Learning To Pray … From Churches

Compare and contrast:

Stopped in to a church I passed along the way,
Well, I got down on my knees, and I began to pray …

The Mamas and the Papas

Rabbi, please say a prayer for my wife; she was just diagnosed with cancer, and is terrified.

Rabbi, my husband has been out of work for months, and he has a really promising interview this afternoon. Could you please say a prayer for him?

Rabbi, my daughter has been trying to get pregnant, and she’s getting desperate. Could you please say a prayer for her?

I cannot begin to count the number of times that questions like these have been addressed to me, and continue to be addressed to me, in settings both formal and informal. I am, (I hope), always sensitive to the heartfelt requests that these questions represent. To be anything other would be cruel, even though my personal prayers carry no greater weight than theirs, no matter what they might think. But I invariably wonder why it is, and how it came to be, that so many Jews feel so unempowered to pray to God in a deeply personal way, and in our their words … And why are Christians so much more at ease with it?

The seeds of an answer to that question are surely to be found in one of Judaism’s most crucial and enduring polarities: the eternal struggle between kevah and kavannah, between the halakhic obligation to recite fixed prayers at specific times (i.e., morning, evening and afternoon services), and the polar opposite desire to make one’s prayer truly spontaneous, devotional, and focused.

In a perfect world, this polarity is managed by having one’s fixed prayers be devotional and focused. Or, to phrase it differently, every time one recites the morning Shaharit service, or the evening Ma’ariv service, which are mandated by Jewish law, it should, ideally, be recited as passionately as one would pray for a loved one whose life was hanging in the balance. That would be the perfect blending of kevah and kavannah.

But alas, as we know all too well, we don’t live in a perfect world. When harried and rushed in the morning, or too tired to focus in the evening, the person who feels the obligation to pray the fixed service is more than likely to run through it quickly, rather than dwell on the meaning and significance of the words, just so as to discharge the responsibility to pray.

And therein lies the tension. One the one hand, it is hard to be faithful to the obligation to pray the fixed services and maintain any sustained kavannah. And conversely, the price of achieving kavannah is likely to involve jettisoning a serious commitment to keva (the fixed services).

As a regular, three-time-a-day person (who hopefully prays with focus and concentration, at least most of the time), I have learned through the years that the discipline of regular, fixed prayer allows for the kind of spontaneous spirituality that generates “irregular” prayers. The two types of prayer are not mutually exclusive, and they are not intended to be. But in reality, in preaching and teaching the importance of regular daily prayer, we have, perhaps unwittingly, unfortunately transmitted the message that praying on one’s own, in one’s own words, whether Hebrew, English, or whatever language, is not pleasing to God, or even worse, not heard.

I have long thought that the church world has been far more successful than we have in creating a welcoming culture for the person who feels a spontaneous need or desire to pray. Church doors remain, for the most part, open during the day. A person who so wishes is encouraged to enter, perhaps to light a candle in a Catholic church, or kneel and say a prayer, or simply to find solace and perspective in a peaceful moment of contemplation, like The Mamas and the Papas lyric. Altogether, the church world has been admirably successful in creating a spiritual climate where the house of worship is the place of choice to be when you feel broken, and in need of solace. Far too often, the synagogue world, unwittingly, I believe, places pressure on people to conform to some predetermined model of wellness, if not perfection. People who are broken are far more likely to stay away from synagogue than they are to attend, for fear that people will look at them as “damaged goods.”

So great has the emphasis on regular daily prayer been in Judaism that in today’s Jewish world, our synagogue culture actively reflects the bias. We tend to lock the doors to our prayer spaces when they are not in use for the regular services. Here in New York, if a person wants to enter the sanctuary at an off time, we are just as like to suspect that he/she may want to blow it up as we are that he just might want to spend a few moments in silent contemplation. It’s an understandable concern in these troubled times, but the message that it sends is wrong, and singularly unfortunate.

The ancient rabbis understood, correctly, I’m convinced, that prayer that is not fixed and regular will, inevitably, be at best sporadic. They managed to institutionalize the idea that God wants us to be in regular communication, even when we are not inclined to talk.

But it seems to me that we would do well to channel the spirit and wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of classical Hassidism. When masses of Jews in his time felt estranged from Rabbinic Judaism, and unworthy of God’s love because they lacked the capacity for serious Torah study, he taught his poor and often illiterate followers that God would surely love their singing and dancing as much as the words of a learned rabbi.

The commitment to daily, regular prayer is an essential component of Judaism. But like churches, we would do well to encourage people to reach out to God when they feel the need, whether in the synagogue or outside of it. I cannot help but believe that God would care for those prayers as much, or maybe even more than, our tired, routinized morning, afternoon and evening blessings.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.