Tefillah, Meaning Making Skills, and Spiritual Literacy

by: Joshua Ladon

Joshua Ladon explores paths to meaning-making as a function of literacy, with a focus on tefillah.

There is an odd phenomenon when it comes to the importance of tefillah in Jewish Education. Despite the dedicated position it has in many Jewish educational programs (camps, day schools, supplementary schools), when one attends a conference for Jewish educators, tefillah often lacks the robust attendance than say, breakfast, for example. This is not to disparage Jewish educators, rather it simply acts to point out, that within Jewish institutions of learning, there is often a communal and pedagogical desire to dedicate time for tefillah which does not match the reality of the pedagogues themselves.

All of this points to a larger discussion of Jewish education in the modern age and the problem with meaning. Even in an Orthodox educational mileu, where tefillah is seen as mandatory and is socially reinforced, questions of why, how and for what still dominate much teaching and thinking about tefillah.  Commandedness is a notion that often does not completely satisfy, which is why Feldheim Publishers, for example, includes in its offerings titles such as, The Siddur Speaks to Us, A Bridge Called Prayer, and Inner Peace, which speak to the individual’s sense of meaning. Lawrence Hoffman (1987), working from Mary Douglas’s (1991) conception of human grouping, characterizes the modern age as “individualistic entrepreneurship,” which is to say, moderns tend to privilege their own experiences over the collective’s and as a result build responses which speak to individual needs. This is not a normative critique, rather, a statement about how meaning comes to address the individual.

If modernity is characterized as the age of meaning, then it is the job of educators to teach skills for constructing meaning.  I have often heard meaning used interchangeably with relevance as to suggest that one’s ability to connect to something stems from their preference which has a wisp of capriciousness. This is one reason why some schools will offer a variety of minyanim for students to choose from in hopes of providing students something to which they can connect. In this journal’s last exploration of tefillah, Eric Golombek described his school’s process for offering students different types of minyanim in service of achieving the objective of “[encouraging] children to “connect” with tefillah, and to value it as an important element in their lives (2004).”

While meaning is found in the individual experience, it is constructed only in reference. Hoffman writes, “meaning is not a quality of any single entity so much as it is an attribute that an entity has by virtue of its connection to another entity” (1991).

Meaning is derived from one’s capacity to reflect and connect previously learned data to new data. Making meaning is thus a process that one can be trained in and is strengthened as people have more paths for connecting data.

In this respect, I want to borrow from a definition of literacy to think about meaning making for tefillah and then offer a number of considerations for growing students’ capacity for making tefillah meaningful.

Literacy as a process

Building on I.A. Richard’s conceptions of symbology, Ann Berthoff defines literacy as “when you can read and write meaningfully,” adding, it “is the realized capacity to construct and construe in graphic form representations from our recognitions” (1990, p. 142). Berthoff strives to move beyond a measurable quantitative skill of writing and reading, that is, the ability to write words down on a page and the ability to read and understand words on a page. These are intertwined activities, imbued with greater reach than just the immediate words being written and read. She articulates literacy as a process in which one uses already understood knowledge to engage unseen information and ultimately create something new.

Construct and construe are the terms Berthoff uses for reading and writing, imbuing the process with specific goals. It is not just the “external” skills or the physical manifestations of drawing letters on pages and scanning these with one’s eyes, but matching those with internal movements of the mind. When people write they concretize what they have constructed and construed. This movement from the mind to the page is central to her vision that literacy is a process of meaning making. Literacy must have some output.

The final two terms of her definition, representation and recognition, speak to the nature of writing and reading as interpretive experiences. Her concept of representation derives from the triadic understandings of meaning by Peirce and Richards, where written word is a “representation of the representation” of understanding. As she explains, “You can’t get from a-p-p-l-e p-i-e to the edible object directly… we have to have an idea of apple pie in mind, to say nothing of ideas of apple and pie, if we are to understand what is being said (Berthoff, 1990, p. 3).” Finally, recognition is the flicker before cognition. It is only through the other steps that recognition can become something articulated. All of this leads her to ask, “what difference would it make to our practice?” This move is central to her conception of literacy because it is neither solely a set of skills nor a mind-set, rather, it must engage both. She answers the question by reversing the order of her definition moving “from recognition to representation, graphic form, construct and construe, and ending with literacy.” The ability to take thought and utilize particular functions to make meaning, to write and read and read and write, this back and forth, this movement, is what is called literacy. The teacher must become the agent who sparks recognition and brings her students through constructing and construing.

