The Light Lab Podcast Episode 18: Siddur as Work of Art (with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer)
5:32PM Mar 8, 2022
Shalom shalom my friends and welcome back to another episode of the light lab podcast. My name is Eliana Light and I'm really excited, I know I always say that, I'm really excited to share today's interview with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer. I know Rav Elie from many years of studying on and off at the Hadar Institute. Hadar is an institute for Jewish learning based in New York City, but its influence has really spread all around the Jewish world. And Rav Elie, as he is often called, is the President and CEO and one of the cofounders of the Hadar Institute. He's previously been a journalist, a banker, a corporate fraud investigator, but we now know him as the liturgist extraordinare of Hadar. He has a doctorate in liturgy from the Jewish Theological Seminary. And his work on the intertext of liturgy is something that we've quoted here on the podcast many times. So we figured, think it's time to talk to the man himself about his work. He has been named multiple times to Newsweek's lists of the top 50 rabbis, he has written books, he has been in a lot of impressive fellowships. And he's also a really engaging teacher, which is why you might hear me be a little flustered, and not speak as well as I usually do. Because I was a little flustered, I felt very honored that I got to speak to Rav Elie, his work has really helped me in my understanding of liturgy. And he's currently working on a book about applying his vision of intertext to the whole Amidah. So since we are in the midst of our Amidah series, felt like a perfect opportunity to speak with him. Take a listen and enjoy my conversation with Rav Elie Kaunfer.
Welcome, Ellie, thank you so much for joining us today!
Glad to be here!
When I started this podcast about tefillah, I knew that I wanted to get the chance to speak with you and learn from you. And I'm wondering if you could take it back a little further. What was your relationship like tefillah when you were growing up?
Yeah, so T'fillah was always a big part of my life. My dad is a rabbi. And for many years was the rabbi at the synagogue that we went to growing up in Providence, Rhode Island. So every week, we would go to shul and engage with the prayers. I think, for me, that was an experience of familiarity and sort of comfort. I think there were moments of sort of transcendent spirituality in some of the ways that, you know, big synagogues can feel spiritual, when there's a lot of people in them and people are focused like on Yom Kippur, let's say. But for a lot of my childhood, prayer was just something that you did and was around. And I think it was only later in life that it got more intense and more meaningful for me.
Yeah, as an RK myself, or rabbis kid, I totally understand. And I'm wondering what were some of those experiences or teachers as you grew up, that changed or modified your understanding of what T'fillah is?
I think for me, I had sort of two opposite ends of experiences. When I went to college. my, my main relationship with tefillah was, let's get this done quickly and efficiently. And sort of my my spiritual goal was to be at least as fast as the other services so that I can get up to eat their Kiddush food, and not have other people eat it. So that was sort the, let's let's get through the prayers as as fast as we can side of my journey. And then when I went to Israel after I graduated, that was really the other end of the extreme i i saw people who were spending hours and hours into tefillah, and really using the word that I was familiar with, in different ways, that were much more intense, and much more meaningful. And even though it wasn't entirely my cup of tea, I sort of saw what was possible when you took those, those words seriously. And and that really opened up other pathways for me.
I'm wondering if through your upbringing, if you had a sense of what you were saying. Like if the meanings of the liturgy meant something, or if it was really just that comfort in that repetition.
I think when I was growing up, it was a lot of connecting to the words through the sound, and through the body movements and through the melodies. And I can't say that I was spending a lot of time thinking about the words. I mean, not no times. In other words, you know what I would, I was one of these weird kids who, although I went to public high school, I would daven in the morning before I went to school. So I was encountering the words of tefillah every day at that point, and I was thinking about what I was asking for what I was saying. But - But I wouldn't say that I was going deeply into the words at that point. And it was more as you say, that the affective noncognitive can connection to the words, which I think is very important and a deep part of my practice today, but really not not connected to that the meaning or the deeper references embedded in the words.
Yeah, I was gonna say before you made that clarification, like not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, because you had a base familiarity with the liturgy, I'm assuming that it allowed you to dive deeper into it kind of as an academic later in life, because you had that foundation.
Yeah, I think for a lot of people, if you are coming to prayer, having the words in your head, and then you're like, oh, that's what that could mean. Or that's what that sentence, you know, could take me to, I think that is an inherently meaningful journey away from, you know Heschel uses these terms of familiar and intimate. He says, we're familiar with all the words, but we're intimate with none of the words. And I think starting from a place of familiarity allows you to get to that place intimacy easier. That's not to say that if you're not familiar with the words, the words can't be made meaningful, but I think there is a particular journey for those of us who are familiar first, and then go deeper with.
So how did tefillah and liturgy kind of become your academic subject, become the subject of your research? Because there are people out there doing really great things with Torah and Talmud. But I know, you know, maybe there are more that I don't know, and I want to know them. But I don't think there are enough people looking at liturgy this way. So how did you come to that?
