June 13, 2024
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More often than not, when a graduate of one of our day schools leads the prayer service, I am appalled at the speed and haste of his reading as well as the frequency of his reading mistakes. Why is it ingrained in them that haste is a virtue? Why is prayer (to paraphrase Rambam) like a burden to be unloaded? This practice carries through to adulthood where we often find the same actions replicated.

Why do students in Jewish day schools spend so much of their Jewish studies time immersed in the study of Talmud, chumash, navi, etc. and rarely if ever examine the siddur? It is the sole text with which we are most familiar but about which we know the least. This is why davening is such an educational challenge.

Rote recitations do not translate into meaningful experiences. The siddur is multidimensional, multilayered and open to multiple levels of grade-appropriate understanding. Aside from simply understanding the words, there is a structure to the siddur, as well as deep meanings and valances to each part of the prayers.

If one were to set out to find the textual locus for Jewish theology, one could do no better than to look at the siddur. Whereas the Talmud puts laws and legal reasoning at its center and pushes God talk to the margins, theology takes center stage in our prayers. A cursory glance at the siddur provides a clear refutation to common assertions that Jews are preoccupied with law, history, and their own chosenness to the exclusion of theological concerns. However, if God is the central figure in the text of the prayer book, God also presents a significant challenge to that text. Indeed, God is a challenge to all linguistic and symbolic systems. How does one express and name the inexpressible? How is the transcendent God and Creator of the universe to be addressed in human language? What is the meaning of the names and terms that are used for God? The siddur is very aware of these issues and that it possesses both a sophisticated theology and a series of avenues to express knowledge of God and approach His presence.

By dedicating the majority of the Jewish studies curriculum to the study of other subjects, Jewish day schools avoid having to confront difficult theological questions. The irony is that a similar course of study is used to train Orthodox rabbis. The individuals who should be prepared to answer and to help others deal with theological issues receive little training in Jewish theology.

Prayer, a complex interweaving of word, text, song and behavior is a central fixture of religious life in Judaism. It is performed and not merely thought. Because prayer is done by a specific group at a specific time and place, it is changeable. Thus, prayer reasoning is always new, and understandings of liturgical practices are always evolving. Liturgy is neither preexisting nor static; it is discovered and revealed in every liturgical performance. This is a fancy way of reconstructing the Ba’al Shem Tov’s answer to a chasid who asked him how it was possible to daven the same words every day in the same way. He responded that he didn’t understand the question, since every time he davened it was a new and different experience!

To explore patterns of philosophical, ethical and theological reasoning that are at work in the siddur might have to wait until adulthood. But basic meaning and structure of the prayers as well as an elementary understanding of the text should be mandatory.

Just as schools have students compile Passover Haggadot with commentaries, they should also create similar siddur projects. We are now in the Selichot season. How meaningful is it for adults (many of whom are day school graduates) to fly through the Selichot without a clue regarding the meaning of the words or the structure of the selichot?

Rote recitation, with no underlying understanding of what is being said or why, is counterproductive for children as well as for the adults they will become. Every page of the siddur can be studied like a page of Talmud. We disenfranchise our children to do any less.


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He often discusses the siddur in his twice-weekly shiurim at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn.

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