On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue, Continued” from Joshua Rabin

Even if you occasionally fumble for words and can barely open your mouth to talk to God, that in itself is [still] very good, because at least you have prepared yourself and are standing before God, desiring and yearning to speak even if you cannot.

— Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan ¹

Rebbe Nahman points out an essential truth in this text, namely that “failing” to spiritually connect with God in prayer is not a failure; the only failure may be in not trying at all. Our task as a Jewish Community is to construct tefillah experiences that enable individual Jews to feel empowered and emboldened by engaging in dialogue with God.

Unfortunately, far too many tefillah experiences are what John Dewey calls “mis-educative,” ² for they leave the worshipper feeling disempowered by the prayer environment, and discouraged from continuing in their spiritual journeys. While Chancellor Eisen made some outstanding suggestions as to how we might create praying communities in the Conservative Movement, I would like to add three more proscriptive suggestions:

1. A script for Jewish prayer does not mean that prayer should be scripted

Just because Conservative Judaism mandates a halakhic prayer experience (i.e., the “script”) does not mean that this experience can or should be the same every time (i.e., “scripted”). Fulfilling one’s obligation for tefillah does not preclude changing melodies on a week-to-week basis, experimenting with different educational modalities for teaching Torah, or even introducing alternative spiritual disciplines, such as yoga, meditation, or poetry, to complement and supplement the matbeah shel tefillah. Deepening one’s relationship to prayer requires that we build communities where the prayer experience is seldom, if ever, the same.

2. You cannot pray only by listening

Far too many Jews are disempowered participants in the prayer experience, never learning how to serve as shlikhei tzibbur, only listening to the rabbi and hazzan, rather than feeling that they can serve as leaders, and passively engaging with the words of the siddur, rather than delving deeper.

Conservative synagogues should aggressively teach members how to serve as shlikhei tzibbur, using in the melodies that compel communal engagement, and making the process of improving one’s prayer life the focus of entering a prayer space, allowing for the opportunity for the community to stop on Shabbat or weekday morning and ask the community, “How can we make this experience deeper and richer for all of us?”

3. Jewish prayer is a marathon, not a sprint

The first time a community takes a dramatic leap forward in attempting to change the community’s prayer dynamic, it will likely be met with some resistance and hesitation. The greatest mistake one can make is to give up the first time an attempt to deepen a prayer experience does not immediately result in acceptance or transcendence. Learning communities will engage in conversation over months and years to change the dynamic. When they do, it will awaken people’s hearts and minds in a way that cannot even be imagined right now, and will draw us closer to an ideal we are obligated to pursue.

The Conservative Movement cannot meet the spiritual challenges of today without meeting the adaptive challenges of creating praying communities, and I can only hope that Chancellor Eisen’s conversation is the first step in honest dialogue about how we can maximize the potential of every Beit Tefillah.

¹R. Nahman of Bratslav Likkutei Moharan, Tinyana, No. 25. See Norman Lamm ed., The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1999), 198. A special thank you to Rabbi Shai Held for being the first person to teach me this text.
²John Dewey, Experience and Education, (New York: Free Press, 1997) 25. Dewey writes that,

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience. Any experience may be such as to engender callousness; it may produce lack of sensitivity and of responsiveness. Then the possibilities of having richer experiences are restricted.”

Sadly, how many Jews were mis-educated by the way in which a prayer experience was constructed for them, whether in their synagogue, school, or other educational institution?