It was as an academic discipline. Liturgy, is actually a very small field in Jewish academic circles is a wider group of Christian world. But when I did my doctorate at JTS, I was the I was the only person in the program at the time. And if you look at the field today, although as you say, there's a lot of scholars coming out in the field of Bible obviously, and Talmud and Midrash, they're very hot topic. Liturgy, still is a relatively small discipline. And yet, it's that thing that so many Jews encounter, and if you, you know, go to a bar mitzvah or go to Yom Kippur or even the Hagadah on Pesach, most Jews are encountering liturgy in some ways, on a regular basis. And so I was always drawn to it from the perspective of this very news, you can use field because it's just always in your life. And, and I was drawn to it academically because I was sort of open to the possibility that understanding the words takes deep training. And you can get to a certain place just on the surface reading, and that's great. But for my own curiosity and and sort of intellectual journey, I wanted to go deeper with these words that were so familiar to me as we spoke about and and that's why I ended up pursuing at first the masters and then and then a doctorate in liturgy.
Yeah, I'll say for me, I feel a lot in the background. I grew up singing all the words knew them. And then as a freshman at Brandeis, I took a liturgy class with Reuven Kimmelman. And that really changed my life, being able to say, oh, my gosh, like people, people wrote these write prayers were written by people is a line that I use with my students a lot. And there's poetic structure, and there's biblical sources and all that stuff. It blew my mind. So I'm wondering if there were teachers kind of along your way, or, I don't know, articles, experiences, academic schools of thought they're like, This is it, this is amazing.
Yeah, so for me, I would say it was a combination of having teachers in person, but really encountering schools of thought. That opened me up to different ways of accessing the liturgy, as you mentioned, Reuven Kimmelman, I really value the research that he has brought, and there's so many ways in which he has elucidated the connections between the liturgy on the page on the prayer book and the, you know what he and others called the intertext, the text that stands behind the prayer book and I owe a lot to his method for for my own pathway. I think that other scholars that influenced me, one is a Professor at Ben Gurion University named Uri Ehrlich, who wrote a wonderful book called Kol Atzmotai Tomarna in Hebrew, and in English, it was translated with the more accessible title of The Nonverbal Language of Prayer. And what he does is he goes through all of the body movements that are associated with the Amidah. How you, you know, how you bow, how you hold your hands, where you look with your eyes, what you wear, how do you, you know, wash your hands or feet, and, and all of those aspects of the the non cognitive side of engaging with a core prayer from our tradition was really impactful for me, in other words, giving a sort of more academic approach to some of the intuitive feelings that I was able to experience by, you know, all those body movements around prayer. So that was one that was really very impactful for me and Ehrlich himself has shifted his focus and done a lot of work with the Geniza fragment, the siddur parts of, of our history that were discovered in this great treasure trove of Hebrew manuscripts and, and has really catalogued all the variety of texts that they have in the Geniza, around the Amidah. So I reference his work all the time. And that was really important for me. And the last person I'll put out there is a professor at Hebrew Union College named Larry Hoffman, who's done so much in his career as a rabbi and an academic to really popularize the deeper understanding of liturgy. He edited a great series called My People's Prayer Book, which you're holding up, and he also did a similar series on a number of prayers in the high holiday liturgy. For me the the the book that I encountered, I remember reading this book on the subway one summer as I was a student, called Beyond the Text. And this is also a way of looking at the words not only as their sort of interpretive meaning along the lines of Kimmelman but, but also how you might use the words of prayer to get to a non cognitive, sort of different spiritual claim. And he has a chapter in that book about sort of the mystical aspects of the prayer book. And they were expressed in certain words that give you a sound that is different from their translated or even sort of relational meaning. Like when you say, in the kaddish, you know, yitbarach v'yishtabach yitronam yitnase, you can translate those words into English, and they can make sense. But the sound of just reciting those words is its own value. And just linking about that, in a more scholarly way, was very powerful.
Amazing, I'm definitely going to have to get all of those books out and read them.
I just wanted to raise up one other academic, I think, is really doing wonderful work. Her name is Dalia Marx. And she is based in Jerusalem, and she teaches at Hebrew Union College in their Jerusalem campus. She did her doctorate on birkot hashachar, on the liturgy that we say upon waking up. And she's just an incredible researcher and bringing in all the relevant material, both on the traditional rabbinic sources and on the, you know, body movement, more non cognitive side. And she's written a lot a lot about contemporary liturgy, especially sort of evolution reformed liturgy. And so if that's something that interests you, I really recommend her a lot of her work is in Hebrew, but she does right fair amount in English as well. And she's been a wonderful.
Amazing, not only will I read her stuff, of course, I'll have to find her email and bug her about being on the show.
