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Why Pray? The Purposes of Prayer in a Skeptical Age

 (This talk was delivered at Temple Israel, Albany NY on April 17, 2015)         

           We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it. We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life – the secret stillness that precedes our birth and succeeds our death. Futile self-indulgence brings us out of tune with the gentle song of nature’s waiting, of humankind’s striving for salvation

.           Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-asserting? Why do we not set apart an hour of living for devotion to God by surrendering to stillness?

            We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it… (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

In our secular age, the battle lines are drawn: religion versus science, faith versus reason, belief in God versus atheism. These become rigid positions that are committed to invalidating their opposition. In this binary, polarized discourse, we feel compelled to choose sides. If we choose the side of the secular, than the soul-enriching tools of religious practice must become suspect, because they belong to the “wrong” side. Prayer is one of the victims of this culture war, and sadly we are the ones poorer for it.

I understand how this happens. Our literalistic, rational training teaches us to analyze and evaluate texts to determine their validity. Our commitment to integrity makes us want to utter only that which we understand as objectively true. In our observation of human affairs, many of us have rejected the concept of a King of the Universe who somehow controls human affairs.

Why pray?

Beyond the culture wars, though, beyond the arguments and the debates, there is the yearning of the human heart. This is the realm of prayer. It is an upwelling, a longing, a cry of sorrow, a shout of joy, a gasp of wonder, a moment of silent awe, an outpouring of love. Prayer is the territory of the soul. To reject this realm is to deny our full humanity. And Judaism has a treasure of teachings and practices for enriching our souls, practices refined over thousands of years. Let’s spend some time this evening exploring what the practice of Jewish prayer might have to offer us.

By the way, it is important for me to add that some of us here may not be beset by skepticism. Some of us may have a deeply felt relationship with God, and a prayer life that is already rich and very real. If that is the case, God bless you. I mean it. As I hope I have made clear, the debates do not interest me. I practice religion not in order to prove me right and someone else wrong, but rather to open my heart and to help me grow in wisdom. I welcome your experience, and want to learn how it enriches your journey through life. “Who is truly wise? One who learns from all people.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

So, what can prayer do for us? When I have asked congregants over the years why they come to services, the most common answer is that it makes them feel connected. (I find it interesting to note that the origin of the term “religion” is the Latin “to bind together” or perhaps “to reconnect.”) When I ask congregants what it is they are connecting to their answers vary widely: to God; to the Jewish People; to my community; to the memory of my bubbe; to my soul; to humanity; to my best attributes; to my highest values; to life; to Jewish history; to the earth, and many more. But the central impulse to connect is consistent. We gather for worship in order to restore a sense of connection.

This makes sense. Our daily lives pull us in so many directions, distracting us and fragmenting our attention. Both personal and communal prayer are opportunities to collect ourselves, to reconnect, to make ourselves whole again. When the sages composed the blessing before the Sh’ma, they fully intended the multiple layers of meaning that it contains: “Draw us together in peace and wholeness from the four corners of the earth…so that we can lovingly proclaim the unity of all.” This blessing calls us all together as a community, but is also understood to call our scattered attention back into focus, and into a state of shalom, which is not merely a static peacefulness but more accurately a sense of wholeness.

When we pray, we can pause long enough to identify where we feel lacking and what we need to move forward in our lives. That does not mean we pray to win the lottery. This is the stereotype of petitionary prayer that seems laughable. The Rabbis clearly reject the effectiveness of these types of prayer. Mishnah Brachot tells us: If a man’s wife is pregnant and he says, [God] grant that my wife bear a male child, this a vain prayer. If he is coming home from a journey and he hears cries of distress in the town and says, [God] grant that this is not in my house, this is a vain prayer. (Brachot 54a)

No, we pray for the internal qualities and awareness that we need to navigate our lives with grace. We pray for strength, or hope, perspective, balance, courage, humility. We reinforce attributes of living with gratitude and of commitment to paths of righteousness. We link ourselves to past generations, to the Land of Israel, to humanity, to the earth. Prayer works on our own consciousness, not our external circumstances. Prayer is a kind of training regimen, much like practicing a sport or a musical instrument. Change is incremental, but real. I am a more grateful person than I used to be, and I attribute some of that change to my dedication to reciting many, many prayers of gratitude

For prayer to change us, we must be receptive to its power. Being receptive is not the same as being passive. Being receptive is being actively open. Think of a friend or a child or a lover. If I am not open to receiving their love, and offering mine in return, the relationship will not flourish. We know that. It will become routine and repetitive, and will lose its ta’am, its special flavor. It is the same with prayer. To pray, we must open ourselves to Life itself as we would to another being. To pray we must relate to Life as to a lover, in all of its goodness, complexity, pain, wonder and fundamental mystery. We must express our innermost selves to the Universe.

But is there anyone listening? I have learned that, for me at least, that is the wrong question. (I’m a Reconstructionist rabbi. There is a joke that Reconstructionists, skeptics that we are, pray “To Whom It May Concern.”) But seriously, I have found that passionate prayer is its own reward. Through my sincere longing to connect, I feel restored. Through asking for strength, I feel strengthened. Through singing Halleluyah, I feel joy. Not always, but often. I call out to the great mystery that is life, and life responds by moving through me anew.

Traditional Jewish prayer can present a roadblock to our intention to pray. There are so many words! I like to say that the siddur, the prayer book, is a collection of 3,000 years of Judaism’s greatest hits. That makes for a big book. I have never been particularly successful at reciting it all at one sitting (or standing!) without losing track of my inner desire to pray. I’m sure others are better at this than I am. Fortunately, many years ago my grandfather gave me a great gift. He prayed every day. When I was in rabbinical studies in Israel, I would go to visit him in his room in Netanya, on the beach. One day I asked him, “Pop, how do you say all those words every day?” He said, with some surprise, “I don’t say all the words! I get to a part I like, and I stay there for a while.” This was a revelation for me, and since then I have always focused on the parts that speak to me the most on any given day. And the list has grown and grown. One day I will savor “Az yeranenu kol atzei ya’ar!” – “all the trees of the forest sing out!” (Psalm 96), and the next day “Mah gadlu ma’asecha Hashem, me’od amku mach’shevotecha” – How magnificent are your creations, God, your thoughts are very deep.” (Psalm 92)

In fact, as I have committed my self to Jewish prayer all these years, my own “greatest hits” list can be found on almost every page of the siddur. I slowly made it my own, and merged my voice with the metaphors of my ancestors.

Another key to meaningful prayer in a skeptical age is the need to temporarily suspend disbelief. A skeptic approaches everything critically. This is an important trait in my opinion, but it means that a skeptic always keeps things at arms length, the better to observe carefully. Prayer requires immersion. Ritual is a form of theater, in which we are the actors. In Jewish prayer the siddur is the script. The more we put life into our lines, the more the service soars. The more we view ourselves as audience, or theater critics, the more we retain our critical distance, and the opportunity for a meaningful ritual is lost. We have a job to do in prayer, and that is to embody our role as daveners, as pray-ers. That role can be difficult to play, because it requires us to let down our guard, lose some rigid dignity, and be vulnerable and even childlike in our approach to the service. I can see the marquee on the synagogue now: “Join us for Shabbat services – You’ll cry! You’ll laugh! You’ll sing!”

And you will connect. And be changed. And go back into the world breathing more deeply, aware of the gift of life, and ready to give it away more freely.