Repetition, rote, and religious fulfillment

I once had a conversation with a cousin of mine who asked me why I love the Passover seder so much. She was asking, she said, because she doesn’t enjoy seders at all (aside from the food and the family being together.) She finds prayers boring and unenjoyable and doesn’t understand how I could find fulfillment that way.

Here’s how I responded:

Imagine you have a friend who really loves line dancing. She drags you to a bar one night and tells you that you’re about to have an amazingly fun experience. You go out to the dance floor with her. The music starts and everyone is moving. You’re trying to watch people’s feet, and you succeed at copying their steps, but you’re lagging behind everyone and you keep bumping into people when you turn the wrong way. You’re trying to get with the beat of the music, but you don’t know this song and hearing the beat seems to take more effort and concentration than it should. You shuffle along as best you can, feeling stupid and uncoordinated. You can’t wait to get off the dance floor. When the song ends you’re out of there, with no intention of coming back. Your friend, on the other hand, really enjoyed herself and can’t understand why you didn’t have fun, too.

Prayer and ritual are the same as any other activity. If you don’t have the basics down pat, you’ll never be able to enjoy it fully. People seem to accept that you need to practice for years if you’re going to really enjoy playing an instrument in a group, and that you have to learn the steps and then practice them before ballroom dancing becomes an enjoyable pastime for you… and yet somehow people expect to step into a synagogue and have a transcendental spiritual experience. What’s more, when spiritual fulfillment fails to materialize, they blame the religion, the synagogue, and the language rather than their own lack of study and practice.

Yes, I get a kick out of the Passover seder. I love it. I love the words, the melodies, the symbols. I love them because they’re familiar to me, and I love them because of what they express. The Hallel section (aka the long part after the meal that most people just skip) puts words in my mouth so that I can use them to express my personal thanks and praise to God. I’ve been hearing those words since birth. In grades 1 and 2 we practiced excerpts from the haggadah for weeks so that we could put on a model seder in our class. I’m 32 years old, and we do two seders a year, and that means I’ve heard the entire seder at least 64 times, not counting all that practice in school and my attempts to learn my Grandpa’s melodies by tape recording him and listening to it repeatedly.

When people criticize their Jewish education they often cite rote memorization as a major reason why they hated it. Sure, being made to memorize words in a foreign language without any explanation of their meaning feels useless. But why is the instinct to eliminate memorization rather than to increase understanding? Both are important, but you have to know that all the understanding in the world won’t help you line dance if you don’t learn the steps.

Montessori education understands this principle. K’s classroom is full of activities that one could call “pointless,” like the one where you have to cut a strip of paper into squares by cutting precisely on the printed lines. Wouldn’t everyone love to go straight to sewing and collage-making? Probably, but they’d be disappointed by their results. I can tell you as a crafter and a quilter that being able to cut precisely on the lines is essential to making a good-looking product. Basic skill development is essential, and we jump to the end activity at our own peril.

Will my children have the comfort and facility with Jewish prayer that I do? I don’t know. Our school is less “religious” than the one I attended, which means that instead of reciting prayers every day they do it twice a week. I do know that at the age of 4 K already knows the entire (long) blessing over the Sabbath wine. She’s heard it every week since her birth which puts her at… well, upwards of 200 repetitions. One day, I hope, she’ll be able to stand and recite the blessing fluently while feeling the awe and sanctity of the words.

Our job, as parents and educators, is to give our children the skills to function in the world and to find fulfillment. When it comes to religious education, we’d do doubly well to remember that.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. becomewhatyouare
    Apr 21, 2012 @ 10:22:26

    I love this! As a Catholic family, we get similar questions and I feel the same way about the repetition and familiarity. We have to seek out meaning, of course, but the beauty and comfort grow rather than diminish as our family continues to engage in our sacraments and mysteries. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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