Praying to the Wrong God? An Old/New Approach to Tefillah Education

September 15, 2017

Source: Jewish Action Fall, 2017

Most Jewish educators feel frustrated by their inability to help their students appreciate the transformative power of tefillah—and not for lack of trying. Numerous books try to explain the tefillot and new siddurim are published every year with original commentaries and insights. Every Jewish educational organization has a tefillah program for schools to implement. Many schools provide multiple prayer service options with varied style and pace. In addition to the minyan that replicates a standard synagogue experience, schools offer explanatory prayer services and services with singing, meditation, discussion and reflection. The numerous options also create additional leadership opportunities for students.

Schools implement a combination of ideas to address these challenges, yet the problem does not seem to be getting better. Why?

While these initiatives play a critical role, they only focus on half the problem. At the most basic level, in prayer a human speaks to God. All these tefillah programs aim to improve the human aspect of prayer, which is necessary, but not sufficient.

Tefillah education also requires that we teach about God, Who is the address of our prayers. But how do we talk to Him? The fact is that the Jewish day school world struggles to talk about God…

Our ability to speak to God, beseech God and appeal to Him to change reality stems from our individual and communal covenantal relationships with God. While we cannot know God, we can perceive, define and refine our relationship with God. Reality changes, and with it our relationship with God and our understanding of Him also changes. That is not a flaw, it is a feature.

We must teach our students to speak with God, using metaphor, covenant, Jewish history and peoplehood. Missing these, a critical ingredient in how our students approach tefillah will be lacking, and no matter how much we try, our schools will fall short.

Here comes the critical point of all this. How do we know if we are teaching tefillah successfully? What is the output to look for in our students’ tefillah?

We currently judge the success of tefillah by assessing student understanding, focus and intensity of prayer; however, those are inputs that are important, but not determinative. While the Talmud learns about the importance of concentration from Chana’s prayer, the Talmud does not make concentration the linchpin. The outputs of successful tefillah are a transformative sense of personal relationship with God, partnership with God and dedication to God, to bring His light into this world. As the Talmud continues understanding Chana’s prayer, it emphasizes her relationship with God, her commitment to halachah and her oath to dedicate her son to do God’s work. May it be soon with our students and ourselves.

Read the entire article in Jewish Action.

Updated: Sep. 17, 2017