A Replacement for Prayer
No matter which sect you subscribe to, prayer takes on a central role in Jewish communal life. Liturgy is an essential component of Shabbat, the festivals, mourning, and many other occasions marked by Judaism. Jewish communities are built around the synagogue, whose espoused primary purpose is prayer. The occasions of the year which see most Jews identify with their heritage are the high-holy days, which are prayer marathons par excellence.
Prayer means different things for different people. Those with a legalistic bent see it as a fulfilment of a divine command or obligation - no less, and perhaps no more. Strong theistic believers might perceive it as an opportunity to converse directly with a personal, sentient deity. For those to whom community is of utmost importance, it might be understood simply as an arbitrary shared communal activity. The spiritual, Eastern-thinking amongst us, could use it as a repetitive framework for meditation. Prayer's longevity is testament to its relevance for many people in many ways.
However, there are some Jews to whom prayer holds little meaning and interest. This need not be a reflection of a lack of committment to Jewish practice, learning or people. It is simply that certain personal views the individual has might prevent them from being able to meaningfully participate in the ritual. Let us outline some possible reasons why :
In short, for a Jew without strong beliefs or habits, it is difficult to find a good reason why they should even try praying, let along take it up regularly. The siddur earned from a barmitzvah or batmitzvah sits on the shelf, collecting dust, and its owner feels that the lack of excitement provided by its contents is a symptom of their heritage's general emptiness.
- Moral objections to parts of the standard liturgy. In the Orthodox prayer book, such phrases as "Blessed are you... that you did not make me a woman" (morning blessings) or "It is upon us to praise the master... that he did not make us like the nations of the lands" (aleynu prayer) run counter to the prevailing taboos of sexism and racism, which the individual may justifiably subscribe to. As a result, many of these passages have been removed by progressive strands in Judaism.
- Uncertainty over historical assertions made within the prayers. Examples include "You... my master, resurrector of the dead" (amidah prayer) and "God... who raised you from the land of Egypt" (morning pesukei d'zimrah). An individual may feel that, in the face of uncertainty over the truth of these past or future events, they would rather not testify to their veracity.
- Theological problems with prayer's form. Jewish liturgy relies heavily on the assumption that there is a single, numinous, external, powerful, loving, compassionate, attentive, merciful, judgemental deity to whom our attention is directed. If an individual is unsure, agnostic or even atheist about the existence of such a god, they may quite legitimately have little incentive to participate.
- Practical issues. Jewish prayer can be long, drawn out, slow, tiring, repetitive and hard to understand. By building communal life around it, we may be erecting a large barrier between a vast number of Jews and meaningful Jewish existence.
However, it does not take much imagination to come up with a solution which can be practically applied at both the individual and communal level. If one looks at the ultra-Orthodox world today, with its heavy emphasis on full-time Torah study, one discovers an interesting fact. The 'beit midrash' (literally : house of study) serves a dual purpose - Yeshiva students study perhaps 9 hours a day within its walls, but they also pray for 2 or 3. The activities of prayer and study are closely intermingled and one often sees a student, having finished a particular prayer early, picking up a Talmud for a quick glance before joining in again once the others have caught up.
At the start of the traditional Shacharit (morning) prayer, one finds the following passage from the Talmud (Shabbat, page 127a) :
These are the things which a person eats the fruits of in this world and the funds remain for him for the world that is coming. And these are them : honour for father and mother, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, inviting in guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, concentration in prayer, bringing peace between an individual and his friend... but the study of Torah is as against them all.
So, from a traditional point-of-view, we have grounds for placing study at the top of our list of priorities. Although it would be dishonest to suggest that this passage recommends study to the exclusion of all other religious activies (although, incidentally, rabbis have grappled with precisely that question), it certainly can be used as justification for an innovative approach to the problem of prayer.
There must be more than a few Jews who would enjoy learning but not praying, since the problems mentioned above do not apply to the former (so long as it is undertaken critically, of course). Let us take them in turn :
The proposition is a simple one : where there is demand, there should be classes, discussion groups and open libraries available in parallel to prayer services. Depending on which stance you take, this could either be seen as offering a way in to Jewish prayer, or a preferable substitute. For the agnostic Jew with an enquiring mind and a curiosity about their heritage, it would encourage communal participation and personal development instead of either endless boredom or staying away.
- Moral objections. There are plenty of morally obscene passages in the Torah, Tanach and other Jewish works. But the difference between simply reciting these and learning about them is that learning can be a critical, constructive process. There is something we can learn from Joseph's arrogance or Pinchas' fundamentalism. We can discuss and debate the rights and wrongs of the situation, and come away incensed by the actions of our ancestors while still having gained something in the process.
- Historical uncertainty. When studying a myth such as the Exodus from Egypt or the Revelation on Sinai, one can enter into a participative dialogue with the narrative without asserting its objective truth. Instead of saying "this is what happened", we can ask "what does this teach us?", "where did it come from?", "did this happen?", "is it a good or bad thing?".
- Theological problems. Spending an hour discussing the verse "And the Lord passed before him and called out : Lord! Lord! a merciful and gracious god, slow to anger and of much kindness and truth, preserving kindness for thousands, elevating sin, transgression and iniquity - and he cleanses and yet does not cleanse - he counts the sin of fathers on sons, and on sons of sons, on the third generations and on the fourth generations" (Exodus 34:6-7) need in no way entail acquiescence to its coherence or truth.
- Practical issues. Learning need not be long and drawn out, it can be as fast or as slow as you want, it most certainly is not repetitive, and can be tailored for anyone of any background.
© Mayim, 2005.