The Agnostic’s Guide to Jewish Prayer
Chapter One — Opening Your Heart
May the words of my mouth and
The meditations of my heart
Be acceptable to you
My Rock and my Redeemer
— From Psalm 19 and the Amidah prayer
Our services are conducted with pomp and precision. The rendition of the liturgy is smooth. Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: Life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden burst of devotion. Nothing is going to happen to the soul. Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays. He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives. Our motto is monotony.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer” (1953)
Imagine reading the libretto of La Boheme out loud in the original Italian without knowing the language. You’d be bored to tears. With an English translation, you would at least understand the plot. But there’d be no magic there. The plot is a formulaic bit of melodrama. The words aren’t that special. The dialogue, uninspired. But attend a performance of La Boheme and you can weep from the power of the music.
Jewish communal prayer is too often like reading La Boheme without the music. At each seat in our synagogues and temples is a prayerbook, nicely bound and artfully designed with an accessible English translation. But the Hebrew language isn’t the problem. Something is missing. Read the prayers in English and in many ways, the problem gets worse. The words fail to penetrate the heart.
The spiritual high point of every traditional Jewish prayer service is supposed to be the silent prayer called the Amidah. There is one text of the Amidah for weekday services, a different one for each of the three services of Shabbat and special ones for the holidays. But the opening of the Amidah is the same every time, ancient words that Jews have been saying for thousands of years.
Blessed art thou our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The great, strong, and awesome God, the God on high…
Do those words touch your heart? Open you to compassion? Open you to belief in a transcendent God? Do they inspire you beyond the moments spent in prayer saying them to lead a more meaningful life or a kinder one?
The naked text in English doesn’t work for me. I stumble at the very first word. What am I doing blessing God? And what comes after is even stranger — it’s repetitive and the content is puzzling. Why am I telling God how great God is? Why would God need my praise? And is “great, strong, and awesome” the best we can do for adjectives to put in front of God’s name? Adding the God of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah to the opening may help. But it does not solve the problem.
The words by themselves don’t work for me, but for more than 30 years as someone who came to Jewish observance and Jewish prayer later in life, I have said them anyway, in Hebrew, three times a day. I prayed to have prayed. I checked the box, pleased to fulfill an obligation. But there was no music. I’d say the words in Hebrew and sooner than later, my mind would wander.
The wandering mind of the wandering Jew is a very old problem. The Amidah during the week has 19 blessings. The rabbis decreed that to fulfill the obligation of prayer, you only have to maintain concentration for the first blessing of the Amidah. It’s certainly better to say the entire Amidah with concentration but if you only manage it for the first blessing, you’re good. That first blessing comes down to a mere 42 words in Hebrew. Surely, even a modern congregant with an itch to check for texts or emails and concerned with a mortgage and how the children are doing and the presentation at work tomorrow can focus for 42 words.
But what’s the point of focusing on 42 words and understanding their meaning if they don’t sing, if they don’t inspire, if they don’t transform? Concentration isn’t enough. Trying really hard isn’t enough if you don’t know what you’re trying to do. You need a plan or a strategy or a philosophy of prayer even if all you want to do is get something out of those first 42 words.
You could also ask why we’re supposed to say the same 42 words (and all the ones that follow) over and over and over. Why not spontaneous prayer? Why not use great poetry? Or write your own prayer?
And of course, there’s a bigger problem. Is anyone anything really listening when I say my prayers? Is God really out there? For many of us, this is the real challenge of prayer. We struggle with belief. As moderns, we’re all a little bit agnostic.
I once told a friend I was teaching a class on prayer and he said, “what’s there to teach? You ask for stuff and God gives it to you. What’s so complicated about that?” If that’s your prayer experience, this book isn’t for you. Close it now, put it aside and enjoy your connection to the Divine. This book is for the rest of us.
This book is for people who struggle with belief and struggle with prayer. Like many of us, your parents dragged you to services when you were a child, and they gave you a book in a language you didn’t understand and they told you to say the words even though you didn’t understand them. And when you got a little older, you were taught that the words were like magic — if you said them the right way, you could get God to do what you wanted. And when your grandfather got sick you said the words and asked God not to let him die and he died anyway. What were you supposed to think?
When you got older still, you learned about the Holocaust and you learned that a lot of religious people died in the Holocaust. Had they sinned more than others? Did they not pray with enough enthusiasm? And then you encounter parents whose hearts were broken by the death of a child. Why did God let that happen?
