HomeJanuary 2015How do Jews pray?

How do Jews pray?

0115howjewsprayMost Jews today don’t pray.  “As a matter of fact, nationally, Jews pray least,” tickyays Rabbi Sid Schwarz,  a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership where he directs the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) program. “While Jews are looking for spiritual experiences,” he continued,” they don’t pursue it in prayer.”

And what’s true for the national picture is certainly true here in Orange County. Lisa Grier, Chair of NexGen, points out that Jews 25-45 tend to “identify with the culture more than the religion and like to follow tradition but don’t necessarily belong or go to a synagogue.”

So why don’t Jews like to pray? Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in G-d; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in G-d. Another 24 percent weren’t sure. Also there is a language barrier. Even in liberal synagogues, prayers are often sung in Hebrew and the English translation is usually not exact — and can be misleading. Plus, prayer takes time.

It may also be  that the concept of prayer has been frozen in our minds conjuring the image of “speed praying” through the siddur (prayer book) in the communal setting of a synagogue or havurah – not paying much attention to what it says or means to us.  There is no question that, for some, that is what is familiar and meaningful.  But for others, prayer is an alien concept and only done because “that’s what you do” when attending services. While liturgy is designed to evoke a sense of deep connectedness, for many the words are meaningless. So praying itself becomes meaningless.


Where did prayer come from? Actually, the initial concept of prayer is found in Genesis when Adam and Eve converse with G-d.  The impetus for prayer, then comes from the need or desire to have a conversation with G-d.  Prayer developed from there.  There was a time when service to G-d required animal sacrifice, and praying was an eccentricity. After the destruction of the First Temple, regular communal Jewish prayer began as a substitute for the sacrificial cult and according to later rabbinic sources the daily offerings were accompanied by the recitation of biblical passages and extra-biblical liturgies. Some Psalms might have also been sung in the Temple.

The early period of Jewish prayer was that of the Tannaim – those sages whose oral traditions of law and legend are gathered in the Mishnah (edited c. 200 C.E.). From their traditions we learn that it was the rabbis active at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) who gave Jewish prayer its structure and, in outline form at least, its contents.  Their liturgy consisted of three sets of prayers: (1) the Shema – the central statement of Jewish monotheistic belief which is recited twice a day – and its blessings; (2) “The Prayer” of 18 blessings, also known as the Amidah – recited several times daily, and (3) the public recitation of the Torah in installments read three times per week. Within the liturgy there are prayers of petition and confession, but prayers of gratitude and praise tend to dominate the liturgy. These practices and doctrines that unite Jews have evolved over the millennia.

While prayers of praise and gratitude might be easier for some – praising the Creator, creative force or the creations itself, and expressing gratitude for what we have – it’s those petitionary prayers that do us in. Believe it or not, deep down most of still view our appeals to G-d the way young children approach Santa Claus. We ask for something, G-d checks if we have been naughty or nice, and determines if we can have what we asked for.  We are praying for G-d to intervene in our lives in some way. When that doesn’t happen, we question whether G-d exists — or are angered because we were told “no.”

Additionally, our society is primarily liberal and many Jews are educated in the fields of science and reasoning and so forth … if you can’t prove it then it must not exist.  So we think our prayers don’t do any good.

However, the idea that prayer is pleading with G-d for help is not exactly accurate. The English word “prayer” comes from the Latin word precaria, which means “obtained by entreaty.” In this translation, to pray is to ask for something. But Jewish prayer is “an act of personal transformation.” The word tefilah (for prayer) comes from the reflexive verb l’hitpalel, which means to judge oneself.  We are not trying to change God’s mind. We are trying to change ourselves. We are trying to access our souls.

Evolving Tradition

As modernity called into question the intellectual and social underpinnings of Jewish life, some communities responded by making accommodations, reforming the liturgy and reshaping the experience of worship to meet changing sensibilities.

“Services tend to be highly scripted and choreographed,” said Schwarz. “Perhaps we need to think not of a prayer service, but a prayer experience.”

Some synagogues introduced sermons and prayers in the local language, musical instruments, and choirs. Some deleted certain doctrines from the prayer that were seen as outmoded or unacceptable.  And today we see a range of normative Jewish behaviors, from observance of rabbinic law to synagogue affiliation or engagement with Israel that define their Jewishness. Those who find one Jewish pathway implausible can explore a multitude of others. But praying? Not high a many lists.

Yet today there is a move to explore the concept of prayer in alignment with the evolution of the Jewish community. There are a number of “davening” or prayer groups that are springing up outside the traditional structure of the synagogue where people gather perhaps for a Shabbat dinner and conduct the service around the table, or meet regularly in homes and then hire a rabbi to conduct High Holiday services. Some people look outside Judaism to find a way to connect spiritually – when the truth is, whatever one seeks, it is in Judaism, but you have to know where to look. This is true for prayer as well.

