Many Ways to Pray

on Sunday, 01 November 2009. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Articles

The ORacle, November 2009 Issue

For many of us, prayers are unfamiliar, they are written in a language we cannot read, and their translations may not facilitate our connection to the Eternal. But prayer was not always so standardized. Worship began as an oral culture. There was no technology to copy, preserve, or disseminate texts and subsequently, prayer was more fluid. As time went on, a standardized rhetoric developed which allowed worshippers to anticipate the service’s structure.

It was only in modernity, with the preeminence of the print culture and the standardization of industrial goods, that we experienced the proliferation of uniform siddurim, or prayerbooks. Classical Reform Judaism arose during an era of mass production, and the 1st Union Prayerbook reflected this. Reform Jews rose together, sat together, read together, and turned pages together.

Nowadays, religious life is highly individualized and Jews feel free to pick and choose amongst the practices that speak to them. This includes one’s prayer as well as ritual practices, and beliefs.

Current research on why American’s pray supports this individualization, but it also reveals our doubts about the legitimacy of our prayer.

Tony, an engineer in his fifties, who didn’t go to synagogue until he started saying Kaddish for his mother fifteen years ago, discusses his relationship with prayer:

“Sometimes when I talk to myself out loud, and say why don’t I make a serious effort, and think of the things I need to do, it borders on prayer, talking to God. When I go to services…there is not so much kavanah [intention] there. In other ways there is…. Just to be here, making some sort of an effort, that’s a mitzvah, doing the best I can at the moment. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Maybe there is an element of real prayer in that.”

Tony, like many American Jews, feels that his prayer is not legitimate. His doubts about what he “should” be saying, in comparison to the set prayers in the siddur, weakens his confidence that his prayer is authentic. I want to encourage all of us to accept the legitimacy of our words and know that there is not a “correct” way to pray. Sometimes the words on the page allow us to find God, and sometimes we communicate with the Eternal through music, or meditation, or in profound kinship with another person.

Many people report using the words on the page as a springboard for a personal religious experience (See The Jew Within by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen). There is little direct relevance to the content of the words themselves. In some cases, the words of the siddur may not be so crucial. Temple Beth Or will be offering a series of quarterly alternative Shabbat services providing an opportunity to come together as a community and connect to the divine in new ways. On November 13th, we will offer a participatory musical Shabbat which moves beyond the siddur, the prayerbook. Together, we will learn new melodies for Shabbat prayers as well as other Jewish music.  If people have musical instruments--drums, bells, maracas, little cymbals, etc. please bring them. May this opportunity enable us to connect and communicate with the Eternal in new ways.