Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Jewish Problem with Prayer

The August 28, 2009 edition of the Forward, one of the great Jewish newspapers, had two articles on new siddurim (prayer books) being published by both Jewish denominations and individual synagogues.

The lead article opens with the question, “What can a new Hebrew-English Siddur do to solve the problems of prayer for modern Jews?” I have read the article several times, and I am not sure it ever answers the question, though the editor’s headline suggests one: “Even a New Siddur Can’t Close ‘God Gap.’” If the headline means that the answer to the lead question is “no,” then I agree. But agreeing or disagreeing is irrelevant unless and until someone defines what the problem is Jews have with prayer.

The answer, I suppose, is the God Gap, but that presupposes we know what God is, and I doubt that is true. So let’s try this again:

Can a new siddur solve the problem of prayer for modern Jews? No. Why not? Because the “problem of prayer” is that most Jews don’t pray. Why not? Because most Jews don’t believe in a God that merits prayer.

There are only two reasons to pray to God. Either you are praising (and thanking) Him for something He did or didn’t do, or asking Him to do something you are afraid He doesn’t want to do. In either case you are assuming God is male, self-conscious, and volitional; a being who knows you and your situation, and who actually gives a damn about it. Most Jews just don’t think this way.

How do I know what most Jews think? Just look at the statistics of synagogue attendance. One statistic I read recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) claimed that only 11% of American Jews attend synagogue on any given Shabbat. We can assume that some of these attendees aren’t there to pray, but are simply meeting a communal or cultural obligation, but even if all them were God–fearing men and women, that still leaves 89% of American Jews in the non–praying category.

I am one of the 89%. I find Shabbat services tedious, lifeless, emotionally and intellectually vapid, and, not surprisingly, boring. And it doesn’t matter what siddur is being used.

What would bring me to shul?

First, high quality music—not cantorial pomp or silly schlock rock from some long outgrown Jewish camp experience, but deeply moving Hebrew chanting and evocative even ecstatic Hasidic music ala Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. If you have never gone to services at the Carlebach shul in Manhattan, I suggest you do. Very moving.

Second, and this where even the Carlebach shul fails me, a liturgy that is brief and theologically compelling. No reading of the same prayers over and over. No warlord God who chooses the Jews and whacks our enemies. No ass–kissing, no thanking God for making the sunshine and keeping the stars to their orbits. No God who guarantees me success if I follow His rules. The universe is so much more grand, terrible, and awe–inspiring than Iron Age cosmology or medieval poetry can imagine. I want a liturgy that helps me feel the awesomeness of creation, and that can’t happen when we are sitting in a brick box reading out of a book. I want to pray outdoors at night under the stars, or, because I love to stay dry and avoid extremes of heat and cold, I would revamp every sanctuary to function as a planetarium. There is only one liturgy worth praying, and that is "Holy shit! This world is awesome!" Or, in the interest of the kids, I would settle for a full-bodied "Wow!"

Third, I want Torah study that is intellectually rigorous, historically accurate, and radically iconoclastic. I don’t want to discuss how Noah got all those animals on the ark; I want to discuss what kind of God drowns 99.999999999% of life on earth? I want to study the Akeida, the near–sacrifice of Isaac, in the context of child sacrifice among Jews and nonJews in biblical times. I want to read Torah as an educated adult.

Fourth, I want to experience something during services other than the urge to scream and run from the room. I want to feel awe and wonder. I want to sense my connectedness to Something Greater (call it God, Universe, Nature) that includes all beings and the cosmos as a whole. I don’t want to talk about God; I want to experience God.

And fifth, I want silence. Not a faux silent prayer that is mumbled aloud; not a half–moment of silence; not a silence filled with someone's guided meditation—actual silence. Just me and you breathing together.

No new prayer book is going to do this. And I say this as one whose liturgical poems appear in siddurim across the country and around the world. I have written several siddurim in my lifetime. I even toy with the idea of writing another, but what stops me is the knowledge that words are not our only problem. The setting is wrong. The tone is wrong. The theology is wrong. The politics are wrong. The expectation is wrong. We don't demand anything from our liturgy or our services. We expect to be bored and we are. It isn't just our rabbis and cantors fault, it is ours, the 89% of us who fail to go to shul regularly.

Yes, it is my fault that synagogue is vapid and boring. But it is too hard to change things. The people who do go like it the way it is, and I don't want to fight them. The people who lead services are proud of what they do, and I don't want to insult them. It is easier to simply stay home.

