Pray? Jewish Answers
Jews pray in order to enrich our lives and seek comfort, to connect
to the past and to others, to celebrate and develop a sense of the
sacred, to serve God and help make ourselves Godlike.
Prayer Reminds Us of Life's Truths
Perhaps first and foremost, prayer is a delivery
system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth
living, because ideas that are ritually construed empower us to
do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do. Prayer
moves us to see our lives more clearly against the backdrop of eternity,
concentrating our attention on verities that we would otherwise
forget. It imparts Judaism's canon of great concepts and moves us
to live our lives by them.
--Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is Professor
of Liturgy at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion. Reprinted with permission from The
Way Into Jewish Prayer, published by Jewish Lights..
Prayer Connects Us to
I pray daily. I wrap a prayer shawl, known as a
tallit, over my head; gather its four fringed corners; and
bring them to my lips. It lasts only a moment, but under the tallit
I feel a sense of security and warmth. It is the closest I get to
heaven all day. The tallit I wear is one that I inherited from my
father. It is a broad woolen blanket-like shawl with a silver brocade
that falls on my shoulders
Under the tallit, I feel my father's presence
and my mother's presence. They are no longer in this world, but
under the tallit I feel connected to a different realm where
I encounter my parents and even the Almighty Himself. When I take
the tallit off my head, I am most often in the presence of
my children, who are usually finishing their Cheerios and their
Kix as I go through my daily devotions.
At times I am able to meditate seriously on a verse
or two, but usually it is hard to concentrate on what I'm praying.
I've got to get the kids off to school, and my work lies ahead of
me, but I pray, knowing I've started my day attempting to reach
the Divine. My hope is that it makes an impression on my God, my
ancestors, and my children.
I know it makes an impression on me. I feel fortified
by prayer. I am in a relationship with God. I praise, I acknowledge,
thank, request, express my love, and sometimes even get angry. My
connection with the rest of the world--with my children, my wife,
my students, my colleagues--flows out of my daily encounter with
--Ari Goldman, a former New York Times reporter,
is the author of The
Search for God at Harvard and Living
a Year of Kaddish. Reprinted with permission from Being
Jewish, published by Simon and Schuster.
We Pray Out of a Sense
of Both Obligation and Purpose
Why pray? There are many answers to this question.
They include a question that many believers would ask in response:
"How could I not pray?" A committed Jew prays because
prayer is one of the Jew's many obligations (mitzvot).
As loyal servants, of course, we should obey the
commands of our Sovereign. Yet even the most loyal and devoted servant
must, at one time or other, ponder the question of purpose.
Reflecting on the question, I favor the approach
suggested by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who attempts to answer why a Jew
should fulfill any of the mitzvot. In his book, A Jewish Theology,
he points out that in ancient Babylonia, the sage Rav taught that
the commandments were given to refine human character, to ennoble
humanity, to have a positive impact on our lives.
Rav offered a brief lesson. "What does it
matter to the Holy One if a cow is slaughtered in front at the neck
(according to ritual law) or stabbed in the back of the neck (not
according to ritual law)?" The goal of this particular mitzvah--the
kosher slaughter of an animal--is to teach about care and compassion.
Jewish ritual slaughter prescribes taking the life of the animal
in the most painless way possible.
If the lesson stops with careful attention to the
details of ritual slaughter, we may be obeying the letter of the
law but we are not led to the basic purpose of fulfilling the law--avoiding
cruelty in our relations with all creatures, animal and human alike.
Hence, observing the dietary laws is meant to influence human character
so that we act with compassion.
The medieval philosopher Nahmanides, in his discussion
of the purpose of worship (in his commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6),
arrives at the same conclusion. The proper worship of God should
have a beneficial impact on human character, leading us to exemplify
virtues in our lives, and bring us closer to perfection, to being
God-like in our behavior.
--Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayer books
and other liturgical works as Director of Publications for the Rabbinical
Assembly. Excerpted from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer
(c) 2003 Hadassah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). $29.95+$3.75
s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com.
Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock,
Why Pray “To”
A Nonsupernatural God?
Given the notoriety Reconstructionists have acquired
because we do not believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally
in our lives, the extent of our prayer lives raises questions.
Why do Reconstructionists pray? Here are some reasons:
Most of us go through the day without consciously experiencing God's
presence. Prayer helps to develop and maintain a spiritual sense.
Focusing regularly on our sacred encounters helps us to notice them
as they occur.
Meditation. Most of
us live at a very rapid pace. We welcome the opportunity to slow
down and remember what has deeper meaning beyond our daily routines.
If we are not careful, it is easy to become isolated. Even if we
interact frequently with others, our daily lives rarely afford many
opportunities to let our guard down and express what is really important
to us. It is a real treat to be connected to a group, all of whose
members are seeking together.
Celebration. For many
of us, few experiences transport us as powerfully as group singing.
We may be grateful for a life passage, or for the blossoming of
flowers in spring, but without our prayer communities, we might
never sing about it.
Group Support. Life
is unfortunately filled with disappointment, illness, and tragedy.
Social scientists now tell us what we already knew: that recovery
from family discord, depression, and even physical illness is enhanced
when we experience the support of a caring group. Praying for a
sick person is efficacious even if you don't believe that God intercedes
supernaturally. Our prayers do have power.
Rededication to Principles.
It is very easy to lose perspective, to miss the forest for the
trees, to get so wound up in a situation that we lose sight of who
we are and what we stand for. Praying draws us out of ourselves
and helps to restore the larger picture.
Acknowledgement of Need.
Most of us are raised to think that we have control of our lives,
and that therefore we are responsible for what happens to us--good
and bad. In truth, we have far less control that we think, and it
is good to acknowledge our vulnerability. Prayer allows us to admit
that we need help when we are frightened, overwhelmed, or desperate.
Removing our defenses can move us to the honest self-awareness we
require to get past our personal obstacles.
Building Community. Communal
worship services have an additional function for Reconstructionists,
who are most interested in building a sense of Jewish community.
The words and melodies of the liturgy allow us both to express our
common aspirations, hopes, and frustrations, and to share in an
aesthetically satisfying Jewish activity. When we use the words
of past generations to express our contemporary concerns, we develop
an empathy with the insights and concerns of our ancestors, as well
as a bond with all Jews living today.
-- Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is Co-Director of
the Women's Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Religion
and Women's Studies at Temple University. and Rabbi Jacob J. Staub
is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Medieval
Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Reprinted from Exploring
Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert
and Jacob Staub. Copyright © 2000 by The Reconstructionist
Press. 1-877-JRF-PUBS, firstname.lastname@example.org.