Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Requiem for a Movement- A review of Torah and Western Thought, and thoughts on the demise of a movement
It is not often that I read a book which not only causes me to think deeply about the subject-matter, but also gets me to examine who I am as a Jew, as well as to question my sense of belonging to a community. Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, which was recently published in a joint venture by Maggid Press and Yeshiva University Press, is one such book. As I read this fascinating work, I not only thought about the nine men and one women whose intellectual biographies make up this book, but I also thought about Modern-Orthodoxy as an intellectual movement, and to what degree it still exists. By the time I finished the last essay, I had, with some regret, reached the conclusion that, at least in America, Modern Orthodoxy as an intellectual movement has had its day. Thus, after briefly reviewing this book, I will continue with some thoughts about a world that once existed, a world which I have found to be very nourishing, but has mostly passed from the scene. I hope to generate thoughtful discussion on this topic, as well as offer some thoughts about the future of Modern-Orthodoxy as a social and intellectual movement.
Torah and Western Thought, which is edited by Rabbis Meir Soloveichik and Shlomo Zuckier, both of whom also wrote or co-authored essays in the book, as well Dr. Stuart Halpern, contains ten intellectual biographies of major leaders, thinkers, and teachers, who combined serious Torah, with involvement in at least some major aspect of Western thought. Some of the essays cover those who we might expect to be in such a work, such as Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, and, yibadel bein hachayim v’hachayim, Rabbi Norman Lamm. Other essays cover individuals who are less well known, and/or whom we would not necessarily associate with this topic, such as Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Professor Nehama Leibowitz (as she is called in the book, and is this case with all honorifics used here)), and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits zt”l.
Each essay is well-written and thought provoking, and even in the instances where I am fairly well read in the Torah of these giants of Torah, such as Rav Kook, Rav Aharon, and Rav Amital zt”l, I gained a great deal from the essay. I also learned about certain thinkers about whom I knew very little. Of particular interest, was the essay on Professor Isadore Twersky, whose combination of scholarship, piety, and avodas HaShem gave me much to think about.
Although I highly recommend this work to anyone who is moved by ideas, and/or interested in learning about these great thinkers, there are a few small critical points I would make. Although the title of the book gives a sense of the goal of the unified whole, the collection of individuals whose biographies are found in this book, do not really seem to be linked in any significant way. Additionally, while the essays on Professor Leibowitz, Rabbi Jacobovits, and Rav Herzog were very interesting, those individuals do not seem to fit with the other thinkers, and thus, the overall theme. Finally, and it is here that I transition into my thoughts on the world of intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, nine of the ten people who are profiled are no longer alive, and the last, Rabbi Lamm is advanced in age, and fits well with the others, as a thinker whose main contributions were made in the 20th Century.
Although I believe it should already be clear, I am not suggesting that Modern Orthodoxy as a sociological movement is weak. There are many communities, shuls, schools and yeshivot who identify as Modern Orthodox. Their members believe in the importance of secular studies, are Zionistic, and have the other general traits which link together Modern Orthodox Jews. Rather, it is the intellectual philosophy which once was a major part of being Modern Orthodox, which has mostly disappeared in America.
Modern Orthodoxy is built on the shoulders of the aforementioned Rav Yosef Soloveichik, who offers a model which rarely, if ever, can be copied. As with the Rambam who is often suggested as an early model for Modern Orthodox thought, the reality of the superhuman approach of the Rav, as he is colloquially known, is one that is sui generis. He was a once in a generation (if not more) thinker, who combined the highest levels of Torah scholarship, punctilious halachic observance, and serious and profound involvement with the best ideas of the Western thought. To achieve one of those is highly admirable, while joining two of the three is no small feat. To suggest that others could achieve all three is beyond unreasonable. Communal aspirations can not be built on the basis of the approach of giants. Most of those who served as examples of a similar approach are no longer alive, while those who remain are advanced in age. If the same work was written in 30 years, it is hard to imagine who from the Modern orthodox world in America might be included. That is not to suggest that there are not individuals who strive to combine these aspects of service of God, but overall, our community's focus, as well as that of its leaders, seems to be elsewhere.
