What is structured (fixed) prayer all about in Judaism? Can’t we just speak directly to Hashem (G-d) in our own words and language?
One cannot seek a fully engaged relationship with God without managing the balance between structure and spontaneity, between consistency (kevah) and feverous intent (kavanah).
Prayer is intended to be avodah she’b’lev – worship of the heart (1). If we force ourselves to recite words printed in a siddur (prayer book) when the words are meaningless to us, or worse yet, have an oppressive effect on our spirit, such prayer would be worse than empty. Any ritual act done in that manner can only distance us from our creator. First and foremost, let us always seek to engage God in ways that are emotionally and spiritually meaningful to us, and let us remember that this is all that God would ask of us.
At the same time, structure has its benefits. Structure helps establish the parameters for our faith and practice. Faith without structure can lack cohesion, and is more likely to dissipate. Although the Rabbis are often criticized for their hyper-legalism, the structures created within halakhah (Jewish law) have an important role in the survival of our faith.
The Rabbis ordained the Amidah to help insure that each person would consider many important ideas in each prayer. We are wise to adopt their structure as a pathway towards our own eloquence and inspiration. Of course, self-expression is a vital part of prayer. As the Book of Psalms says on numerous occasions “Sing to the LORD a new song.” (2) Rabbi Eliezer teaches in the Mishnah, “one who makes his prayer a fixed task, his prayers is no supplication.” (3) Although the sages ordained the Amidah as a prayer to be recited consistently, halakhah encourages, within certain parameters, that a person include his or her own words in each recitation of the Amidah (4). Therefore, when reciting the Amidah, a person is wise to supply their own thoughts and ideas, while maintaining the theme of the particular section of the Amidah being recited. This is one of many reasons why it is important to understand the meaning and structure of each blessing of the Amidah. The Amidah creates a baseline for prayer, and invites our further innovation.
The words in our siddur should never be a burden. It is always worth considering the different meaning and significance we can ascribe to these prayers. One thing that has always inspired me is the majesty that stems from sharing the same words and structures of prayer with many generations of our Jewish past, and with the many and diverse Jewish communities of today. Without some structure, this common bond would be lost. How much more powerful is our religious experience if, rather than jettisoning those words, we are to find our own contemporary significance within those words.
Our tradition teaches that it is God that inspires our prayers (5). May God inspire all our prayers, and may our prayers be an inspiration to us.
(1) Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 2a
(2) E.g. Psalm 96:1
(3) Mishnah Berakhot 4:4, Babylonian Talmud 28b, trans. Herbert Danby
(4) C.f. Maimonides Mishneh Torah Laws of Prayer 6:3
Yes we can speak directly. In fact, the Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) recommends setting aside time each day for hitbodedut, to be alone with God in spontaneous and intimate discourse. In this hitbodedut one should strive to attain a purity of heart and clarity of intention in order to discern the Divine Words as they arise in one's heart. R. Nahman considers true hitbodedut a form of Divine Inspiration and assumes that this is how King David composed the Psalms (see full citation below).
King David actually had two modes of composition according to the Talmud in Pesachim 117a. When a Psalm begins with the caption "For David a Hymn (Mizmor)” it indicates that David was in a muse of Divine Inspiration. But a caption with the reverse word order, "A Hymn for David,” indicates that he needed to sing a routine song in order to facilitate a receptive inspirational mode. Ideally we should be able to speak directly in inspirational language, but often it is necessary to rely upon preset formulae.
That helps answer the first part of your query. The fixed prayers of Jewish liturgy were originally spontaneous creations. They developed in popular culture and prayer assemblies. But with the anguish of exile and a distancing from God, it became more difficult to pray spontaneously. A liturgy was standardized to define a set focus for thoughts and emotions.
Now it would be ideal if we could compose sonnets like Shakespeare, write music like Beethoven and prophesize like Isaiah. However, truly meaningful "God language" is not common parlance, and not everyone is a saintly prophet with a pure heart. In practicality, it becomes necessary to rely upon masterpieces created by others. But the good news is that Jewish liturgy is like a musical score; the direction is fixed, but the singers can and should provide their interpretations. Take the Blessing After Meals. First, you express gratitude for a satisfying meal, but then come supplications voicing national dreams and universal aspirations such as the rebuilding of Jerusalem, redemption and lasting peace. It is up to the person to add kavvanot, intentions and meanings.
