Book Review: The Tefillah Revolution by Chaya Sara Lefkowitz

The Tefillah Revolution by Chaya Sara Lefkowitz

Menucha Publishers (Brooklyn, 2013); 184 pages; ISBN-10: 1614650950; Price 17.98

In her beautifully attractive book, The Tefillah Revolution, Chaya Sara Lefkowitz begins her subject focusing on one of the most important problems regarding the prayer life of people: Why do we find it so hard to focus on kavanah (intentionality) when it comes to prayer? What is real kavanah, anyway? How can it be attained?

The Tefillah Revolution is a book that deeply explores these issues. Over the years, I have noticed that female Judaic scholars have contributed to a growing literature dealing with the existential and spiritual aspects of Jewish prayer. I suspect that women in general seem to have a greater affinity for God—a point that the author makes later on in her book. She writes:

  • While it is a man’s task to immerse himself in Torah learning—the woman’s role is somewhat different; she must cleave to holiness through the physical and mundane. . . . When she adds feelings and heart to her words, even culminating in tears, which are the external expressions of her emotions, tefillah and kavanahare created (p. 29).

A person could argue that the distinction Lefkowitz makes regarding men and women is somewhat artificial; but my experience has shown me over the years that women seem to have a greater emotional affinity with God that differs considerably from men partly because women tend to be more in touch with their feelings.

Later she gives a clearer exposition of how she envisions prayer:

  • Tefillah attaches us to Hashem (God) like two pieces of broken glass that are melted and fused together. Our neshamos (souls) are part of Hashem. Through davening (praying) to Him, the soul becomes reattached to its Source. (p. 35)

Lefkowitz argues that the act of prayer shows that  God is in control. Moreover, such a realization can “arouse within us feelings of unworthiness and gratitude—we have the tools to transfer the trait to our relationship with Hashem” (p. 42).

She makes several good points; prayer is about connecting and reconnecting with the God who summons our being of the nothingness each moment of our lives. Reality is on its deepest level—relational. By praying, we are affirming that God is not indifferent to our needs and desires.

Throughout much of the book, Lefkowitz speaks about prayer as something that we articulate “to” God. While this is true, there is another aspect of prayer that is equally important—a point that I believe would greatly enhance her overall thesis about prayer: Prayer is also about listening to God through the words of the Siddur. God speaks to us all the time. Sometimes He speaks to us through our conscience; other times the Divine message occurs through the synchronicity of events that occur in our lives. Then again, the God’s Presence may be felt through the words of the Siddur itself—provided that we learn to listen.

Her exposition of the morning prayers in Chapter 19 is one of the best chapters of the book.

In Chapter 8, Lefkowitz describes the importance of preparing oneself for prayer. Although she quotes the famous verse, “I have kept the LORD always before me; “ (Psalm 16:8-11), she should have included the rest of the passage, which resonates with great spiritual energy:

I have kept the LORD always before me;

with him at my right hand, I shall never be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices;

my body also dwells secure,

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

nor let your devout one see the pit.*

You will show me the path to life,

abounding joy in your presence,

the delights at your right hand forever.[1]

The author unfortunately left out an entire chapter she could have written about the role of the Psalms and their impact on the prayer life of the Jew. The book is full of great illustrations about famous people who have developed their own pathway to God in prayer. What is missing in this fine book are guidelines for people to develop their own personal spiritual journey through prayer.

There is a famous teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (a.k.a. Baal Shem Tov,1698-1760)  the founder of the Hassidic movement.

He was asked why the Amidah, the central prayer of the daily services, begins with the triple iteration: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” Why not just say: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” He answered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God of Isaac was not the God of Abraham. Each patriarch discovers God in his own way. Each one teaches us the importance of finding a connection with God that resonates within the depths of our own being.

In short, all the anecdotes about how Rabbi So-and-so prayed is fine and good, but in the final analysis, each of us must make our own individual path.

The Tefillah Revolution is a nice book; not too deep and Lefkowitz’s personal testimony about the power of prayer in her life is important as it is inspirational.



[1] Ps 16:8–11.

Rabbinical Thoughts on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

 File:Good the bad and the ugly poster.jpg


Our society seems so bent upon the politics of personal destruction. When people fall–as famous and powerful people often do, there is a certain delight and comfort many folks experience in knowing that even the great ones have “feet of clay.”

But where is our reverence for human life? Is not every human being made in the Divine Image? As I write this new article, I wonder: What are the ethical implications of being made in God’s image?

Obviously killing somebody in cold blood is something that fills us with horror. But what about killing somebody’s soul?  What about killing somebody’s reputation? What about destroying a human being’s life dream? Yes, murder comes in many different forms–and our penchant for violence often blinds us from realizing just how barbaric and cruel we really are as a species.

I recall hearing a story about a Christian missionary who spent many years while working with cannibals. When asked about his success, he replied, “Before I arrived, they used to eat their meat with their hands, but after I worked with them, they now eat with forks and knives instead!”  I often think this aphorism describes the violent impulses that permeate our contemporary society. We may appear to be “civilized,” but the shadow nature of our souls remain uncivilized.

Jewish tradition teaches that murdering a human being is considered like one who has harmed the figure of the king; i.e., the likeness of God. R. Tanchuma points out the relational dimensions of the Divine image have important practical implications: Anyone who despises his fellow man is considered as though he despises the Creator, in Whose image he is created.[1] Going one step further, there is a poignant rabbinic story that illustrates this important idea:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, returning from a trip in Migdal Eder, from his teacher’s house met a certain man who was exceedingly ugly. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Raka (simpleton), how ugly are the children of Abraham our father.” The other man replied, “What can I do for you? You may want to speak to the Craftsman Who made me.” Rabbi Shimon immediately alighted from his horse and bowed before the man and said, “I apologize to you, please forgive me.” He replied to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say, “How ugly is the vessel which You have made!”

Rabbi Shimon walked behind him for three miles. When the people in town heard of Rabbi Shimon’s arrival, they came out to meet him and greeted him with the words, “Peace be unto you, rabbi.” The other man said to them, “Who are you calling Rabbi?” They answered, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel!” He told the people the whole story, and the townspeople begged him to forgive the rabbi, and he agreed, only on the condition that he never act in this manner again toward anyone. [2]

The story highlights an important truth: the willful mistreatment of another human being, in effect, devalues the image of God because we are all created in the Divine Image. The human face—regardless how disfigured it may be—commands that we show a respect to the uniqueness of the human person which transcends one’s physical attributes. True beauty emanates from goodness and a love of ethics. Without these traits, we might as well be living in caves.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 24:7.

[2] Tractate Derech Eretz (Chapter 4).


Creating an Inner Space for God to Dwell


 As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed.

The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.

In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.