Public and Silent Worship. Part I: Rhythm & Intention by Rabbi Golomb

Regular attendees of Vassar Temple’s Friday evening services note a substantial shift in how worship is done when the service is moved from 7:30 to the pre-dinner 6pm time during the winter months. The change is that we substitute the public reading of the central portion of the service – the Amidah – with a silent reading. An important reason for that change is to facilitate a somewhat shorter service in time. It also represents two approaches to worship based in Jewish tradition and practice. Here, in this and the next two blog submissions, I will explain the sources of the two approaches.

Jewish worship is a strange thing. When does one pray? Whenever you feel the need or urge to pray: in the morning, evening, the middle of the night. And where does one pray? Wherever you are at the time you feel you ought to pray. At home, at work, on vacation, in the car. So, what is prayer that is recited at a fixed time and in a fixed location? Informally, Jews do not refer to this activity as prayer, but rather as davening. But, does this mean that when you show up at the synagogue on a Friday evening for services, you are not praying?

From the earliest days of the worship service, this issue concerned Jewish religious leadership, the classic Rabbis. They responded to the problem by suggesting that one must approach the service with two attitudes: keva and kavanah; with consistency and devotion.

Keva, its literal meaning is “rhythm,” is similar to the attitude you might have when you brush your teeth, take the dog for a walk or catch the 6:32 train each morning to work. These are repeatable activities, but they are not merely habits. You do them because they each have an intrinsic value, and thus you do them even when you are not particularly in the mood. Sometimes you simply wish to forego brushing your teeth, but you do it anyway. You do it not just because you are concerned about cavities or bad breath, but also because you sense that you are going to feel bad later on if you did not.

Such is the keva of Jewish worship: a regularly performed act made up of a consistent set of prayers and readings, to be recited in community (the minyan) at a particular location (the synagogue) and a set time. You go and recite the prayers, occasionally even when you do not feel particularly interested in doing so, because you also sense that it is important, and because you will miss it later if you neglected it. The keva of Jewish worship requires merely showing up.

Kavanah [literally “intention”], on the other hand, does pertain to attitude. The liturgy of Jewish worship is, after all, prayer. It is supposed to speak to the heart, to your hopes and dreams. To this end, Jewish worship demands more than merely showing up. It asks you to wring meaning out of the words set before you on the page of the siddur (prayerbook), and to make them your own.

As you can see, keva and kavanah are in tension. The sheer obligation to recite prayers at a set time and place works against doing so with feeling and devotion. The classic Rabbis did not expect individuals (including themselves) to resolve this tension. Such is the reality of life. They did, however, offer some techniques that made the melding of the two distinct elements of worship more possible. In the next post, I will discuss what the Rabbis suggested.

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