Perhaps it is by chance that the essay on Rav Aharon is at the end of the book, but in the section which is written by Rav Shalom Carmy, a complex and telling picture of Rav Aharon is drawn. Rav Carmy shows that despite the fact that Rav Aharon represented much, if not all, of what his illustrious father-in-law achieved, he was very realistic about the perils of trying to excel in all three of these areas. Furthermore, Rav Carmy shows that, given a choice between sacrificing one of these goals, it is excellence in Western thought that Rav Aharon would choose. Rav Aharon, who was deeply traditional, and, despite his creativity, quite conservative, made clear that Torah and avodas HaShem must be the main goal of any committed Jew. As opposed to Rabbi Lamm who speaks of synthesis, Rav Aharon did not use that phrase. He did not believe that secular knowledge somehow created a better Jew than Torah alone could produce. It is instructive that Rav Aharon would not be disappointed with a community that did not possess great knowledge of Western thought. He would, however, see a lacking in a community where serious Torah, tefillah, and creation of a deep inner-life was lacking.
So what now for the American Modern Orthodox community? Based on Rav Aharon, perhaps it is time for shuls and schools to put a greater emphasis on helping to produce bnei and bnot Torah, who take their avodas HaShem, including talmud Torah, and shmiras hamitzvos very seriously. Perhaps Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s kehillah (at least in its early iteration) can serve as a model. Rather than an emphasis on creating gedolei Torah, or even roshei yeshiva, his Frankfurt community strove to produce serious balebatim. If, as Rav Aharon suggests, we can’t have it all, we need to carefully focus on what is the ikkar, and not confuse it with the tafel. It is also good to remember that, even in YU under Rabbi Lamm’s leadership, far more students were interested in the Torah u’parnassa track, than were interested in Torah U’Mada. I suspect that this was true in earlier generations as well.
For those who strive to live a life that combines all of the ideals of classical Modern Orthodoxy, it is to be found, in a somewhat different form, in Israel. Rav Aharon and Rav Amital’s Gush, Bar-Ilan, as well as other yeshivas and institutions, offer an approach where both worlds can be lived, under the guidance, and through the example, of those who believe that Torah and Western thought can be part of one person’s worldview. It is in Israel where one can truly apply the Torah to building a just, moral, and holy society.
Finally, should we mourn the change in American Modern Orthodoxy? While there are some, myself included, who continue to be moved by ideas like Torah U’Mada (or whatever name you wish to use), a movement has no inherent right to exist. As always, communities evolve. Particularly as denominational and communal lines blur, it is unrealistic to expect that what worked to some degree in the 50s and 60s, will still be meaningful and successful today. To paraphrase what has been said (by whom is not clear), the philosophical graveyards are full of indispensable movements. I hope that whatever comes next will be nourishing to those who make up the Modern Orthodox community.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
At the end of high school, I almost gave up on Orthodox Judaism. No, I was not going to abandon everything, but after 12 years of Jewish education that had mostly not spoken to me, I was not interested in learning more Torah, or continuing to do mitzvos. It wasn’t that I no longer believed in God, although I certainly could not have explained what such belief meant, as much as there was a lot “out there” that I found enticing, and little in what I had learned about Judaism that made me feel that I should refrain from living like a typical college student. Although I was told I would enjoy a year studying in israel, I was pretty sure I did not want to invest more time in an activity which did not mean anything to me. It was only due to a fluke that I changed my mind.
There is much talk about why many young people are leaving the Orthodox community (sometimes it feels like too much talk). Currently, two studies are are being conducted about why charedim go “OTD”, and the defection of Modern Orthodox youth was a large part of the discussion at a symposium on the future of Modern Orthodoxy I attended yesterday evening. While many are asking some variation of “Why are they leaving?”, I want to ask a different question. What are young people leaving when they leave Orthodoxy? In other words, when a Jew from a MO or Charedi world leaves observance around the age of 18-22 (roughly college age), what is their understanding of Judaism that they are leaving behind?
I ask this question not because I believe that any approach can stop all, or even most people from leaving, but rather because I wonder whether our educational system (and with that term I include families, shuls and even camps, as well as schools) is providing a rich enough approach to Judaism. Is what college-aged students have experienced and know, enough to even make it a struggle to leave?
What does the average graduate of our schools know about Jewish philosophy? Have they studied Rav Saadyah Gaon, Moreh Nevuchim and/or the Kuzari? Do graduates of MO schools know anything about Rav Kook, other than, perhaps, the fact that he was one of the chief-rabbis of Israel? What does the average graduate of a yeshivish high school know of the Ramchal or the Michtav MiEliyahu? For goodness sakes, do chassidim study chassidus in their schools? How about the שש מצוות תמידיות, the six mitzvos about which the Sefer HaChinuch says we are obligated at all times, thereby suggesting that, at least on some level, they are essential to Judaism? What is Ahavas HaShem? What do we mean when we talk of God being one?
