Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, is executive director of Mechon Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Study (www.mechonhadar.org). This summer, Mechon Hadar launched a full-time yeshiva that offers men and women in their 20s an opportunity for traditional text study, egalitarian prayer and social action with a special focus on personal religious growth. He is a co-founder of Kehilat Hadar (www.kehilathadar.org), an egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. He received rabbinic ordination from JTS, where he is also pursuing a DhL in Liturgy. He can be reached at Kaunfer@hotmail.com
The experience of saying the Amidah, the quintessential rabbinic prayer, 3 times a day, can be exhausting. Even the most exciting parts of our liturgy can grow stale, not to mention those lines to which we don’t connect at all. But perhaps a fresh look at a neglected phrase can breathe new life into prayer.
Take, for instance, the beginning of the Amidah. After describing God as God of our ancestors, we then recite this line of praise: האל הגדול הגבור והנורא – “the great, mighty and awesome God.” On its face, this seems yet another attempt to heap adjectives of praise onto God. What, in fact, is the difference between “mighty” and “great”? How can I possibly relate to God through these words?
This is an age-old problem. The Talmud (Bavli Megilah 25a) reports a story of a hazan who got carried away at this point in the recitation of the Amidah, adding more adjectives to the line: “The great, mighty, awesome, powerful, strong, courageous God.”
The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Haninah said to him: Have you exhausted all the possible praise of your Master? Were it not that they were written by Moses in the Torah and affixed by the Men of the Great Assembly, we would not even dare to utter those three[descriptions]! But you go on adding all of these?! It may be compared to a human king who had thousands upon thousands of gold coins, and people praised him for owning silver. Isn’t that a terrible degradation of him?”
Rabbi Haninah points to the futility of attempting to describe God. God cannot be captured through language, so adding more adjectives won’t help. Why, then, do we bother at all? Rabbi Haninah notes that the phrase in our Amidah is actually a quote from the Torah, from this week’s parsha: Ekev. Had Moses not used these descriptions, we could not conceive of using any language to describe God.
Recognizing that the Talmud was aware that the Amidah was alluding to the Biblical verse, it is worth asking: what does “great, mighty and awesome God” mean in the original context? The full text reads as follows:
“For God your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. The great, mighty, and awesome God who shows no favor and takes no bribe; who does justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
In the Biblical context, it is clear “great, might and awesome” refers to God’s justice. God is great because God is fair and protects the weak. Not only that, but the Biblical text enjoins people to follow in God’s ways: to be great, mighty and awesome by loving the stranger, just as God did.
I had occasion to think about this line in the amidah very intensely this summer. Together with Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumni Ethan Tucker and Shai Held, I founded Yeshivat Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org/Yeshivathadar), the first independent egalitarian intensive yeshiva in the United States. Eighteen men and women, ages 21-28, spent 60 hours a week for eight weeks learning Jewish texts, davening, and engaging in social action. Often, these activities can seem atomized in our understanding of Jewish practice: either one studies, one prays, or one acts. But as the Biblical intertext of this line in the Amidah demonstrates, these are not individual boxes to check while moving through life. They make up a world, an integrated whole, in which each text leads to prayer which leads to action, and reverse.
We just concluded our first summer, but already the students have pointed to the special character of this world. As one put it: “I have had the opportunity to be a part of a spiritually rich community that has helped me to achieve a deeper understanding of what it means to be both a human being and member of a community as a Jew. Through our intense study, prayer, and social action, I feel the infinite value of being truly present in the moment has been perpetually revealed. My experience has ultimately shone light on the oneness of Torah and Action.”
It is my prayer that when saying the Amidah, we will be able to experience the confluence of prayer, study and action implied by the words: “great, mighty and awesome