1/24/2005

undestanding what we say vs. saying what we understand

ok. now to the meat of the issue raised by the Godol and superficially addressed in my last post.

Let's face it. It's hard to educate people to not only read but also understand the traditional Jewish liturgy. Try "k'for ka-efer yefazer" on your average Balabos. Forget about learning from non-English texts. But I'm not the first and won't be the last to comment on the ArtScroll generation. I'm more interested in implications and attempted solutions.

The first question that one would need to ask is - is it better to pray in the 'original' without understanding, or in the vernacular with understanding?

To a large degree, this question has been answered differently by Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements. Of course, there are Orthodox services in the vernacular, but, significantly, they're called "Beginner's Services", acknowledging that advancement will entail changing the language.

On this issue I'm totallt with Orthodoxy, with some caveats, and 'lav mita'amaihu'. In instances that what's necessary is an immediate, spontaneous prayer, the more meaningful for the pray-er, the better. One-time deals also, and sometimes for individuals, especially if they're older, even on a consistent basis. The standard charedi rationale for non-vernacular prayer, based on the Nefesh Ha-chaim, is that "matbe'a she-tav'u Chachamim" contains hidden and mystical meanings that can affect the world in unknown ways by their mere recitation.

I don't buy it at face value, and I'll assume that R' Chaim Volozhiner meant something along the lines of what I'm about to write:
Language = culture. The language of our prayer reflects the values, norms, goals, and assumptions of the culture in which they were formulated. Ideally, prayer in that language recaptures those original meanings. Those meanings, however, become more and more difficult to recapture the further away we are culturally. It requires a lot of learning (which Chaza"l understood when they put the "Da'at" as the first petition in 18; R' Shalom Carmy has an excellent article on this, but I don't remember where). Nevertheless, using the original as opposed to a vernacular translation will, at the very least, not empty the prayers of their original cultural context, and, indeed, allow for subtle and often imperceptible absorption of some of that original meaning. Granted, it's not possible for anyone to really transport themselves back to whichever centuries our liturgy was formulated in, but there can always be some transfer of that original meaning to the modern pray-er. Perhaps R' Chaim is saying that there's always some transfer of that original Jewish culture coming through and subtly transforming the person who prays in that language.

The more we introduce the vernacular, the more we deny access to the Rabbinic culture in which our prayers were born, and the less prayer is a potentially meaningful experience.

One last point. Language acquisition is intuitive. Every child does it. It only becomes hard in scholastic, didactic settings. The French don't complain about how French is so difficult.
Moreover, Howard Gardner has documented what many of us already know - that scholastic knowledge doesn't alsways transfer into life situations, i.e., isn't always understood in the sense that it can become functional (sounds like Gardner is a Chabadnik, no?).

Thus, having students memorize translations of prayer words, or publishing siddurim with linear translations, or even with line-by-line Hebrew explanations of the words, isn't much better than praying without understanding. My goal is to say "Shma" and think and mean "Shma", not to say "Shma" and think "Listen". I'm pretty well convinced that the Bais Yaakov Biur Tefilla courses miss the mark entirely. The ability to sit down and write out a translation of Ashrei is pretty meaningless. Even if committed to memory, the maidelach will either be too busy translating while davening, or will mumble through it like everyone else who doesn't understand.

Do I have a solution? Not really. It requires one to be able to think in Rabbinic Hebrew. Practice by reading, thinking, speaking, writing. No shortcuts along this 'Pathway to Prayer'.
Halevai it'll work for me, too.
SHR

Actually, one FINAL thought. Perhaps the end of this will be that, someday, just as korbanot had become empty of meaning and had to be replaced, for all intents and purposes, by prayer, maybe that will happen to prayer itself. Maybe prayer will continue pro forma, but our real meaningful acts of submission to God will be through a different medium. Who knows?
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