So this Shabbat I will do what I do on most Saturdays: walk in the woods, chant aloud, and allow myself to be surrendered to the reality of What Is that I call God. No book; never boring.


Peter Schogol said...

I have found the new Siddur Sha'ar Zahav from San Francisco's GLBT synagogue of the same name quite an eye-opener. Queer folk remain one of the few truly marginalized populations among Jews, and from their mouths prayers for release from oppression have a gravitas they don't from the mouths of well-healed straight suburbanites.

Marcia Falk's The Book of Blessings doesn't mention God at all yet manages to be an effective and inspiring vehicle for private and communal expression of sacred experience.

Claire said...

I attend a shul that has an abbreviated liturgy (just a few of the most important prayers) and a fairly long period of silent meditation, so I know it's possible to do.

My favorite moment of the liturgy is at the end of the Ve'ahavta, where as a community, we all chant in Hebrew together, Ani Adonai Eloheichem, "I AM the Eternal One Your God".

It's how so much of Jewish wisdom is hidden - by having it right there out in the open. Here we all are, as a community, proclaiming that each one of us is the One! The One that leads us from slavery to freedom - the One that, if we are true to It, will make each one of us holy!

When my older daughter became bat mitzvah, she gave me a wink from the bima as she said those lines, because she knows how much I love it when we do it. Sometimes, though, I feel like I'm the only one who is in on this secret.

Maggid said...

You've offered some terrific ideas to work with - Thank you - I intend to give 'em a good try.

Unknown said...

From my perspective, I think authentic prayer begins by thinking for yourself then deciding what does and doesn't work for you.

I don't think anyone should have to feel bullied into a liturgy that does not work for you, even if it sometimes limits the size of the communities you can work with sometimes.

I'm a fan of silence and nature sounds, but also a fan of the sound of Hebrew. So I work with what makes sense to me.

I admit that at my chavurah, I often tune out of what's being said in the congregation and just listen to the melodies and keep my own silence. That's way I usually don't make a service more than once or twice a month.

Patti said...

Change a few of the titles and the same thing is happening in Christianity. And the response is pretty much the same too; no go. So what does that say about us all?

eashtov said...

Shalom Patti,

It says that because most of us are attitudinally consumerist, we want/expect value in exchange for our resources: i.e., our time talents and tithes. We will and do vote with our feet when the equation is not satisfied.


rbarenblat said...

This is a real challenge for me as a rabbinic student. On the one hand, I find the practice of regular prayer to be an incredibly valuable part of my spiritual practice. OTOH, I know that most of the Jews who I will serve in my rabbinate don't engage in daily prayer...and, as you say, probably don't believe in a God Who merits prayer.

(It seems to me that belief in any sort of God isn't actually a prerequisite for prayer -- the experience of regular prayer changes me, regardless of what I do or don't believe about God at any given time -- but for most people that's a hard sell, I think.)

My own relationship with prayer and with God was completely transformed when I began attending retreats at Elat Chayyim many years ago. For me, direct and personal and idiosyncratic and joyful interaction with God has been lifechanging. But how can I translate that into an experience that most people are willing/able to enter into -- knowing, as I do, that most American Jews probably wouldn't find Elat Chayyim to be as astonishingly transformative as I did?

It's interesting to me that you mention that a brief and theologically-compelling liturgy would entice you into shul. I feel like that's what I first encountered when I first went to Elat Chayyim -- short pearls of liturgy, chanted, interspersed with silence. It was very powerful for me and it brought me in the door. These days I have the challenge of having fallen in love with a lot of the traditional liturgy -- but, again, I'm aware that most liberal Jews don't have that luxury (they haven't broken the "sefer barrier," as it were) and the thicket of words and references may be alienating to them rather than enticing and comforting. So I think that's another challenge which faces rabbis today: the gap between what we ourselves enjoy in prayer, and what speaks to the people we serve.

I want to quibble with your assertion that a good liturgy ought not to have ass-kissing, though. I'd frame it as a practice of gratitude, and for me it's completely central. When I wake up in the morning and thank God for my awakeness, when I give myself a shot to keep my body functional and thank God for my body, when I put bread in my mouth and thank God for the bread, that's not ass-kissing; it's consciousness-raising. It's for me, first and foremost. When I'm saying thankyou often, I'm more likely to be the kind of person I like to be, instead of the kind of half-asleep ingrate who I prefer not to be.

On this, as on all things, mileage, naturally, varies.