The Ridiculousness of Prayer
Prayer can be meaningless, or so full of meaning that we lack the perception to fully grasp it. It can be ridiculous, or the opposite. It completely depends on the person praying. I will examine prayer with the help of three different perspectives: Objective, subjective and communal.
Let us observe the following situation: It has come time to pray, all participants stop what they were doing and direct themselves towards Jerusalem, or whatever direction they pray to. There is complete Silence. The vibe is serious.
For an outside observer, who has never prayed before, this would be quite confusing. He’d ask himself: “Why is everyone quiet? Are they expecting someone important to show up?“ As a matter of fact, the congregation is waiting for someone to show up, His Majesty the Creator of the universe Himself. But the outside observer doesn’t know that. Ten minutes pass by and nobody shows up. Slowly, people return to their daily duties, prayer-time is over. And yet the outsider is left baffled and maybe even disappointed; “What did I just experience?“
One objective answer could be: A bunch of people who took a standing nap, that’s what you experienced. That would be quite ridiculous, don’t you think?
Now, let’s ask one of the congregants what he or she experienced during those ten minutes of utter silence. And here it matters a lot which of the congregants you ask. One will tell you something like “they told me I must pray to G-d three times a day, and if I don’t, I won’t enter Gan Eden – paradise. Do you want to know what I experienced? Nothing extraordinary.” Someone else, let’s call him Yaakov, would answer: “I felt the Creator. I poured out my heart to Him and told Him all my sorrows, wishes and resolutions. I experienced closeness and warmth, productivity, and hope!“ Listening to such an experience makes it difficult to describe prayer as something ridiculous. Nothing about Yaakov’s experience is ridiculous. However, his view on prayer is not objective, because his experience is real, and nothing about prayer ever seems sleepy or dead to him but rather vivid and very much awake. Unless Yaakov interferes with non-experiencing congregants. This brings us to the last perspective, the communal one.
Mincha, the afternoon prayer is over. Yaakov poured out his heart and is ready to start the next chapter of the day energetically. Suddenly he can hear the Chazan, the leader of the prayer sing: “Vehu Rachum“. The evening prayer started. The rest of the people are energetically and piously reciting the sacred texts. Yaakov who now has already lost much of the gained motivation and energy from the Mincha prayer, asks himself: “How can I turn to G-d and pour out my heart again? I poured it out, G-d knows everything He has to, there isn’t much more to tell.“ Of course, nobody there would understand Yaakov and explain their behavior with the simple argument of efficiency. It is much easier to combine Mincha and Maariv so that you don’t have to go to Shul– synagogue – twice. Now Yaakov, the one who saved prayer from being ridiculed before, becomes an outsider himself and his perspective becomes objective. His perspective on prayer, just like the stranger’s, tells him: “What they’re doing is ridiculous!”
What turns out is that prayer is objectively always ridiculous. The only time it’s not, is when looked at subjectively. And the only subjective perspective that is not ridiculous is the one of an experiencing human being. Because if you don’t experience anything during prayer, you are likely to blindly follow some doctrine that was planted into your head and takes away your precious time.
There are also other subjective perspectives on prayer. Many congregants would point out the social benefits of a communal gathering. But in all seriousness, if that’s the benefit of prayer, why would you still call it that?
To conclude, the act of secluding time from your day-to-day life is not ridiculous at all, but it’s also not called prayer. Prayer, as in “the attempt to speak to G-d”, is, objectively observed, as ridiculous as it can get. Subjectively, prayer can open doors to a different world with the most beautiful and productive encounters you’ll ever experience. Is that ridiculous? Not at all.
To put it in even simpler terms: Experience > Ridiculousness > lack of sensation. We humans are responsible to make our lives exciting. The same applies to prayer. As much as we can’t expect our dinner to appear in front of us without having to organize it, we can’t expect G-d to appear out of the blue. Everything in our experience as human beings speaks strongly against such wishful thinking. Eventually there is one reason that makes prayer appear ridiculous. Namely the unwillingness and resistance of a person to experience something new. Whether it is the stranger who leaves after observing an objectively ridiculous prayer and never comes back, or a devoted religious person who has made it his or her most important task to follow every letter of the law, forgetting to observe the sentence as a whole.