Elevating Kavanah (over Kevah) in our Jewish Educational Practices

By Rabbi Jess Minnen

[This is the third of a four-part series from the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson School of JTS, in partnership with OneTable, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower people age 21-39ish who don’t have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice, to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. JTS and its alumni who work at OneTable are taking a “deep dive” into what it means to approach Jewish education through the lens of thriving: learners engaging with Judaism in order to live more meaningful and flourishing lives. We examine the challenges organizations may have in applying this approach, and how we can address and overcome these challenges, together.]

Whether you follow Mizrahi minhag, Sephardi nusah, or Ashkenazi te’amim, the vast majority of Jewish practices come with a script and stage directions, from orchestrated prayers to choreographed ritual. We call that fixedness kevah, and it gives stability to teaching, learning, and practicing Judaism. But even if you know all the words and when to recite them, all of the moves and when to make them, Judaism is stagnant if practiced with kevah alone.

Judaism also needs kavanah, intention, the direction of our inner devotion outward. The tension between the two, between parameters and personalization, has preoccupied the sages for millennia. Which takes precedence, the words or the intention with which they are said? Which is more challenging, praying at the correct time or praying with a full heart?

As OneTable’s Resident Rabbi, I field these types of kevah vs. kavanah questions from Jewish professionals about my work: How do you know they’re really doing Shabbat dinner? How do you know they’re not just having a dinner party on Friday night?

Consider this classic Hassidic folktale, where a boy and his father make a rare visit to synagogue. The boy doesn’t know the prayers, but the service moves him. Wanting to participate, he recites the alef-bet, the only Hebrew he knows, over and over again, quietly at first, then louder along with the congregation. When his father shushes him, the boy cries, “But I am praying! God will take these letters and arrange them in order to make the right words.” Hearing this, the rabbi stops the service. “Because of this boy’s intention,” he says, “our prayers will be heard at the gates of heaven.” And the entire congregation prays together: Alef, bet, gimmel

It is a beautiful story, one that clearly prizes kavanah. Yet today in the majority of communities in North America, kevah is the starting point – and in too many cases, the culmination – of Jewish learning. The result is a focus on how well students, participants, and congregants know the words rather than the passion with which they say them, whether they know to stand and sit at appropriate times rather than the meaning behind those actions. Implicit in this methodology is a false equivalence between kevah and “authentic” Jewish practice.

Behind the kevah v. kavanah questions posed to me lurks the underlying assumption that we cannot fully trust our participants to become the producers of their own Jewish experiences. I hope you will read my colleague Rachel Sherman’s previous piece in this series, which thoughtfully reflects on the power of our absence. True, I am not at the Shabbat dinner table with our hosts and their guests, nor is any Jewish professional in most cases. There are hundreds of OneTable dinners happening around the country every Friday night, and we support those dinners by creating, curating, and delivering powerful Jewish content designed to strengthen our hosts’ confidence and competence. We treat hosts as change agents: reclaimants of the lost art of hospitality and peer-to-peer educators.

The second, equally challenging assumption is the idea that participants are “just having a dinner party on Friday night.” The tension behind this fear is real, and precisely why we must carefully consider the dynamic between kevah and kavanah.

Imagine a typical OneTable host. At 26, they have never formally hosted guests in their apartment, let alone served dinner, let alone Shabbat dinner. They post an event on the OneTable platform and invite their friends with a description that reads: Let’s celebrate my first year in DC with my very first Shabbat dinner! They speak with their hub manager, who nourishes their dinner and matches them with a coach. They download the OneTable Shabbat Dinner Guide and scroll through the highlights. It’s a lot. Deep breath.

For a young person who has never hosted before, simply identifying their Friday night dinner as a Shabbat dinner is a huge step. As such, this kavanah serves as a first act for many OneTable hosts around the country, an entry point to Jewish learning. When a participant hosts or attends a Friday night dinner with the intention of hosting or attending a Shabbat dinner, and engages in hahnasat orhim, whether by practicing hospitality as a host or creating Jewish community as a guest, the dinner is a Shabbat dinner. For our participants, this most basic of kavanot, the sincere desire to host and attend a Shabbat dinner, is transformational.

To be clear, kavanah is a starting point. Shabbat happens every week, giving our hosts and guests plenty of opportunities to explore the core Shabbat dinner rituals. How might they grow Jewishly if they have permission to try new things, to experiment, to explore ways to personalize ritual and make it their own?

We offer a range of resources and Jewish content, including traditional brahot complete with script and stage direction, but we present them as still more tools to set intention rather than as requirements. When we begin with kavanah – What was this ritual designed to accomplish, and what might it accomplish for you? – the result is enduring practice rather than fixed practice.

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering: How might we better engage our users, our congregants, our campers, our students, our participants? I don’t promise to have the answer, but I do promise that kevah, despite its importance, is not the starting point we need. Elevate kavanah. Elevate feeling, passion, emotion, and intention. Perhaps you might only get an alef-bet. I can’t imagine a better way to start.

Rabbi Jess Minnen is the Resident Rabbi at OneTable. She received her Rabbinical Ordination from the Rabbinical School of JTS.