When I think about all that I have learned since high school, I shudder to think that I could have given up on such a rich tradition that includes so many thinkers who have inspired me. I likely would have stopped keeping Shabbos, without having ever been exposed to Heschel’s The Sabbath. I would have stopped keeping many mitzvos, without ever having been taught any of the many approaches to ta’amei hamitzvos. I wasn’t exactly davening too often at that point, but it saddens me that I had never heard about the Piaczena Rebbe, or the Avudraham after 12 years of Jewish education. I could go on and on.
Jewish observance makes demands of us, and consciously or not, one of things that someone who leaves asks themselves before departing, is why they should sacrifice for Judaism. I would hope that those who stay, do so (among other reasons) due to having discovered a deep, meaningful experience in our Avodas HaShem. I wonder whether we are making the chance of discovering that depth and meaning enough of a realistic possibility during the first two decades of our children’s and/or student’s lives.
Of course, even one who agrees with my premise might wonder where we can find the time to teach those things. The answer is quite simple. It is time to re-evaluate what we are teaching in schools (as well as what we learn in shul and camp). The basic curriculum that is taught in most day schools is based on an approach that was designed by Torah U’Mesorah more than 50 years ago. Do we really believe that the needs of today’s children are the same as they were back then? In yeshivish yeshivas, the emphasis is almost overwhelmingly on gemara, with aggadeta, where one could be exposed to Jewish thought, excluded. While it is claimed that an interested bachur can learn these things if he is curious, many do not know how much they don’t know, and are not given a chance to discover what might interest them. While gemara-only might work for some, if we define success narrowly enough, there are many whom are being pushed away by this approach. This is particularly ironic when we consider that up until well into the 20th century few men ever studied gemara, particularly for as many years as bnei yeshiva learn it today. While Bais Yaakovs do teach more broadly than their male counterparts, there is still much depth that could be added.
As I said earlier, there are many reasons why people leave Orthodoxy. There is a lot we can learn from talking to those who left, if we want to make our communities better. It is time to at least make the decision to leave, a more challenging one, by teaching the depth and meaning of our tradition.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
If I am successful in conveying in words that which I am thinking, many of you, if not most of you, will find something with which to disagree about what follows. I do not seek to convince anyone that I am correct, but rather to convey an issue with which I am struggling, as well as to spur some thoughtful conversation.
I love the mitzvah of tallis. For me, it is a mitzvah which feels chassidic in a way that tefillin does not. Each day, as I am about to put on my tallis, I joyously say the beracha, ready for the Divine hug which comes as I wrap the tallis around my body. I also love to have the tallis over my head as I say the Shemoneh Esrei, as it creates a more intimate feeling as I speak to God. It was therefore with a level of joy that I felt when I recently saw a meme, which contained a quote about tallis, that I wanted to share on Facebook.
The quote, whose words I can’t fully recall, was said by a well-known rabbi. It went something like this; ‘Sometimes you need to learn to be alone with HaShem under your tallis’. The quote, and the accompanying picture, very much spoke to me, and I was about to share the meme, when a thought suddenly came to me. What about the vast majority of Orthodox women, who don’t wear a tallis? I decided not to share the meme. I must admit that, at first, my concern was that the post, despite my positive intention, would turn into a fight and/or a bash-fest, neither of which interested me.
Later, however, I started to think more about the issue of women and mitzvos in which they are not commanded (excluding tefillin which is halachically complex). What would happen if a student, or one of my daughters, heard me speak about my love for the mitzvah of tallis, and would ask my thoughts on performing the mitzvah, so that they too could experience the intimacy of this mitzvah?
It is here, of course, that things get complicated. Not on a halachic level, unless my ignorance is causing me to forget some halachic issue. [Edit: It was. Rabbi Mordechai Harris reminds me that the Rema in OC 71:2 says that women would not perform this mitzvah as it looks like arrogance (mechzi k'yuhara), which complicates this discussion somewhat]. Women may be exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis, but they are still allowed to perform the mitzvah. In fact, it is known that a certain chassidic rebbitzen wore a tallis kattan beneath her clothes. Rather, the complication comes from the current situation in which Orthodoxy finds itself. At both extremes, there are those whose position makes me uncomfortable. On one pole are those who see egalitarian feminism as so important that they try to push it as far as they can into Orthodoxy. On the other extreme, are those who think that they, and only they, own Torah and mitzvos, and thus, can decide who gets to use them and how. So now what?
