Just a Thought: Jewish prayer

These are the things Jews throughout the world, throughout millennia should be focused on, directing their energies toward.

November 22, 2012 13:02

Siddur 521. (photo credit: courtesy)


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Why must we worship God? Rabbi Louis Jacobs asks the question that should bother every Jew. “If all the details of divine worship are so interpreted that they are seen to have as their sole purpose the enrichment of human life, then the man who carries them out is a self worshiper, or [at] best, a worshiper of human society, rather than a worshiper of God. If, on the other hand, worship is for God’s sake the obvious theological difficulty arises, how can God be said to need man’s worship?” Jacobs further argues that “the dilemma is insoluble for one who sees it from the outside.

But for the Jews – who see it from within, who live by the Torah and in the performance of mitzvot, the difficulty is unreal.

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For them there is no doubt that worship is for God’s sake in the sense that it is a giving of the self to the Creator – God wants us to worship Him because man can have no higher privilege than the opportunity to reach towards the infinite.”

Judaism defines worship of God in three ways. The first is in prayer, the second in performance of the commandments and the third is learning Torah. A thorough examination of each of the three would lead to volumes of study. What I would like to briefly look at here is the first mode of worship, prayer. Why would or should we, for that matter, pray? It would seem that the question is sharpened by the fact that the Jew meets God in prayer more often and has his day revolve around the necessities of prayer more than most other mitzvot. The sages have informed us that “prayer is more precious than sacrifices,” and some go so far as to say “prayer is greater than good deeds.” Why would that be so? Prayer falls into four categories: petition, intercession, praise and contemplation. All of these serve as a bridge over the abyss between man and his Creator. Michael Fishbane writes that “the details of prayer life give expression to the essential realization that no area of human existence is irrelevant before God and that no earthly pain or productivity is separable from divine reality.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls prayer a way to “experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.”

Is what Heschel is describing not the essence of the Torah’s goals for mankind? Heschel calls this approach radical amazement.

His doctrine of radical amazement sees prayer and blessings as a means of expressing how wondrous this world is and directing our amazement and appreciation toward God.

Prayers and blessings in Judaism are both spontaneous and set. They are institutionalized and extemporaneous. We pray in service to God, and in gratitude to Him. We pray for peace, health and redemption, and we pray before we eat or drink. We pray before we pick up a lulav, and after we answer the call of nature. We pray when we see lightning, and pray when we see a gentile king or scholar.

Prayer surrounds everything we do, because Jewish theology demands we see God in everything. Since man more often than not ceases to see wonder and beholds routine instead, Judaism institutionalizes prayer to train man not forget how amazing all of creation is.

One of the loudest complaints heard about Jewish prayer is that it comprises a set text repeated almost verbatim three times a day. I often ask my students in a lesson on prayer to take the opportunity in class to write their own prayers out. I tell them to try in their own words to replace the set text that Judaism has written out for them in the siddur (prayer book). The students’ prayers (some more eloquent than others) rarely exceed 60 seconds to read out loud (most are in the 30-second range). And while prayer is never to be measured in length, it is hard not to take notice of how little time each day these students would devote to contemplation of the divine if left to their own devices.

The more interesting observation, though, isn’t in what their prayers say, but what their prayers don’t say. The Amida, the main Jewish prayer, recited thrice daily, is made up of 19 blessings. It is rare for any of my students to cover in their written prayers more than five or six of the topics covered in the Amida.

This means that when it comes down to it these topics aren’t part of their consciousness.

I do not blame them; I cannot claim that most of the blessings of the Amida are part of my consciousness, either.

The lesson I believe the sages mean to convey with the set text of the Amida is that these are things you should be caring about.

Yes, they might not be close to your heart or at the tip of your tongue, so that’s why we included them here.

These are the things that Jews throughout the world and throughout the millennia should be focused on and directing their energies toward. When I pray for the restoration of justice, it is a subtle message to myself that this world is one in which justice is lacking.

When I pray for the restoration of the Temple sacrifices it makes me sensitive to their absence. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it best when he said that the prayer book is our catechism.

If you truly want to know what Jews believe or think, or at least what they should believe and think about, then look no further than our liturgy. Theologians and philosophers have spilled gallons of ink arguing about the parameters of Jewish belief and trying to define it. The reality though is that the answer was in our siddur all the time!

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many posthigh- school yeshivot and midrashot.

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