If you were to ask the Jewish person in the street if Jews prayed, you would likely be told that we do. If pressed further about what Jews do, you would likely be told that Jews recite the words of the siddur, or that they say blessings.
If you pressed further, to ask if Jews pray directly to God, with their own words, outside of the synagogue or recognized ritual moment, you would likely get a negative response. “We don’t do that! That’s how ‘they’ pray”. But, there is a long history of Jewish personal prayer, expressed directly to God. These are prayers of joy and thanksgiving, of sorrow and hopelessness, of need and anticipation. Some of these prayers include petitions – “please help me” – but some are simply a statement of the truth – “this is how I feel. Are You there?” Despite this history, Jewish personal prayer as spiritual practice is hardly known, and even less engaged in (or at least unreported!).
The absence of such prayer in Jewish life undermines the potential for communal and liturgical prayer to be meaningful. It is very hard to bring up the energy to pray – even if using someone else’s words – if one has no experience in prayer. Its absence also drains much of Jewish religious life of its vital energy. We may mouth words of prayer, but they will have no direction, no expectation of being received, no sense that they mean anything beyond a connection to tradition.
The Institute – under Rabbi Nancy Flams’s leadership – has begun an ambitious project: to make prayer a recognized, accepted and popular Jewish practice within our community in the next ten years (ambitious indeed!). One step toward that goal is to identify practices – Jewish practices – of personal prayer that we believe might be accessible and meaningful for contemporary Jews. Another step is to work together, practicing in community, experimenting with the traditional liturgy, to plumb its potential as a transformative prayer practice. A small group of participants in the project (all leaders in the field of personal and communal prayer and prayer-leadership) is now taking on those practices to “test drive” them, to learn about them. Our goal is to map out a number of prayer practices – traditional and contemporary, liturgical and personal – in the hopes of making it easier to teach them and to support individuals as they seek to deepen their experience in making prayer a spiritual practice.
In mapping these prayer practices, we are investigating first our own experiences: what was it like; what happened; what did it feel like; what happened afterward; what impediments to engaging in the practice did I experience, and what facilitated it, what was the impact on my life in the world, my relationships with others, my awareness of the needs of others, etc. Slowly, over time and practice, we expect to be able to formulate clearly what the practice is, why one might engage in this practice, what might be an expected outcome, and how to work with the practice over time.
Each prayer practice may have a different goal: one might be to draw closer to God, another to expand consciousness, another to open the heart to suffering and inspire compassion and action, yet another for liturgical prayer to be a transformative, contemplative experience. And, all of the practices may include all of the different elements. We are just beginning to look, to investigate and map the practices.
What is clear, at least so far, is that in deepening our own personal prayer-lives in these ways, we are becoming even more deeply connected to the tradition, awake to its potential and inspired in our spiritual lives. Making prayer a practice that is regular, focused, with goals against which one can clarify one’s intention and sense inner growth, can revive the spiritual life of the Jewish people. That is surely something worth praying for.
– Jonathan Slater
February 2013 email newsletter