Finding a Finkelstein: The Art of Learning to Pray

Isadore Finkelstein z”l taught me how to pray. I was a youth. He was ancient and timeless. My very best Shabbat mornings in synagogue as a teen as occurred when I sat near him. 

Mr. Finkelstein didn’t teach me the words of the prayers. He didn’t teach me the halachot – the legal structure – of prayer. He didn’t teach me the stories of the siddur, our prayer book. In fact, he never once instructed me in t’fillah. I learned how to pray by watching him, by listening to him, by feeling his prayer.

Born in 1894 in Bogoria, Poland, Mr. Finkelstein brought to his prayers an old-world yearning for God and a deep passion for the Jewish people. From Mr. Finkelstein I learned how prayer sounds, both in the ear and in the heart. From him I learned how to move in prayer, both the physical motions and the spiritual choreography. From him I learned how prayer connects heaven to earth, how prayer connects God to humanity.

Here’s the secret to learning how to pray: sit next to someone whose heart is filled with the love of God. Then listen. Your prayers will never be the same. Listen to how that voice shines, listen to the sparkling moments of love, the harmonies of hope, the undertones of grief, the hints of shofar resonant in that voice ready to pierce the highest heavens, and the yearning for a better world. You are climbing the mountain to Sinai. You are are carrying the Ark of the Covenant. You are witnessing miracles.

All you need to do is to find an Isadore Finkelstein. Sit nearby and listen with your inner, most vulnerable, open, heart-centered being. Then, go to a classroom, to a book or to a beit midrash to learn the details. There, the deep indescribable experience of prayer will meet the fountain of wisdom that is our siddur.

This is a paradox. The inner life of prayer – the indescribable, ineffable essence of prayer – is strengthened by our knowledge of the words themselves, their history, the intention behind them, the classic understandings, the new interpretations, the seasonal rhythms, and the thinking that called these prayers into being. That knowledge, however, gets prayer exactly nowhere without a heart, without a soul, without the deepest desire to do God’s will. Not one bit of prayer ‘book learning’ has, by itself, ascended to the gates of mercy.

The problem for Jewish educators is that no classroom learning – no matter how it is presented or disguised – will substitute for the experience of hearing and praying next to an Isadore Finkelstein. If the experience in the synagogue is flat and uninspiring, no amount of study will make up for it. The Beit Kenesset must pulse with love and the worship of God.

Traditional worship is often long on technique and short of God. The prayers exquisitely follow the Siddur and the rules, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ Liberal worship is often long on spirit and short of God. The prayers are beautifully sung and enjoyed, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ A technically perfect service is not necessarily prayer. Neither is a joyously sung nor a wondrously inspired service.

The ongoing conversation about how to teach and inspire prayer will simply vanish when enough people aspire to become Finkelsteins, masters of t’fillah, fountains of devotion in articulating prayer.

We don’t have enough masters of prayer to station one strategically at every synagogue, temple, shul, Hebrew school, day school and beit midrash. We don’t have enough Finkelsteins to go around. My hunch is that the Jewish centers that are thriving in robust prayer are attracting – or were created by – modern-day Finkelsteins, davening masters, lovers of the art and the act of yearning for heaven through prayer.

Jewish prayer masters pray from the most secret, sacred place within themselves. They pray a uniquely personal combination of prayers of the heart and traditional liturgy, in community with others, with the desire to be in conversation with God. They bring a deep understanding of the Siddur, and the desire to deepen that understanding. They are unconventional traditionalists, speaking the inner voice of prayer. This is not as daunting a task as it sounds. All it takes is a willingness to learn and a commitment to pray.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available!

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