Yesterday we began discussing our re-engagement with Jewish prayer. As the High Holidays quickly approach, it is important to think deeper about prayer. We are not just reciting meaningless words, or remembering something that happened in the past. Jewish prayer is a re-enactment of sacred events. We should think of the Siddur as a script. Through reenacting these events, we live out the story of the Jewish people, our Covenant with HaShem, and participate with the angels in heavenly worship. The Siddur, in so many ways, reminds us of who we really are and what G-d expects from us.
Recognizing Our Baggage
Prayer comes in many forms – individual, communal, formal, and spontaneous. And each form is just as important for a mature and vibrant spiritual life.
If so, what keeps us from engaging deeply in Jewish prayer? Why is it so difficult for many people to find liturgy spiritual, moving, and relevant? Much of it has to do with our thinking about prayer, and the baggage we bring into it.
Jewish Prayer Must Be Learned
Firstly, Jewish prayer is not easy. It must be learned. There is no way around it. So for many of us, the learning curve leaves us feeling clumsy and out of place. However, as the saying goes, nothing ever worth having comes easy. Prayer is like riding a bicycle. You may fall a few times, and it may take time before you can remove the training wheels. But once you do, the possibilities are endless. Personally, I have become so familiar with the liturgy that unencumbered by the words, I often find myself drifting back and forth between my spiritual prayer language and the Hebrew. The form is actually similar. We just do not often recognize the connection.
Perceived Dichotomy of “Worship” vs. Liturgy
For many of us, there is also an often subconscious tension between “worship” vs. liturgy. Due to a strong influence from more contemporary Christian forms of worship, we often adopt modes of thinking that consider “true worship” to be of a particular style and genre. However, there is actually no such dichotomy between liturgical and contemporary forms of worship. Especially when one considers that within a Messianic context, most of the “worship songs” are actually taken from the liturgy.
There are also those who grew up in homes where synagogue attendance was somewhat a regular part of their lives. And yet, spiritual growth can be hindered by nostalgia. For some, the service was dead and why go back to such practices. Or for others, it might ‘feel nice and Jewish,’ but it does not provide deep spiritual meaning. As such, it is often shelved with hot apple pie, potato kugel, or latkes. And there are always those for whom the liturgy is not deeply meaningful because they are caught up in the myth that “it has to be done this way!” They are so enveloped in “doing it right” that they are distracted from engaging liturgy in ways that bring us closer to HaShem.
Lastly, related to the above, there are also those who get caught up in a “Fiddler on the Roof mentality.” For these people, Judaism is not deeply spiritual and moving because they are enamored by the window dressing. They may look, dress, and try to talk like Fiddler on the Roof characters, or like Chasidim, but they do not understand the beauty and richness, as well as the elasticity of Jewish spirituality. They may try to look the part – yet they are also usually the first people who cannot read Hebrew, do not have mezuzot on their doors, or know how to lay Tefillin – all of which are basic and essential components of true Jewish spirituality. They are not fooling anyone. Any real Orthodox Jew would have the basics down before the clothing. There must be foundations to build upon.
So as we rethink Jewish prayer, let’s also ask ourselves questions. Granted there are many, many ways to make liturgy boring. However, let’s also ask, is the problem the liturgy or us? Is subconscious baggage contributing to my inability to engage G-d through Jewish prayer? If so, let’s work together to move forward. To look deeper at prayer (in all its forms), and reconnect to communal worship through liturgy.
Stay tuned tomorrow as we continue to discuss prayer and practical suggestions for rethinking Jewish prayer.
“L’Shanah tovah tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!”