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Gideon Paull
At some point in life, in order to find happiness, to find love, it is OK to throw out convention and adopt the unconventional, what others think about that is irrelevant.

Whose prayer does G-d answer, anyhow?

Whose prayers does God answer?
What prayer does G-d accept? Photo By: Ohad Lev - https://www.instagram.com/degrate_photography/

I recall standing in an Orthodox synagogue I regularly attended wondering what I was doing there. The synagogue wasn’t a strange place for me, I was very familiar with it, I was very familiar with the prayers and the service, yet I couldn’t understand what my purpose for being there was.

I speak Hebrew and read Hebrew fluently, yet I didn’t have time to internalize the prayers I was reading. Before I could get halfway through a prayer, the leader had already chanted the last line of that prayer and was onto the next one. “How can you read so fast?” I wondered to myself time and time again. Is the physical act of saying a prayer as fast as you can enough to open up the heavens and have G-d listen to you? Where’s the personal connection to G-d in the prayer?

I didn’t go to the synagogue to find G-d, there wasn’t time for that. I didn’t have time to focus on what I was asking G-d, so what was I doing there?

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Some years later I found myself living in the US and belonging to a Conservative synagogue. Here, the prayers were the same prayers, yet everything took longer – one would have thought that having more time to say a prayer would solve my predicament, however it only exasperated it.

I found Jews who love their religion, are passionate about it. I found communities that were vibrant, well attended with youth just as passionate about their religion as the adults. These were Jews who wanted to live their Judaism as much as they could within a secular framework. The synagogue became a community center with both social, educational and religious activities

You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. You don’t have to be observant to pray and you don’t have to be Jewish to have a prayer answered.

I didn’t find spirituality in the Conservative synagogue, instead I found that the Jewish experience is reduced to a set of well-established customs devoid of meaningful connection to G-d. There was little participation in prayers since almost no one could read well enough, let alone understand what they were reading in Hebrew. Some prayers were mumbled very fast by the cantor which made me wonder why he was even going through the motions of saying those specific prayers and not others. While the service was centered around traditional tunes that most people grew up with, it often felt like watching a concert performed by an overzealous cantor. It was these tunes that formed most people’s Jewish experience in the synagogue and was interpreted by them to be spirituality.

I didn’t find G-d or spirituality in this synagogue either. However, I did find community and a sense of belonging.

I asked myself how do you establish a connection with G-d in Judaism? Where do you find spirituality?

Where do you find spirituality? Photo By: Judith Litoff – https://www.judelitoffmusic.com/

I am told that the way to connect to God is through prayer and I know that many people experience that connection. I once visited a mega church service; I was interested why so many people attend church services and what they find there. The hall was packed to capacity with people from all walks of life. Once the music started people were focused on the connection to G-d through the music, through the lyrics of the songs. I felt jealous when I saw people obviously having spiritual moments. I was not spiritually satisfied by this experience.

Maybe we lose sight of the reason for a religion when we focus on the practice to the extent that we no longer can see the objective.

Prayer has been a part of our religion since our forefathers time. With our three daily services attributed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was the Great Assembly (Early second Temple period; 516 BCE to ~333 BCE.), during the time of the prophet Ezra who is attributed as having developed the Amidah (shmone Esrai) prayers – prayers of meditation as well as the weekly Torah reading.

Many of the additional prayers that we know today were also added during the period of the “The Great Assembly”.

It wasn’t until the first and second centuries of the common era that the structure of the modern prayer service was fixed, with additional prayers being added over the next few centuries. With over 2,000 years of prayer, it is amazing that the local differences between prayer services across the world are minimal. Today, you can visit any synagogue in any part of the world and immediately understand and participate in the service. This familiarity with the prayers and the service is what unites Jews all over the world.

According to the Talmud, the obligation to pray is a biblical commandment derived from the passage: וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְו‍ֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַֽהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם,  “So if you faithfully obey the commands, I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” – Deuteronomy 11:13.

Based on this, Maimonides categorized prayer as one of the 613 commandments. He decreed that prayer could be fulfilled at anytime of the day and could consist of any text as long as the person praying did so with all their heart and all their soul. The established requirement to pray three times a day at specific times is a rabbinic decree.

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Many people believe that our prayers can only be said in Hebrew. Hebrew is the language of creation; it is intrinsically holy. The mere act of saying the words of the prayers in Hebrew is enough to unlock the heavens and enable G-d to answer one’s prayers.