The written description of an experience is one’s interpretation of that experience. An interpretation is shaped by the experience of writing it. In order to write, I have played with my words, I have written them and erased them, I have read them and re-read them, until they have become my words aligned in form and content with the thoughts in my mind that I am trying to express. And during those teeth-breaking moments when I strive for expression I see my words anew. My words shape my ideas and my ideas shape my words. It is through this paradigm of writing that we can begin to imagine the task of turning the words of our prayers into the words of our prayers.

What does this mean for our practice?

Wall and Markose (2013) offer a bevy of questions for schools thinking about tefillah education. Using a backwards design model, they implore, “What kind of “pray-ers” do we wish to produce?” following up with questions focused on “competence in the mechanics of prayer… the ability to lead… to understand the meaning of the prayers.to find prayer personally meaningful,” and “connection to God.” Wall and Markose reflect a position that suggests the vision for the learner should dictate the educational experience.

And in this respect, we can find today a number of different approaches to what it means to pray. A number of attempts to illuminate or the clarify vision and purpose of tefillah have been proposed. Greninger (2010) looks at three synagogue schools – Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist – observing the way the synagogue approaches tefillah education. In each synagogue school, prayer was seen to have a particular goal and the synagogues aptly designed education programs which fed those goals. In the Reform congregation’s program, for example, the educator expressed the desire for students to find meaning in tefillah, if not immediately, then later as an adult. The educator explained, “If somewhere in their souls, and somewhere in their minds, and somewhere in their hearts, they remember ‘there was a prayer-something I studied, or I learned about . . . that God is my salvation, or God is my rock’. . . that vocabulary, then it might take them back into the prayer-book” (Greninger, 2010, 385). Jacobson-Maisels (2013) proposes “prayer as a technique to cultivate certain emotions, dispositions and ways of being in the world.” Exler (2016) categorizes successful tefillah through categories of skills, content and dispositions. In this respect, she envisions fluency in tefillah as one who:

has a rich and complex relationship to the words of the siddur, seeking to not only understand the literal meaning of the tefillot, but also to access their metaphorical, poetic, and literary meanings, and to connect these interpretations of tefillot to his lived experience and to his emotional life. He relates to tefillah as more than an intellectual exercise, using the gestures, choreography, and music of tefillah to deepen his experience (p. 55).

Building students’ capacity to make tefillah meaningful using Berthoff’s model of literacy requires a shift in thinking about how to teach tefillah. The technical skills of reading the words, saying the prayers and understanding what the Hebrew words mean are important in that they be in service of the larger vision of constructing and construing so that one may offer representations of recognition. One’s ability to say the words must connect to some form of inner-world that wrestles with and strives to emulate the ideas. But the inner-world must not be detached from the practice. In service of building meaningful prayer, I want to offer five aspects of prayer that need to be a part of our educational practice. In my mind, these should be seen not as complementary to the technical skills of saying the prayers, rather these are the activities which enable constructing and construing.

  1. How do we cultivate a sense that prayer is an act of performance?

The act of prayer is somehow different than simply saying words. As Lawrence Hoffman has pointed out, there is liturgy – the words of the prayers, and there is worship – what someone does with those words (Hoffman, 1987). Jewish spiritual literacy is the ability to express one’s recognition through liturgical forms and be transformed by these forms. Prayer is the conduit for expression and transformation. In this respect we should think about worship as more than just the moment one sits before a siddur but also the preparation for the moment, the embodiment as a result of the moment. Hoffman (2006) imagines the culmination of this process as a drama, a drama that is more public than theater because it “is our drama, not somebody else’s. The lines are our lines, and the characters we play ourselves.” For Hoffman, the stage actor, washes off her face and changes clothes but we, after our public performance, cannot escape our experience.

