Rabbi Leibowitz will be appearing at Limmud, the convention of Jewish learning that will meet in East Brunswick next weekend. And while he will discuss the issue of alternative kashrut supervision, he also will deal with the question of making prayer meaningful. He will lead a “Slow Down Shacharit” service and a session called “Too Many Words! Why the Siddur is Broken, and How We Can Fix It.”
“Many people experience the siddur as having too many words. Its challenging for many people, even people who are fluent in Hebrew,” he explained.
It’s not a question of the service taking too long. “Sincere spiritual practice requires time,” he said.
Rather, “The heart likes things simple. There’s very little room left in our liturgy for the simplicity of spending some time with a word before I have to move on to the next.”
Leibowitz has been experimenting with “creative formats” to serve as a gateway into prayer.
“I’m looking for the quality of the words, not the quantity of the words,” he said.
One particular place where he likes to swap quantity for quality is the Psukei d’Zimra portion of the morning services. “These preliminary psalms carry a minimal level of obligation. It’s not like the recitation of the Shema.”
Usually, these dozen psalms are “mumbled over the course of a couple of minutes.” But Leibowitz said that “the true obligation is the connection to the divine, not mumbling words.
“Pick one psalm, and read it through, and discuss it. Let people express what different parts mean to them. Then contemplate a few minutes in silence. Maybe take one word from the psalm and chant it over and over again.
“Conversation and study works well for people with more intellectual sensibility. For more spiritual and New Age-y type of folks, spending 20 minutes just chanting one word over and over again can be very powerful and connecting.”
Leibowitz has been running occasional services like this in Jerusalem living rooms. He started by approaching a “non-religious family” and asking them to invite their friends for “for an hour and a half on a Shabbat morning. It was halachic. The men and women sat separately. All the things that are absolute halachic obligations we said, but there’s so much that is not obligatory, that it left a tremendous amount of time for contemplation, for song, for meditation. At the end of the session, without fail there was a volunteer to host the next one.”
Liebowitz said the feedback has been “extremely encouraging,” both from people who had never been at Shabbat services “and people who had come their whole life. It’s heartbreaking the frustration people express after a lifetime of prayer while never feeling it’s something they want to do.”