I think she would be a great guest.
That that would be fabulous. I'm thinking now kind of moving a little bit forward in time to the founding of Hadar, the Hadar Institute, as it is called these days, what was the place of T'fillah and the founding of Hadar? Were you involved in in that and kind of, how did that change or conformed to your ideas of T'fillah at the time.
So, in the story of Hadar, I would start with our minyan that we we began back in 2000, this is going back more than 20 years, and part of the vision of the minyan was to have a Shabbat morning experience of davening that was traditional liturgy and egalitarian and had some sort of life or vibrancy to it that, you know, we defined through music and, and other ways in which we were sort of all packed in together in these sort of New York, Upper West Side spaces. You know, that was an amazing experience, because you got to basically from scratch, decide how you wanted a minyan to to go, not only what words you would say, but sort of what's the spiritual character of that vision. And I would say, for me personally, that made a huge impact in what was possible in tefillah, prayer, and, and when we started the the Institute, the learning arm that we built out over the years, you know, part of the experience of learning was always meant to be tied up with praying, with davening. And so you know, when you start a yeshiva, it's not just you sit down, and you learn the Talmud, although that's a big part of it, or other other rabbinic texts. But also, you get to in the same place where you learn, stop and daven. And that it was always a very powerful experience for me to be in the room where we, we just finished saying the morning prayers, and then we start our study regimen, and then take a break in the afternoon for the afternoon service. All that in one space is really powerful. So when we started that the Institute, it was this opportunity, again, to imagine what could prayer look like. And in this case, on a daily basis, that was also intimately tied to the experience of being a student and learning as part of your daily activity.
So I'm thinking back again to when I was at Brandeis, I think you came as a scholar, and you did a session with us on HaEl HaGadol HaGibor V'Hanorah and the intertext behind there. And you are writing it sounds like you're almost done with this book on the Amidah. So I want to ask you about this project, I'd love for you to tell us about this project. How did it start?
So I've always wanted to write down some of the conclusions that I've been working on as a teacher over the last 20 years. And when I was with you at Brandeis, you know, we got to look at this line, which I feel encapsulates the method that I'm so interested in ,so succinctly, it's this lie that we say all the time, every time we get together to pray, in the first blessing of the Amidah, we say, HaEl HaGadol HaGibor V'Hanorah, the great, mighty and awesome God, I think for a lot of people, the question is, why am I telling G?d how great G?d is? And you know, what's the point of saying that line and when we look at the intertext, the place in the Bible in which this line is lifted from, you get a whole other understanding of it, it's, you know, at least in the Torah, it's taken from the line in Devarim, in Deuteronomy, where Moshe is describing G?d, and saying, that G?d is the great mighty and awesome G?d, but then goes on to say, who loves the widow and the orphan and who takes care of the stranger, and, and then tells us G?d, and again, you too, should love the stranger. So there's an amazing flip that goes on in that particular line in which we start off thinking, Well, why am I describing G?d? Why am I using adjectives talk about G?d, but when you put it in its context, in the Bible, you say, Oh, this is where G?d gets to introduce G?d's stuff and say, You think great, mighty and awesome is, you know, great the world to see, but I'm telling you, it's love, and take care of the vulnerable members of society. And that's something that is so powerful to just use as an interpretive, you know, wedge to unmoor from our, you know, like the understandings that we think we have about the text. So that's just one line and one blessing, I really wanted to go through in a comprehensive manner, the whole Amidah, the whole weekday Amidah, which has 19 blessings. So the book is little more than 19 chapters, but each chapter essentially goes through a blessing. And, and, and looks at the references that are embedded that I want to unpack for people. And and although I have a lot of teaching that I've done orally, and you can find that on our website at hadar.org, I really wanted it to be something that I could sit down and write and people could read at their leisure. And so that's what this project is.
I'm so excited for this. By the way, the students that I work with, particularly the middle schoolers, that's really their focus is, wow, G?d must either have a very big ego or very fragile ego for us to continuously tell G?d how great G?d is. It's a totally different angle. Are there any other pieces of intertext or Midrashim, or interesting things that you found along the journey that you were surprised by or you got excited about?
Well, I should start off by saying that the entire Siddur, basically every phrase in the Siddur has an intertext. And that itself is is amazing to consider because it makes you understand what this text is, it's not just as you said, people did write the prayers, but they were people who were reformulating divine words into prayers, as opposed to just coming up with these words out of my own brain. And I think that to understand the Siddur, as sort of the next step of a holy text, the way we think of, of the Bible of the Torah is, you know, here's a text that has a lot to teach me. And that's complicated. And I need to open up commentary and Midrash, to understand it better. And I feel the same way, having done this project, I feel the same way about the Siddur. It's, it's, it's as if the Siddur itself is a form of biblical text that also needs to be opened up and analyzed in the same way that you would analyze Torah. And it's not that every line became more meaningful for me, once I did that process, but a lot of the lines did. And I would say, overall, my appreciation for what the Siddur is increased greatly, because I was sort of like, this is an amazing work of re-scrambled and reformulated divine words. And that itself just is a great stands to have towards this prayer book that, you know, everybody has their own opinions about. And I like this line and I don't like that line. But to sort of understand what the project of the prayer book is, on a grand scale was really powerful for me, and certainly along the way, there were, there were moments where I was inspired by some of the connections that are there.
