Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part II

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.

Moving Forward

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!”

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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11 Responses to Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part II

  1. robyn says:

    You mentioned your "spiritual prayer language". I've heard others mention this before, but I'm not really sure what it is. Could you elaborate?

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Robyn,Great question! To some this might be controversial. However, when I refer to my "spiritual prayer language" it is a reference to one of the gifts of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12 & 14 (as well as other passages) refer to a number of spiritual gifts, and the gift of tongues (a spiritual prayer language) is one of the gifts discussed. The purpose of tongues (or Glossolalia as it is called) is to edify (either ourselves, or at times the community). In the individual spiritual language, it is meant to "pray in the spirit" when interceding. Another type of prayer language is the ability to pray in an actual language you do not know or have ever studied, for example see Acts 2. Believe it or not, but the practice of Glossolalia is found in pre-New Testament literature, and has been experienced in a number of Jewish contexts. There are even Chasidic stories of great rebbeim who spoke in tongues during very heightened spiritual encounters.

  3. Kari Miller says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent discussion of Jewish prayer. I wanted to add one hurdle that I see someone very close to me struggling with when it comes to Jewish prayer. This is a man who was raised Jewish, but had very negative feelings toward Jewish worship, even before becoming a follower of Yeshua. I thought this might fit into the category of "nostalgia," but more of a "negative nostalgia." Liturgy may, for some Messianic Jews, bring back memories of a form of worship that made them feel empty. Though I agree that it can be greatly meaningful, sometimes there exists a deep resistance based on negative feelings liturgy can evoke in those whose Jewish experience growing up may not have been so positive. I would love to hear your thoughts on that particular dilemma. Todah!

  4. Monique says:

    Kari, great observation. It's an all too common condition. See our next blog post for expanded commentary …

  5. Seth says:

    I'm glad that you mentioned tongues in the context of liturgical prayer. So often, people create this false dichotomy where liturgical prayer is stifled and rigid, while charismatic prayer is free-form and out of control (both sides perpetuate this). But this dichotomy is not biblical. Early believers were Spirit-filled in their prayer. Rooms shook, people were healed, prophecy was declared, and tongues were spoken. Yet, they also attended the Temple and used liturgy (especially the Psalms) in their synagogues and churches. Not only did they have structure, but power as well.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Seth,Absolutely! Thanks for your comment.

  7. Donna says:

    So, Rabbi Joshua do you have an suggestions for how someone can learn the liturgy? I was raised secular and my knowledge and skill is pretty limited. Are you aware of any resources that would be helpful in this matter? Thanks, Donna

  8. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Donna,Great question! OK, here is the reality. What makes Jewish prayer difficult at first, is that it must be learned. It is like riding a bike. HOWEVER, once you learn and gain the skill, then you can be creative, ride with no hands, and other kinds of tricks. The best way to learn is by doing. Start small. Begin by saying the Shema every morning and before you go to bed. Then daily add reading through the Amidah in English, using it as a meditative and prayerful tool. The slowly add another blessing.You cannot go from 1 to 60 overnight. Neither should you. Start with one prayer at a time, and let it really sink into your kishkas. When you feel you are ready, add another, etc.Also try to attend a great, vibrant service on a regular basis you connect with. One of the things that really helped me way back in the beginning, was just attending services at a more traditional synagogue. It forced me to read fast enough in the Hebrew, and I learned the basic melodies. From there I just kept learning and experiencing.It is not impossible, and there are some great tools out there. A few book ideas:-"First Steps in Jewish Prayer" by Danny ben-Gigi (comes with a CD)-"To Pray as a Jews" by Haim Halevy Donin-"Entering Jewish Prayer" Online Resources:-Siddur Audio ( Cantor ( for Trope, Navigating the Bible ( are also many other great resources out there. I hope this helps. –

  9. rik says:

    Wonderfull discussion. Important insight fosterd by Reb. Joshua's revaltion of bagge we bring into our prayer life. The wives tale that anything old is not realivant to our continualy renewed and renewing relationship in Machiach takes many forms. Fostered early, including the mind-set that devloped the old and new testamen division of the wonerfull continuems of HaShems Word (Halachah for crying out loud). Mostly referd to Music in Worship, thank you Rabbi for showing how this mind-set can impede our prayer life continuem of worship. All of the Great sages reenforced not forgetting the foundations and building and growing with ongoing referance to the writen; including our siddur. What seems to be the crittical factor in prayer is the same thing that seperated the Tabernacle/Temple from anyother religious structure: The indwelling Presence of HaShem and a fully focused relationship.

  10. Pingback: Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part III | Yinon Blog

  11. Pingback: Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part II | Yinon Blog | Harp and Bowl Worship

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