Prayer doesn’t work.
That’s not a statement of faith or, more accurately, lack of faith. It is a statement of fact.
My assertion has nothing to do with whether prayer reaches the heavens or moves God’s heart. I leave it to you to decide if prayer ever caused the phone to ring before homecoming weekend or got you an A on a test. If you say that prayer has opened within you an experience of deep insight or inspiration, or brought you comfort in despair, or channeled gratitude for an undeserved blessing, I will understand, because it has done the same for me. But that’s not what I mean.
I mean that for the majority of Jews in the world, prayer does not do what it is meant to do. I have no scientific measurement of this statement. Still, I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise.
For the greater part of two thousand years, prayer was meant to bind Jews together with a common value system and vocabulary. We pray with a fixed liturgy. Every paragraph, especially those that end with a brakha, a formulaic blessing, is meant to convey something we all believe about God and the way we see the world. But most Jews, especially in North America, only pray when they are told and what they are told. Prayer, however transcribed by the variety of prayer books by the variety of communities, is rarely something a modern Jew does voluntarily or with intention.
(A quick word about the phrase “most Jews.” There are a little less than six million Jews in the United States. A small minority attend synagogue, where they are most likely to pray. A minority of that minority certainly prays enough to raise significantly the average amount of praying that happens. But it doesn’t change the fact that most Jews pray only in synagogue, go to synagogue only when they feel they have no choice, like when they are invited to a bar mitzvah or Yom Kippur is on a federal holiday, and stand, sit or answer “amen” only when someone in the front of the room tells them to do so.)
I am one of those people who believes that prayer could work and should work, but I have to acknowledge that could and should, even when combined, do not equal does.
There is a lot more to being a Jew than prayer, but we spend more time rehearsing prayers than any other aspect of Judaism. The official identifiable institutions of Jewish life are synagogues, where, as the prayer says, people enter to pray. Seminaries and day schools set aside time for prayer. We pray before and after we eat, when we usher in holidays and when we mark every life moment from naming to burial. We pray when we remember the dead (more on that soon). We couldn’t even write a Broadway play without a prayer for the Czar.
But mostly we don’t mean it. I was struck by three words during one of the holiest moments of prayer one Saturday morning. The congregation sang with passion, “Oh when will You, God, govern Zion? Soon, in our lifetime, and then forever may You reign!” Even the most politically right-wing of my fellow worshipers do not yearn for a theocratic Jewish state without end.
Now, maybe that’s the proper thing to want. But if that is the measure of faithful belief among most Jews, even the people who can explain away what they mean are in big trouble.
Is it any wonder that we do everything we can to distract ourselves from the text we recite? Most of our prayers contain admirable exhortations and exaltations, but they are expressed in a way that is incomprehensible unless, even as a native Hebrew speaker or inspired poet, you spend an additional amount of time learning the origins, meanings, inferences, interpretations, variations and applications of the roster of blessings, Biblical readings and devotional poems that form the infrastructure of our worship. So we set them to music. We translate them into a modern idiom. We learn them by rote. We teach our children to mimic them. We publish prayer books that surround them with art, essays and enhancing commentaries. We treat prayer-time as theater (more on that soon).
I am part of that conspiracy, and I confess it is motivated by my desire to bring prayer to life for my fellow Jews. The ties that bind us, so eloquently expressed in our mother-tongue, have begun to fray. They have been politicized: conservers of tradition vs. reformers; universalists vs. particularists; egalitarians vs. elitists; people who see gender in everything vs. people who deny that there is gender in everything. I hope that just the endeavor will bring us together and transcend the particular meaning, thus opening the worth of prayer for its own sake. Even in my tiny corner of the Jewish world, I failed.
It is because prayer doesn’t work. Perhaps “any more” ought to be at the end of that sentence, but as we look to the future, rather than the past, that point is academic. Where do we now find that set of values and that connection to God that binds us as a people? And what is the best use of all that time we spend in prayer? The rabbis who are the products of this lost generation have that challenge first and foremost.
I have not stopped praying, though where and how I pray has shifted significantly. Away from my perch at the front of the room, I have the chance to look for models of success for myself. Sometimes I find them and sometimes I recognize my mistakes. More on praying next time.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession