Thoughts to Ponder 119

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The Curse of Fluency
And the Lord said: For as much as this people draw near,
And with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me,
But have removed their heart far 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 the most common failures while praying. As is well known, the art of prayer within the Jewish Tradition carries a paradoxical demand. There is the need to carefully follow the words of the prayer book and never to deviate from them. The sages with their wisdom of the human soul, were able to create words of prayer which could touch each human being in a different way and according to the many diverse dimensions of human nature. After they determined which combination of words were befitting this need, they instituted the prayer book. 

Still this was not without danger. The repetition of words can easily become learned by rote and the meaning and inspirational aspects of the words can get totally lost and turn into a mechanical performance. Scholars have called this Der Fluch der Gelaeufigkeit, the curse of fluency.

To fight this problem the sages asked for kavana, man’s spiritual intent and concentration while praying in 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 occasionally succumb to the danger of prayer by rote. This can easily lead to other serious problems. The worshippers may be so haughtily satisfied with themselves, that they completely forget in front of Whom they stand while praying. They no longer speak or listen to God, but listen to themselves.  Their prayer becomes a performance in which they themselves become 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 kind of game in which the real objective is to see who can pray more loudly or even longer (or shorter).One no more thinks of God but of one’s neighbor. We may call this a kind of godless prayer.

Besides the need for the worshipper to use all the techniques available to him to overcome and fight this problem, (careful study of the prayers, meditation, singing,) it is also the task of the chazan to save his congregation from these pitfalls. His task is to provide a living commentary to the prayer book while leading them in prayers. The intonation of his voice, his emotional connection with the prayer book and his body language, even facial expression should give new meaning to the prayers and carry his congregation into a different mind and heart setting. He must try to create a revolution in the souls of all of his fellow Jews.

Not only is prayer often reduced to this “curse of fluency”, but also the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. Some “ba’ale kore” (those who read the Torah in front of the congregation) have become such experts and fluent readers, that they run through the Torah text with such an ease, amazing pace and lack of the slightest mistakes, that one gets the impression  they are skating over smooth ice while their minds are altogether in a different world. Often their performance is made without the slightest show of emotion or connection with the actual text and one sometimes wonders when the “ba’al kore” will actually fall asleep right on top of the Torah scroll, since he seems to be totally bored.

A Torah text must be read and rendered as a poem, with all the intonations and vibrations which are indicated in the traditional “trop’ (the musical setting as stated by Tradition). The ba’al kore, just like the chazzan, has to totally throw himself into the text and experience it as if he had never read it before. He must feel involved, accompany Josef in the prison of Pharao and travel with the Israelites when they find themselves in the desert on their way to Sinai.  The Torah text must “hit” him and he should walk 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.

It is the task of every chazzan and ba’al kore to educate themselves and to discover ways in which they can inspire themselves and the congregation so as not to get trapped into this curse of fluency. Prayer or Torah reading should be an experience never to be forgotten.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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