And we'll have to buy the book and read them to find them. But I'm excited to do so. I want to ask you more about something you mentioned, which is about how it influenced you. Did this change your davening that just change your pray-ing? How do we take, or how do you take it from an intellectual exercise of text study into something a little different?
Yeah, that's a great question. And one that I think about a lot, how much does the study of the Siddur influence the praying of the Siddur? Heschel, again, also said that studying the Siddur is not the same as praying it and indeed, for all the reasons we spoke about the non verbal aspects of prayer, it is a separate enterprise to daven than to study the words. I think, for me, the way that it's impacted my own prayer life, is when I want to go deeper on a particular line. If there's a time, when you know, right now I'm working on the last blessing, Sim Shalom. So what does shalom mean? You know, oftentimes, you can think of shalom as like political peace. But when you look through the Midrashim, that are, you know, trying to understand what this word is, that's one of many meanings of the word shalom, even according to the rabbi's. So Shalom can also refer to the way in which we study texts as students, you know, reducing machloket, reducing disagreement, which isn't about a political, you know, this country versus that country having a peace agreement, but it's about how you move through the world as a student and how you interact with other students. And so, you know, when I'm saying sim shalom, if I'm thinking about some of those issues in my life, it allows me to connect to the words on a much deeper level that's available to me. Now, that doesn't mean that every line that I'm saying, I'm going through the chapters that I've written about it every time I recite it, I mean, that would be a very, very long prayer. And it's hard to hold in your head all at once. But I think for me, there's, there's two basic outcomes of this process in terms of my own prayer life. One is just understanding the Siddur as a whole, as something that is really magnificent, and sort of an artwork to be admired. I feel like I have a lot more humility, when it comes to just reciting the words and feeling the privilege of being able to recite these words that carry so much meaning even if I'm not accessing the meeting points at every, every moment. And then the other is, you know, in moments when I want to go deeper on a particular line or concept I can, and that's something that is exciting to be able to do during during prayer. In some ways I think about it, like how we experience Torah reading, you know, I'm sure from working with students, learning how to chant the Torah. When you chant the Torah reading in synagogue, you know, you can listen to the sounds of the words and that itself can be meaningful and beautiful. But if you're trying to get to the deeper understanding of each of the verses, you're like, This is going way too fast! Like, slow down! I need to pause and ask questions and open up books and whatever. It's like by the time you even do that on one verse there, you know, 50 verses ahead of where you were. So you could say, well, why are we reading Torah like that in synagogue? Should we be stopping and opening it up and spending the time? And you can ask the same question about praying, you know, everybody says, we're moving really fast, this is a very fast service, I've got to stop and consider each word or each line. And I think there is a time and a place to do that. But it might not be during the prayer service itself, or to the extent that it is, it might be on a word or phrase, as opposed to every word or every phrase.
I was going to ask you about timing, that comes up a lot as a challenge. I'm wondering for you, then what the value is, in maintaining a traditional davening, where all of the words are said or at least it is assumed or presumed that all of the words are going to be said. Where does the value lie in that for you?
Yeah, I was as a kid, when I would go to the daily minyan at my at my parents' shul, I remember thinking there's no way they can be saying these words as fast as they claim to be saying them. And then I would practice because I been learning Ashrei, like Psalm 145 in schools, I was like, Ah, here's something I can say, as fast as them. And I would like, wait till I got there, and then I would start at the same time. And they would be, you know, an alphabetical crossing, they'd be down at like, 15 16 17th letter, and I'd be at like the fourth letter. But over time, I actually learned how to say it as fast as they did. And you can say all the words that fast, it's, it's something you can train to do. Now, what do you achieve are accomplished by saying the word that fast? Is a question. I think, there are some texts, interestingly, in our tradition, that say, the faster you daven, the better it is for your concentration, lower, the slower you go, you might sort of break off into spacing out about this or that. And if you're really focused on the pace being quick, then you don't really have time to space out. And there is something to that I have found, it's almost like going into a meditative trance, where if you are keeping a pace, you can get somewhere spiritually that if you slow down, you might start to go off path, or, you know, space out. And so I think there is value to saying the words fast. That is not the same as studying the words, though. It's you can't study the words and say them very fast. That's just not really possible. But I think that there is an inherent value in reciting all the words of the tradition and reciting them at a pace that gets you done. And you can continue to move on with your day. And and that can also be a spiritual experience.
