Learning is turning darkness, which is the absence of light, into light. – Moshe Feldenkrais
While decluttering last spring, more painstakingly and ruthlessly than ever before, I found handouts from a class on prayer, circa 2008. I had enrolled in the class at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA, to see if I could I transform my relationship to the longer, more complicated Jewish prayers that, instead of devotion, inspired frustration, boredom or the glazing of the eyes. One xeroxed page, The Unfolding of Tefilah [Prayer], stopped me in my tracks:
“When praying, move gradually.”
Wasn’t that nearly identical to Moshe Feldenkrais’ How to Learn: A Manual? I pulled out that pamphlet to check. It begins with:
“Do everything very slowly.”
Was this particular teaching the source of some of his ideas? I kept reading the guidance on prayer:
“Do not exhaust all your strength at the outset.”
And from Feldenkrais:
“Fast action at the beginning of learning is synonymous with strain and confusion which, together, make learning an unpleasant exertion.”
Such a close correspondence couldn’t be a coincidence. How uncanny to have found The Unfolding of Tefilah, unread for years, on the eve of my Feldenkrais training. How odd that I had kept that piece of paper until this point, unaware it was in my possession. It’s as if my former self had gifted me something whose value I couldn’t appreciate at the time (the prayer class didn’t transform anything, after all). I looked at the bottom of the xeroxed sheet. The source of the text was Tzava’at HaRivash, #32. Google led me to the English title, The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.*
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) founded Hasidism, a religious branch emphasizing mysticism as a fundamental aspect of the faith, as a reaction against the overly legalistic interpretation of Judaism prevalent at the time (and today, in many places, still). Moshe Feldenkrais, as well as my late father, were born and raised in Hasidic communities in Eastern Europe, 300 miles apart. As a teenager, Feldenkrais emigrated to what was then Palestine. As amply and movingly described by David Kaetz in Making Connections, while Feldenkrais’ adult life broke the mold, his Hasidic upbringing infused his thinking and his teachings.
Traditional forms of Judaism require the recitation of particular prayers, several times a day. For the men fulfilling these religious obligations, there is a temptation if not a tendency to recite the often lengthy passages as quickly as possible. The times I’ve attended services in orthodox synagogues, partitioned in the women’s section, I felt like a witness to a speed-reading contest or a high school debate tournament, the volume ranging from a hushed whisper to a near roar, rather than a participant in a collective spiritual experience where words, as well as the pauses between, are savored.
Many Jews, at the time of the Baal Shem Tov as well as today, were or are alienated by such traditional approaches to worship and the custom of praying at a rat-a-tat tempo, unmatchable unless one is fluent in Hebrew or grew up in a religious community. Hence the need, still, for classes on prayer, and hence The Unfolding of Tefilah, annotated as follows:
“This teaching articulates the Hasidic understanding of prayer as a journey. The goal is not to recite a maximum number of words in a minimum of time. Nor is prayer presented here as an opportunity to make requests of God.”
As Feldenkrais wrote: “We do not say at the start what the final stage will be.”
In Awareness Through Movement lessons, neither achieving a particular position or performing as many repetitions as possible in a limited time is the objective. The point is to move slowly enough to sense distinctions and for the nervous system to register those differences, to journey through one’s body and self with curiosity instead of an agenda.
The guidance on prayer from Tzava’at HaRivash, a text so threatening and controversial in its day that opponents of Hasidism publicly burned it, continued:
“Rather, begin slowly, and in the midst of your prayer, cleave to God with greater intensity. Then you will even be able to recite the words of prayer very quickly without losing your focus.”
“When one becomes familiar with an act, speed increases spontaneously, and so does power. This is not so obvious as it is correct.”
The prayer guidance concluded:
“While you may be unable to connect with God at the beginning of prayer, continue to recite your words with attention and focus. Strengthen yourself, step by step, until God helps you to pray more intensely.”
The guidance seemed to address the unrealistic expectation, prevalent even hundreds of years ago, that it’s possible to obtain a desired result on the very first try. Feldenkrais offers:
“By reducing the urge to achieve, and attending also to the means for achieving, we learn easier…..By doing a little less than you really can, you will attain a higher performance than the one you can now conceive.”
Last spring I disposed of other handouts from that prayer class but kept the excerpt from Tzva’at HaRivash. It reminds me that learning anything that expands my world or creates more awareness or light within that world, is rooted in the sacred. By being willing to learn for its own sake and to be present to an unfolding, as opposed to cramming, memorizing, or forcing an answer in order to “get somewhere”, I can connect to the essence of my heritage, regardless of whether I follow its forms.
Non-religious people might consider prayer, if not a dirty word, then something one doesn’t discuss, let alone do. To liken learning to prayer might raise eyebrows or hackles. Yet, consider this: learning and prayer are both encounters with what is not yet known and with what might never be fully known. It makes sense, therefore, to approach them similarly, moving slowly, with attention and without attachment to, or expectation of, a result. If we’re too fixated on a particular outcome, on “getting it right” or “looking good”, we might completely miss the magic and mystery along the way.