Fixed Prayer and Spontaneity

Reconciling the experience of repeatedly praying from an established text with the need for prayer to come from the heart.

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The following passages look at this issue from a variety of perspectives:

Tradition Brings the Words, but We Must Bring the Meaning

Prayer should always be a combination of set words and spontaneous expression. We utilize the magnificent texts that others have written and we add to them, through variations and interpretations and whatever words we wish to add in order to bring our feelings to the fore. 

Since expression in prayer is so difficult, when geniuses have left us such a rich heritage it seems wasteful not to utilize their words. Even more: human culture is based on the use of creations of the past. Words have echoes. They are enriched by the ways they have been uttered before. Every new text is built on the texts of the past, and the more echoes, the richer the new text.

fixed jewish prayerOn the other hand, there is a danger in using words simply because they are there, not understanding them or not investing them with meaning. Making meaningless sounds cannot possibly be prayer--it is magic. It is as if we believed that by saying the right sounds we could bring about the effect we want

Such a concept is a regression to paganism in which the gods are subject to the forces of magic and recitation of formulas can force them to do our will. Judaism rejected all of that at the very beginning. We cannot compel God to do anything; we ask Him.

Using traditional prayer therefore requires us to bring meaning to the sounds we utter. That meaning can be on the emotional level or the cognitive one, or a combination of both. This is not merely a question of understanding Hebrew. Even if one understands the language, words can be meaningless if they are recited totally by rote or with no attempt to understand them. The more we understand the words and what lies behind them, the greater the opportunity to use them well.

Prayer requires kavana, which implies not only concentration but meaning and intention in expressing ourselves before God. The word kavana basically means "to aim." There must be intent in whatever we say, an aiming toward closenessto God.

What is needed, therefore, is a synthesis of the old and the new. The old is the received text, the words so many others have said and still say. The new is the personal feelings and the individual meaning, which changes every time we say these words, if we say them with fervor and intention, if they are accompanied by kavana.

--Rabbi Reuven Hammer earned a doctorate in midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary and another in education at Northwestern University. He is the author of Entering the High Holy Days (Jewish Publication Society) and The Classic Midrash (Paulist Press). Reprinted with permission, Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books).

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