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Rabbi poses different approach to prayer in new book

“Praying the Bible: Finding Personal Meaning in the Siddur, Ending Boredom & Making Each Prayer Experience Unique” by Rabbi Mark Levin, available Aug. 5, 2016 from Jewish Lights Publishing, paperback, $18.99, or Amazon.com, $17.31.

Because we read the same prayers week after week at Shabbat services and know them so well, we recite them by rote. We sometimes wonder how they apply to us.

Rabbi Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah, has written a book explaining a different approach to understanding the meaning of prayer. He says Jewish prayer is very different than many people think and he wants the general Jewish public to have access to it.

In “Praying the Bible: Finding Personal Meaning in the Siddur, Ending Boredom & Making Each Prayer Experience Unique,” he talks about how the siddur is not at all boring and repetitive.

“Jewish prayer was constructed by the rabbis to have meaning on about four or five different levels,” he says. “I’m writing about a level that has not been written in a book before about how to interpret and understand the prayers so they can have a different kind of meaning in your life.”

In any number of prayer books there’s a list next to the prayers showing that there are quotes from the Bible in each of the prayers. For example, when you pray “God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” that’s a biblical quotation in four places in the Bible: Exodus 3, twice in Exodus 6 and once in Nehemiah.

“So the question then becomes why are there all these quotations; why did the rabbis consciously quote the Bible in the prayers,” Rabbi Levin says. “Most of us just say, OK, so there are biblical quotations there, now let’s move on to the next subject. But something we’ve come to understand is intertextuality, a subject in a number of academic disciplines. Intertextuality is taking the quotation from one place and putting it in another.”

He says intertextuality means you’re not just taking the quote from someplace; you’re taking the whole context in which that quotation is found. For example, you see a quote from Exodus, Chapter 6, and wonder why the rabbis chose that particular quote. But if you read the whole chapter, it becomes clear how it applies to the prayer in the siddur.

“So you’ve got the prayer and the quotation, and then you bring yourself into it, to your own existential situation,” he explains. “One of the chapters is about ‘Adon Olam,’ very simple, everyone in the Jewish world knows ‘Adon Olam’ by heart, but nobody knows what it means. When we go through the translation, take the words ----------v’chai go’ali----------. ‘Adon Olam’ is about God being in control of the world and He takes care of me. So when you say v’chai go’ali, it’s a quotation from the Book of Job. Well, what happened to Job? Everything bad in life happened to Job, but he retained his faith and God was good to him.”

From this we realize that no matter what is going wrong in our lives — illness, the loss of someone, even a child, financial difficulty — we know that God still has our best intentions at heart and God is our redeemer; we continue to have faith in God, Rabbi Levin says. “And just as Job’s life turned out OK, so my life is going to turn out OK. That whole idea is brought in in just two words — v’chai go’ali.”

He continues, “How does that story apply in this case to the song, what does the song ‘Adon Olam’ mean? It actually quotes Moses and other places, and just as these people had tsuris in their lives and God took care of them, so with the tsuris in my life God will take care of me. That’s why the quotations are there.”

When we’re praying the ----------Amidah----------, which in the Shabbat service is four times, it may seem repetitious, but Rabbi Levin says look at it and ask yourself “what does this quotation mean to me now in this moment in my life?” If you’re suffering, maybe it says something to you.

“Or if you’re wondering about your place in Jewish history — God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — how does that play out in Exodus and then how does that play out in your life today,” the rabbi says. “I talk about how it played out in terms of the biblical world and how it might play out in your own life today. So the praying experience is never the same thing twice.”

Rabbi Levin says he has learned over the years that people want to have a dynamic and meaningful prayer life, but don’t know how. So in his book, he shows them.

“You don’t absolutely have to believe in God’s existence in order to have things that you contemplate, that are meaningful to you, in the midst of a prayer service,” he says. “Look at these ideas and how they relate to you and your situation. It does take a little bit of understanding and a little bit of work and you have to think about things when you’re praying to utilize this.”

The literal meaning of prayers is satisfying, but sometimes people want to go to a different level. Rabbi Levin says it is important to him to be able to work with people and have them say that this is understandable in a whole different way.

“The rabbis developed the prayers consciously for these different levels knowing that there’s a great variety in the Jewish community,” he says. “The words in the siddur are the same every week, but the meanings vary according to our personal situations and our interaction with the prayers. So how are you going to make it meaningful over generations and every day? Well, I’m putting this kind of variety in (the book) and I’ve seen it work for people. It’s been very gratifying over the last couple of decades.”

Rabbi Levin developed these theories in the 1990s. The book is the result of his 2001 Doctor of Hebrew Union Letters dissertation.

He says he looks forward to opportunities in the community like Day of Discovery to help people understand this concept.

“This is a different approach as to how this might work out to enhance their prayer lives and how this different approach might bring added meaning and connection to Jewish tradition and connection to the meaning of prayer,” the rabbi says. “But some of that has to be done not just by reading the book, but after reading the book having some discussion about how these things are meaningful to people’s lives.”