I saw that you posted and this must have been earlier in your project you posted on Facebook, like, what what are you doing, when you say the Amidah? What do you think is happening? Who are you talking to? What are your goals? Like, what do you expect is going to change? I'm wondering because I think about those questions. And I think students do and everybody does. What are the things that you learned, or discovered about that, from the answers that you found, and kind of for yourself through this research? Like, what are we doing?
It was a great Rorschach test into what people are thinking about when they daven. I was posting on Facebook when I was working on a particular blessing of the Amidah, I would just start off by saying, you know, what are you praying for when you recite X blessing and seeing what people responded. What I discovered, actually was that, to my surprise, a lot of people take the words of the prayer book, very literally. So atah chonen leadam da'at, you grace Adam, or people with knowledge, with da'at. So there was a lot of response on that of, you know, I want to know certain things and I want G?d to help me know it, which certainly is an aspect of what that bracha has talking about. But it was that's the most literal way you can read the words. And I saw that over and over again, you know, where people were, you know, in terms of like, fighting for justice, oh, I think about this particular campaign that I am working on in my justice work. Okay, now, that's a very real and localized version of what it means for G?d to be melech ohev tzedaka umishpat, G?d who loves justice and righteousness. But in terms of sort of a more abstract or big picture thinking I didn't see that emerge on the Facebook thread so much, and that's fine. It's just sort of like I'm interested to hear what people are thinking about when they daven. And it was just, they're thinking about very practical and personal experiences with each of these themes. So what I'm interested in like the phrase tzedaka u'mishpat, the G?d who loves tzedaka umishpat, righteousness and justice. So in rabbinic literature, tzedaka u'mishpat as a mash up as two terms that you could have just picked one or the other, like, what's the difference in righteousness and justice, can sometimes be understood as compromise. That is to say, in the language of the rabbi's either be tzuah or pshara, where you're not actually achieving the full truth, because truth means no compromise, but you're trying something else. And what does it mean for the G?d, to praise G?d is the G?d who loves compromise, which is a controversial term, even in rabbinic literature, it's not clear that compromise is the best place to be, maybe truth should be the best place to be. And after all, isn't G?d's seal the seal of truth? So what does it mean? You're sort of taking an interesting stance, by calling G?d the G?d who loves compromise, when you could have had a blessing about truth and call G?d, the G?d who loves truth. So that's not to say that it's not talking about justice and righteousness, and you can think about the justice campaign you're working on. I'm just saying there's more there that you could play around with. And that's sort of what I'm interested in opening up for people.
Yeah. I'm wondering then for you, what might a spiritual goal be in T'fillah? With the practice of davening? What is what is the aim spiritually?
So Rabbi Ebn Leader has a great set of teachings around what are your goals and davening. And I connect to that idea that it's good to set out goals in davening. Otherwise, you don't know if it's being achieved. I think for me, the spiritual goal has always been one of yearning for connection. So it's less about achieving certain outcomes of I want this and I hope it comes like, I want world peace, I want health or whatever. And that's not to say that I don't have moments in prayer where I am focused on those more, bakashot, on the requests, as you know, literal things that I'm hoping for. But I would say the general enterprise, for me of tefillah is one of just feeling G?d's presence more closely. And I think that's can be achieved through the words. And it can be achieved through some of the other aspects that we've spoken about, including music and pace, and the space and what you're wearing. And all those things come together to try to create a sort of spiritual journey in which you feel G?d's presence more closely. One of the interesting things about the structure of the Amidah, where this comes out, is that when you say the Amidah, you bow at the beginning, the first, the first two bows are in the first blessing. And then interestingly, you don't bow in sim shalom, the last blessing, but rather the the, the bowing that you take at the end of the Amidah is in the second to last blessing in modim. Where you bow at the beginning and end of that barcha. Anybody sort of looking at this from the outside would say, oh, that you bow at the beginning, and you bow at the almost ending? That doesn't make a lot of sense. What if modim was the end. You bow at the beginning, you bow at the ending, which is modim, where you're thanking G?d, acknowledging G?d, and what comes after modim? So it's true that it Sim Shalom is the next blessing. But really the structural element that comes between Modim and Sim Shalom is Birkat Kohanim, is the priestly blessing, where which ends veyasem lecha shalom, May G?d grant you peace, which then leads into sim shalom, it's just sort of a riff on the end of that priestly blessing. But in some ways, when you look back at the priestly blessing in the Torah, you understand that this is G?d's answer to our prayers. So in other words, if the first part of the Amidah is me, asking G?d me connecting, trying to reach out to G?d, this is G?d, reaching back out to me. And, at least the Midrash understand that this priestly blessing was recited by Aaron, at the dedication of the Mishkan and right after Aaron recites the priestly blessing, then Veracode adonai, and then G?d's presence was appearing to the people. In other words, it's a precursor to having a spiritual sense of G?d's presence with you. So I've started thinking about the Amidah as sort of a journey of getting closer to experiencing G?d's presence, where the culmination of the Amidah at the end is sort of a liturgical marker of Yes, G?d is blessing me, I'm feeling G?d's protection and G?d's blessing. And I'm going to feel G?d's presence and even see G?d in the way that the Torah explains it, in a clearer way than I did before I prayed. So I would say that's my spiritual goal is to have a deeper experience of G?d's presence as a result of praying.