  1. What does understanding mean? Students need to be able to understand the meaning of the words of the text and to do this, they must have as many hermeneutical tools at their hand. It is not enough to rely exclusively on a philological understanding of the language or a textual history of the liturgy. In what ways could we see the textual skills students employ in literature class, rabbinics courses or Tanakh courses to strengthen their understanding? How are students being taught to think historically, philosophically, poetically, lyrically, playfully, or midrashically?
  2. How does tefillah change us? When we teach towards spiritual literacy, we understand that kavvanah is a dynamic element in the performance of worship that is informed by the place of the worshiper, the community she worships in, and the particular liturgy in which she is engaged. Prayer’s graphic form is the text of liturgy which waits for life to turn it into worship. Just as I am formed by what I form, the actor brings breath to her character and walks away changed. Despite removing her costume and washing the makeup from her face, her character stays with her. For spiritual literacy, one must cultivate their ability to learn from their performance and employ the different modes of prayer (a speech act affecting the world, a meditation, adoration, thanksgiving, or affirmation). Because of the context of prayer, we often think of prayer as a particular mode of expression, most commonly petition. Many may feel constrained as the words and surroundings seem to dictate how one should pray; however, practiced worshipers understand that when they come to the text they are different people each time. They find ways to express themselves through the liturgy and further, the liturgy has something to say to them. One thing spiritually literate people can do with liturgy is pray in different modes. They can say words to express their particular needs and they can do this in spite of the different forms of the liturgy. This does not mean that all forms are easy for them but they can utilize particular modes to give these forms meaning.
  3. Can one move nimbly between tunes? There is tefillah that is sung and there are communities of singers. The distinction is one based on flexibility. While one congregation may sing certain tefillot robustly, when they are introduced to new tunes, they bristle or stumble. On the other hand, communities that can learn new tunes and move nimbly across a number of tunes demonstrate a commitment to tefillah grounded in community and listening as much as output. We often want students to participate in singing during Hallel, but if they only learn to sing in the school minyan, what happens when they leave? Part of meaning making is the flexibility to respond positively when faced with something new.
  4. The role of the Divine In using Berthoff’s definition of literacy, I have ignored the role of the Divine. With writing and reading, there is no larger goal other than meaning and expression (a lofty goal at that). But Jewish liturgy does have a specific focus in mind, an explicit relationship with God. Prayer is informed by and informs one’s connection to the Divine. Even if we were to say that spiritual literacy is the realized capacity to construct and construe in liturgical form representations of our recognitions, we would be missing the relationship to God. It would be disingenuous to assert the role of God as either impetus or outcome, given that this conception of literacy assumes a constant back and forth of meaning making. This might be where personal meaning and God find themselves in contrast; after all, personal meaning deals in the currency of internal value while God externally sets the standard value. Spiritual literacy must then recognize divine supremacy and in doing this we must add to the definition a statement of direction. It is the realized capacity to construct and construe in liturgical form representations of our recognitions towards human realization of covenant with the Divine. When we turn this around, as Berthoff did, we find that the role of God sits on both ends. We move from recognition of God, to representation, liturgical form, construct and construe, towards human realization of covenant with the Divine, and finally spiritual literacy.


Berthoff, A. E. (1990). The sense of learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Exler, L. (2016). Standard for fluency in Jewish text and practice [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Hadar Press.

Golombek, E. (Winter 2004). Action research report on an approach for creating meaningful tefilla experiences in Middle School. Jewish Educational Leadership, 2. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from www.lookstein.org/journal/ action-research-report-approach-creating-meaningful-tefilaexperiences- middle-school/

Greninger, N. M. (2010). Believing, behaving, belonging: Tefillah education in the 21st century. Journal of Jewish Education, 76(4), 379-413. doi:10.1080/152 44113.2010.521882 Hoffman, L. A. (1987). Beyond the text: A holistic approach to liturgy (Jewish literature and culture). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hoffman, L. A. (1991). Upholding the Sabbath day: The Jewish Sabbath faces modernity. In T. C. Eshkenazi, D. J. Harrington, & W. H. Shea (Eds.), The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian traditions (pp. 229-209). New York: Crossroad.

Hoffman, L. A. (2006). The art of public prayer: Not for clergy only. Woodstock, VT: Skylights Path.

Jacobson-Maisels, J. (2013). Prayer as transformation: A vision of tefillah education. Hayidion, Spring.

Wall, S., & Markose, J. (2013). Reimagining prayer: Questions for administrators. Hayidion, Spring.

Joshua Ladon is the Bay Area Manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was previously the Dean of Student Life and Jewish Life at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.