After a while, going to services was a ritual without much meaning. You went because your friends were there or you were lonely or because there was something about being Jewish that spoke to you and you didn’t know any other way to express it. So you went.
Now that you’re older, if you have children of your own, you want your children to have some connection to their ancient tradition. So you take them to services and give them the book with the words they don’t understand and you teach them to say the words even though deep down you wonder if you’re teaching them the worst kind of superstitious nonsense. After all, you don’t find belief easy. Sometimes when you pray you feel like a hypocrite and a fool. You say the words anyway and wait for God to answer. But God is silent, just as silent as when you were a child.
Many if not all of your friends at work don’t believe in God, have no religion in their life and have only disdain for the idea of a Supreme Being or the life of constraints that religion imposes. The idea that there might be something like a soul, something that can’t be measured, something other than the chemical components that make up life, is seen by most of the people you know and respect as a man-made belief crafted to appeal to the uneducated and the ignorant.
For many of us, when these kinds of thoughts arise, we just push them away. We try not to think too much about God, either. Our images of God often come from our childhood — a stern, forbidding man with a beard who sits on a grand throne somewhere in the sky above us. Many of us think about that stern, forbidding God on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the God who decides who lives and dies. This turns the holiest days of the year into something less than joyous. Most of us as adults don’t get much pleasure from that vision of God as Grandparent in the Sky deciding our fate.
And we certainly never talk about God in our day-to-day lives. Talking about God reminds us of Christians and Christianity. Our modern rabbis know this, so they tiptoe around the God topic as well. It’s best not to think about God at all. Not surprisingly, this makes prayer just a little bit challenging.
If these kinds of thoughts haunt you, and they have often haunted me, this book is for you. Despite these doubts, I pray anyway.
Why I pray anyway and how prayer is precious to me despite my doubts, is what this book is about. Along the way, I’ll share why I somehow manage to lean toward faith when wavering on the knife-edge between faith and doubt.
I’m not a rabbi. I’m just a Jew in a pew trying to get something out of my time in synagogue who came to serious Judaism as an adult. Sometimes I think people presume that prayer is for the pious — for the people whose faith is unshakeable, who have all the answers, who know with certainty that God exists and runs the universe and that every story has a happy ending.
But for me it’s the opposite. My faith is imperfect. Some of the time, I’m agnostic in the sense that I just don’t know. I pray anyway. Prayer is my way of savoring the most fundamental mysteries and letting them fill me with wonder. Why the heart starts beating when we’re in the womb. Why we all long for home. The joy and sorrow we feel on an autumn day when the sunlight falls on golden leaves but we know that winter is coming. Our yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves. And why, in this world, the one you and I live in that appears at least to be some kind of objective reality, happy endings are not to be presumed.
Prayer is for those parts of our lives and our existence where there are no answers, only mystery and humility. If you’re anything like me, you have plenty of doubts about the point of prayer and Who or What might be listening when you pray, and what such prayer can accomplish. I pray anyway. There are plenty of times when nothing happens and my prayer is lifeless. But there are also times when my prayers and the experience of prayer have a different texture and something happens. There’s a melody alongside the words and the heart opens.
Most of the ideas in this book aren’t mine. They come from centuries of Jewish wisdom and some great modern thinkers. What I’ve done here is piece them together to help us find a way to find meaning in our prayers beyond the literal meaning of the words and to find ways to deal with doubt as a Jew who takes Judaism seriously.
Too often, we go to services and expect something to happen, the way we go to a football game or a concert expecting to be entertained or be touched by emotion. Prayer doesn’t work well as a passive performance being observed. Better to think of yourself as in the orchestra or on the field. Passive prayer — just reading the words and waiting for some kind of spiritual experience — is like looking at the score of a great symphony and hoping it gives you goosebumps. Not going to happen unless you’re Beethoven. Most of us need to bring something of ourselves, an active sense of effort to the experience. This book is a guide to making that effort.
Or maybe a cookbook is a better description than “guide” for what I’m doing in this book, What I’m trying to give you here is a set of recipes from my own practice of prayer that have worked at various times and to various degrees of satisfaction for me. Just like any cookbook, there will be recipes that don’t appeal to you at all. There will be recipes with an ingredient that you don’t care for — some spiritual cilantro, say — that you will want to replace with something that you find more appealing. Ideally, I’m hoping you’ll come to a place where you can cook without a recipe and take the ingredients at hand — your own life experiences, your own situation, your own inner voice — and fashion all of that into something uniquely your own that can nourish you.