Sermon Notes 10/11/12 - Chayey Sarah / Tefillah 3

תפלה: Connection, Engagement and the Mind-Body Experience

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here.

This week’s parashah begins with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron as a burial plot for the patriarchs and matriarchs.  The word Hebrew Chevron comes from לחבר – to connect, and suggests a sensitivity to the co-existence of body and soul, something those buried in Chevron epitomised.  A midrash notes that the reward of those buried in the Cave was ‘doubled and redoubled’ (BeReishit Rabbah 58:8), indicating that in their lifetime, they lived complex existences – melding their physical and spiritual sides.  This is the very essence of Jewish life.  It pits Judaism against other religious systems, which either divide the two or disregard physicality altogether.

In his essay ‘Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition’, Professor Eliezer Berkovits explains that the soul and body must not ‘exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two’.  He continues:

Through the mitzva, man overcomes the dualism of his nature in the God-oriented deed.  In the mitzva, man is one; as a whole he relates himself to the one God.

This holistic approach must also be reflected in our approach to prayer, and again distinguishes Jewish prayer:

All my bones shall say, ‘O Lord, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10)

Professor Berkovits explains:

Man’s situation requires that his very bones should be capable of “prayer”.  But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzva, unifying body and soul.  It has to be a physical action, informed by intention...  The prayer of man should be human and not angelic.

For Berkovits, the ability to ‘unify body and soul’ defines Jewish religious experience and is best articulated through prayer.  Berkovits attacks Immanuel Kant, for whom ‘the true moral service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is only the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention’ (Religion within the Limits of Reason).  Berkovits is certain that this approach produces what he calls the ‘historic bankruptcy of all “natural”, as well as “spiritual”, religions’ and assures his reader that human prayer that doesn’t fully engage the body and soul not only fails to qualify as a Jewish experience, but actually:

...makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion... he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week.

Not only our hearts and minds, but our lips and bodies must sing and dance in prayer.  Jewish prayer can never be performed on our behalf by someone in the middle of the Shul; it demands of us that we participate, not watch, that we sing, not listen; Shul services are not concerts, although there is surely a place for them.  We must ensure that our Baaley Tefillah challenge each of us to engage our bodies and souls in a single experience, to lead us in inspirational tunes that all of us will want to sing.  Only this will enable us to be transformed, not merely entertained, by the tefillah experience, to be players and not spectators. Only this, not the bifurcated alternative, is Jewish prayer and only this will enable us to thrive as individuals and as a community, enlivening ourselves in the presence of the Almighty.

Having one minyan makes this challenging, as people have different ideas as to what the service should look like and in which style it should be led.  It’s made still more challenging as there are numerous local alternatives of every type and at every time, which are welcoming and close by.  One thing’s certain – if we offer a style of service that some favour, but a number of people don’t like, they simply won’t attend, something we can’t countenance.  Not offering an alternative also means only providing services that everyone, or at least as many as possible, find palatable.

We’ll get there, but it will take forbearance and good humour from all of us as we adjust to the new space and what works best there.