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.

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?


ADDeRabbi said...

i agree regarding some of the more obscure piyutim and kinot. sacrificing quantity for quality does make sense - would someone be willing to chop up psukei d'zimra?
korbanot, by the way, have essentially been dropped from the liturgy. it's still in the siddur, but most shuls don't even say it, kal va-chomer people. part of the orthodox way - leave it in the siddur but nobody say it, rather than just taking it out. there's a lot of chochmah in that approach, in a convoluted way.
new siddurim don't have the yotzros anymore, and you won't hear much complaining.
BTW - the Kibutz Ha-dati movement has tried rewriting parts of the siddur. they rewrote 'Nacheim'. Honestly, saying "ha-shomemah me'ein yosheiv" is a blatant lie about Jerusalem. I think it's pretty dangerous, actually. I don't say that phrase, but I'm uncomfortable taking it out of the siddur, much like korbanot.
btw - tefillah le-shlom ha-medinah is an example of a newer prayer, loaded with meaning, written in a very poetic 'lishna de-rabbanan', and the highlight of the service in many MO synagogues.
i feel that 'hanach la-hem le-yisrael: im einan nevi'im heim, b'nei nevi'im hem' applies here. the Jewish community will address its spiritual needs instinctively. probably in israel, where the real Jewish creativity is.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting topic. A couple of thoughts taking the opposite approach ... korbanos in t'fillah is a fulfillment of the pasuk 'u'nishalmah parim sifaseinu' not just 't'fillah.' If you look in the meforshei Shulchan Aruch (not the MB) you'll notice that this parallel is taken VERY seriously to the extent that we don't say Mizmor L'Sodah on Pesach and there are questions about saying parshas sh'lomim and the like on Shabbos. I think it's wrong to drop these things because they don't speak to us (the Rambam in Moreh N'vuchim is in stark contradiction to Mishna Torah where he explicitly says that he won't discuss things that are not meant for always and spends LOTS of time on korbanos). In addition, the chapter of Aizehu mkoman and the braisa of R' Yishmael fulfill part of Talmud Torah (look at the Rishonim in Kiddushin regarding learning mikra, mishna, and gmara).
So, not everything in davening is necessarily supplications...

Next, what's wrong with understanding payrush hamilim? That's what is necessary to be yotzai shmoneh esrei (in the first bracha) and Sh'ma. Is it nice to have the t'fillos 'speak to you?' Sure. And it's the gmara at the end of Menachos which talks about echad hamarbeh... But before we become interested in warm and fuzzy davenings let's define our goals...

The gmara talks about the reason certain prayers are in Aramaic. While I don't understand these reasons you better have a real good reason to change them (and saying that people don't understand is a cop-out - teach them what is means).

I hate to defend Bais Yaakov girls - but your comment about them is stupid. If they daven every day then of course they don't have to spend time translating. Of course I do think that if we approached a t'fillah class like a gmara one and took it as seriously we would understand much better...

Let's remember that most of t'fillah is part of Tehillim and the like which were canonized solely because they speak to all generations - there are lessons for us in there too.

Finally, davening is not going anywhere. If you look at the gmara in Ta'anis (last perek) you'll see that it was around when there were korbanos also. It's not hard to educate people about Jewish liturgy - just no one ever tries.


M-n said...

Prayer? The Gods are not pleased with your infidelity. To the fiery pit of Tartarus with you!!(To those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with fundamentalist christian propaganda, that's a spoof of a Jack Chick pamphlet.)

ADDeRabbi said...

I'm afraid I've been misunderstood (not the first time). Korbanot can be a very important part of davening. R' Yonah in Brachot even thinks it's a kiyum of a de-orayta to say the parashat ha-tamid. i say it myself. the point is, most shuls don't and most people don't, and it's not seen as a terrible loss. i'm not advocating taking it out of the siddur. but i'm observing that very few people say it.
regarding peirush ha-milim, i contend that the requirement is to know what i'm saying as i say it, the same way that when i speak conversationally there's no need to contrive the meanings, rather, they're intuitive. i used bais yaakov, perhaps unfairly, as a straw-man for an approach which emphasizes knowledge of what the words mean without achieving the goal of 'kavvanat peirush ha-milim' the way i understand it.
i'm not sure where Elitzur got the idea that i was advocating some kind of touchy-feely 'spiritual' experience in lieu of tefillah. i'm open, however, to exploring other avenues of true avodah she-balev.

Jewish Exile said...

For me, if I have kavana at all, I can get to the point where I know the meaning of what I'm saying without translating. It was easier when I was in Israel, and I assume it comes much much easier to Israelis. Am I mistaken on that point?

Kibi said...

Hebrew hasn't really changed all that much in the last few thousand years - particularly due to the fact that Ben-Yehuda had to revive it from old texts - so the simple answer is learn to speak modern Hebrew, read it, write it, and then tefilla will be a much more meaningful experience for you. Teach your kids Hebrew too. Worried they won't learn enough Hebrew in school? Move to Israel! There's lot's of room for everyone.