[Before I dive into part 2, a comment on some of the responses I received to Part 1. The general reply to my column, which began “prayer doesn’t work,” was essentially “then you’re not doing it right.” Without going into a history lesson, Jewish prayer has been the same for most of the last 2000 years when it evolved to take the place of Temple ritual. Its purpose was to repair the breach with God caused by sin. Its content, as I wrote, was to create a universal credo for the far-flung and diverse Jewish community. Those purposes, I contend, are unrealized among contemporary Jews. Prayer and its traditional purpose have not changed. Jews have, as the commenters illustrated.]
Jewish liturgy is notoriously inflexible. With minor variations, the prayers recited on the fourth Tuesday in November will not be significantly different than those recited on the third Thursday in May – just as true in 2016 as it was in 1716 and as it will be in 2316. The comfort of that consistency has been noted by travelers to the farthest-flung corners of the Jewish world. But that comfort is sociological, not theological – closer to Starbucks than to spirituality.
Praying, for American Jews, has been Protestantized, with at least a touch of Buddhification thrown in. That is to say, what we want out of our liturgy is new meaning that responds to our current circumstances in a spiritual sense, together with a certain mindfulness of the daily miracles we encounter. It comes in various names and forms but, like most of the American culture in which we are marinated, it is very personal and barely collective. Is that a bad thing? Far from it. But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, if you are reading the siddur (prayer book) for new information, you will be sorely disappointed.
I was always intrigued by Christian prayer. I admired the way writing new prayers and even improvising them in the moment supplemented the traditional hymns and readings that made up Christian worship. So I started asking about it. I asked mainline Protestant pastors, African-American Baptists, students in Episcopal seminary, friends who are Evangelicals. They all spoke about letting the spirit move through them. It took me awhile to realize it was not the spirit, but the Spirit, that manifestation of God they identify with what we call shekhinah, the Holy Spirit.
I recognized that I had seen Jews pray like that already. Young women in our youth group had developed a custom of spending some moments after their individual recitation of the liturgy to stand with their eyes closed, the siddur’s binding resting on their foreheads, and their heads slightly bowed. There was a mistiness about them, especially when they opened their eyes again, that carried a certain holiness. I always associated that moment with Friday night candle-lighting, when my wife could escape into the twilight between the weekday and Shabbat and pour into it the praise, penitence and petition she accumulated from the previous days.
At the same time, I learned a bit about mindfulness practices, both the near-silent meditation of Buddhism and the practice of chanting designed to drive me deeper into appreciation of a single phrase attached to a consistent melody. In a sense, they were the very opposite of davennen, the Yiddish word for prayer, which Leon Wieseltier defines as “saying very important things much too fast.”
The minimum content of any of the three daily prayers includes nineteen distinct and interwoven blessings, a long Biblical passage from the Torah or Psalms, and an extended liturgical poem that affirms our devotional obligations, our distinctiveness among the nations and our hope for the triumph of monotheism over paganism. Practiced davvenners can complete all of that and more in ten minutes, a bit more in the morning when introductory readings and perhaps a Torah recitation are thrown in.
Preserving the communal liturgy remains, I believe, important. I have always been reluctant to tamper with what I have received from long ago. But spending as much energy on developing skill in “praying your heart” is the only thing, I believe, that will rescue this central Jewish practice from dissolution.
I experimented with it privately before going public in the moments before the Torah scroll was removed from the ark. I opened my heart and opened my mouth, and I never knew exactly what would emerge. It was exhilarating for me, even as it was terrifying, like working without a net. More important, it replaced one of those few pieces of received liturgy I always wanted to erase: a nasty anti-Christian polemic that, were it inverted and recited in churches, would certainly prompt complaints from our many defense organizations.
Once, a group of congregants did an exercise in which they were asked to find their favorite spot in the sanctuary. More than half of them chose the place I would stand and pray my heart.
But opening this ability is not so easy. Jews have a tendency to channel their yearning through learning. They overthink their words, throw in a Biblical or Talmudic reference, structure their thoughts to refer back to something they read. Spontaneity seems the enemy and cleverness substitutes for inspiration.
Music can serve the same purpose and present the same hazard. The liturgical poem El Adon that appears in the Saturday liturgy has been set to melodies that reflect different aspects of the mystical tradition it celebrates. It can sound majestic, contemplative, anticipatory, almost-reachable. The words and the melodies are symbiotic, and for the uninitiated, musically or Hebraically, they can be as effective apart as they are together.
But how often has the concluding hymn Adon Olam been set to a familiar popular tune for the sake of cleverness. The plaintive expression of faith that is indeed personally addressed – “I place my life in God’s hand, whether asleep or awake, with my soul and my body, God is with me, I will not fear” – disappears into “The William Tell Overture,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” or “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I am certainly guilty of this search for connection, but I have to acknowledge I put form above substance.
Praying requires a personal investment in the endeavor. Liturgy accomplishes some of it, but I worry that those of us who are also invested in preserving the liturgy not only have channeled yearning through learning, but validated form over substance.
Guiding a group of Jews in prayer – ten, two hundred or a thousand – is daunting, but a rich and heart-rending prayer life is a prerequisite. More on that next time.