By Jamie Gottlieb
Growing up, my childhood Rabbi told the same story every year about his first time in shul. He was there for a friends Bar Mitzvah, and had no idea what he was doing. He reached down and picked up the book placed in front of him and mimicked the actions of the people praying around him. Soon into what my Rabbi now knows is the amidah, the man next to him reached over and turned my Rabbi’s “book” around. My rabbi’s face turned bright red when he realized he’d been holding the siddur upside down the whole time he was in the synagogue.
Well, while many Jews may not physically be holding their siddurim upside down, often times we have no idea how to derive meaning or connection from the prayers within them. Many Rabbis have different interpretations and answers to the question of how we find meaning in prayer. However, Rabbi Elie Kaufner flips this concept on its head. Instead of asking how we can find meaning in prayers, he asserts that the siddur is a summary of the Torah. Therefore we can derive meaning from the context surrounding the lines that make up the siddur.
This enables us to reframe the siddur as a pathway to a series of mindful meditations. These meditations allow us to stop and practice true gratitude for our lives, whether that be to a traditional g-d, higher power, or whatever one may believe in. The beauty is that for this method you don’t have to believe in any type of G-d figure at all!
Rabbi Kaufner took us through one of the central prayers of the Amidah to show us how this analysis of the siddur would work in practice. Line by line we picked apart the first blessing of the Amidah. Creating several stops along the way and paving our own path to prayer. One of these stops that I found particularly impactful was when we looked at the context of the line “of God most high” which includes the mention of righteous non-jew Malki Zedek. This moment in my prayer practice will now be dedicated to displaying gratitude for all of the wonderful non Jews I have in my life.
Reframing prayer in this way has the ability to imbue so many lives with meaning. However, in order for this idea to become popularized this intentionality would need to be imbued into our Jewish educational framework. A complete overhaul of how we teach prayer and Torah in most (but not all) of the North American Jewish world would need to take place. Instead of teaching prayer through memorization of hebrew words people don’t understand, we need to improve Jewish literacy. Focusing on understanding context not just reading the words. Finding meaning that will sustain a commitment to Jewish life and learning past one’s Bar Mitzvah. Granting every Jewish person with the ability to crack the siddur code and pave their own pathway to prayer.
What Rabbi Ellie Kaufner taught us in his shuir is of utmost importance to the sustained future of Judaism in North America. He didn’t simply teach us the “correct” way to approach prayer. Instead he taught us how to use a tool that will help us find meaning in our lives and that we can pass on to help others.