It is here that I come to an imperfect answer to the above-mentioned theoretical question. I would encourage my student or daughter to wear a tallis during davening, if they so wished, but only when davening at home. The current fight over Orthodoxy, Torah, and mitzvos (where does God come in?) makes me uncomfortable to suggest that they put on tallis in public. Both sides have made the idea of women voluntarily taking on a mitzvah which might not have been traditionally done by women, into a political issue rather than a religious one. Thus, a woman who seeks closeness to God is put in a tough spot. “So you are one those?” she might be asked by one side, while the other might tell her “Right on sister. Don’t let men tell you what to do”. She would be used as an idea, when all she wants to do is develop closeness with HaShem.
Is the current climate the best we can do? Are we so busy trying to save and define orthodoxy, that we have stopped thinking about God? We can, and indeed, must, do better.
Thursday, March 3, 2016
Searching for Truth When Your Belief System has Fallen Apart- my talk at the upcoming Project Makom Shabbaton
Before I begin I want to say something, which as you will see, is actually very connected do what I will be discussing. Some, including Mindy and Allison, might think that I participate in these shabbatons because I have something to offer you. The truth is, however, that I attend these shabbatons to gain inspiration. As silly as it might sound, you, and all the members of Project Makom are my heroes. Your passion for truth, your refusal to simply go with the flow, your need to question, understand, and seek, inspires me. In a world that was not an olam hafuch, you would be honored by the velt for being true Mevak’shei Hashem.
To begin, allow me to share with you part of the reason that the mission of Project Makom speaks to me. I myself have gone on my own journey looking for my own place in the world, and in Judaism, in fact, I’ve never finished my journey, and hope I never will. I was raised in a pretty typical Modern Orthodox family of the 1970s and 80s. My father, a”h, did not attend a yeshivah. In fact, he did not grow up religious. Although he developed a love for many parts of yiddishkeit, he never learned Hebrew or Aramaic and couldn’t learn (he did grow up speaking Yiddish, and spoke with my mother a”h in Yiddish to discuss things they didn’t want us to understand). We kept Shabbos, at least as well as we could without really knowing Hilchos Shabbos, and kashrus, but fudged it on occasion, for example, relying on a sketchy rumor that the local Dunkin Donuts was kosher. It was only later in my late teens and early twenties when I began to take things more seriously. In 1997, when I was 26, I switched from a kippah seruga kollel to one that was yeshivish. I soon followed in their ways, and started wearing a hat, although only on Shabbos. That year, for the first time, I ran into a religious question which challenged my understanding of Judaism. I was too scared to ask anyone how to deal with my struggles, as we are not supposed to have doubts, or so I thought. Years later, I asked someone knowledgeable, who gave me an answer which gave me yishuv hada’as. About five years ago, I went through a much more serious crisis. I was not sure that I was still a ma’amin. I was in chinuch, was married to one of the most sincerely religious people I’ve ever met, and had seven children. I decided that no matter where my search led me, I would not change my outer behavior. It was more important for me to protect my family, than to be myself (although I understand those who make different decisions). I wasn’t scared. I was terrified. Which brings us to the practical part of this talk.
Using the process of how I rediscovered my faith, although in a very different way than before (which is why my blog is called “Pesach Sheini) I will attempt to give very practical suggestions, which I hope will be of help.
1. Your struggles and questions are okay
Don’t beat yourself up for struggling or having questions. You are not an apikores. You are not a bad person. In fact, you are doing what the founders of chassidus did. You are saying “I refuse to simply choose a derech that doesn’t fit me, just because I was born into it”. When the Kotzker was asked by his father why he had changed his derech, he pointed out that it says in Shemoneh Esrei אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו. First we have to make HaShem our God. Then we can connect to the God of our fathers. He was far from alone. I can literally share dozens and dozens of those who chose chassidus despite their misnagdish background, including Rav Leibele Eiger, whose grandfather, Rebbe Akiva Eiger you might have heard of. And it’s not just to chassidus. I can show you others who went the other direction, and even those who, gasp!, chose to become more “modern”.
2. There is no such thing as a bad question, although there are bad answers
Ask your questions. Do not think that any are bad, and must be hidden or ignored. They will bother you until you examine them. Don’t however accept “bad” answers. Some answers will simply be wrong or simplistic. Others might work for others, but not for you. Keep asking until you are satisfied by what you hear. Also, some questions can not be answered by an answer that will satisfy you. That’s okay. Better to be emes’dik, than to try and force yourself to believe something you know to be wrong. Which leads us to:
3. Know whom you should not ask
Some people are afraid of questions and doubts. Some are so scared that they attack those who ask these questions, so that they can avoid struggling themselves. I’m sure you’ve all met these people. Unfortunately some are teachers of Torah, or people who can have a lot of control over your community. Avoid discussing your questions with them. They can’t handle struggle, even though the Ribbono Shel Olam can.
