Keva & Kavvanah

How the balance of Keva (routine) and Kavvanah (intention) inform Judaism and the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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Arnold Jacob Wolf wrote this meditation on the balance between the fixed and the imaginative as an introduction to a reflection on the life and teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Wolf points to the danger of trivializing prayer if it is allowed to become routine, while recognizing that it is precisely the routine aspect that transforms the occasional interaction with God to the continual and eternal covenantal bond. From "Abraham Joshua Heschel after twenty-five years" in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter, 1998.

Professor Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our most astute student of Jewish liturgy, describes the three great periods of creative Jewish prayer-making. The first, the classical period of the rabbis, provided what that age needed: limits. It offered interpretations of when, how, and in what way the prayers were to be arranged and recited. It gave us structure, keva, the framework and the details of Jewish worship. The second age, the beginnings of modernism in the 19th century, gave us a philosophy of Jewish prayer: what was meant and what could be meant by the words of our siddur (Jewish prayer book), as well as the "ideas" of the Bible and Talmuds. Concepts were an important need, and ideas in plenty were provided by European Jewish thinkers who gave Judaism a place in modern thought. 

Now, says Hoffman, our community is no longer in particular need of limits or of ideas so much as of meaning, a way to connect the scattered threads of our separate lives and tie them to a meaningful pattern, what he calls "connecting the dots." The tasks of structure and signification have been accomplished. Our generation and the one to come must perfect the performance of our liturgy, the realization of all our past by bringing our needs to God and sharing our deepest spiritual concerns with our community.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the greatest interpreter of Jewish prayer in our century, has a somewhat different notion of prayer. He balances keva and kavanah, the fixity of our prayer-book and the spontaneity of our heart. He will surrender neither of the poles of Jewish worship. He believes that we must not only express our needs, but create them, that God is not here to do what we wish, but to help us wish to do what God needs doing. Our prayer is a way of coming to feel, as well as a way of expressing concerns. In principle, we can come to need what God needs, to feel what God feels, and to become what God wants us to be. Inwardness and community are both crucial, but so is hearing the music of God's song and coming to experience God's love. "Spirituality" is more than seeking for God within or between our several selves.

There is a specific difficulty of Jewish prayer. There are laws: how to pray, when to pray, what to pray. There are fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of kavvanah (inner devotion). Thus, Jewish prayer is guided by two opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity, uniformity and individuality, law and freedom, a duty and a prerogative, empathy and self-expression, insight and sensitivity, creed and faith, the word and that which is beyond words. These principles are two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves. Since each of the two moves in the opposite direction, equilibrium can only be maintained if both are of equal force. However, the pole of regularity usually proves to be stronger than the pole of spontaneity and as a result, there is a perpetual danger of prayer becoming a mere habit, a mechanical performance, an exercise in repetitiousness. The fixed pattern and regularity of our services tends to stifle the spontaneity of devotion. Our great problem, therefore, is how not to let the principle of regularity impair the power of spontaneity (kavvanah). It is a problem that concerns not only prayer but the whole sphere of Jewish observance. He who is not aware of this central difficulty is a simpleton; he who offers a simple solution is a quack.

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Rabbi Arnold J Wolf

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (1924-2008) was an important American Reform Rabbi, and a longtime champion of peace and progressive politics. He served for many years at Illinois' oldest congregation, K.A.M. Isaiah Israel.