What is Jewish prayer, and how do we evaluate the effectiveness of our own personal and communal prayers? A group of congregants and I have recently begun meeting regularly to discuss the challenges we face as we seek to connect more deeply with the ineffable Holy Source of all being. For many, weekly Shabbat services serve primarily as a social avenue to connect us to Jewish tradition, history, or community, or as an intellectual challenge replete with rewards of Torah learning and debate about social and moral issues. Each of these is a worthy purpose. But isn’t prayer supposed to be something more than that? How many of us can use Jewish prayer to successfully connect to a higher power, to access something greater than ourselves, to tap into a
deep spiritual sense of the holy and transcendent? And how do we judge whether we have a rewarding personal prayer life, or whether our communal prayer services are “successful,” especially when there are so many different views about “spirituality,” “G-d,” and “prayer”?
It is hard not to fall prey to judging the quality of our prayer services by critiquing content or counting how many people are present. Even in large crowds, I personally can feel lonely and disconnected from my own needs, from others, and from G-d. We often look to clergy or spiritual leaders for a solution. “If only the service were more entertaining or more musical, if only the sermon was more powerful, if only the prayer book was easier to understand.” “If only I got more out of the spiritual vending machine.” The question of value all
too often becomes more about what value one is acquiring as opposed to how one is investing in one’s own spiritual development. I would like to offer all of us a challenge.
First, let’s commit to being real. If you are struggling, come and speak with me. Don’t pretend you are loving routines that you don’t understand or that make you feel disconnected. I would love to hear what makes you feel personally connected to the transcendent, when you feel most connected to G-d, and to help you think about potential ways to deepen your own sense of the Divine. Becoming more personally connected to prayer and to a deep sense of the ineffable requires us to take daily responsibility for what happens in our hearts rather than depend on clergy to do it for us once or twice a week. So much more spiritual power is accessible to each of us, but all too often, we check our own spirituality at the door, passively looking to clergy or communal
leaders to shoulder the responsibility of our own spiritual lives.
Second, find a point of access for your own spirituality, or help to establish points of access that don’t currently exist. Currently, the predominant forms of spirituality in our community are intellectual. We have for many years had Talmud-Torah study groups, educational programs, scholars-in-residence, etc., and we will continue to do so. But I am hearing that for many, spirituality isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It is equally an emotional, physical, psychological, and sensory yearning for the transcendent based on deep experience, connection, and comfort from multiple facets of divine existence.
As your spiritual leader, I hope to help us to cultivate multiple points of access to the Divine at Beth Israel, perhaps opening new doors to spiritual experience for every congregant. In our new class on Jewish spirituality and prayer, for example, we are exploring multiple forms of spirituality and prayer in addition to text study and discussion. I anticipate new classes and prayer-forms to emerge this year in our community, such as Jewish meditation, sacred chanting and/or singing of traditional Jewish texts and niggunim, Jewish mindfulness
practices like Musar or Jewish Yoga, and/or varied forms of embodied and/or nature-spiritualty. I am committed to ensuring that these options are embedded in traditional Jewish practice, and to be authentically present as your fellow seeker and spiritual leader.
Rabbi Jama Purser