HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Prayer in Dialogue with Tanakh: A Novel Approach to Tefillah Education

by Elie Kaunfer Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah

Study of the ways that rabbinic prayer borrows from and interprets rabbinic sources can make tefillah more engaging both intellectually and emotionally.

Teaching prayer to children is defined by a major challenge: How can we unlock the meaning and relevance of the ancient words of the siddur? Typically we focus on the structure of the prayers, the history of the composition, or the laws related to their recital. I propose that we shift the way in which we relate to the siddur: instead of it being a text to be taught, let us view the tefillot as poetry to be interpreted. The pedagogical framing then becomes: how do I teach poetry? It just happens that the poems are the words of the prayers.

What is unique about the poetry in the siddur is that it is in direct dialogue with another very familiar text: the Bible. Reuven Kimelman (in Kenishta vol. 1) writes about prayer: “[T]he meaning of the liturgy exists not so much in the liturgical text per se as in the interaction between the liturgical text and the biblical intertext.” (The term intertext refers to a source that influences the writing of a new literary work.) Kimelman argues that every prayer is in dialogue with a biblical text. By unlocking the biblical allusions in the liturgical text, meaning emerges.

While this method can be employed for almost any line of prayer, as an example I will focus on three lines in the first blessing of the Amidah.

“The God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Let’s examine the biblical intertext behind this line (which the midrash in Mekhilta Pisha 16 clearly connects to the Amidah). It is the scene of Moses the shepherd standing at the burning bush:

[God] said, “Do not come closer. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:5-6)

This intertext opens up this line of prayer for interpretation. First, it is clear the main character here is not one of the patriarchs, but Moses (a figure otherwise strangely missing from the Amidah). But more important, this is Moses at the beginning of his relationship with God. He is distant from God and is wandering about in a land far removed from his people. He is so far from the Divine that God has to contextualize God’s connection to Moses in the introduction at the burning bush. The Moses in this scene is not the leader we know from the rest of the Torah, but a reluctant shepherd who is about to receive the mission and purpose of his life: redeem the people of Israel from Egypt and lead them to the promised land. Significantly, Moses does not jump at this offer, but instead “hides his face.”

Reading this biblical text back into the prayer, new layers of meaning arise for this section of the blessing. First, this line is a stand-in for the beginning of a divine-human relationship. It is the very first communication between God and Moses. Perhaps in choosing this biblical allusion for the very prayer that is said most often in Judaism, the author of the prayer invites the worshiper to see her/his relationship with God as if it were still “the very first time.” Perhaps in recognition of the difficulty of repeating the same blessing (at least) 3 times a day every day, the author of the prayer consciously reminded us that prayer is meant to recall the heady beginnings of the personal-divine relationship. In addition, the Moses in this scene is perhaps a more relatable character: someone who feels distant from his heritage and from God.

Second, we see how this line is in fact not (merely) a description of God by us, but actually a quote from God to a human. Prayer is not only about us trying to throw adjectives at God, but about listening to the ways in which God is speaking to us. What is the message of God’s speech? It is an invitation to ponder what the mission of one’s life is. Indeed, Moses’s first verbal response to God is “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11). God’s encounter with Moses forces him to ask who he really is. While we certainly don’t have the same mission as Moses, we do have some purpose, and the quotation from the burning bush scene offers the worshiper an opportunity to ponder who they really are and what the deeper mission of one’s life may be.

