New Year of the Trees
Preparing (or not) for Purim

Definitions of davvenen

On an email list to which I belong, someone recently posted a quote from To Be A Jew, by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin: "Although the halakha has ruled that prayer can be said in any language, and an individual is permitted to do so when saying his own prayers, it is most important that a community or a congregation does not deviate from the practice of conducting its public religious services in Hebrew, the sacred tongue....It is only through a relatively uniform Hebrew service...that the unity of the Jewish people throughout the world is strengthened.... It enables a Jew to feel at home in any synagogue anywhere in the world, even where one is unable otherwise to communicate with his coreligionists because they speak other languages."

On the one hand, I see Rabbi Donin's point that preserving Hebrew as the language of communal prayer connects Jews to each other, both across time and across space. There is something rich and resonant about Hebrew; some have argued that it's the mystical resonances of Hebrew which create and sustain the world. On a more prosaic level, I like singing Hebrew prayers because the words and melodies blend together into something that can (if I'm lucky) transport me somewhere ineffable. And I know that, if we replace Hebrew in our liturgies, the next generation of Jews is unlikely to grow up loving these melodies and words as much as I do.

On the proverbial other hand, though, I also support the inclusion of English translations in the siddurim I use, both because my Hebrew isn't fluent and because I want to be conscious of the needs of those (our non-Jewish partners or family members, or Jews who didn't get a strong Judaic education) who don't speak Hebrew at all. And clearly, when I speak directly to God, I do so in my mother tongue. God doesn't "care" what language we pray in; if Hebrew is keeping people out, why not also pray in English?

Another list-member posted a related idea, credited to Arthur Green: while each of us naturally speaks directly to God (in other words, prays) in her/his native tongue, davvenen happens only in Hebrew. I had always assumed that "davven" and "pray" were synonyms, but I wonder now whether they are different. Unlike prayer, davvening implies rhythm and melody, even movement. When we davven we sing or chant, rather than merely speaking. Even so, I’m reluctant to agree that davvenen can never be a vernacular activity; I feel certain that I have davvened in English from time to time. The distinction is a useful framework, but I want to hang exceptions all over it.

Maybe what I'm after is a balance between davvenen and praying, however we define them. If a service is all short English prayers and adaptations, I long for the sounds and melodies of the Hebrew prayers I grew up with. But if the emphasis seems more on following the congregation's custom of Hebrew prayer repetitions than on ensuring a meaningful worship experience for the people involved, I get cranky and lose my sense of joyful connection.

Traditional davvenen can feel inaccessible to outsiders. As Rabbi Goldie Milgram writes, "Many Jews complain of having difficulty finding deep meaning in the traditional prayer service. Many of us were conditioned to accept that for Jews 'praying' is accomplished by simply reciting or chanting all the words, preferably in Hebrew. It is helpful and interesting to note that in the Talmud our ancestors worried that writing down their prayers could lead to just such a deadening rote recitation by subsequent generations."

Of course, I also know wise, engaged people who would argue that rote recitation can be a deeply spiritual meditative process. That when we know the Hebrew words and melodies deep in our bones, we can recite them as we would recite mantras, moving through sound and beyond sense into a connection with God that transcends individual praying. Communal versus personal; Hebrew versus vernacular; the words of my mouth versus the meditations of my heart -- how to reconcile these varying priorities?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does an excellent job of exploring the personal and communal nature of Jewish davvening/prayer. (Scroll about halfway down, to the section marked "Prayer: Collective or Individual?") Sacks draws an excellent distinction between "tefillah as the collective act of the praying community and prayer as an individual dialogue between the soul and God." Historically, he argues, Judaism has always included these two ideals and the tension between them.

Sacks writes, "Today's young Jews want to learn for themselves and to davven for themselves. They do not wish to be exempted by a shaliach. They want to be active participants, and they are right.  They have rediscovered the depth-grammar of the sages' definition of prayer as avodah shebelev, inadequately translated as 'the service of the heart'. Avodah, however, really means 'hard work,' and genuine prayer is hard work. What Sir Joshua Reynolds said about genius applies equally to spirituality: it is ninety-nine per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration. A friend once gave me a marvelous insight into hassidic music. A niggun, he said, is like a bed on a cold night. First you warm it up, then it warms you up. The same is true about prayer." In addition to the smart things he has to say about music, I must also praise one more thing, to wit, his last line: "Tefillah is where we create the space in our soul for the presence of God."

Edited to add: This post was written in 2004. For a 2006 return to these themes, check out Davvenen, redux.