You’re in synagogue, about to begin the shmoneh esrei, the heart of the prayer service. You’re ready to take the three steps backwards, then three quick steps forward, the ritual that brings each worshiper to a physical and spiritual place standing before God.
First, the person leading services speaks: Let us all get up and stand in a comfortable way. We must ensure there is enough space in front of us and in back, so we each can take several steps forward and backward.
Now it’s time to recite the six Hebrew words that precede the shmoneh esrei, which ask God to “open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” The prayer leader stands at the amud, stopping at each Hebrew word, making a short statement in English that concentrate the worshipers’ attention on each step.
Finally, tehilatecha — “Your praise.”
Now we know that our body has brought us back top where God is and always was. With us. And we’re ready to daven.What’s going on here?
This consciousness-raising exercise comes from “Karov L’chol Karov, For All Who Call: A Manual for Enhancing the Teaching of Prayer,” a guide to tefillah recently published by the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education. It’s 213 pages of meditations and visualizations, chasidic stories and alternative textual translations, egalitarian prayers and inspirational readings from the likes of Maimonides and Heschel. It’s designed to complement, not replace, the siddur.
Jewish worship, says Rabbi Jeff Hoffman, a co-author of the publication, is too often a series of rote recitations and halachically prescribed movements — when to bow, when to rise, when to stand, when to sit. And when to take steps. In a traditional service, the worshiper silently takes the six symbolic steps, with no preface from the shaliach tzibur before shemoneh esrei.
There is more to prayer than that, Rabbi Hoffman says. “The goal … is to have worshipers use the traditional Hebrew prayers to feel the presence of God.”
Dance a little, the rabbi suggests. Sing a little. Hum a niggun. The rabbi, for 16 years the spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue in Upper Nyack, as well as a guitarist in a rock ‘n’ roll band, sounds — and writes — like a chasid.
“Karov L’chol Korav,” written with Andrea Cohen-Kiener, a teacher in Connecticut with roots in the Jewish Renewal Movement, is more than a hands-on directory. It is based on the authors’ own lives in synagogue. It is for the teacher and the committed davener. It is spiced with kavanot, preparatory readings and mood-setting suggestions. It is more concerned with the intentions than the mechanics of prayer.
Says Rabbi Hoffman, “If you don’t involve the soul as well as the mind …”There are plenty of other books on the subject of prayer and the prayerbook, he says. “They treat it as a vocabulary list, as a theological discussion.
“You don’t read the siddur,” the rabbi says. “The siddur is an experiential guide.”
His “experimental edition” — and an accompanying cassette and CD — suggests that worshipers act out the preliminary morning blessings or chant other prayers in sign language.“It seems weird,” he concedes. “At the beginning I was uncomfortable leading this.”
Touchy-feely New Age?
“It’s touchy-feely Old Age,” Rabbi Hoffman says. “Because tefillah is touchy-feely.”
For kedushah, part of the repeated shmoneh esrei where congregants stand angel-like with their feet together and sing God’s praises, the book suggests guided meditation — imagine, eyes closed, “the clouds of heaven” and the “sound of wings.”
“This is what the kedushah was” in the old days, in the days of the Talmud and the Temple, Rabbi Hoffman says.
Everything in the book, he says, is according to Jewish tradition. “Halacha is halacha.”
“It’s not Hoffman’s approach to tefillah,” the rabbi says. “It’s what I learned from my teachers” at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at Orthodox yeshivas in Israel.
The book contains exercises for worshipers of various ages that Rabbi Hoffman has introduced over the years in Hebrew school classes and adult education courses.
A man in the rabbi’s class asked a few years ago, “What’s Jewish about this? This doesn’t feel Jewish.”
Rabbi Hoffman explained his innovations’ theological foundations, and predicted that in time the man would find them natural. “He eventually did,” the rabbi says.
Though the Melton Center is affiliated with the Conservative movement, the book is not aimed at any denomination. “That the Conservative movement is putting this out is a good sign,” Rabbi Hoffman says. A movement toward spirituality can balance what some see as the movement’s over-intellectual emphasis, he says. “We’re opening up a bit.”
Steven Brown, director of the Melton Center, says he suggested the manual idea to the authors a few years ago “to open up the world of prayer to a wider range of pray-ers.”
Incorporate the book’s spiritual exercises and your prayers will take more time, Rabbi Hoffman says. Use a stopwatch, the manual suggests. Skip parts of the service, the “optional” parts, to focus on those that seem meaningful, the rabbi says.
“If I feel, which I often do, that I want to concentrate on a certain passage, I take the liberty of omitting other passages,” he says, adding that “we don’t advocate leaving things out. We advocate deepening the prayer experience.”
In Rabbi Hoffman’s synagogue, he has developed a style of prayer. He stands where the sun shines (“I try to feel the sun on my eyes”) and prays slowly (“I was always the last to finish davening”).
This is standard for members of the rabbi’s congregation. “They’ve gotten used to the fact I take a longer time,” he says.
Now he’s not alone. “I can see that davening has become a central part of their lives,” Rabbi Hoffman says. “Now there are people who take longer than me.”