Keva & Kavvanah

How the balance of Keva (routine) and Kavvanah (intention) inform Judaism and the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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In regard to most aspects of observance, Jewish tradition has for pedagogic reasons given primacy to the principle of keva; there are many rituals concerning which the law maintains that if a person has performed them without proper kavvanah, he is to be regarded ex post facto as having fulfilled his duty. In prayer, however, halakhah [Jewish law] insists upon the primacy of inwardness, of kavvanah over the external performance, at least theoretically. Thus, Maimonides declares, "Prayer without kavvanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavvanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure. Hence, on returning from a journey, or if one is weary or distressed, it is forbidden to pray until his mind is composed. The sages said that upon returning from a journey, one should wait three days until he is rested and his mind is calm, then he prays."

Prayer is not a service of the lips; it is worship of the heart. "Words are the body, thought is the soul, of prayer." If one's mind is occupied with alien thoughts while the tongue moves on, then such prayer is like a body without a soul, like a shell without a kernel.

And so it is with words of prayer when the heart is absent.

Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul. The essence of prayer is agada, inwardness. Yet it would be a tragic failure not to appreciate what the spirit of halakhah does for it, raising it from the level of an individual act to that of an eternal intercourse between the people Israel and God; from the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent covenant. It is through halakhah that we belong to God not occasionally, intermittently, but essentially, continually. Regularity of prayer is an expression of my belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and Israel, which remains valid regardless of whether I am conscious of it or not.

Heschel wrote: "How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine will. I am not always in a mood to pray. I do not always have the vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight" (Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954, pp. 64-68).

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Rabbi Arnold J Wolf

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (1924-2008) was an important American Reform Rabbi, and a longtime champion of peace and progressive politics. He served for many years at Illinois' oldest congregation, K.A.M. Isaiah Israel.