My father, of blessed memory, used to complain how adept he was at reading prayers that he didn’t understand. It was a critique of how meaningless he found the enterprise of “praying” in a foreign language. Even the notion of reading along in English while responding in Hebrew seemed to be a cumbersome layer that made little sense to him.
He was not alone. Hence, in answer to the Hebrew illiteracy of those like him, and the compelling logic that prayer should be meaningful or it is worthless, accommodations in the form of American Judaisms were made. I don’t argue with the critique or the capitulation to the throngs, but I do take issue with the premise that praying in an incomprehensible language is totally worthless. It certainly is better to know what one is saying, but it could be that a momentary meaningful experience is worth less than formal participation in a liturgy that is foreign in all respects.
Never has the threshold for boredom been lower than it is today. Blame it on the ubiquitous media that fires on all cylinders all the time, or the snappy 30 second vignettes of Sesame Street or whatever, but the need to be constantly stimulated is at an all time high. There is a conflation between being stimulated, a somewhat primitive need, and seeking meaning, an ostensibly more noble pursuit. It mirrors the conceptual difference between form and content. Forms, things that are formal evoke a yawn from those who yearn for the spontaneous, the immediate, the unmeasured. Formal equals stiff, but also has an aura of permanence. Formality informs stability, predictability and longevity. Routines may not be exciting but they are dependable, year in and year out, whereas the memory of a powerful experience will not sustain one over the long haul.
In the long run, a meaningful experience may be rendered meaning-less, while participating in a formal environment that is not particularly meaningful for the individual at the moment, may be quite meaningful upon reflection. It is all a question of attitude. Does the experience exist to sustain me, or do I exist to help sustain it? Ideally, it should be both, but if one has to choose which is more important for the long haul?
I don’t recommend the meaningless patter of my father as a means toward a rich Jewish life, or a life of Jewish meaning, but his rendering of words he didn’t understand had value because he, however unwittingly, was supporting the experience more than it was supporting him. The proof of that is it laid the groundwork for me to be sustained from the experience and help sustain the experience as well. It was his gift to me and I’m just realizing it now.
Ironically, that which was meaningful one moment may prove to be meaningless at best and false at worst while that which was dull, lackluster and deadly may prove to have resonance for many generations to follow.
It did for me. Thanks, Dad.