This method of searching for a biblical intertext bears fruit through the rest of the blessing as well. Take the next line: “The great, mighty, and awesome God.” To the modern ear, this line feels typical of Jewish prayer: a (somewhat random) piling of adjectives in an attempt to describe God. But these are not just any adjectives, as made clear from the following story:

There was once one who prayed (the Amidah) before Rabbi Hanina and said, “The great, mighty, awesome, powerful, strong, courageous God” [thus adding three adjectives to the standard formula]. Rabbi Haninah said to him: Have you exhausted all the possible praise of your Master? Were it not that they were written by Moses in the Torah and affixed by the Men of the Great Assembly, we would not even dare to utter those three [descriptions]! But you go on adding all of these?! It may be compared to a human king who had thousands upon thousands of gold coins, and people praised him for owning silver. Isn’t that a terrible degradation of him?” (B Megillah 25a, translation: Reuven Hammer)

R. Haninah here is pointing to the futility of the project to describe God in human terms. Any attempt is doomed to fail, because that is the nature of the infinite Divine. Indeed, these are the only adjectives in the blessing (all the other descriptions of God are actually forms of verbs; it is much easier to say what God does than to say what God is). What is the reason one is able to use the three sanctioned adjectives? Because they are written in the Torah. This is the full context of the biblical quote used in this line of the Amidah:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. The great, mighty, and awesome God who shows no favor and takes no bribe; who does justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

Here the biblical context of this line in prayer makes clear that this is not simply a random collection of cosmic adjectives. What does it mean to be “great, mighty and awesome” in the Bible? It means being just and ethical, protecting the most vulnerable members of society (widow and orphan). It involves concrete acts of kindness: providing food and clothing. And in case there is any doubt, the biblical context makes clear this behavior is not simply the purview of God: “You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

Again, a line which seemed to be a human attempt to describe God when seen in its biblical context becomes an ethical charge for how humans should treat other humans. This is not a description of God, but a subtle reminder about how one is supposed to treat others. If line 2 was about pondering the mission of one’s life, then line 3 is about an ethical charge as the animation of one’s life.

The fundamental theme of any blessing is often found in its final words, following the formula “Blessed are You, God.” Here, those words are simply: “Shield of Abraham.” In what way is God a shield for Abraham? The expression is found only in Genesis 15.

After those things, the word of the Lord came to Avram in a vision, saying, “Don’t fear, Avram, I am a shield for you. Your reward will be very great. But Avram said, “O Lord, God, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless and the one in charge of my household is Damesek Eliezer!” Avram said, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” The word of the Lord came to him saying, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir. … Then [the Lord] said to [Avram], “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur Casdim to assign this land to you as a possession.” And he said, “O Lord God, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” (Genesis 15:1–8).

The foundation of the relationship between God and Abraham is based on two promises: Abraham will have many offspring, and he will inherit the land of Canaan. When God encountered Abraham for the first time in Genesis 12, these promises were made outright. But here in Genesis 15, Abraham is afraid that God will not make good on these promises. Abraham questions God: where is my child? God does not become angry, but simply reiterates the promise that children are on the way. But when God renews the promise of the land, Abraham does not fundamentally believe. He asks: Lord, God, how will I know? This verse is viewed in early Jewish tradition as the classic expression of doubt in the mouth of Abraham (see Nedarim 32a).

We often think of Abraham as, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, the “Knight of Faith,” the one who was willing to sacrifice his beloved son on the altar to fulfill God’s word. However, the conclusion of this blessing reflects a very different Abraham—the one who is plagued with doubts. In many ways this is the crux of the blessing that is the foundation of the Amidah. Read with the biblical intertext, the prayer can be saying: don’t worry about your doubts. Even Abraham was filled with doubt, and he had a direct relationship with God. The project of prayer, this blessing could say, is that of holding your doubt and grappling with it, but not letting that be a reason to drop out of relationship with God.

Whether or not these particular interpretations speak to you, the larger point is that an intertextual interpretive approach to prayer yields a tremendous amount of nuance to an enterprise that, on the surface, may feel like a piling-on of praise after praise for God. The experience of prayer is greatly enhanced if the siddur is treated like so many other texts in Jewish heritage, as a starting point for interpretation rather than a surface statement of dogma. Seen as a book of poetry, with myriad allusions waiting to be unlocked, the siddur can become a thrilling text for students to study and develop their own interpretive understandings.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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