To understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:
A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)
The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:
“The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”
In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.
I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.
In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.
I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.
In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:
“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.
I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”
May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.
In the spring of 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook became the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in modern times. This was almost 30 years prior to the formation of the State of Israel. Rabbi Kook was a visionary and inspirational leader who understood like very few others in his generation the currents of his time. He understood the revolutionary period of Jewish life that he was a part of and courageously and boldly responded to it. Rabbi Kook envisioned a Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland that would be, like him, courageous and visionary in charting a course for the Jewish people in the brave new world of Jewish sovereignty and self-expression. He imagined that it would become an entity that would positively and profoundly impact the entire “national rebuilding process” of the Jewish homeland.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kook and for us this dream was not fulfilled. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has become an impediment to the re-invigoration of Jewish vibrancy. Instead of bravely charting a course for modern Jewish life, with its unprecedented entrance into national sovereignty and the restoration of Jewish political freedom, it has resisted that course and insisted on old paradigms from the period of Jewish exile and diaspora. There are exceptions, of course, like Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s work on behalf of the wives of missing Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War or his halakhic (Jewish legal) stance on the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, but they are few and far in between. Rather the organization of the Chief Rabbinate seeks to coerce through legal and political force the State of Israel to adopt its decidedly non-Zionist views of Jewish theology and practice.
This coercive influence has begun to extend across the Atlantic into the United States as well. Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate sought to impose its heavily bureaucratic and highly centralized system of conversion unto the North American Orthodox rabbinate. Many in the American Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced to the demand and created a strictly centralized system of conversion courts in major American cities and imposed uniform non-halakhic standards on all rabbis part of their system. For example, a couple living far away from the Jewish centers of the United States would find it very hard to convert themselves and their family because one of the requirements is enrollment in Orthodox Jewish day school for all the children, which is impossible for anyone living in a city that does not have an Orthodox Jewish day school. This newly created requirement for enrollment for all 12 years of schooling in an Orthodox Jewish day school as a prerequisite for conversion is not be to be found in any code of Jewish law simply because it was invented as part of this capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate.
Recently, the aggressive posture of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has taken another sharp step. One of the most common activities any rabbi does is to write letters for congregants attesting to their Jewishness for the purpose of making aliyah to Israel or getting married in Israel. This is highly common. The community rabbi knows the congregation better than anyone else and thus can write a simple letter stating that they know the people in question to be Jewish. This was never questioned until now. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a powerful essay at the Times of Israel describing the rejection of a letter he wrote for a couple. He is not alone. The continued move towards centralization of power and the imposition of an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic system has and will continue to lead to abuses of that power.
Two years ago while I was working as a campus rabbi at Harvard, I had the great privilege to welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was at the time the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to campus for a visit. He spoke on a panel with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman. On that panel, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the damage it has brought unto Israeli society. I will never forget his reply to that question. Rabbi Sacks argued that a Chief Rabbinate ought to forge its influence through persuasion and not through coercion. The Chief Rabbi must be able to articulate his vision and desires through the power of words not through the power of law. The Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom, and Rabbi Sacks in particular, is a prime example of that persuasive influence and the good it can bring. People may disagree with some of the approaches of the British Chief Rabbi and they are free to do so while the Chief Rabbi does not have the power of the state to impose his will on them, only the power of his words.
The time has come for those who care about the future of the Jewish people to stand up and be counted as those not willing to give in to the demands of a power hungry and corrupt Chief Rabbinate. I generally do not advocate for diaspora Jews to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the State of Israel but this is a powerful exception. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel impacts all of us and is continuing its attempt to further its reach into our communities. Ending the power of the Chief Rabbinate is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people worldwide and together we can make that happen.