The man before me is a professor of Jewish studies at a major university; he is scooping out bites of ice cream between his words. Despite his studied indifference, he is more than casually interested in the conversation. We are at a reception at the college and he knows that I am a Reform rabbi and is hoping to bring some clarity to an issue that has nagged at him.
“The other day I went to a bar mitzvah at a Reform congregation,” he says to me, “and it had all these guests and the kid’s friends from the soccer team, and all the usual trappings. But I’d have to say that it was a very alienating experience for me.”
“Why was that?” I asked him.
“It seemed spiritually dead to me. I didn’t like the prayerbook and the whole thing seemed like it was a performance. Why is that?”
I took a swallow of ice cream to give myself a moment to think.
“You’re a member of a regular prayer group, right?”
“So you know from your own experience that the people who are there to pray create a kind of positive energy.”
“And people who are there to just to watch the prayers – they’re negative energy – right?”
“Well, if the positive energy is outnumbered and surrounded by the negative energy, there’s not a whole lot that you can do.
“It’s not the prayerbook’s fault,” I told him, “nor is it the rabbi’s fault, nor is it the bar mitzvah kid’s fault – rather, you need to have an excess of positive energy in the room in order for prayer to be meaningful. If the majority of people are there to be entertained, real prayer cannot take place.
“You can ‘save’ that kind of situation, but only if you find some way to bring the observers in, so that they feel they have a genuine connection to what is going on. In the context of a bar mitzvah, the best approach is to tap into the love and concern they have for the child standing before them.
“But if they are there to measure his performance, well, then, there’s nothing you can do.”
It seems odd, of course, to be speaking in terms of positive and negative energy, as if the activity in the room creates its own kind of current that might somehow be sensed by the persons seated there. The interesting thing, however, is that our tradition does speak in such terms.
That is to say, our tradition argues that there is a world of the spirit that announces itself to us, which makes us cry at weddings and baby namings, which brings up that feeling that our little heart would just overflow. It is the source of our strength, and the tap root of our existence. It is the energy that animates our prayers.
Its most common name in Hebrew is shefa, but it goes by many others as well – it denotes the indwelling presence of God.
Prayer is more than a meditative device for the purposes of achieving inner serenity. Prayer is also more than just emotion. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer specifically invokes God’s presence. As Heschel writes,“feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God.” The very mark of prayer is this experience of self-surrender.
What we are seeking in prayer is to let go of our self-concern so as to be able to view the world from God’s perspective. Then we are able to put our own cares aside for a moment and recognize how our own selfishness might cause us to act in ways contrary to the will of God. We are able to engage in self-criticism, to mend our ways and take up God’s aims.
Prayer, however, is not an intellectual act; we are not affirming a philosophical God-concept nor are we reviewing the rules of ethical living. Rather, as Heschel writes, “the purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him.”
If we let God’s will take over, if we truly view the world from God’s perspective, then we cannot walk past people who are starving without taking action. We cannot allow the kind of imbalances we see in this country between rich and poor. And we cannot allow discrimination, fanaticism, or hatred to rule our decisions. It is in the prayerful encounter with God that righteousness is born.
The urgency of this task explains why we need the community to stand and pray next to us: the surest way to let go of our self concern, to stop striving long enough to hear that still small voice within, is to pray in the context of a community – to participate in that electric feeling of communal prayer. It is so much easier – and so much more effective – when you don’t have to try to do it all alone.
Which brings us back to our professor, and his prayer. The gathering that came to watch the bar mitzvah that morning was a group of disinterested strangers, evaluating the performance of a thirteen-year-old reciting long passages of Hebrew. What he was seeking, however, was a community of prayer.
But how is that kind of community created? What should you do if you would like to become part of a community of prayer? Three things:
First is the regular cultivation of the habit of prayer. A friend once confided in me that he stopped going to services on any kind of regular basis because he felt alienated from God, and alienated from prayer. And in the course of that long conversation, one of the things I told him was this: you are not going to move past this point if you are elsewhere while your community is engaged in prayer. Go and be silent if you must – eventually your soul will catch up to what your body is doing. If what you are seeking is closeness to God, then seek closeness to your community first.
Second is the recognition that prayer does not require perfection. It is not a problem if you’re not the best at meditation, or your Hebrew is nonexistent, or you sing off-key. What is needed is that you are there, truly there, in that moment, then. Not at work, not reviewing your to-do list, not in the midst of an old argument replayed once more in your head. Just try to be truly there.
Third is the openness to the transformative power of prayer. It is not something that happens right away, but rather by degrees, in small amounts. Just like dancing, there will come a point when you stop counting time and just do. And when an entire community engages in that dance – that moment is electric. It is in that moment that you will know in the very center of your soul that you’re not alone.
Kari Tuling is the rabbi at the lovely and prayerful community of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York, where she lives with her husband and son and two cats.