The Life of Prayer

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Prayer has never been easy, as the Psalmist well knew: "For there is no word on my tongue; You, O Lord, know them all" (139:4). And even if there are words on the tongue, the results can be distressingly uncertain, or worse: "My God, I call out by day and You do not answer; by night, there is no respite for me" (22:2).

It hasn't gotten easier since then. In today's disenchanted universe, much of the hallowed liturgy seems not only deeply out of sync with how contemporary Jews think of their lives but also—with its central metaphors of hierarchy, divine kingship, and the rest—contrary to what we generally regard as the moral and spiritual stances that God, if He exists, would want us to aspire to.

And yet, ours is also a time of intense new interest in prayer—a reflection, one is tempted to say, of an equally intense and evidently irrepressible need. Out of the recent ferment of thinking and re-thinking, of creativity, invention, and re-invention, here are a few highlights. 

A new, two-volume Hebrew work, T'fillah k'mifgash ("Prayer as Meeting" or, perhaps better, "Encounter"), tackles this issue head on. Written by two young scholars, it analyzes the classical service as the structuring of a confrontation between the individual and the community, on the one hand, and the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, on the other. In this reading, both the words and the movements seek to create the conditions—in space, time, and consciousness—for the divine to descend and the human simultaneously to ascend.

What makes the book valuable is that, rather than sufficing with homiletics, the authors undertake to demonstrate their thesis through a close examination of the halakhic sources in all their details. The existential stakes of these legal discussions are made clear in the closing chapter. There they note a fundamental disagreement between two medieval giants: Maimonides, for whom prayer is a cardinal commandment of the Torah and all about divine service, of mind, body, and heart, and Nahmanides, for whom it is not a cardinal Torah obligation but rather a rabbinic attempt to make the most of "the great kindness of the Creator Who listens and answers whenever we call out to Him."

This divergence becomes the authors' key to understanding the wide-ranging debates and disagreements over prayer in rabbinic literature. In the end they see the two principles as complementary, and as the means by which, through prayer, Jews have always located themselves both as individuals and as members of a larger community of obligation.

It's not that much of a stretch. Non-Jewish acquaintances  visiting the Breslov synagogue in Jerusalem's  Katamon neighborhood have told me how Friday-evening prayers welcoming the Sabbath there remind them of Pentecostal services. As is often the case with today's Jews, the long way around can lead to one's own backyard.

Israeli musicians, for their part, may not be close to Gospel, but their closeness to Hebrew opens a no less intense avenue of expressivity. A slew of musicians, many of them secular, have turned their talents to new settings of traditional prayers. Examples include Ovadia Hamama's haunting interpretation of Ana b'koah, a medieval hymn beloved of kabbalists and, in his rendering, a vessel of powerful historical longings, and a 2008 album by Ehud Banai of prayers and hymns reworked in the musical idioms of his Mizrahi family and, inevitably, of Shlomo Carlebach.

Another Israeli musician affected by Carlebach is Hanan Yovel. Born on a kibbutz in 1946 and schooled in classical Zionism, he, like many others of his generation, had only the most limited attachment to or knowledge of tradition; again like many others, he has been making his way to it by his own lights and in his own terms. In 2009, Yovel issued a combined book and album, Siddur Ishi: a collection of songs based on traditional prayers and modern Hebrew poems, accompanied by photos and his written reflections. He has even ended up collaborating with the Orthodox performer Avraham Fried, who sees in Yovel's ostensibly "secular" songs a yearning for redemption that one can only call religious.

Thus in a myriad contradictory yet reinforcing ways does "the ceaseless prayer of the soul," to use the evocative terms of Abraham Isaac Kook, burst through the barriers of sophistication, disenchantment, ignorance, and hostility to assert its claims and inspire the most unlikely outpourings. In Kook's understanding, indeed, we are always at prayer, "seeking from ourselves and from the world a wholeness which our limited existence simply cannot provide us. Thus we find ourselves in dire straits, which could drive us in despair out of our minds and out of God's . . . and so we pray."           

Ideally, then, what we formally call "prayer" are those moments when we become aware of and try to grasp and focus the great gushing of our consciousness inward to our souls and outward to the world, others, and God.

But prayer is not only something for those moments. Rather, it works many more effects in our lives: it imposes discipline, encourages self-expression, bestows hope, discloses limits, teaches humility, molds freedom. It is as enduring as it is problematic, forcing upon us multiple encounters and confrontations and challenging us to clasp and hold whatever divine image we believe we can bear.  

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