That's beautiful. I'm certainly going to think of it differently now. And I'm wondering, either using the Amidah as inspiration or really anything else, if we're gonna, if we're talking about G?d, what is a G?d name or a metaphor for G?d that describes how you're understanding G?d in these days? Because there's so many ways different ways that we think about and understanding G?d, is there a favorite name or metaphor? For you?
Yeah, I appreciate it. I wrote a whole chapter on Baruch Atah Hashem, Blessed Are You G?d. What's interesting about that formula, which is the building block of our liturgy is that the rabbi's decided to use the name of G?d as a required aspect of what it means to pray. You could have imagined them using a nickname of G?d that's not as intense as the four letter name yud hey vav hey, but they chose yud hey vav hey, and didn't dance around that. And for me, that name of G?d the most you know, difficult to get to pronounce it but it's difficult to connect to in some ways is a meaningful name and I'll tell you sort of how I think about it these days, when G?d introduces G?d's self to Moshe at the burning bush. G?d says famously eheye asher eheye, I Am that I Am is usually how it's translated. I will be that I will be, which sounds like very mysterious and esoteric like what's your name? I Am that I Am. Oh, that's kind of hard to connect to. But what's interestsing about the word eheye, which is just the first person conjugation of yud hey vav hey, yud hey vav hey is the third person conjugation of how you translate that, will be or am. And eheye is when G?d is speaking saying that about G?d's self, I Am That I Am, I will be that I will be. But what's interesting about the word eheye, is that first of all, it's only in the Torah, it's only associated with G?d, even though it's a simple verb I will be. It's a divine word in some ways. And in each time that the word eheye shows up in the Torah, it's always followed with the conjunction eem, I will be with - with you, or I will be with your mouth. God says, That to Moshe that burning bush, see, I'll be with your mouth. Don't worry. You won't have to face Pharaoh without me. And so there's an aspect to G?d's name, that is about G?d being with us. So it's, I wouldn't translate it as I am that I am but rather, I am with you than I am with you. The rabbi's sort of famously read eheye asher eheye, why is it twice, I will be that I will be. And they note that G?d, G?d will be with us in this slavery in Egypt, and G?d will also be with us in all the future exiles that we experience. And so the rabbi's also sort of emphasize that be with as opposed to be alone. And so it's I think of G?d's name, yud hey vav hey, as the instantiation expression of G?d saying I will be with you. And that's sort of what I'm yearning for in the first place is for for G?d to be with me with us.
Amazing. I love this so much. We did a whole episode on baruch atah yud hey vav hey. And we probably could have talked for multiple hours. So I'd love to hear from you. What what is the blessing formula do? You know what is, are we blessing G?d? There's got to be something. There's got to be something else going on? Right?
Yeah. So there's a lot of possible interpretations of what that phrase means. And a lot of medievals were certainly bothered by that suggestion that we could be actively blessing G?d, like a transitive verb I am acting upon G?d and blessing G?d. Indeed, most of the way they solve that is by saying baruch is just an adjective. I'm calling G?d blessed. Just like I call G?d rachum, or chanun, I call G?d merciful or gracious. That doesn't mean that I am merciful in G?d. But it means that I'm describing G?d as merciful as rachum. So baruch and rachum are the same format. So you could simply be a baruch atah hashem, You are Blessed. I'm describing you. What I think is interesting is and that's a great solution for the medievals, who are really bothered by the possibility that I could be doing anything to G?d in a transitive verb kind of way. But in the Talmud, we get an example in which actually, a rabbi blesses G?d, where a certain Rabbi Yishmael goes up to heaven and sees G?d sitting on the throne. And G?d asks for a blessing. And Rabbi Yishmael offers G?d a blessing, which is essentially don't let your anger overcome your mercy, which is an amazing blessing that, that G?d struggles with apparently. And the end of that sect of the Talmud says this is to teach you that the blessing of someone who is lesser than you in stature shouldn't be taken lightly. Certainly a human is lesser than G?d in stature. But G?d shouldn't take that blessing, even from a human lightly. And even G?d is in need of some sort of blessing. So I guess you could understand baruch atah hashem as I want to bless you, like, may you be blessed as in I'm trying to do something to you, G?d, and that sort of a daring stance from the perspective of what could humans do to G?d, but from the Talmudic view, it seems in line with what we could be offering in this relationship. I think, again, prayer is about, in some ways, deepening our relationship. And if the relationship between us and G?d is only one way, G?d gives us things, or G?d doesn't give us things. G?d's presence is here, or G?d's presence isn't here, then it's a little bit, you know, attenuated. When you have a relationship, both sides of the relationship need to lean in, in some ways. And so the possibility that I might be able to offer a blessing to G?d might deepen that sense of connection. I'm not saying that humans are on the same level, not saying that a human blessing is equivalent to G?d's blessing. But the possibility that we could offer a blessing to G?d might strengthen our potential connection to G?d.
