Prayer KN 2009 Rabbi Michael Strassfeld
A week ago, in the NY Times Magazine there was an article provocatively entitled: “Is there a right way to pray?” Written by Zev Chafets, in many ways, it was predictable. Let’s have a non-believing Jew talk about prayer by speaking with a variety of religious believers. He will inevitably pick two rabbis who have little insights to share about prayer but have some catchy phrases for the article. And he will end the article with a glowing portrait of some fundamentalist Christian children who pray to heal people from minor aches and pains and, lo and behold, their prayers “work.” After all how can you be skeptical of children who pray for their grandmother’s broken leg when she can make now it to the bathroom on her own? They are children after all—hardly a challenging model to an adult skeptic.
Though I was disappointed by most of the article, there were a few striking elements. It once again confirmed that Jews have a very different attitude toward prayer than most Americans. A recent Pew Forum study found that 75% of Americans report that they pray at least once a week. Based on earlier surveys, that number is significantly smaller among Jews. The Pew report also found that only 39% attend a worship service weekly. This suggests that lots of people are praying on their own, outside churches, synagogues, and mosques. Again I suspect that very few Jews are praying on their own, save those in the Orthodox community where praying three times a day might include private prayer,
Why is that? Why are we, as a community and as individuals, attending synagogue and praying less frequently than our Christian and Muslim neighbors?
One answer might be found in this description of prayer from the article by a Baptist minister offers: “Let God begin the conversation. Keep your prayers brief and clear. Repeat simple, Scripture-based phrases. Pray standing up to fight torpor. And pray directly facing others, eye to eye, in a loud clear voice.” Were someone to describe Jewish prayer, the words brief, clear and simple would not immediately spring to mind. Instead the description might read: Make sure your Shabbat services are at least two-three hours long thereby ensuring people will vote by their feet by showing up an hour late. Or have those prayers in a language most people don’t understand. .
One of the rabbis quoted in the Times piece offers another view: “Our prayers are meant to be chanted rhythmically.” Chefetz asked him if that was how it was done in the rabbi’s Reform synagogue. The rabbi, Chefetz writes, “gave me a long look. He and I grew up in the same Reform tradition. Both of us know how well mumbling Hebrew prayers would go over with the Reform Jews of Long Island. The rabbi continued,
“When you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And Wow!”
“Yep. Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude…That’s what we teach our kids in religious school.”
“What about adults who want to learn to pray?”
“I tell them to start with prayers of Thanks! That’s what Christians call grace. Everybody has something to be grateful for.”
“What if the person doesn’t believe in God?”
“Then I tell him to thank who or what seems appropriate…If people say prayer is a crutch, I don’t disagree. Sometimes you need a crutch. But I don’t believe in a God who is a magician and miraculously answers individual prayer. That’s absurd.”
I personally know this rabbi. He is smart and successful. But the contradictions in his statements are confusing at best. I’m asking forgiveness from or asking for a gimme from or expressing gratitude to what? The magician it would be absurd to believe in? As Chefetz points out in the midst of his praise of the Christian kids—“Their prayers weren’t the Rabbi’s suburban Jewish prayers of Thanks! offered to whom it may concern.”
Most Jews don’t want to pray because they either don’t believe in God or their belief does not extend to a God who answers prayer.
In a recent article in the Forward entitled, “Even a new siddur can’t close the God gap,” Rabbi Saul Berman reviews the latest Orthodox prayer book written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Berman likes the new siddur as a modern Orthodox alternative to the right wing Art scroll siddur; its most significant difference being the inclusion of the prayer for the state of Israel, absent in most versions of the Art scroll siddur. But as the title of the article suggests, Berman thinks new prayer books are not the solution to what ails us. He suggests modern Jews feel distant from God that we no longer look to God to save us from our troubles. Life is not as fragile as in the pre-modern period; today we look elsewhere to solve our problems. We go to a doctor for healing, a therapist for clarity, a career advisor for guidance rather than asking God for help. “So,” Berman writes, “having alienated God from our work and our problems, from our risks and our accidents—is it any wonder that people sit for three hours in synagogue on Saturday mornings with nothing to talk about with God? Prayer feels like a forced conversation with a distant uncle, trying to elicit fragments of ancient family history, yet grateful for any possible interruption.”
Berman’s article highlights that even within Orthodoxy, with its commitment to prayer three times a day, there is a sense that prayer is formulaic rather than formative. Despite their belief in God, I think Berman is really saying that most Orthodox Jews believe in Mordecai Kaplan’s God-- a God who isn’t in the business of answering personal requests.
I would posit that the problem with prayer and services is basically the same in both Orthodox and liberal communities. While in Orthodox communities, there is a much greater commitment to attend, the activity of prayer is just as unengaging as in liberal synagogues.
It should be noted that there have been a number of new liberal prayer books recently published, including Mishkan Tefillah in the Reform movement and two interesting prayer books from gay and lesbian synagogues, one from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC, the other from Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Next year the Conservative movement will publish a new High Holiday prayer book edited by Eddie Feld a former rabbi of the SAJ. While these new prayer books are interesting attempts to respond to the contemporary moment, I agree with Rabbi Berman that the problem lies deeper than the prayer book.
