Putting the SYN back in Synagogue: Must Prayer be Thoughtless?
2nd Day Rosh Hashannah, 5769
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
In a certain suburban neighborhood, there were two brothers, 8 and 10 years old, who were exceedingly mischievous. Whenever something went wrong in the neighborhood, it turned out they had a hand in it. Their parents were at their wits' end trying to control them. Hearing about a minister nearby who worked with delinquent boys, the mother suggested to the father that they ask the minister to talk with the boys. The father agreed.
The mother went to the minister and made her request. He agreed, but said he wanted to see the younger boy first and alone. So the mother sent him to the minister. The minister sat the boy down on the other side of his huge, impressive desk. For about five minutes they just sat and stared at each other.
Finally, the minister pointed his forefinger at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"
The boy looked under the desk, in the corners of the room, all around, but said nothing.
Again, louder, the minister pointed at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"
Again the boy looked all around but said nothing.
A third time, in a louder, firmer voice, the minister leaned far across the desk and put his forefinger almost to the boy's nose, and askedk, "Where is God?"
The boy panicked and ran all the way home. Finding his older brother, he dragged him upstairs to their room and into the closet, where they usually plotted their mischief. He finally said, "We are in B-I-I-I-I-G trouble now!"
The older boy asked, "What do you mean, B-I-I-I-I-G trouble?"
His brother replied, "God is missing and they think we did it."
God is missing and we did it. This is the issue with the way we pray. Despite our emotional attachment to the prayers of the High Holidays, we have a lot of trouble with the God part. I know that this is a controversial claim. But I want to speak the truth to you about the ambivalence that afflicts us during these many days of prayer.
The Jewish philosopher, Leon Wieseltier captures this ambivalence in this passage from his masterpiece, Kaddish.
“The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement. It is behaviorism or it is opportunism, since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.
Anyway it is obvious that many people who pray do not pray for prayer’s sake, and do not bring to prayer the philosophical propositions on which it must be premised. Are there times, then, when philosophy does not matter? Of course. the world would not work if it waited on philosophical understanding. It is a good thing that people act in the absence of reasons, or of clear reasons. Thoughtlessness is a lubricant of life.
And yet it will not do to say that we are muddling through and that is the end of it. It is always possible to muddle through less complacently. Even though one may act without reasons, one should search for reasons. Even though one may pray without meaning, one should mean it.”
Wieseltier expresses an insight about the problem of our communal and personal worship.
“The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake.”
Our Rabbi’s accepted that our prayers might not come from the heart. It is better to go through the motions of prayer than to not pray at all. It’s OK to pray by rote. If we go through the motions then at some point we might catch spiritual fire and pray with fervency and intention. In other words, Fake it until you make it.
But then Wieseltier picks a fight with the Rabbis,
“I never liked this statement. It is behaviorism or it is opportunism, since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.”
What is the cost of the rabbinic concession to rote worship? What happens when you say, Fake it until you make it? Accomodating rote worship causes the act of prayer to lose its spiritual and religious power. As AJ Heschel famously noted, rote worship becomes ‘ceremonial’ as opposed to a service of the heart. This is prayer on Prozac. The problem with ceremonial prayer is that it loses its power to deeply inspire a connection to God or to potentially provoke within us a real crisis of faith.
Have you ever prayed in a place where you knew everyone around you was praying fervently? Or do you remember moments when you or someone you knew reacted angrily to a religious ritual. By sanctioning insincere prayer, don’t we make it harder to achieve true belief and faith or an authentic grappling with whether God is listening to us?
Wieseltier then admits what many of us Rabbis discover early in our careers.
“Anyway it is obvious that many people who pray do not pray for prayer's sake, and do not bring to prayer the philosophical propositions on which it must be premised. Are there times, then, when philosophy does not matter? Of course. The world would not work if it waited on philosophical understanding. It is a good thing that people act in the absence of reasons, or of clear reasons. Thoughtlessness is a lubricant of life.”
At my former synagogue a visiting scholar in residence asked the Shabbat morning regulars to raise their hands if they believed in God. A few hands went up, but most remained down. He asked how many of them had taken a class on the meaning of Jewish prayer or had read a commentary on the prayer book. Most admitted they had not. He then asked if they loved the prayers or the service, and they all raised their hands. These congregants had an emotional attachment to the prayers which had little to do with any theological self consciousness or reflection.
Thoughtlessness is the lubricant of many who pray. Our fear of engaging the meaning of prayer leads some to a focus on form and the proper conduct of outer ritual. But thoughtlessness is also the lubricant of those who are not interested in prayer as well. The form and the ritual of prayer do not hold their interest or they are simply bored by the ritual intricacies of Jewish worship. We have failed with our patterns of worship to create a hunger for prayer or even a curiosity.
Why is this so?
The mitzvot and the halachot-laws about of prayer in Judaism make it one of the most demanding obligations for an observant Jew. An observant Jew (whether Orthodox or Conservative) who seeks a life of piety commits to praying three times a day, preferably in the company of a minyan. He wraps tefillin every weekday, offers blessings throughout the day as many as 100 times, and will add personal petitions and psalms when the need is felt
This world of personal or communal prayer is remote from us. We pray once in a while, only with a minyan, rarely in private, without tefillin, and lost in the fog of a prayer book that we hardly understand.
