Focus on Prayer (Ideas #87)



A few months ago, my friend Rabbi Dr Shalom Berger asked me to participate in a new project of the Lookjed Educators Forum of the LooksteinCenter for Jewish Education at BarIlanUniversity.  In the words of Rabbi Berger, “I have solicited a number of short articles from leaders and thinkers involved in Jewish education, asking them to make suggestions that would encourage reflection and discussion and would, perhaps, promote positive change in our school environments”.

The responses were subsequently incorporated into a blog cleverly entitled “schmoozED.”
Below is what I wrote for this project:


One of the most problematic features of our educational systems is that the period in our day that has the potential to be the most powerful formative religious experience has, in fact, become an exercise in drudgery.


The fact that the opportunity for a sustained direct encounter with spirituality provided by prayer does not exist anywhere else in our school day should give it our most serious attention.


The first problem is that our schools (and shuls) don't really teach prayer. We may teach our students the vocabulary and mechanics of the prayers but rarely is there a serious attempt at teaching the art and experience of prayer.


This is not the place to explain the various exercises possible at various age groups to help them truly pray. Suffice it to say that prayer as art and experience needs to be taught experientially.


If teaching the art of prayer may be difficult and uncomfortable, we have less of an excuse when it comes to teaching about prayer and its literature. The forte of our institutions is the teaching of text. Since we have so many teachers who are talented in making Tanakh and Talmud come alive by rigorous close readings, why don't we ever see these teachers use this methodology with the siddur?  Lest we think of the siddur as some sort of basic primer lacking sophistication, I would strongly concur with Rab Shlomo Wolbe z'l's observation that the siddur is, in fact,  not only the most profound, but also the most difficult text of the entire Torah she be'al peh (Alei Shor I  p. 28). I would add that for the average Jew it is also the most important.


Equally valuable are organized courses on the nature of prayer. This topic is one of the most central ones in Jewish Thought. Our students must be versed in what prayer is all about and how it works.


Lastly, I have told my own students going into Jewish education that if they are forced by the school schedule to limit prayer education to the slot allotted for prayers, they should seriously consider (within halachic limits) making prayer education the primary focus of this period and actual prayer secondary. I feel that doing otherwise is a dangerous misreading of priorities.