Today I went to my synagogue and prayed, but not to a higher power from whom I expect something. I do this every week and believe I will continue to do so in the future.
If prayer were simply a communication between me and a deity, then this act of mine makes no sense. Prayer is indeed communication, but in my case, not between myself and God. The word “communication” in English is related etymologically to the word “community,” and when I pray, I do so in a community context, together with other people who share many of my values and aspirations.
When I sing with my community, our voices rise in harmony (OK, that really depends on who’s singing). We announce to ourselves and the world our communal hopes for a better life, for the healing of the sick and for protection from evil intentions.
The common denominator uniting much of our prayer and the prayer of other communities is that much of what we speak of is beyond our power as individuals, and can only be accomplished through a concerted communal effort. By praying, we validate those communal aspirations and give ourselves strength to continue.
Join a choir, you may retort. At least when you sing in a choir, you don’t have to say words you don’t mean to imaginary beings couched in patriarchal language and reflecting antiquated values.
Patriarchal language isn’t necessary
Let me offer a rebuttal, my friend. When I pray, I try very hard to use only words that I mean. I’m an ardent advocate of liturgical innovation and have been writing poetry and prayer for almost 20 years.
My prayer isn’t directed to God, it’s not couched in patriarchal language and it doesn’t advocate for a value system that I don’t accept. It does, however, use Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew and is structured in the same way my foremothers and fathers have prayed for generations.
This is what makes it Jewish prayer, the structure and the language; the content changes because we as a people change. If I’d come from a Christian or Muslim background, the sentiments and values I expressed would be the same, but the language and structure would reflect a Muslim or Christian upbringing.
This doesn’t adhere to the classic definition of prayer as per the Merriam-Webster, you may counter; it’s just your Panglossian desire to find common ground with religious people.
A transcendent higher power
While it’s true that almost all definitions of prayer involve supplication to a transcendent higher power, I’d counter that this is present in a way in my prayer as well. My ‘transcendent higher power’ is actually the abstracted will of humanity to act in the world.
My prayer and song, my sincerity, my desire to change what’s not working and my appeal to something bigger than me are all remarkably similar to what you’ll find in churches, mosques and synagogues all over the world.
I do believe that heartfelt prayer is one of the things that religions got right. Some in my community, however, may not be comfortable with the use of the word ‘prayer’ because it’s too religious for a group of mostly secular and cultural Jews. They prefer to call it something else, such as meditations or declarations, and I respect that.
I, however, have always tried to focus on what brings us together, and I think this mode of expression is one of those things, so I feel we shouldn’t quibble about nomenclature.
There are people, though, who pray to a deity for things you and I would find offensive, and often, they mean what they say. Sometimes, it’s no stepping-stone to better things; sometimes, they pray to crush people under their feet, and they really wish to crush their enemies under their feet.
The only thing I can say, regarding these people and their prayer, is that I hope their wishes don’t come true. Prayer isn’t inherently good or evil, it’s simply a mode of expression, and human beings can use it as a conduit for whatever they wish.
I pray according to a structure and in a language dictated by my tradition and my free-thinking beliefs. I pray for peace, the end of poverty and the end of hunger. I pray that you pray for good.
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