This blog is based on my own personal experience. Religion and culture should be meaningful to the individual. I hope my story inspires you to find an aspect of Judaism or your own faith that will make you passionate. I especially dedicate this blog to the ongoing effort by the Jewish community and individuals to include others and themselves in this millennia-old tradition.
Praying has always been a part of my life. I say the Shema in the morning, and my eyes are closed and focused on listening to myself and to god. On Shabbat evenings, I join my family for Shabbat dinner where we all sing the kiddush and chant the motzei. And I continue to love the Torah service. The incredible poetry and prose of the Etz Chayim give me chills as we place the Torah back in its ark. Over the past few years, I have been reflecting on why tefillah means so much to me.
Tefillah isn’t practiced the same by everyone. My grandfather finds Kol Nidre, a service I do not connect with, powerful and eloquent. My brother prefers the social aspects of Jewish life: bnai mitzvot, camp, volunteering at Hebrew school, and, certain USY events. And I vary from day to day. Most times I am incredibly enthused by tefillah, and on other occasions, I am not in the right mindset.
One reason I believe that Jewish prayer is meaningful to me is ritual. Autistic people, including myself, prefer to have organized and repeatable actions; in other words, a ritual. Tefillah gives order and structure to a person's inner reflections with a memorable set of prayers and actions. This can be contrasted with meditation. My grandmother specifically connects with meditation and has tried to get me to embrace it, yet every time I attempt to it just doesn’t work because I have a hard time concentrating. One of the ways that Autism works for me is that I am constantly thinking. Therefore, my mind can’t really shut off except for sleeping. This makes it difficult and near impossible to meditate. This has also made tefillah, where I am able to reflect through stimming, a far more appealing way to channel my emotions and spirituality.*
Another way Tefillah has worked for me is the sensory aspects. The first things that come to mind are standing up and sitting down, closing your eyes during the Shema, and listening to the words of prayer around you: letting each syllable rest on your tongue. But one thing stands out to me, using my voice for vocal stim. For many on the spectrum, using your voice to stim is a good way to release energy and reconcentrate oneself. And I am able to do this in a meaningful and non-disruptive manner by praying. I am able to vocally stim in different tunes and tropes, and in a set way, in a routine. Because of this added advantage of stim, I am able to pray in a meaningful and enjoyable way, speaking to me uniquely as an Autistic Jew. I have been able to extend this to Torah reading. By being a regular Torah reader at school and at synagogue I am able to fulfill a mitzvah, vocally stim, and partake in a hobby I enjoy. This year I am particularly excited to read Torah on all four high holidays in front of my community and family.
I want to give two quick stories about my experience of tefillah to hammer in the benefits of sensory and routine that tefillah has given me.
When I hit eighth grade I was returning to school (Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, SSDS) after having a Zoom bar mitzvah. I didn’t get much practice with my tallis and tefillin and was having sensory difficulties with wearing them at school. Also, as part of our COVID protocol, SSDS had tefillah outside on the hot basketball court. This posed an additional sensory challenge to me as heat,specifically sweat, can be irritating to me (see Water: An Autistic Journey). Thankfully, SSDS wanted to work with me as I navigated this. We first waited until the heat died down and I recieved one of the few spots in the shade so sweat wouldn’t be such a major issue for me during tefillah. Then, during lunch, I got individual lessons from the school rabbi, Rabbi Efrem Reis, on wearing my tallis and tefillin. He taught me how to make sure it was not too tight or loose. We didn’t do this all at once. I took incremental steps to learn how to do this. I noticed that it was especially difficult for me because of my fine motor skills, something a lot of Autistic people share in common with me. Tefillin continues to be an area of improvement but I am proud of myself for wearing it every day during tefillah and for continuing to work on my fine motor skills in this unique and meaningful way. Back to the main story, over the winter and spring, I would wear my tallit every day and slowly wear my tallit more and more. First, just my tallit rosh. Afterward, I would wear my tallit yad/arm a few days a week until I finally reached a point where I could wear it every day. Looking back, I’m proud. Instead of giving up or stressing myself out, I gave myself the right amount of time to hone my skills and sensory load to wear these holy objects. Over the years, I have continued to improve on tying tefillin with some of my Leffell teachers giving me helpful advice as well. SSDS, Leffell, and my teachers helped me throughout this entire process. Within a year I went from having a near-sensory overload to reteaching my grandfather and cousin how to wear tefillin and tallit. In fact, I have actually begun to appreciate certain sensory aspects of my tallit specifically. The tzitzit specifically feels good when rubbed against my fingers and when fidgeted in my hand.
In ninth and tenth grade, I began to think about how I davened the Amidah. Traditionally, one stands still with their legs together facing east. I always face east during the Amidah but I have trouble staying fully still without moving at all. It distracts me from my tefillah because for me to concentrate, I need to move in some way. So like many Jews, I sway in my tefillah space. Not like crazy. But enough so that I can focus. Standing still isn’t as much of an expectation anymore in tefillah as before. Jewish communities are noticing how this aspect of tefillah is difficult, especially for Autistics, people with ADHD, and other neurodivergent people. I felt this encapsulated when I had a conversation with one of my rabbis. She told me that even she struggles with this. In fact, I think swaying or another movement can make tefillah meaningful for people and I even feel this reflects Jewish tradition.
I’ll conclude with this story from 9th grade. In Talmud, we studied Maseket Barachot of the Talmud (the book of Jewish law that dictates the rules of Jewish prayer) and a portion about the correct position during the Amidah struck me.
If you were riding on a donkey, you should go down (get off and stand up).
And if you cannot go down, you should turn your face.
And if you cannot turn your face you should direct your heart to the Beit Kodesh HaKodeshim (Jerusalem).
If you are sitting on a boat, or in a carriage or in a raft, you should direct your heart to the Beit Kodesh HaKodeshim (Jerusalem).
What really inspired me about this is the Talmud recognizes that not everyone can pray the Amidah in the same way. What is the basic expectation? To just direct your heart to Jerusalem. Like any other Jew, I am just as capable of making a meaningful connection to G-D. Just because I may practice it in a different way than others I am still doing it correctly. Everyone experiences Judaism, Tefillah, and spirituality differently. What matters is if you direct your heart with purpose.
*On a side note, I’d like to mention that my experience with meditation isn’t always the case for every autistic person. In fact, many Autistic people have found meditation helpful especially when dealing with anxiety. For another Autistic perspective on mindfulness I recommend checking this blog by another Autistic named Travis (https://tinyurl.com/3zncptvv). It was worth trying mindfulness and I think that for many people it has proven helpful. I plan to try again at some point.