The struggle to maintain Jewish communal prayer in America has many causes. Most American Jews don't know Hebrew-so we can't fully engage or plumb the poetic power of the Hebrew liturgy. Some of us can read Hebrew phonetically, whatever we salvaged from religious school, but we cannot decipher or translate what we read. But truthfully, Israelis who know Hebrew, are not praying in droves either. Secular Israelis don’t relate to prayer book Hebrew that seems old and disconnected from their living reality. And because they understand what they are reading they come face to face with the problems of meaning that we Americans can dodge due to our lack of understanding.
The traditional Siddur and Mahzor are collections of prayers written by rabbis and poets expressing a theology of antiquity and the middle ages. It speaks of a personal God in patriarchal language who listens to prayers, intervenes in history, and protects the Jewish people in their exile, resurrects the dead, and ultimately sends to us a human messiah to redeem us. To most Bar Mitzvah kids I teach,, these ideas make absolutely no sense. They don’t have the interpretative skills or intellectual or emotional maturity to make sense of them. And since so many Jews stop receiving a Jewish Education after Bar Mitzvah, we retain an immature, underdeveloped understanding of prayer. Our prayer is pediatric; our insight is adolescent. The Jewish spiritual treasure house was locked and the key thrown away when we reached puberty. For some of us, that is a very long time ago.
Wieseltier recognizes this and reaches a sober observation:
“And yet it will not do to say that we are muddling through and that is the end of it. It is always possible to muddle through less complacently. Even though one may act without reasons, one should search for reasons. Even though one may pray without meaning, one should mean it.”
His point is that Jewish prayer is challenging to make sense to most people. Therefore the best we can do is attempt to make sense of it while recognizing that it will not come easily to most Jews. You know who get’s this? Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish missionaries to the Jewish people who get this. Anyone who has gone to the Chabad affiliated Shul by the Shore in our own community can see this understanding at work. This synagogue, run by a talented Chabad Rabbi for non Orthodox Jews, accommodates to the reality that modern Jews either don’t know how to pray or are not willing incorporate it into their lives. Shul by the Shore offers vastly shortened services with the rabbi’s entertaining running commentary and asides.
This may be hard to hear for those of us who love traditional worship as we have preserved it here at Beth Shalom. We very much want to preserve the traditional prayer service and cannot understand why the younger generation does not connect. Younger Jews who do not feel the same loyalty to the Conservative Movement are ambivalent about personal and public worship in general and have a very hard time connecting to traditional forms. The differing relationship to Jewish prayer has created a movement wide generation gap with many shuls trying to find ways to accommodate conflicting worship needs. Like many other Conservative congregations we are trying to find this way on this issue as well.
But there are efforts to renew prayer in Conservative congregations. Let me share a few examples.
A few years ago a dying congregation in Manhattan hired a rabbi from Argentina who introduced a unique musical service based on his years in South America. This synagogue, Bnai Jeshurun, pioneered the services with musical ensembles and vigorous congregational singing. The service was not conceived as an entertainment, but rather uses beautifully crafted music to create a spiritually meaningful and meditative experience. The service created at Bnai Jeshurun took the Upper West Side by storm and to this day attracts hundreds and hundreds of Jews of all ages. Cantor Kripper this year has introduced the Neshama Minyan and High Holiday Family service which are indebted to the innovative approach to services developed by Bnai Jeshurun.
Another contemporary attempt to revitalize prayer is the Independent Minyan movement. These minyans have sprouted all over the country and are formed by young people using classic community organizing methods. They start by recruiting a core of committed members, some with skills and others who want to learn. They teach themselves to daven and build a congregation from the foundation upwards. It is now possible to send minyan pioneers to a training center in New York City which specializes in Jewish worship startups.
Whether these models are right for our congregation is not yet clear, but I wanted to share with you that the challenges we face are also being faced by congregations everywhere. At Temple Beth Shalom we are entering a period of generational transition in our communal prayer. We want to preserve the link to our past, but we must find ways to make prayer relevant for a new generation.
We are blessed with extraordinary Cantor Emeriti who enliven traditional worship with their commanding voices and beautiful interpretations. We also have one of the finest talents, in Roni Kripper, who is introducing new ways to bring meaning to traditional worship.
Ultimately we must make an effort to deepen the experience of our congregational prayer. We must make a vigorous effort, even if we fail. Listen the words of the master, AJ Heschel, who speaks of those who try to pray, but fail.
“Those who honestly search, those who yearn and fail, we do not presume to judge. Let them pray to be able to pray, and if they do not succeed, if they have no tears to shed, let them yearn for tears, let them try to discover their heart and let them take strength from the certainty that this too is a high form of prayer.
A learned man lost all his sources of income and was looking for a way to earn a living. The members of his community, who admired him for his learning and piety, suggested to him to serve as their cantor on the Days of Awe. But he considered himself unworthy of serving as the messenger of the community, as the one who should bring the prayers of his fellow-men to the Almighty. He went to his master the Rabbi of Husiatin and told him of his sad plight, of the invitation to serve as a cantor on the Days of Awe, and of his being afraid to accept it and to pray for his congregation.
"Be afraid, and pray," was the answer of the rabbi."*
A. J. Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 256.
Let us be afraid and pray.