On the Purpose of Prayer

Growing up in a religious Jewish home, I went to synagogue every Saturday for Sabbath services. I learned the traditional liturgy by rote. This wasn’t a bad thing – it had a musical feel to it, familiar and comforting. But I never thought about what the prayers were saying, or what they meant.

As an adult, as I willingly returned to Jewish observance after my wandering years, I wanted to understand what I had been chanting and singing all my life. To my dismay, I was very put off by the ancient liturgy. The prayers exalted a King of the Universe, to whom we bowed low and offered our obeisance. As a modern spiritual seeker, I certainly did not conceive of God as a Supreme Being separate from and above creation. My personal theology found godliness present within the astonishing world that we are blessed to inhabit, and found the potential for transcendence inherent within the human heart and conscience, not beyond it. How could I pray to this pre-modern idea of God in which I did not believe? What was I to do with this inherited corpus of language that instead of uplifting me actually seemed to weigh the prayer book down in my hands?

I slowly came to understand that I was approaching the liturgy in entirely the wrong way. I was reading it as prose, as some treatise that demanded my agreement in order to proceed. But prayers are not prose; they are poetry. They are not debating points; they are the yearnings of the heart. Prayers, like poems, revel in metaphor. My ancestors’ metaphors for describing their religious experience may not be my own, but I realized that if I related to their words as poetry I could begin to appreciate the intention behind the liturgy. A poem asks us to relate to it, not to agree with it. What is the emotion behind the poem? What aspect of the heart is being expressed?

With this understanding, the ancient liturgy began to sing to me. Here was a prayer of gratitude, and here was a prayer of wonder. Here was a prayer of sorrow and yearning, and here was a prayer of ecstasy. My ancestors wanted to express these experiences with all their heart, and so do I. I may not share all of their metaphors, but I share their humanity, and with this understanding I can still sing their words, honoring the past and also nourishing my own spirit. Prayer has become a vehicle for keeping my heart open. And, because I am part of a living tradition, I can create my own prayers too, and weave my voice into an ancient transmission of human aspiration, longing and hope.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jonathan