On Our Beit Midrash: Kavannah, Writing and Study by Ivy Helman

studyKavannah is a Jewish concept meaning intention or motivation, perhaps most associated with Hasidism.  Hassidism teaches that prayer and the fulfillment of mitzvot connects one more with the Holy One if the right state of mind is cultivated before participating in said activity.  While going through the motions (prayer, mitzvot, etc.) is important and still technically fulfills the mitzvot, it is not as spiritually beneficial to the individual as is doing those tasks with kavannah.  Praying and fulfilling mitzvot within a certain mental space more fully connects you to the divine.  Judaism is not alone regarding this religious insight.  Clearly there is something to it.

Hasidic teachers often inspire and encourage their adherents to find a way to enter into the right mood before starting prayers or performing mitzvot.  What works for you may not work for me and vice versa.  The same is often not the case within community.  A gathered community can often spark the necessary kavannah.  Yet, sometimes a community is not always accessible or complete.  So for the individual or small group, kavannah cultivation requires perhaps a bit of trial and error.  To help in this individual and communal process, the Hasidic tradition values niggunim (wordless or near wordless melodies).  One I particularly like, probably because of how well it works for me alone as well as in community, proceeds and is integrated into the call to worship for Jewish prayer.  The only word is: di (pronounced like dye).  Di has no special meaning, but the communal nature of the niggun and the use of a repetitive nonsensical word, focuses my attention and intention to the moment.  There is a mental shift of perspective, a presence, a mindfulness, a wrapped-up in the moment feel.  It focuses me on both what I am doing and to Whom I am praying.   Prayer and mitzvot are not chores per se, they are joys!  Which is what they should be.

The more and more I think about it, writing also requires a sense of kavannah, intention, presence, mindfulness and so on.  Even though I write a lot and often, I can’t just sit down and write.  If I’m mentally unprepared, I’ve learned that it makes little sense to even try.  My mood is often so obvious in my writing that it’s painful to read.  The strange thing about this occurrence is that, unlike when it comes to prayer and mitzvot, I haven’t really found one reliable way to center myself and prepare to write.  Why is that?

I’ve tried mental breaks (i.e. mindless television), walks, cleaning (lots of it), showering, listening to music, etc.  Nonetheless, there is not one tried and true method.  Sometimes going to the local café or library works.  From time to time classical guitar or opening thecat and dog.jpg window and listening to the birds focuses me.  A good cuddle with my dog and/or cat may center my thoughts or a good cup of tea or coffee changes the mood.  However, at times, nothing at all works and I have to try again later.

Luckily, the Jewish tradition also has insights on writing like it does with prayer and mitzvot.  However, they are considerably different.  First, writing was considered to be part of the tasks required for building the sanctuary and, therefore, writing is prohibited on Shabbat while reading/study is not.  Also, the Divine says to Moses in the Torah that the Law/Instructions (i.e. the Torah) must be written which is why to this day a sefer Torah is handwritten by a scribe.  Then, there are tefillin, hand-written scrolls of Torah quotes in small boxes.  We bind them to our heads and on our arms closest to our hearts.  In doing so, the words of the Torah are close to both our hearts and our heads.  We feed our small children little candies as they learn to read the Hebrew letters because the words of the Torah are sweet.  These examples illustrate just how important, even holy, writing is for Jews.  It also has an aspect of the creative.

In addition to the above-mentioned, putting your thoughts and ideas on paper for others to read reveals something about yourself.  Good, clear writing does anyway.  Yet, while it makes you more known to others, it also makes you vulnerable to others’ opinions about you.  Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in a public forum like this blog.

In this blog, as in Judaism, with writing comes reading and study.  For Jews, most of the time it happens in a beit midrash (a house of study – this could be a formal room or building devoted to the practice or someone’s kitchen table encircled with friends).  Reading and study in Judaism is about asking questions, discussing opinions, sometimes being nit-picky and usually includes a heated discussion/an argument or two or three or more.  All of this is done with respect for the individual and his or her interpretations.

In a beit midrash, it is perfectly acceptable (if not required) to disagree, to challenge a friend’s thinking and to debate the meaning of Torah and Talmud passages.  How else do you truly grapple with the meaning of the text in front of you if you do not challenge it?  How do you arrive at what it is trying to say?  During this life-long process, I think you learn about yourself as much as you learn about the Divine through the various topics of study.  In this way, study is also a holy activity.  It is holy to question what you were taught, to go back to the original sources, to ponder what you believe and why you believe it, to change your opinions and to figure out how to clearly articulate what it is you believe.  Perhaps, more importantly, the best and holiest lesson, time and time again, is the realization that not everyone sees and understands in the same way you do.  Not only that, we may never know who is right.  In fact, being right isn’t the point.  Understanding is.

This community here is a type of beit midrash.  We don’t always agree or fully understand what it is we are reading or the opinions being expressed.  We may not even be sure how a line of thinking may be feminist or how in the world someone can support a certain position.  Yet, that is why we respectfully comment, question, challenge and respond.  All of this is a learning and growing experience in which hopefully we come to understand a little more about ourselves and others.  Depending on our perspective, we may even come to understand a little more about the Divine.

Our work here is holy.  May it continue.

Di, d’di di, di, di di…

Categories: Feminism and Religion, General, Judaism

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I’m not very familiar with Judaism, so this was very insightful. I love how you have connected religion with our day to day lives, how it affects us and how we can look at religion to solve our problems in life – which I believe is what religion is meant to do. And the struggles with writing is soo true! I can relate with that


  2. I love your writing, Ivy. It reconnects me to all the years this shiksa spent teaching in a Jewish school and the friends I made there. Cuddling my two Siamese cats does not prepare me for writing as I don’t want to put them down and they complain if I do! I close my eyes and pray to remain in the Feminine and to write from there, before I start. My work seems to be clearer and more authentic when I do.


  3. “It is holy to question what you were taught….” Yes, indeed! Thinking critically is essential to our growth, development, and well being. Thanks for a great post, Ivy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating Post, Ivy, all your posts are so interesting, thanks


  5. Here I am, taking a break from writing – :-) Thank you for the encouragement. I often sit quietly and call upon my friends and mentors to guide me, as preparation and when I get “stuck”. But today I came here and am reminded of “holy work”, and the blessing of being called to do it.
    With thanks.


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