Fixed Prayer and Spontaneity

Reconciling the experience of repeatedly praying from an established text with the need for prayer to come from the heart.

The following passages look at this issue from a variety of perspectives:

Tradition Brings the Words, but We Must Bring the Meaning

Prayer should always be a combination of set words and spontaneous expression. We utilize the magnificent texts that others have written and we add to them, through variations and interpretations and whatever words we wish to add in order to bring our feelings to the fore. 

Since expression in prayer is so difficult, when geniuses have left us such a rich heritage it seems wasteful not to utilize their words. Even more: human culture is based on the use of creations of the past. Words have echoes. They are enriched by the ways they have been uttered before. Every new text is built on the texts of the past, and the more echoes, the richer the new text.

fixed jewish prayerOn the other hand, there is a danger in using words simply because they are there, not understanding them or not investing them with meaning. Making meaningless sounds cannot possibly be prayer–it is magic. It is as if we believed that by saying the right sounds we could bring about the effect we want

Such a concept is a regression to paganism in which the gods are subject to the forces of magic and recitation of formulas can force them to do our will. Judaism rejected all of that at the very beginning. We cannot compel God to do anything; we ask Him.

Using traditional prayer therefore requires us to bring meaning to the sounds we utter. That meaning can be on the emotional level or the cognitive one, or a combination of both. This is not merely a question of understanding Hebrew. Even if one understands the language, words can be meaningless if they are recited totally by rote or with no attempt to understand them. The more we understand the words and what lies behind them, the greater the opportunity to use them well.

Prayer requires kavana, which implies not only concentration but meaning and intention in expressing ourselves before God. The word kavana basically means “to aim.” There must be intent in whatever we say, an aiming toward closenessto God.

What is needed, therefore, is a synthesis of the old and the new. The old is the received text, the words so many others have said and still say. The new is the personal feelings and the individual meaning, which changes every time we say these words, if we say them with fervor and intention, if they are accompanied by kavana.

–Rabbi Reuven Hammer earned a doctorate in midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary and another in education at Northwestern University. He is the author of Entering the High Holy Days (Jewish Publication Society) and The Classic Midrash (Paulist Press). Reprinted with permission, Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books).

Tradition Reminds Me What I Should Be Thankful For

A fixed liturgy confronts us with thoughts and affirmations that might not occur to us if we relied on our own imaginations, and says them better than we could phrase them ourselves. The very first page of the Jewish prayer book prods me to express my gratitude for having awakened alive to the new day, for the fact that my mind works, my eyes work, my arms and legs work. I give thanks for having clothes to put on and things to look forward to that day.

Would I remember to be grateful for all these things every morning, especially on cold, gloomy mornings when I had not slept well and my body was stiff and sore, if I didn’t have the prayer book to structure my thoughts for me? Could I express either my gratitude or my dependence on God more eloquently than do the psalms I recite each morning?

–Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel, Natick, Massachusetts, is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Living a Life that Matters. Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown and Company).

Our Lives Can Give Meaning to the Formulas of Prayer

How can I express my deepest personal feelings with the words of a formula that I did not write? The use of a common expression can answer the question. “I love you.” These words constitute a formula of sorts, one that I did not invent. If, however, I do not say those words to the people I love, and if I do not hear them, what am I?

Those three words–I love you–can be as meaningful or as meaningless as we show them to be through the way we live. When we invest ourselves in those “three little words,” when our actions reflect our love, then that familiar formula has meaning.

The same is true with the words of prayer. We must invest ourselves in them, heart and soul, as we listen to what the words convey.

–Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayerbook’s 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 Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

Petitioning God Keeps Our Prayers from Becoming Mere Recitation

[In this fictional exchange, Judd Lewis is being instructed in Jewish thought and practice by Albert Abbadi.]

JL: This idea of formulas has to be a little disturbing. I can understand that Jews are supposed to pray at certain times, especially if the prayers are supposed to correspond to the old sacrifices. But it seems to me that prayer, if it’s going to have any meaning at all–shouldn’t it be something a little more personal, straight from the heart? The minute you start talking about formulae and fixed this or that, don’t you kill the whole thing?

AA: Yes and no. It would obviously be so if the recitation of the prayer became nothing more than a rote exercise, but such a prayer is in any case considered unacceptable in Judaism. On the other hand, the existence of formulae and, in fact, a fixed text is of great advantage.

For prayer is, as I [have] said before, a reaching out to God: in the Amidah we stand before Him (“standing” is, in fact, the meaning of the Hebrew word amidah) and speak. Now at this moment we must (as I once described to you) have absolute certainty; our standing there and reaching out must flow of itself, and the words must come out uninterruptedly to make a great line, a connection, between us and God–that is why we must be entirely collected and sure of where we are going. And so it is that the content of our prayer, and eventually each and every word, came to be fixed, lest we wander and lose our way.

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