4. There are many great resources out there
There are some brilliant talmidei chachamim and scholars who are very accessible and are happy to try and help you with your search. They can be reached in various ways, including in person, and by phone, email and social media. Yes, Facebook is a great resource for doing more than just posting pictures of what you had for lunch.
I reached out to many different people who were incredibly helpful (as well as some who were not). Some shared their own thoughts, others recommended books which were quite helpful.
5. Read, read, read
There are incredible seforim and books out there where many challenging questions are addressed. They are written by those they never told you about in cheder or Beis Yaakov; Rav Kook ztl, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik ztl, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits ztl, and Reb Hillel Zeitlin ztvkl, to name a few. Zeiltlin by the way, was born into a chassidic family, lost his emunah due to some serious questions, and found his way back to frumkeit and chassidus, before being tragically murdered in the Warsaw Ghtto.
6. Be patient with yourself
It took me more than 1 ½ years before I started to truly believe. It could have taken longer. These things take time. There is no deadline.
7. Be willing to be a cholent
You don’t have to find the perfect community. In fact, there is likely no community that will truly be a perfect fit for you. That’s okay. It’s why my more liberal friends think I’m a right-winger and my conservative friends think I’m a kofer (I’m joking….kind of). I love certain parts of chassidus, which are part of my Avodas haShem. Other parts don’t speak to me. I appreciate the commitment to serious Talmud Torah which I see in parts of the yeshivish world, even while other parts of that world trouble me. And yes, I love the ideas of Modern Orthodoxy, even as I find too few in the community who strive to live up to those lofty theories. As Rav Kook taught, there is no approach that doesn’t have some emes to teach us.
The Meiri, who was a Rishon, noted that the tefillin that any of us wear are pasul according to every Rishon. Our tefillin follow some shittos of one Rishon, and other shittos of other Rishonim. He then asks, how we can wear these tefillin if they are “pasul”. His answer is one you might expect from a Chassidic Rebbe, rather than a Rishon who was far from being a mystic. Rachmana Liba Ba’i, HaShem desire the heart. My beliefs and your beliefs might not be kosher according to, or perfectly fit in with, any one group, but they are most pleasing to HaShem, who desires our hearts.
8. Not everything you believe can be publicly shared
The Rambam wrote more than the Mishneh Torah, even if some pretend otherwise. He wrote a complicated work of philosophy called the Moreh Nevuchim. Everybody from secular to Satmar, and from Reform to Reb Chaim ztl, think they know the “real” Rambam. Some say his philosophy was the real him, while others say he didn’t believe any of it, and would fit in perfectly in the charedi world. I won’t share my personal opinion, but, no, he wouldn’t fit into the charedi world.
There’s a reason nobody knows what he truly believed. In his introduction to the Moreh, he makes clear that he is going to hide his true beliefs behind all sorts of seeming contradictions. He knew that many of his generation could not handle his belief system, and tried to keep it hidden. Of course, it didn’t quite work, as they burned his books anyway.
You would be shocked to know how many things which many today call kefirah, were believed by the Rishonim. While those ideas can not be publicly expressed in some communities, I’m pretty sure the Rambam, the Ralbag, and Ibn Ezra were good Jews, and I’m willing to risk my Olam HaBa on them. My beliefs are complex and I have to keep parts of them away from most people. Not because they are kefirah chas v’shalom, but because most frum people don’t seriously study philosophy and are not aware of how many “kefirah’dik ideas, are totally muttar. There is no pesak in hashkafa. I discuss my ideas with those who can handle them. With others I’m guarded. Sometimes it gets annoying, but there is always a price we pay for being part of groups which can never perfectly reflect who we are (we also gain various things from not living alone, much more than we lose).
In conclusion, be true to yourself and do not fear the challenging journey ahead. It won’t always be easy, but with siyata dishmaya, you will find your makom.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
[This is a followup to my last post where I suggested that, too often, God is absent from our lives.]