Last Yom Kippur I spoke with you about three things I was going to be struggling with this year. Surprise surprise the year didn’t turn out as I expected. The challenges I anticipated with my transgendered child in some ways became simple as time passed and as I understood that the essential person I knew and loved was still the same.
I was surprised that on the second subject I raised—intermarriage---almost no one in the congregation took up on my invitation to discuss with me their feelings about intermarriage and my struggle with the question of whether to officiate at such ceremonies. I am not certain what that means and I hope that those of you who have feelings about this issue will be willing to talk with me.
The third issue and I think for me the most present, because of its frequency in my life, was my struggle both to pray and to help you pray. As it turned out, SAJ spent a good part of the year focusing on a different, important issue, ultimately deciding to consider the child of a Jewish parent—mother or father—Jewish. Many of you were engaged in the process and while not simple, it was a serious and important conversation. But it was hard to find the time or space to focus on services and prayer despite having promised you I would do that this year. But beneath the surface, I did spend time reflecting on this question of what our services should be like. The answers are clearer to me than ever before though they seem like a natural progression in my thinking rather than a radical break.
Those answers are related to the themes I have spoken with you over these last years on High Holidays—what is the nature of Judaism? Why is Judaism important? How can we be more successful as a community and a congregation? And most fundamentally, what aspects of Judaism need to be reconstructed? I keep coming back to the belief that prayer and services are essential--essential to the nature of Judaism, essential to the nature of synagogues, and essential to our lives.
So how can something so essential be so unsuccessful. in the vast majority of synagogues of all denominations, in synagogues big and small, even in the new independent minyanim?
Many of my colleagues and some of you have suggested that it may be time to drop the idea of the centrality of prayer in the service. From what I’ve been told that was the SAJ practice 20 or more years ago. There was a much abbreviated service before the Torah reading, followed by a discussion at least twice as long as our current one. The cantor finished with a short musaf out loud.
As mostly college educated, Jews seem very comfortable with Torah study. Living in our heads feels familiar. We could go back to that model, basically writing off the liturgy as a vestigial ritual like singing the national anthem at baseball games leading up to its most important concluding words---play ball. Some have suggested that. After all, there are other parts of the tradition that have been relegated to the dustbins of history; maybe it is time for prayer to follow the same path. This congregation likes to sing—so we could sing a few pieces of liturgy, eliminate that mumbling Hebrew and spend more time studying and discussing. Maybe we could even shorten the service!
I want to suggest—actually I want to argue instead that we consider reconstructing prayer. Mordecai Kaplan looked at the theology being expressed in his time and urged us to stop talking about a God that we don’t believe in. Let us not pretend that we believe in a God that acts in nature, rewarding and punishing. He reconstructed Jewish theology to talk about a God that was believable. I believe prayer and services are in need of reconstructing in our time just as theology was in his time. That reconstructing goes beyond better translations or readings, grappling with God language and all the other problems that are experienced in services. We need to reconstruct prayer so it not only makes sense but that it is a compelling experience for the worshippers. I have begun to sketch out my vision of services with you in the past. Let me attempt to present a more comprehensive picture.
Prayer is in fact not a Gimme—we are definitely not asking to be given either wisdom or a red sports convertible. Services are an opportunity—yes, an opportunity-- to focus on our inner lives. As I tried to talk about on Rosh ha-Shana, this is essentially what Judaism is about--the inner life. It is about helping us live our lives to the fullest, being aware, and being observant of what is going on around us rather than sleep walking through existence. Judaism is not just mental health (making us feel ok about our selves). It is not just about doing good in the world (social justice). It is about both and the interplay between the two. As we strive to become better people, we in turn will be better to those around us and those across the globe. Holiness is that which is beyond the touchable, the knowable, and the self. It can give richness and texture to our lives.
As we move through the busyness of our lives, there is precious little time to explore our inner lives, much less cultivate them in a way that might lead to a fuller, holier existence. That seems to me exactly why we come here to pray. Services must provide the time and the context to focus on our inner lives, our spirituality or if you prefer less woo woo sounding on our spirit. When else do we get to do that on a regular basis? Perhaps some of you do yoga or meditate or a similar practice, but for most we are just too busy getting by with all the things we need to do today.
What if when you came to synagogue on Shabbat morning, you pause before entering the sanctuary to acknowledge the holiness of this space? What if, instead of arriving late so you won’t be bored, you arrive early because you want to settle in, to metaphorically catch your breath before the service begins? You quietly find a seat and while waiting for the beginning of the service you reflect upon the verse for the week that you got in an email earlier in the week: Haboteah b’adonai hesed yisoveveini—translated as follows: if you approach life with some faith and trust, with an open heart then hesed yisoveveini then you will be surrounded with love---love offered to others, love from others. That is, most of the time the response to love offered is love. The faith and trust is not in a literal God, but in the potential for goodness in the universe. We often get tied up in knots and lose our sense of that potential. You quietly repeat to yourself the word hesed—loving kindness or simply love and imagine being surrounded by it.