Similarly, the Amidah (Standing Prayer) is a synopsis of classical beliefs crystallized from Rabbinic formulations of two thousand years ago. It is a three part set of blessing formulae intended to focus thoughts and emotions. The first part sets the tone by defining a relationship to God in the three blessings, Avot, Gevurot and Kedushat Hashem, i.e., God of our ancestors, Almighty and Omnipotent, and the Holy One Who transcends all human categories. The middle section contains specific supplications. The concluding blessings express gratitude and confidence in God's Graciousness (Talmud Berakhot 34a). The structure sets the tone. The individual's kavvanot are meant to innovate personal relevancies.
In sum, spontaneous individual prayer has its value but the structured form as printed in prayer books is vital especially in group settings and prayer quorums (minyanim) where people flow together in a harmonious orchestra, all on the same page.
I conclude with a diary entry describing the spiritual prayer experiences of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook:
Expanses Divine my soul craves.
Confine me not in any cage, neither corporeal nor spiritual…
My soul soars and flies above these – for the full citation see source #2 below.
1. Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, Likutey Moharan, I, 156, commenting on the verse in Psalms 51, 12: "God, create a pure heart for me, and renew a correct spirit within me". For that of which one speaks directly to his Maker is a form of Ruach Hakodesh (Divine Inspiration). King David had this unique quality on the highest level and that is how he composed the book of Psalms. Each individual according to his own level can have a type of Ruach Hakodesh as the verse in Psalms 27,8 states "To You my heart says". as Rashi comments, "To You" means for You and in Your Service. For that which spontaneous arises in the heart is in reality Words of God and thus it is a form of Divine Inspiration. And one needs to continuously innovate, to request anew what is necessary in this world, although to merit this, a purity of the heart is required. And this purity is when one's heart is excited and energized in love to God, for that is how the heart is purified…
2. The first chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook experienced prayer as a pulsating yearning of his Soul struggling to emerge from concealment and aspiring towards the Source of life (Shemonah Kevatzim, 7, 221, pg. 397 = Lights of Holiness, vol. 1, pg. 172). Rav Kook's poetic description of the free flight of his soul is recorded in a diary entry in the year 1913 when he was chief Rabbi of Jaffa (Shemonah Kevatzim, 3, 279, pg. 442):
Expanses Divine my soul craves.
Confine me not in any cage, neither corporeal nor spiritual.
Neither walls of heart nor walls of deed, morality, logic, custom, nothing can enclose her.
My soul soars and flies above these,
Above all that can be called by any name.
Beyond all pleasure, all grace and beauty,
Even above all that is exalted and ethereal.
I am love sick (Song of Songs 2,5).
 In modern times, some commentators have interpreted R. Nahman's hitbodedut as not merely spontaneous prayer but as a specific form of Jewish meditation. See Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah, York Beach, 1982, ch. 7, Rabbi Nachman's Way, pp. 306-313, and especially the quote from Likutei Moharan, tinyana 25: "Set aside an hour or more each day to meditate, in the fields or in a room, pouring out your thoughts to God" (ibid., pg. 310). Compare Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide, New York, 1985, ch. 10: "Many Jews are surprised to learn that there is an unbroken tradition of spontaneous prayer in the Jewish religion… worship services can at times become dry and sterile. One's own personal prayers, on the other hand, are always connected to the wellsprings of the heart" (pg. 93). Compare also Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom, Breslov Research Institute, Monsey New York, 1973.
 Compare Herman Wouk, This Is My God, Garden City, 1959 (renewed edition 1987), ch. 8, A Night at the Opera.
 Compare Abraham J. Heschel, Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, New York, 1954, pg. 26: In prayer, as in poetry, we turn to the words, not to use them as signs for things, but to see the things in the light of the words.
The short answer is: Yes, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.