It is one thing to write a manifesto suggesting that there is a problem in (our) Orthodox world. It is entirely another to suggest a solution, particularly when I myself struggle with the very same problem. Diagnosticians are a dime a dozen, while those who can cure what ails us are much more rare. I am not foolish enough to think that I know the way, or even ways, to make God more of a reality in our lives. Still, I write what follows to get the conversation started, with the hope that those who have more to offer will join the conversation, and make suggestions. What follows, in no particular order, are some things which I have found useful, or which I hope to use, in trying to develop a more real, and deeper relationship with God. There is nothing complex or creative that I am going to say, but sometimes simplicity is a better route.
Baruch A’TA Hashem
Shmuel Bergman said “We pray out of belief, but we believe out of prayer”. Tefilla is an opportunity for us to deepen our belief. Through it we realize how God cares about us, and our dependence on God. We also gain something else. We go from talking about God, as we do in the Shema, or when we study theology, to speaking to God, speaking as we would do to a spouse, friend, or anyone we love. Each time there is a place in tefillah where we address God directly, as we do, for example, in the first part of most berachos, it is a chance to speak directly to God. The more we speak to God in the second person, the more He goes from being a thing, or an idea, to being someone to whom we relate.
Hisbodedus/speaking in your own words
This photo, which I shared in my last post, is one of favorites. Although I’ve rarely had the guts to stand in the woods and try to speak out loud to God, I’ve long felt that nature offers a unique opportunity to feel God’s presence. What I do more often is to speak, using my own words and in English, directly to God. While it often involves asking for things, there are many times where I simply share my thoughts and feelings, especially gratitude, fears, and desire to truly experience God’s presence. Speaking in my native tongue with my own words allows me to connect with God in a direct, raw, and unique way that is different from what I experience during tefillah.
It often seems that for men in our community, only gemara and halacha are considered serious talmud Torah. It is rare to see a chavrusa where Ibn Pakuda’s Chovos HaLevavos, Ramchal’s Derech HaShem, the Piaseczna’s Bnei Machashava Tova, or the Alter of Navardok’s Madreigas Ha’Adam is learned. To the degree that they are studied, it is generally done informally. Take the time to study the siddur, and treat it as seriously as any other text composed by the chachamim. The Avudraham is an excellent sefer to study to more deeply understand the goal of each part of tefillah.
Look for role models who live with God in a serious way. It doesn’t have to be a gadol, teacher, or famous person. Find somebody who is real. If you don’t know anybody who fits that category, learn the Torah written by such a person, and/or learn about their life, whether or not they are still living. For me, by way of example, although I never merited to meet him, anything I have read by or about Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l deeply affects me, and causes me to want to grow more real in my Avodas HaShem. His life serves as a high target that I will never reach, but also as one that causes me to strive for more than I otherwise might do.
Pause and slow down
This can be challenging for me, but I try and pause before saying a beracha, and think about what I’m about to say. I also try to literally pause, standing still, and even closing my eyes when saying the beracha. When I do this, it goes from being quickly mumbled words, to speaking to God.
Know what you are saying. If your Hebrew is not strong enough, use a Hebrew-English siddur. You can’t meaningfully speak to someone if you don’t know what you are saying.
Relationship, not rulebook
Try not to think in terms of “Am I chayav?” Or Is this assur?”, although for sure, one needs to know these things to properly follow halacha. In our relationships with people, we focus on being loyal, or loving, not on being yotzei an obligation. I try to think of my relationship with God in the same way. Our chachamim compare Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with God to that of a husband and wife. We gain a lot if we think in those terms, as opposed to legalistic ones.
Don’t work alone
Work with others to create this reality. If possible, daven at a shul or minyan where the davening is conducive to serious Avodas HaShem. For me, a slower pace, beautiful singing on Shabbos, and God-centric derashos and shiurim matter. If you don’t have options, try and sit in a part of the shul where people don’t converse during davening.
If possible, and this is one of the places where I have not yet succeeded, start a chaburah, mussar-vaad or the like. Join with other people to work on avodas HaShem by focusing on a particular sefer. For some it will be a mussar sefer, while for other it will be a sefer from the Rishonim, or chassidus. Which brings me to…
Listen to your neshama
Find the approach that works for you. Some approaches to Avodas HaShem, and language used to discuss it (including mine) might seem too light or fluffy for you. Find the one that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in Avodas HaShem. When you experience the approach that is right for you, you’ll know it. Don’t let anyone dictate to you how it “should” be done. Thank God, there are many legitimate approaches from which to choose.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, I claim no expertise in this area. I am a searcher, and some of what I described might speak to you. If you have other suggestions, or think some of my ideas are mistaken, please share your thoughts.