Unlike in Judaism, many Protestant Christian denominations do not have set prayers, they write their own prayers for a specific service. They pray in a language that is understood by those around them. Many Christians will make up a prayer on the fly to pray for someone’s healing or to help someone find a job or before they eat a meal. I have seen Christians who have a very real connection with G-d when they pray with all their heart and all their soul. I have seen prayers answered.

Is a prayer made up in the moment, straight from the heart, spoken in the English language worth less than the Hebrew words written by sages 2,000 years ago if the person praying is saying those words from the bottom of their heart and with all their soul?

I had an occasion to pray with all my heart and all my soul once. While vacationing in Mexico my daughter, who was 12, came down with a life-threatening disease. Her situation deteriorated so fast that it left our heads spinning. There was only a small local clinic in town, a place that dealt with the odd broken bone or case of food poisoning.  The doctor explained the situation to me in no uncertain terms – he doubted that she would live through the next few hours.

I remember sitting down outside on the curb of the parking lot and closing my eyes and pleading to G-d to save her life. I sat for maybe 30 minutes praying with all my soul that G-d save my little girl, words that came from the bottom of my heart. I finally opened my eyes and saw a nurse standing there in front of me. She told me that they had stabilized her blood levels and they felt that she would live.

I’ll never forget the feeling of hopelessness before praying and the feeling of elation when a prayer is answered, when you have tapped the very depths of your soul to connect with G-d.

Maybe we lose sight of the reason for a religion when we focus on the practice to the extent that we no longer can see the objective.

You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. You don’t have to be observant to pray and you don’t have to be Jewish to have a prayer answered – you need only be a human.

Judaism maintains that our purpose here is to build a relationship with God. For that connection to grow, we need to develop an awareness of God and establish a relationship with Him.

Leading a spiritual life is a model for every single person.

In Deuteronomy 4:4 it states: אַתֶּם֙ הַדְּבֵקִ֔ים בַּֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם חַיִּ֥ים כֻּלְּכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם: – “You who cleave to the Lord your G-d are alive, all of you, this day”.

So, what does it mean to “cleave” to G-d? How can a person be close to G-d? In a sense aren’t we are all close to G-d since he is everywhere? The fact that G-d is everywhere does not mean that we all experience His presence in the same manner. In fact, our closeness to G-d is up to us, not up to G-d. He is as close to us as we are to him.

Both Judaism and Christianity teaches that developing a closeness to God is the very purpose of our existence. This principle is central to both religions.

Leading a spiritual life is a model for every single person.

Photo By: Ohad Lev – https://www.instagram.com/degrate_photography/

What is a spiritual life then? Many people think of far eastern or Buddhist concepts when asked to think about spirituality. In most of these cultures, a holy person is one who strives to separate himself from the world, abstaining from pleasures and comforts.  Jewish spirituality is the inverse to this; it is achieved by participating in the world. It is achieved by interacting with people which creates meaning in our lives. Judaism sees an opportunity for spiritual growth in everything that we do in our day-to-day interactions with other people, in our work and our recreation.

One can be spiritual and have a feeling of self-worth without even believing in God or even having any religion

We believe that there is the potential for spirituality through our thoughts, our speech and the actions that we decide to take throughout our lives. For instance, how we behave towards family, friends and colleagues. How we take care of sick people in our lives, how we abstain from gossip. How we make this a better world.

The late Rabbi DR Avraham Twersky Z”L said (paraphrased):

“You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. Spirituality can stand independent of religion. Spirituality means being the best human being that you can”.

He pointed out that there are so many things that are unique about a human being. “If you take all the uniqueness that is human,  put them together then this is the human spirit . If you implement all these things, then you are implementing the spirit and therefore you are being spiritual. And one can be spiritual and have a feeling of self-worth without even believing in God or even having any religion”.

Regardless of the religious practices and traditions, I believe that the objective of every human is to strive to be spiritual, once spiritual you can develop a relationship with G-d. In order to achieve that end we are free to employ the practices that work for us personally. For some this is praying the set texts at the right times.

For me, I see glimpses of the answers when I am spiritual, when I connect with my soul, however, it is a long winding road that I am still traveling.

About the Author
Gideon Paull is an engineer and developer of websites related to Judaism and Jewish practice. Gideon, who resides in Santa Clarita, California, identifies as a practicing Jew and is married to a Korean United Methodist Church Pastor. Being in an interfaith, intercultural marriage has presented its own set of unique and diverse experiences.
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