“I believe my generation feels that they don’t need to be in synagogue to pray,” said Grier. “I would say I’m finding that most people are secular Jews and do pray but on their own terms.  I pray and most of the time it’s at night before I go to sleep, but I would say I’m a little bit more observant than most.” That’s the question; do you have to be observant in the traditional sense to pray?

When Abraham Joshua Heschel stated we need to pray with our feet, he catapulted the concept of social action as being “prayer in action.” That has had great appeal to modern Jews, but Heschel also believed in regular ritual prayer. Another approach has been the Jewish Prayer Movement where an ancient Jewish practice was rediscovered where body and soul are united in movement. Moving to prayer music is a natural human impulse and applying it to prayer has become – unconsciously an engaging experience. The Jewish Prayer Movement program has evolved into two mutually enhancing strands — meditative movement and spiritual dance.

This surprising word origin of Jewish prayer (to judge oneself) provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it is a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise or confession, is the introspection it provides – the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d, a higher power or spiritual essence and other people. The liturgy provides a structure, but we provide the introspection.  And whether we do it communally in a synagogue or on a mountaintop, privately in our homes or at the beach, we are praying.

Keva or Kavanah?

“Prayer is a freeze dried experience that was canonized for future generations,” said Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi, z”l. “You have to add the warm water of your experience to make it come alive.”

Jewish prayers include both keva — the fixed structure of prayer that we have inherited, and the power of kavanah — spontaneous, inner devotion. Both are integral parts of personal and communal Jewish prayer but can often be in conflict with one another. There is a specific practice of Jewish prayer. There are laws. There are fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of kavvanah (inner devotion).  The rabbis were by no means unanimous in their interpretation of what proper kavanah should be and held opposite opinions.

The rabbis of this first age provided what that age needed: limits. They offered interpretations of when, how, and in what way the prayers were to be arranged and recited. They gave us structure, keva, the framework and the details of Jewish worship. The second age introduced a philosophy of Jewish prayer: that included not only the words of our siddur (Jewish prayer book), but the “ideas” inherent the Bible and Talmud.

However, the Talmud argues that fulfilling the commandment to pray rarely depends on kavanah–if you do the specified things, you are “yotzei,” meaning you have fulfilled your obligation. Determined to modify the traditional services and make them more available to Jews, the Reform Movement opted for kavanah over keva. The number of required prayers was reduced to give time for worshipers to “pray” while they were reading (not chanting) them, giving them silent time to meditate on their own, to the accompaniment of soft organ music that would encourage people to feel themselves in the presence of God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel promoted balancing the two, “the fixity of our prayer-book and the spontaneity of our heart.” He was unwilling to surrender either one. However, prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul. Maimonides declares, “Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have done Havdalah. Yet one Saturday, several years ago at a retreat in the hills of Oregon, that brief service took on a life of its own and everyone in that room was transfixed by the energy that seemed to be surging among us. No one wanted that evening to end and we sang and danced for hours. The words provided the structure, but something else provided the almost magical experience. At that moment in time we were all transfixed by the communal kavanah – we were all present; and being present is not only part of a prayer experience, but is part of our lives.

Being present in the spiritual life always has a double meaning. There’s present, as in here, in attendance. And there’s present, as in now, a moment of time. Perhaps we will attend High Holiday Services and we will be “there” – but will we be fully present? What is the spiritual practice of being present not only in prayer but in life – for isn’t kavanah also required to perform our actions with a purposeful, considered intention.

One of his students asked Buddha, “Are you the messiah?”  “No”, answered Buddha.  “Then are you a healer?”  “No”, Buddha replied.  “Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.  “No, I am not a teacher.”  “Then what are you?” asked the student, exasperated. “I am awake”, Buddha replied.

The world’s religions all recommend living in the moment with full awareness. While Zen Buddhism is especially known for its emphasis on “newness,” Jewish and other spiritual teachers consistently urge us to make the most of every day as an opportunity that will not come to us again.

However, that doesn’t mean innovation is all about kavanah.  It’s a myth that creative people loathe structure. Mozart had 88 keys on his piano, 4 beats to a bar, and specific deadlines imposed by his patrons. Shakespeare wrote in the very regimented structure of Iambic-Pentameter. When he couldn’t find just the right word, he created a new word. Hundreds of them. But he created inside a rigid structure.

So while keva gives us structure, kavanah gives us the opportunity to soar – both important elements in prayer as well as in life.  Α

Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.

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