Comrades in Prayer

April 1, 2014
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“Might we do without religion entirely? Plenty of people have tried. Not in Communist countries, as I’ve already said, but here. A lot of people have been forced to do without it because the old-time religions they know of are too superstitious, too full of magic, too ignorant of biology and physics to harmonize with the present day.

They are told to have faith. Faith in what? Faith in faith, as nearly as I can tell. That is as detailed as many contemporary preachers care to be…”

—Kurt Vonnegut, commencement address to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1974


Many of us teach that a person doesn’t have to have faith to daven. Members of the clergy, myself included, introduce services with an invitation: No matter where a person comes from or what she believes, it is possible for her to make her home in prayer. This idea has a venerable spiritual parentage among other wise sayings detailing the spiritual path: “Mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma”1 — “Practice precedes intention.”

However, even as I write this, I know I must challenge the proposition of belief-less prayer. In his essay, Rabbi Arthur Green writes: “We care deeply about [Judaism’s] survival; some form of ‘ve-shinantan le-vanekha,’ ‘teach them diligently to your children’ remains the single mitzvah to which Jews remain most committed. But …is there any truth-claim of Judaism to which we still adhere?”

Difficult prayer is a symptom of theological difficulties. Being unable to learn to pray does not reflect a failure of Jewish education. Rather, it is an expression of deep spiritual ambivalence, as Art Green describes, which precludes Jews from giving themselves freely to a holy relationship. Prayer is a bellwether; we struggle to pray because we struggle with belief.

Belief is difficult today because scientific discoveries have challenged our fundamental assumptions about the world and globalization has exposed us to other belief systems. Old propositions of faith map poorly onto empirical reality, even as sacrosanct spiritual ideas now compete with each other in a global marketplace. All religions are playing catch-up, expanding and adapting their belief systems in order to understand the brave new world and infuse it with holiness.

This period of spiritual transition does not lend itself to robust prayer. Many people do not know what to believe. Even though we may long for an active spiritual life with meaning, spiritual clarity is elusive without a clear sense of to whom or what one is praying. As teachers, our job is to clarify our own beliefs so we can offer compelling spiritual propositions that speak to our times. Vonnegut calls us out, we preachers who only say, “Have faith in faith,” and avoid working through our own unresolved difficulties with God and Torah.

We should illuminate the spiritual context that explains how prayer connects a person to the divine — why saying these words or bowing here matters. Each prayer’s words connect to spiritual ideas and emotions; ideas and emotions bridge the divide between the individual and God. So we should heavily invest in revealing a prayer’s emotional and spiritual context: gratitude, creation, awe, revelation, humility, grandeur, the miraculous, concern, anxiety, chutzpah, despair, redemption, hope, holiness. We must teach interiority — the tricky, highly personal process of intentionally encountering these concepts and feelings. As we practice praying with students, we should encourage them to experiment with these emotions and essential ideas. These exercises begin haltingly but gain speed as students gain awareness of this spiritual infrastructure.

Lastly, we teachers should work to banish spiritual loneliness. Spiritual activism (the best term I have for wholehearted prayer, as opposed to spiritual spectatorship) takes a village; we need support so that our devekut (spiritual intensity) is not out of place within our prayer community. There is a particularly sad loneliness of alienation within communal prayer. Worshippers feel constrained from outward spiritual expressions, rather than free, and afraid of another’s judgment, rather than supported by each other’s presence. While it may sound absurd, I ask my students to practice praying while looking each other in the eye. Cultivating an awareness of our “comrades in prayer” has an unexpected effect; we start to shyly smile at each other. Communal connection reminds us that we are not spiritually alone.

The journey into meaningful prayer is achievable. So many of us have traversed the ground between viewing prayer as an obtuse traditional mystery and knowing prayer to be as precious as breathing. But kavannah (intention) requires one to wade through complexity and difficulty until one arrives at points of spiritual clarity. By clarity, I do not mean dogma, but rather the personal conviction that one is engaged in an essential spiritual act. With clarity, even people who generally live in spiritual spectatorship can become vessels of holiness. Over a recent Shabbat commemorating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., I saw otherwise cynical daveners find clarity in a moral underpinning — the grandeur of civil rights. Because they so unequivocally believed in the precept of equality, their prayer came easily.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook teaches that it is incumbent upon all spiritually minded Jews to undergo a process of spiritual birur (clarification).2 But, as we attempt to find that clarity, we will likely bump up against the limits of certainty. And we have not yet reinterpreted the truth claims of the Torah that do not stand up to scrutiny. That process of reinterpretation — so the Torah speaks not only to individuals but also to entire communities — will take time; we need to be patient. There is no easy way to overcome legitimate skepticism.

This is the work of prayerful communities: to banish spiritual loneliness by creating relationships around compelling spiritual truths, and to work together to find wholehearted connection to the divine.


1 “Even if one starts practicing without pure motives, the pure motives will come through practice.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 106a)

2  Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, The Light of Faith, “Faith and Science” 9

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Rabbi Scott Perlo is the associate director of Jewish programming at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., a unique institution that engages in post-denominational outreach to the district’s young professional community. Perlo was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in 2008.

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