The service begins with a familiar wordless melody; you begin to sing—just following along as the melody goes on. The rabbi announces the focus for the service—perhaps this week it is gratitude. He asks everyone to think of three or more things that you are grateful for this week. You review those things you are particularly grateful for this week---the brilliant blue sky on Tues., the ongoing love of your family, the sense of accomplishment for finishing the Fri NY Times crossword puzzle, that the chronic pain in your knee was less this week….
The rabbi then asks you to focus on the verse tov lehodot l’adonai—it is good to give thanks to God. Whether you believe in God or do not, the challenge of the verse, he suggests, is why is it good to give thanks. For whom, for God? What if we understood that it is good for us to give thanks? Perhaps it is more soul fulfilling to experience gratitude rather than see life as made up of all the things you don’t have or even worse that others undeservedly have? It is better to give thanks than to complain. It is good for you to be mindful of all the things that you can be grateful for—many that you take for granted since they are just a part of your everyday life, like living in a free country or the ability to taste food or shoes for your feet….
The cantor leads everyone in singing the verse tov lehodot. Then the rabbi and cantor begin a chant of another verse from the prayer book that expresses the abundance of blessings in our life. Being grateful makes you feel good even as you think you should send a thank you email to someone who did something nice for you the other week.
At the end of the chanting, the congregation is invited to rise and respond to the call to prayer—the barkhu.
Next week, when you come the theme is compassion, but you are not “in the mood.” You’ve had a hard week and you are still angry with someone at work with whom you had a big argument. It is hard to feel compassionate. You certain don’t feel compassionate to your co-worker. You feel mostly annoyed with your spouse who didn’t seem to get the significance of the incident. You don’t feel compassion toward yourself because even though you know you are 100% right, it still might have been a mistake to lose it before the whole office. All this compassion stuff is annoying. You flip through the service booklet and find a teaching and a verse about anger. Instead of joining with the congregation, you repeat the verse in English over and over about anger. As the ice on your heart melts, you realize that this is mostly about embarrassment. Thinking about your place in the office you realize that despite the incident people still respect you for your work. Life will go on and you will to. You are still angry and you are not sure what you will say to your co-worker on Monday but you realize that there is nothing to be so embarrassed about. Ready to reintegrate, you join in the melody that the congregation is singing.
Where is prayer in this description? If you think prayer means asking God for things, then nowhere. If you think prayer provides a way to reflect on our spiritual lives, to give expression to our goals and hopes, to help make the coming week better, then it is all over the place. What is Jewish about this? It is Jewish because Jews are doing it in a synagogue using verses from psalms and the prayer book accompanied by Jewish teachings. But mostly I believe it is Jewish because it offers the potential of connection to our deepest, best selves, because it offers the potential of holiness in our lives and even in our world.
I know that services work for some of you. For some the traditional liturgy feels familiar and comfortable even resonant with years of usage. Yet, I wonder how often the words penetrate your heart and being. In any case, what I am suggesting I hope would “work” for those comfortable with the traditional liturgy and those for whom it is alien territory. It should work for those who believe in a personal God, the natural God of Reconstructionism, the Nothingness of Jewish mystics, or those who hold no belief or are uncertain in their belief in God.
In this part of the service, you are not praying to God. The dialogue is internal. Or talking about this with Arnie Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he described it as a dialogue with yourself in the presence of God.
Acknowledging that there is something larger than one’s self is a basic teaching of religion in modernity. That is what is meant by having a dialogue with yourself before God instead of to God.
Therefore, I want to invite all of you to do something unusual. Beginning on Shabbat Oct. 17th, I want to try doing the beginning of our services as just outlined. We will do that for seven weeks in a row and then stop. We will then meet to talk about what the experience was like, what worked, what didn’t.
Soon after becoming a rabbi at age 41, after my first High holidays, someone came up to me and said how much he had enjoyed the High Holiday services. He went on to say that my sermon was so unlike the sermons he was used to when the rabbi would yell at people for not being Jewish enough, show up at synagogue, keep Shabbat etc. I couldn’t believe there was a rabbi who still thought it was effective strategy to yell at people to be more Jewish.
I am not yelling at you. But I am inviting you even urging you to do something that most of you don’t do. I am urging you to try to pray. You can become part of the 75% of Americans who pray on your own. And if you do try, please tell me about it. Was it helpful or strange or both? Was it awkward or pleasant or both? What words did you use? Did you follow the instructions of the minister in the Times article—letting God begin the conversation, keeping it simple and short, standing to avoid torpor? Or was there something else that you found effective and perhaps others might learn from?
And you can become part of the 39% and join me on Shabbat mornings here in the sanctuary. Come often or come just once during those seven weeks. Come not because you are suppose to or to ensure the survival of the Jewish people---come because you can imagine that spending 20 minutes focused on your inner self, or focusing on gratitude, awareness, equanimity or compassion might make your life richer, more fulfilled, more satisfied, more what you hoped it might be in this New Year.
What if that was true?
What if that experience spilled over from Shabbat in to the week and in small ways made you more aware of your daily blessings?
What if the wisdom of Judaism intersected with the difficult choices you make in daily life?
In this New Year full only of “what ifs” may we all be blessed with moments of insight, blessing, and gratitude.