must not only express
our needs, but create them, that God is not here to do what we wish,
but to help us wish to do what God needs doing. Our prayer is a
way of coming to feel, as well as a way of expressing concerns.
In principle, we can come to need what God needs, to feel what God
feels, and to become what God wants us to be. Inwardness and community
are both crucial, but so is hearing the music of God's song and
coming to experience God's love. "Spirituality" is more
than seeking for God within or between our several selves.
There is a specific difficulty of Jewish prayer.
There are laws: how to pray, when to pray, what to pray. There are
fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer
is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of
kavvanah (inner devotion). Thus, Jewish prayer is guided by two
opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity,
uniformity and individuality, law and freedom, a duty and a prerogative,
empathy and self-expression, insight and sensitivity, creed and
faith, the word and that which is beyond words. These principles
are two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves. Since each of
the two moves in the opposite direction, equilibrium can only be
maintained if both are of equal force. However, the pole of regularity
usually proves to be stronger than the pole of spontaneity and as
a result, there is a perpetual danger of prayer becoming a mere
habit, a mechanical performance, an exercise in repetitiousness.
The fixed pattern and regularity of our services tends to stifle
the spontaneity of devotion. Our great problem, therefore, is how
not to let the principle of regularity impair the power of spontaneity
(kavvanah). It is a problem that concerns not only prayer but the
whole sphere of Jewish observance. He who is not aware of this central
difficulty is a simpleton; he who offers a simple solution is a
In regard to most aspects of observance, Jewish
tradition has for pedagogic reasons given primacy to the principle
of keva; there are many rituals concerning which the law maintains
that if a person has performed them without proper kavvanah, he
is to be regarded ex post facto as having fulfilled his duty. In
prayer, however, halakhah [Jewish law] insists upon the primacy
of inwardness, of kavvanah over the external performance, at least
theoretically. Thus, Maimonides declares, "Prayer without kavvanah
is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavvanah ought to
pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with
other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.
Hence, on returning from a journey, or if one is weary or distressed,
it is forbidden to pray until his mind is composed. The sages said
that upon returning from a journey, one should wait three days until
he is rested and his mind is calm, then he prays."
Prayer is not a service of the lips; it is worship
of the heart. "Words are the body, thought is the soul, of
prayer." If one's mind is occupied with alien thoughts while
the tongue moves on, then such prayer is like a body without a soul,
like a shell without a kernel.
And so it is with words of prayer when the heart
Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act
in the soul. The essence of prayer is agada, inwardness. Yet it
would be a tragic failure not to appreciate what the spirit of halakhah
does for it, raising it from the level of an individual act to that
of an eternal intercourse between the people Israel and God; from
the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent covenant.
It is through halakhah that we belong to God not occasionally, intermittently,
but essentially, continually. Regularity of prayer is an expression
of my belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and Israel,
which remains valid regardless of whether I am conscious of it or
Heschel wrote: "How grateful I am to God that
there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that
it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least
a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine
will. I am not always in a mood to pray. I do not always have the
vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But
when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision
is dim, it is duty that gives me insight" (Man's Quest for
God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1954, pp. 64-68).
Arnold Jacob Wolf is is rabbi emeritus of Illinois'
oldest congregation, K.A.M. Isaiah Israel.