I’ve been putting off writing this one. Having cheerfully committed to putting time and energy into prayer this year in my first blog post, and having admitted to taking a course on prayer in my second blog, here I am ten months later feeling like I should have arrived at a beautiful set of answers to share with you. So here they are people. In the paragraphs below you’ll discover what prayer is about, what its purpose is and how to do it well.
Or not. I’ll spoil the punchline now and tell you that I don’t have answers. But maybe that’s the point. … maybe all these things are lifelong journeys of exploration. What I have had this year is a variety of experiences that have made me think about why we pray at all, why Jews do prayer in the way we do, and how we as human beings, pray-ers, and community leaders can make prayer as meaningful as possible. Here they are:
For the first time in my life this year, I went to weekday services regularly – morning and afternoon, several days a week. Now, I’m no morning person, and rocking up anywhere at 7:10am isn’t my idea of fun, but I came to love my early starts in the Beit Midrash. Being part of this group was an altogether different experience to mumbling prayers to myself at home alone. Our small group of people became a community. We were across the spectrum of proficiency in the liturgy, all learners on some level. None of us had gorgeous voices. Yet we came together to create something meditative, binding, uplifting yet grounding, holy.
I’ll try to always hold with me certain memories from these mornings: chanting the first line of the Shema together in sync; getting lost in the view of a hazy Jerusalem cityscape; the ability of a small handful of people with very standard voices to create spiritual song; the joy of seeing friends leining (reading) from the Torah, especially first-timers; the almost-surety of being offered some kind of role in the service given how small the community was (this was a community where women participated in running services); and enjoying a breakfast of poor-excuse-for-branflakes together afterwards – with immense gratitude whenever someone brought in treats to supplement that.
Photos taken from the window after weekday morning services throughout the year
Praying weekday services has meant that I’ve got a lot more familiar with the siddur (prayer book). I now know what Tahanun is! (And while some others see it as a tedious bit of the davening, I quite enjoy the permission to be mournful and channel desperation for a couple of minutes of the service.) I’ve come to discover other beautiful new prayers, which have fast become favourites. Here is an excerpt from one of them, from just before Shema in Shacharit (the morning service):
Have compassion on us.
Instill in our hearts the desire to understand and discern,
To listen, learn and teach,
To observe, perform and fulfil,
All the teachings of your Torah
On a couple of occasions, the weekday minyan became a community of shared feeling and experience. Most memorable for me was the morning Trump was voted in. Most of my fellow students were liberal Americans, and so the atmosphere was heavy from the start of Shacharit, when the early results looked too close for comfort. Phones were out next to siddurim (prayer books) and faces were pale and strained. The volume in the service jerked between heavy silence and the occasional choked song. I remember tears, hands held up high in supplication, and a beautiful d’var Torah (message of Torah) from one of the students at the end. That morning, lessons were devoted to processing. The atmosphere in Pardes wasn’t the same for weeks, but it was in Shacharit that Judaism – prayers, psalms and the community took on real weight and import in relation to the unfolding political situation.
Beyond the weekday prayer experience, Harris and I have done our best to explore what is probably the richest square mile of Jewish prayer options anywhere in the world. We’ve loved seeing how different communities approach what is largely the same liturgy. Spirituality here feels freer and heartfelt – people close eyes, open arms and sway without a care in the world about what others think. Friday night singing will often waft down a street, tantalising punters at another shul. We’ve witnessed some truly creative communities, one where just a line is taken from a psalm and sung intensively for ten minutes, one where a just-picked sprig of sage is passed round for the scent of Jerusalem to enhance prayer. We’ve experienced a couple of communities where musical instruments are played on Friday night (observers of orthodox halacha can slip away before the time Shabbat begins). If you want a sense of the environment created, check out this awesome song from Nava Tehila (this was filmed in one of the pre-Shabbat events that the Jerusalem Municipality puts on during the summer – the actual Nava Tehila service is less concert-like, with about 200 people sitting in concentric circles, musicians in the inner circle… but you get the impression).
I’ve felt hugely fortunate that in all but a small handful of cases, my prayer experiences this year have been in places where women have some kind of role beyond being observers of a drama with an all-male cast. In some shuls this simply meant women giving a d’var Torah or reading announcements at the end, in others they participated in a more equal way as the men. Our toddler has met as many female Rabbis as male this year, and thinks this is completely standard.
On one memorable occasion, I was the tenth woman to arrive at Shira Hadasha, the partnership minyan which we’ve frequented most Shabbat mornings. Shira Hadasha has a policy of waiting for ten women in addition to the ten men needed according to orthodox halacha before starting their service, as a mark of the equal importance they place on men and women in the community. ‘Making the minyan’ was an unforgettable experience. To quote a haredi Rabbi I heard speak earlier this year about the census described in the Torah, “in Judaism, those who are counted, count”. His message was intended to be inclusive, saying that Jews of all ranks were included in the Biblical census, but he was completely unaware of the fact that because the census only included men (and Jews, and adults…!) he was excluding a big section of his audience. Nevertheless, the sentiment was spot on, and being counted as the 10th woman at Shira Hadasha, and enabling the service to start, really did make me feel counted in the community.
Our morning partnership minyan community at Pardes enabled me not only to experience but also facilitate uplifting experiences for others, in my role as a Gabbait (a non-rabbi role in running Jewish prayer services). As well as calling people to the Torah for their first time, we had the amazing privilege of giving two women an adult “batmitzvah” in which they leined what would have been their batmitzvah sedra all those years ago. Now both in their 20’s, the experience was a deeply significant and moving one for the women and the entire community.
In my first blog I set out to use this year to work on my relationship with God. I suggested that this isn’t exactly the same as investing energy in prayer, although there can be overlap. My experiences this year have affirmed this instinct because the Jewish prayer that I’ve been impressed by this year is just as much about people-consciousness as God-consciousness. Praying together, being part of a community of prayer, is about feeling connected with Judaism and other people, living one another’s triumphs and tragedies together, affirming others and inviting them to feel included, striving together for a better future.
Yes, of course prayer can and ideally should be even more than this. It can enable people to feel connected with God, to air their hopes and fears with the aim of being heard and effecting change… but when this spiritual connection isn’t happening, and it often doesn’t at different stages in life or for different people, what we’re left with is a community which has the potential to embrace, inspire and elevate us. And that’s quite something in itself.
Spiritual prayer is hard to do. Prayer full stop is hard to do. Traditional Jewish prayer with its demands for thrice daily reciting of pages of dense text, is really hard to do. The concept of prayer is riddled with theological and metaphysical questions (one for another blog). Eliezer Berkovits says that “prayer is religion’s most problematic child”. And yet, he continues, “religion without prayer is like music without melody, like dark clouds over the sun-parched earth yielding no rain.”
For me, the driving force for anyone who considers themselves a pray-er, and particularly anyone involved in religious and community leadership must be, to use Berkovits’ metaphor, for prayer to bring rain to parched earth… in the sense of creating a community which does more than religion by wrote. It should embrace those who are present, help them to feel included, connected, embraced, supported and lifted up. And well-watered earth produces wonderful growth.