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What Is and Isn’t Wrong with Prayer


The way most of us pray today is very different to the way it was originally intended. What goes on in most Jewish “houses of prayer” of whatever community, denomination, sect, or form is usually far from an exciting, uplifting spiritual experience.

According to Maimonides (Laws of Prayer Chapter 1:11), it remains a Torah obligation to relate to the Almighty every day and in one’s own way, regardless of what may or may not happen in a synagogue. The Hebrew “to pray” is Lehitpallel, which literally means “to express oneself”. How many people do? We tend to rely entirely on what other people have said. Yet the formal prayers we have were initially only intended to be a menu of suggested ideas for those who could not find the words themselves.

There is a dichotomy between personal, private prayer and public communal prayer. Their functions are entirely different. The Torah ideal remains that individuals should find spontaneous, subjective, and personal ways of connecting with how they understand the Divine presence. This is what is called “Deveykut”, actually engaging with God. This can rarely be done in a crowded synagogue surrounded by others who often have no interest in such activity. It cannot be done while a cantor performs, and most of all it cannot be done “on command”. Sometimes for a moment, such as Kol Nidrei, this effect can be achieved. But it rarely survives long. Only in a very few situations, such as those yeshivot with a strong tradition of prayer, does one experience extended concentration and excitement. For the average Jew living in no such rarified situation, synagogues in general simply do not offer this experience of the Divine. The Great Synagogue in Alexandria, where flags were waved to let distant parts of the building know when to say Amen (TB Sukah 21b), cannot possibly have been a place of personal engagement with Heaven.

The services we have nowadays perform very different functions. They are primarily to give us a sense of community and to actually get people together in ways that most religious obligations do not. Judaism makes demands on us both as individuals and as members of the community of Israel. Personal prayer remained personal. Yet over time personal prayers and petitions were incorporated into the “prayer” format, for convenience.

Herded into claustrophobic, foul ghettos, under Christianity and Islam, most Jews wanted to escape the overcrowded hovels they often shared with animals. The synagogue was the only large and airy building in the community where one could go to chat and study as well as pray. One needed to come and leave together for safety. That was where they wanted to be and to spend as much time as possible. No wonder the services got longer and longer.

The prevailing culture was also one in which any educated persons expressed themselves in poetry. Hence the great payyatanim, who spread under Islam from Israel to Spain to Northern Europe and churned out religious poetry in formal structures and conventions that were incorporated into services but no longer resonate with most of us.

The great mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Luria was responsible for introducing songs, for walking out into the fields, praying on the hills of Safed. The attempt to experience God moved from man-made structures to nature and back. The existential aspect of prayer, its singing and ecstasy as much as its communal aspect, influenced the great Chasidic reformation. But then like all revolutions, over time it lost its iconoclasm and creativity and sank back into formality. Still to this day in many Chasidic courts you will hear singing and ecstatic prayer that would be unimaginable in most synagogues in the West.

Over the years I have gone through all sorts of different prayer experiences. And I still find the traditional service meets my “communal” needs. But it is private prayer that satisfies me spiritually. Yet I have always encountered other Jews who disagreed with me. Some preferred the big performance, the big event, the sense of being together, to the modest utilitarian alternatives I tried to recommend. Yet it is right that it should be so. We are not all alike. We have different intellects and tastes and needs. There should be alternatives.

I believe we are living in exciting times. More and more people are willing to experiment. Whereas once this inevitably meant casting off the requirements of tradition, now the trend is to find resolutions without throwing the baby out with bathwater. One of the joys of many Jewish communities where there is a critical mass is that one can shul-crawl on Shabbat to experience a wide range of alternatives and find one that accords with one’s temperament and background.

Despite a common superstructure, services have evolved in response to specific cultural and social circumstances. I believe that more energy should go into trying to find completely new styles of worship than in tinkering with the old. There must, for example, be creative ways in which female spirituality could create totally new atmospheres and experiences without being constricted by established male modes and norms. I approve of choice and, where it is possible, exploring the alternatives in one’s neighborhood.

Regardless of the style of service, or the regularity of one’s attendance, one must, I believe, reestablish the practice of personal prayer outside of synagogual structures. Meditation and contemplation in a totally secular style, or one borrowed from another religion, have brought relief and inspiration to many in the West. But we have our specifically Jewish exercises and meditations. One need look no further than Avraham Abulafia (or in modern times Aryeh Kaplan) to realize such things have been part, albeit a neglected part, of our tradition. We must revive them.

Romantics rely on the experience, the stimulation of beautiful buildings, music, canonicals, and ceremonial to induce a sense of devotion, worship, and spirituality. The classicist works on himself to make it happen. I prefer that, rather than to expect others to do it for me.

1 thought on “What Is and Isn’t Wrong with Prayer

  1. I received the following comment from Keiko Atsumi in Tokyo, Japan:

    I am a new subscriber to this blog, joining only last weekend. Having read many of Rabbi Rosen’s writings, I first wish to thank the Rabbi for enlightening me so much. I first need to mention (for the sake of other readers) that as a Japanese with a Buddhist background, my knowledge of Judaism is nil. (The only scant knowledge about your faith I have is through the Old Testament.)

    Reading “What is and isn’t wrong about prayer?” has made me want to pose a question, which has bothered me for so long. It pertains to a certain tradition here in Japan and thus forgive me if it appears to the Jewish mind utterly naïve or irrelevant.

    In this article, you discuss prayer in terms of group praying and private praying, and state that you prefer private praying. I share your preference, as I find private praying so much more spiritually gratifying.

    The Japanese lack of religiosity should shock many devoted believers of Abrahamic religions. Most people are agnostics, not belonging to any specific faith, and not having any knowledge of the world’s major religions, including their own. People use religious institutions of any faith/denomination to suit their own convenience (such as going to a Shinto shrine for blessing the new born babies, Christian churches for weddings, Buddhist temple for funerals).

    Yet, they have an animistic sense of being awed by the invisible, powerful beings, and the majority of them are impressively honest, polite and considerate. And I admit the society is still quite decent here compared to other advanced countries even in this globalized age.

    What has exasperated me for so long is the content of their prayers. Most people go on January 1 of each year to Shinto shrines (or ignorant ones even go to Buddhist temples, not knowing that Buddhism does not talk about the absolute entity) to pray for their own personal benefits and gains; such as for recovering from illness, passing an entrance examination, striking a good marriage, promotion at their work, success in business, winning in elections, etc., etc.

    And they pray publicly and vocally with their peers and friends. What is worse, all the surrounding people applaud such self-serving praying, and Shinto priests even bless the prayers..

    I have learned through my daily private praying that the greatest spiritual gratification comes when I pray for the well-being and success of all the other living beings. But it is not easy to share this truth (at least to me) with other Japanese, and I have felt so alienated for so long from my own people on this score. So, I go on my way alone, and have not put a step into any shrine.

    My basic question is: are there not the “right or correct” and the “wrong or incorrect” prayers in terms of substance? This was not discussed in your article. Is this because all the Jewish faithfuls make correct praying (as taught over millennia) that you don’t need to even discuss it? Are there not criteria on “what is and isn’t wrong with prayer” in terms of its substance? Are there not Jewish people (those working in the Wall Street for money games come to my mind) who pray for their own personal benefits and gains, just like these Japanese?

    How should one deal with such prayers? I would truly appreciate your wise advice.

    I plan to post a response to this in due course.

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