Joel Cohen

What If We Don’t Understand Our Prayers?

We don’t understand our prayers?

Attending an opera but not knowing the language of the performance — particularly before the phenomenon of subtitles — one might still greatly appreciate the event.  The performance alone might itself enable the attendee to “get the drift” of what the performers were articulating without truly understanding the meaning of the dialogue.  Or, without understanding the lyrics, the mere music might still be engrossing and pleasurable.  Indeed, listening to any song in a foreign language may be enjoyable even without one comprehending the lyrics — perhaps allowing one’s mind to wander in search of meaning or value to it alone.

But prayer is different.  It can’t possibly be solely about the prayer giver’s pleasure in speaking to God. Prayer is intended to communicate to God our hopes, aspirations, wishes, gratitude and regrets. Not to give ourselves pleasure. But what if we don’t actually understand the meaning of the prayers?  Not their often deeper existential meaning; rather, what if we don’t understand the actual words we utter – spoken in another language and often by rote?

Truthfully, there are those outliers in congregations who seriously study prayer, or who have made personal commitments to know exactly what they say in (ostensibly) pouring out their hearts to God.  But aside from Israelis or individuals who experience Hebrew as their first language, I seriously wonder how many people actually know the words they say to God every day.  Just imagine communicating your love to your loved one employing words composed by someone else — maybe Cyrano de Bergerac, perhaps King David — words you simply don’t understand.

How valuable would such communication be either to you or your loved one, especially if your loved one knew that the words you employ are way beyond your ken?  And maybe, too, if the loved one were to know that you didn’t make any commitment to actually know the words.  Sure, “A for effort,” and maybe it is noteworthy that you “know the drift” of what you are saying. But really? Is this how we want to pray to God? And can God possibly want us to pray to Him that way — especially when we can easily cut down the repetitiveness of  King David’s psalms, take two or three and study them in English, and learn exactly what we are saying to our “loved one” — God Himself?  Not “the drift,” but exactly what we say and mean.

No disrespect intended to many Jews whom I believe share the same Hebrew language deficiencies that I do.  So when we read and recite the majority of Hebrew prayers that we utter – daily, weekly or especially annually on the High Holidays – without cross-checking the English translation it is extremely hard to maintain meaningful comprehension, especially given the rote manner of communal prayer.  Again, we often get “the drift,” but little else. And when that’s so, what’s really the point — for God, or for us?

I’ve never interviewed God, but He surely would want us to have greater facility with Hebrew (and Aramaic, at least in the instance of kaddish).  Also, I’m confident that short of committing to that, God would want us to pray to Him with greater kavannah.  Indeed, kavannah, it seems, begins with actually knowing what we’re saying — if necessary, by praying in our native language that allows us the greatest comprehension of our words.

Yes, a wise man recently told me that there is, indeed, great value in praying in Hebrew, even with limited Hebrew comprehension.  It ties us to the millennia, to our ancestors who spoke different languages, and to the language in which God dictated the Torah to Moses — the words, the sounds and the Hebraic melodies that they all would employ over the trajectory of Jewish and Torah life. And surely that is true.

But at what price?  Can we continue to refuse to compromise with “tradition” by bringing our own native languages into our prayers?  Or shouldn’t we, instead, at least occasionally, intersperse into individual or communal liturgy English renditions of prayer – perhaps alternating which ones are chosen for recital in English – to better teach ourselves the meaning of what we say to God? I suspect that if we don’t compromise somewhat, we will continue to leave a large crevasse in commitment to prayer as part of the apparatus of religious life.

And what would be so wrong in incorporating into the standard liturgy a five minute set aside for “silent meditation” – where each individual might offer his or her own personal and private prayers or thoughts to God? Or does God prefer, I’m sorry, only routinized, formulaic, arguably sycophantic and frequently insincere poetry of a time gone by?

“I’m afraid of the weird,” a close friend, an Orthodox Jew, says in response to my proposing prayers sometimes recited or repeated in English.  But yet he doesn’t acknowledge the “weirdness” of talking to God, often without knowing what we’re really saying to Him – or to ourselves.

May all our prayers be understood by us, and answered by God.  G’mar Tov!


About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.