For as long as tefilah, Jewish prayer, has been around, there has been a tension between "keva" (fixed prayer) and "kavanah," (personal/ spiritual intention). On the one hand, we are taught that there are certain prayers that we are to say in any given setting. When we eat food, finish a meal, see a rainbow, hear lightening and thunder, wake up each morning, or go to the bathroom, there is a "fixed" prayer that we are taught to say.
On the other hand, legally speaking, the prayers that we are "required" to say each day are actually a small fraction of those that are included in our daily liturgy. Additionally, the Talmud contains many discussions -- with conflicting answers, by the way! -- about whether or not one has fulfilled their obligation to prayer if they said the words with, or without, the proper intention.
Clearly, the tension between just exactly "how" to pray has been around for a very long time. And ideally, prayer should come from the heart. There are many beautiful stories about this, like the ignorant shepherd who does not know the "traditional" words to the prayers, or the child who plays the flute on Yom Kippur because he does not know the liturgy, or the child who sings the aleph-bet from the back of the synagogue on Yom Kippur hoping that God will put the letters together. Each story reminds the listener that God hears all of our prayers, and that prayers that come from the heart are as valid as prayers that come from the siddur. The following two Talmudic texts make this point as well:
What is service of the heart? It is prayer. Baylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a
Prayer should not be recited as if a man were reading a document. R. Aha said: Anew prayer
should be said every day. Jerusalem Talmud; Berakhot 38a
And yet, there is a reason that we have a siddur filled with beautiful liturgy and prayers that have been offered for thousands of years. As my teacher Rabbi Neil Gilman says, our fixed liturgy "gives us the words to express what might otherwise be inexpressible." In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer is supposed to help us regain a sense of "wonder" in our lives (Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, 5). It is supposed to sensitize us to God's presence in our lives, helping us recognize that the seemingly "ordinary" moments of our day are indeed holy and "extraordinary," and facilitating our discovery of the ways we can help God create a better and more perfect world. Personally, I would not have this type of reflective and moving experience on a regular basis were it not for the siddur. I would not remember to be grateful for a new day, each and every day, were it not for the proscribed "Modeh Ani" prayer and "morning blessings" that we are taught to say each day.
So yes, take time for personal prayer, but I invite you to do so in the context of our beautiful, rich, and thoughtful liturgy. Each time you look at a prayer, ask yourself what it says, what it means, and how it might relate to you. And then ask God for help. Prayer takes practice, and patience, but with persistence, a regular prayer life based on a balance of fixed and personal prayer, can transform our daily lives. As we say in the beginning of each Amidah:
God, please open our mouths so that we might declare your praise in the world and in our lives.
This is the ongoing debate in Jewish life and it is certainly not new.
There is no question that personal prayer is a wonderful and spiritual experience for so many. The Tanach is filled with examples. The Talmud, too, as well as the later literature are loaded with examples of personal prayer and how and when to pray, what direction, what to do in the case of an emergency, etc. There is and always will be a place for personal prayer.
As well, the rabbi's created the concept of keva - fixed prayer - and not just kavannah - the self-directed prayer. They did this because they understood that the siddur - possibly more than any other Jewish volume - is a textbook of Jewish values. Like all good textbooks, it was to be referred to again and again. And, so as to emphasise the importance and value of personal prayer, they left time for personal reflection and prayer.
But, like any textbook, soon it is memorized and reading it becomes less a learning experience and more a chore. Frankly, when people pray the service zipping along merely reading - not praying - and feeling as if they have fulfilled the mitzvah of prayer, they are looking at the act of reading the prayer as the mitzvah. Rather, the real mitzvah as I see it is praying the prayer. What value to the soul is there by being the first to remove the tallit and tefillin? To show others how fast you can read? To somehow think that the value of prayer is being able to finish the prayer before everyone else? I don't believe so. The real value of prayer is how a person is changed after praying the prayer. Sometimes that means dwelling on one word or concept in the fixed prayer and sometimes it means letting the hirhurei-halev - the ruminations of the heart take you to heights of spirituality with a personal prayer.
There is a time for personal prayer. There is a reason for fixed prayer. Neither is better than the other. They compliment each other when done right.
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