Why spend time each week on tefilot (services)? Tefilah (prayer) is a difficult concept for so many. It is so difficult for many adults because – perhaps the poetic language is not easily understood, maybe it is connected to memories of long, uninspiring services, or, in our result-driven world, it’s hard see value in that which does not produce obvious results.
Let’s take a new look at tefilah by considering research about American civil religion. Civil religion is defined as nonsectarian religion with sacred symbols, values, rituals and holidays. Scholars see it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. Civil religion recreates many of the same experiences that traditional religion offers. Scholars suggest that though many may reject formal religion, there is a basic human need for “sacred” time, space, rituals and community as reflected in civil religion.
One of the leading scholars in this area is Craig A. Forney. His important work, The Holy Trinity of American Sports, writes that sports is central to American civil religion. In short, he notes how football, baseball and basketball set our yearly calendar just as daily or weekly prayer and holidays set the rhythm of the week or the year for different religions. The equivalent to significant holidays of Rosh Hashanah or Christmas or Ramadan would be Superbowl Sunday and the World Series. Dare any of us try to hold a meeting on either of those dates – it is sacred time. Sports events generate their own rituals – seventh inning stretch for example – their own special regalia – the right hat, shirt. Just as religions posit values and mythic stories that connect us to narratives that explain the mysteries of the world, so too our major sports promote important American values about hard work, endurance, realized and dashed dreams, good and evil, life and death. There are sports heroes who have their religious parallels, and there are stories that are retold from one generation to another about a selfless athlete or a particular play. Finally, sporting events build community – each one of us who attends a game or can share the major plays of a game the following week, feels that s/he is part of a much larger community.
Now let’s turn our attention to prayer experiences at Wornick. They definitely help define our calendar. Monday morning Havdallah marks the beginning of a work week and Friday afternoon Kabbalat Shabbat defines the transition from the work week to a weekend. Our services are joyous, vibrant times where community is palable. When we ask students to share what they’re thankful for during the traditional morning “brachot” (blessings) we provide time to think about the purpose and meaning of their lives as lived each day. When seventh and eighth graders get up to read from the Torah, students cheer their accomplishments.
Okay, I’ll grant you that tefilah doesn’t command the same attention and excitement that a sports event does. But that’s beside the point. For the spectators at a sport and the congregants in a service there is no tangible gain from the experience. The point is that tefilah, like sports events, provide purpose, community and meaning for participants.
Please consider joining us any morning for our vibrant, upbeat services.