I'm thinking through some of the vocabulary we've been using almost interchangeably. And we think a lot about words on the show. And I'm wondering if you could think through for us what tefillah is versus what davening is, versus what liturgy and prayer are? Are there overlaps? Are they different? Is there one word that you use more than the other? What does it all mean to you?
Yeah, yeah. Well, as as you say, you you're looking closely at word. So each of these words has its own history instead of associations, which may or may not be front of mind for anybody at a given time. But it's fun to investigate them. I think, tefillah, is, I appreciate that word, perhaps the most of all the words, I think tefillah describes for me, both the Amidah and prayer more generally, and indeed, in rabbinic literature, tefillah. lehitpalel, often means, if not always, to, say the Amidah, to say that particular prayer. The interesting thing about the word tefillah or lehitpalel, is that the very first time it shows up in the Torah, it's spoken about when Avraham is meant to pray on behalf of Avimelech, of this local King in Canaan, who had taken Sarah his wife, because he was pretending and she was pretending that that they were brother and sister. And as a result of the mouth taking in Sarah, apparently, the Torah tells us all the children who were meant to be born weren't being born. In other words, there was a general stop up of any birthing that was happening. And so Avraham has to pray, lehitpalel, in order for people to start giving birth again. And what's striking about that use of the word lehitpalel is that first of all, it is praying for someone else. It is praying, praying, and they use this term explicitly in the Torah, for refuah, for healing. And it's praying specifically for the birthing process to reignite, and the Midrash plays on this idea and says that all the knots that were tied, become untied. So you can take this literally and say, Oh, Avraham been prayed and they started having little babies. And that's, that's part of how you might read that passage. But with the midrashic sort of element in there. Imagine a prayer is about asking for the untying of knots that are tied up, you know, the birthing in a more metaphoric sense. The loosening as it were, and, and I think that's all wrapped up in the word lehitpallel. Oftentimes, people speak about it as lehitpalel is a reflexive word, palel might mean to judge in certain biblical context. And so I judged myself, that's an interesting take, as well, I think, although I'm not sure how much actual weight you could give to that meeting from a, Was this the original intent of the word? But again, lehitpalel could have multiple meanings. So you can sometimes think about it as judging yourself, you can sometimes thinking about it as praying for the knots to be untied. You can think about it as praying for someone who's not really in your circle. Avimelech was not in our Abraham's circle. And yet he's praying for their well being. And that's also a powerful aspect of prayer. So that's on T'fillah. I think, you know, some of the other terms that you mentioned, I feel like liturgy is a bracket that makes nobody says I had a great experience the liturgy this morning. So that's just the term that that's how I think about it. Deborah Reed Blank, another teacher of mine, has a real interesting distinction between liturgy and prayer, and really noting how they are not meant to accomplish the same thing. And you know, in some ways, davening, for me, is the act of praying, as opposed to the words of prayer. And so when I say like, you know, time to daven, that's not the same as zman lehitpalel. Like, for me, davening includes all those aspects of the non cognitive side, we've been speaking about how I'm using my voice, what melodies am I using? Where am I going? Who am I davening with? What was the visual experience of that time? For me, that's all wrapped up in the word davening, not sure, about etymological proof for that. But I think there's experientially different than reciting words of prayer.
So as I said before, I teach kids about tefillah, I work with teachers on tefillah. And as a person with kids, I'm wondering how you approached tefillah with your kids or think about tefillah education for young folks in general.
