And the Lord said: Because this people has drawn near, honoring Me with their mouth and lips while distancing their heart from Me, and their fear of Me is (commandment of men) learned by rote… (Yeshaya 29:13)
In this biting critique the prophet protests against one of man’s most common flaws during prayer. In Jewish tradition, the art of prayer carries a paradoxical demand. There is the need to carefully follow the words of the prayer book and never deviate from them while at the same time praying with great devotion. The sages, in their infinite knowledge of the human soul, were able to create words of prayer that could touch each human being in a unique way, according to the many diverse dimensions of human nature. Once they determined which combination of words suited this need, they instituted the prayer book.
Still, this was not without danger. The repetition of words can easily become rote and may cause them to eventually lose meaning and inspiration, turning prayer into a mechanical performance. Martin Buber, who was not an observant Jew but was a keen reader of the religious mind, called this der Fluch der Geläufigkeit, the curse of fluency.
To combat this problem the sages emphasized the great need for kavana, spiritual intent and concentration while praying, through which one tries to touch the music of the prayer words. Without such an endeavor much of prayer can become almost meaningless.
This however has never been an easy matter, not even for the most pious. All of us frequently succumb to the danger of prayer by rote, which can easily lead to other serious problems. The worshippers may be so arrogantly satisfied with themselves that they completely forget in front of Whom they stand while praying. They no longer speak or listen to God, but rather to themselves. Their prayer becomes a performance in which they themselves are the audience. At other times it may lead to a situation in which the worshipper does not even hear himself since his mind is somewhere else altogether. In that case there is no audience at all and the prayers end up in no man’s land. Not uncommon is the situation where an element of competitiveness sets in and a worshipper tries to outdo his neighbor. This may result in a game with the real objective being who can pray longer (or shorter) or more loudly. One no longer thinks of God but of one’s neighbor. We may call this a godless prayer.
Besides the need for the worshipper to use all available techniques to overcome and fight this problem – careful study of the prayers, meditation and singing, to name a few – it is also the task of the chazzan to save his congregation from these pitfalls. He is to provide a living commentary on the prayer book while leading them through the prayers. The intonation of his voice, his emotional connection with the prayer book, his body language, and even his facial expression should give new meaning to the prayers and carry his congregation into a different state of mind and heart. He must try to create a revolution in the souls of all his fellow Jews.
It is not only prayer that is often reduced to this curse of fluency, but also the reading of the Torah in synagogue. Some ba’ale koreh (those who read the Torah before the congregation) have become such expertly fluent readers that they run through the Torah text with great ease, amazing pace and lack of even the slightest mistakes. One has the impression they are skating over smooth ice while their minds are in a different and faraway world. Often the ba’al koreh’s performance is made without the slightest show of emotion, or connection with the text, and one sometimes wonders when he will actually fall asleep right on top of the Torah scroll, since he seems to be totally bored.
A Torah text must be rendered as a poem, read with all the intonations and vibrations as indicated in the trop (the musical notes as stated by tradition). The ba’al koreh, like the chazzan, has to throw himself totally into the text and experience it as if he has never read it before. He must feel involved, accompanying Josef in Pharaoh’s prison and traveling with the Israelites when they find themselves in the desert on their way to Mt. Sinai. The Torah text must hit him so that he walks away from it in a state of exaltation, overwhelmed by its message and implication. Only then has he actually read it as it was meant to be read. In fact the reading should have such an impact that there may be a need to stop in the middle just to calm down from all the emotions which the text provokes and to make sure that one does not lose conscious after one is hit by the divinity of its words.
It is the task of every chazzan and ba’al koreh to educate himself and discover ways in which he can inspire himself and the congregation so as not to get trapped in this curse of fluency. Praying and Torah reading should be experiences never to be forgotten.
Religious leaders and thinkers today may have to give serious consideration to the shortening of prayers and even of the Torah reading. In our times in which secularity has penetrated in every fiber of our lives, earlier standards of religious devotion are becoming more and more difficult. The quality of our prayers may have to take precedence over quantity and some prayers may no longer work for us, some may be too exalted, others emotionally too distant from the minds and hearts of most worshippers. After all to pray to God is not without danger. We must make sure that we are not guilty of religious plagiarism and imitation. Even of ourselves.