I think the tefillah education is holy work. And I really, I'm so amazed at the people like yourself, who are engaged in drawing in the next generation to experience prayer in a meaningful way. It's so important. I think, you know, one of the things that I learned in the pandemic, is davening in our family at home does not work. So I would say, we get absolute ideas of what it means to be an educator, my wife is also Jewish educator. But when it came time, chips on the table, we're at home every Shabbat and it's time for davening, we did not have a great experience just been there. Obviously, a lot of things going on in March and April 2020. But that was, I wouldn't say our experience of davening at home. I don't have any great learnings from that, except to say that it can be hard with kids and with adults as well. I think that, for me, the biggest way that kids can learn what it means to daven is to experience different kinds of davening environments. And this can be hard because a lot of kids myself included, when I grew up, the only synagogue I ever went to was synagogue of my parents. I think once or twice, I went to a bar mitzvah at another synagogue and I found the whole thing to be totally odd. And I just didn't have any experience of other davening outside of my own little narrow lane until I was almost an adult. I think, to the extent that kids can experience the wide variety of what's out there, it's really helpful and important. And I mean, for me a lot of that took place in Israel, I think Israel is amazing place for kids to experience the variety and davening, every corner has a different option in terms of what davening could look like. And I think one of the challenges that we face at this particular age is, are you willing to go to a dominating space that doesn't reflect your values, in order to experience something that's different from what you're used to? So will you go to a traditional space that's all male, if you can get in? Even though that's not what your values are? Are you willing to be in a place that says certain words that you're not used to, just to get the experience? You know, I'm in the camp of the more experiences, the better and to be sent, the kids can experience that also great. I think the other thing that kids see through is they see through the spiritual double talk of their teachers. So if the teachers have challenges with davening, it comes through to the kids. And I think that's fine. Like kids should understand that grownups also struggle with prayer. But I also wouldn't want it to be limited to the particular teacher that you have and whatever their struggles are. So if you can go to a place where Oh, you know, let's go to this shul, everybody's really into it, and they're loving the davening and maybe that's not where I am as a teacher, but I want you to experience it. I think that's something that can be offered as a gift to kids. And I think the last thing I'll say is that when, when kids are in a davening experience that is real, as opposed to contrive, that's also an important experience for them. What I mean by real is, we're going into a synagogue where people showed up there of their own freewill in order to daven. And we are a guest in that space, as opposed to, we are constructing a prayer space in school or in Hebrew school for you to learn something from, but nobody's really here for their own motivation or reason. That's why, you know, going to the shul, to synagogue is so powerful, because the people who are in shul are not there in order to teach the kids how to daven, t's just something that happens by the by. And to the extent that that can happen. You know, the more that happens, the better, I think, more real davening experiences they have, the more they can take away.
I agree with you saying that t'fillah education is important, which I appreciate. And I'm wondering, is that important just for their relationship with T'fillah? Or what do you hope for them, both as children or as they grow that relationship tefillah can do for them as people?
Well, I think, in its best sense, tefillah can help shape personalities. Some of that, ideally, would be done through the words, you're not supposed to pray in the singular, you're supposed to pray only in the plural. To give a consciousness of this isn't only about me, it's about us. For me, growing up that had a big impact on how I thought of myself in the world. But I think also, you know, seeing other people, of other generations, in a prayerful space, and in a prayerful moment, can also teach kids how to be in the world. You know, when I see a grown up, who is really into it and swaying or shuckling, or, you know, davening loudly, or however they're expressing themselves for a kid to see, yeah, I can have a spiritual life that doesn't have to be bottled up inside me. It can, it can take expression on my body and through my, through my lips. And that that is a great learning of just how to be in the world whether or not you apply that to prayer lucidly. So I think there is a lot of character development education that can come along with free tefillah education.
Beautiful, and to wrap up our conversation, all of the research that you've done these methodologies that you've taken together, do you have any suggestions for what that could mean, both for communities of prayer, minyanim, synagogues, davening communities, and for individual people as pray-ers, how might this change or shape or enhance our prayer lives?
So my first recommendation is just to allow yourself to study the words of the prayer book. Thank heavens there's a lot more resources out there now that you can take advantage of and some wonderful prayer book translations as well before in fact, translation is beautiful. You know, at Hadar, and other places, you can you can learn more about the prayer book. And I think that that's one way to become more connected to the words and and you know, there's also so much amazing music, you are obviously making some yourself and the number of your colleagues in the field Joey Weisenberg, Deborah Sacks Mintz, Batya Levine, there's, there's so much out there in terms of liturgical music that is creative and contemporary. And I think connecting to some of those, again, non, non verbal aspects of the T'fillah can also be a project that anyone can take on as all you need is a Spotify account. So there's, there's a lot less barriers to entry now in accessing the words in a more deeper or deep way. And I think, you know, we're living in a great time of access to information and inspiration, and we just need to set aside the time to encounter it.
Amen, amen, that's a beautiful place for us to end. Thank you so, so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Very excited for everyone to hear all the wonderful things and the wisdom that you've brought us.
It's great to be here with you and good luck with all of your work!
Thank you. And thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about Hadar at hadar.org. Thank you so much to Christi Dodge of Allobee for editing. To Yaffa Englander for our show notes. The show notes are great. They've got everything that you need in there, so please take a look at those. Please follow us on Instagram at the light dot lab. Join in on the conversation. Can't wait to be back.