Why Pray? A Variety of Jewish Answers

Jews pray in order to enrich our lives and seek comfort, to connect to the past and to others, to celebrate and develop a sense of the sacred, to serve God and help make ourselves Godlike.

Below are different explanations and perspectives, from a variety of thinkers:

Prayer Reminds Us of Life’s Truths

Perhaps first and foremost, prayer is a delivery system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth living, because ideas that are ritually construed empower us to do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do. Prayer moves us to see our lives more clearly against the backdrop of eternity, concentrating our attention on verities that we would otherwise forget. It imparts Judaism’s canon of great concepts and moves us to live our lives by them.

— Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is professor of liturgy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Reprinted from The Way Into Jewish Prayer.

Prayer Connects Us to Other Realms

I pray daily. I wrap a prayer shawl, known as a tallit, over my head; gather its four fringed corners; and bring them to my lips. It lasts only a moment, but under the tallit I feel a sense of security and warmth. It is the closest I get to heaven all day. The tallit I wear is one that I inherited from my father. It is a broad woolen blanket-like shawl with a silver brocade that falls on my shoulders

Under the tallit, I feel my father’s presence and my mother’s presence. They are no longer in this world, but under the tallit I feel connected to a different realm where I encounter my parents and even the Almighty Himself. When I take the tallit off my head, I am most often in the presence of my children, who are usually finishing their Cheerios and their Kix as I go through my daily devotions.

At times I am able to meditate seriously on a verse or two, but usually it is hard to concentrate on what I’m praying. I’ve got to get the kids off to school, and my work lies ahead of me, but I pray, knowing I’ve started my day attempting to reach the Divine. My hope is that it makes an impression on my God, my ancestors, and my children.

I know it makes an impression on me. I feel fortified by prayer. I am in a relationship with God. I praise, I acknowledge, thank, request, express my love, and sometimes even get angry. My connection with the rest of the world–with my children, my wife, my students, my colleagues–flows out of my daily encounter with God.

–Ari Goldman, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of The Search for God at Harvard and Living a Year of Kaddish. Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon and Schuster.

We Pray Out of a Sense of Both Obligation and Purpose

Why pray? There are many answers to this question. They include a question that many believers would ask in response: “How could I not pray?” A committed Jew prays because prayer is one of the Jew’s many obligations (mitzvot).

As loyal servants, of course, we should obey the commands of our Sovereign. Yet even the most loyal and devoted servant must, at one time or other, ponder the question of purpose.

Reflecting on the question, I favor the approach suggested by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who attempts to answer why a Jew should fulfill any of the mitzvot. In his book, A Jewish Theology, he points out that in ancient Babylonia, the sage Rav taught that the commandments were given to refine human character, to ennoble humanity, to have a positive impact on our lives.

Rav offered a brief lesson. “What does it matter to the Holy One if a cow is slaughtered in front at the neck (according to ritual law) or stabbed in the back of the neck (not according to ritual law)?” The goal of this particular mitzvah–the kosher slaughter of an animal–is to teach about care and compassion. Jewish ritual slaughter prescribes taking the life of the animal in the most painless way possible.

If the lesson stops with careful attention to the details of ritual slaughter, we may be obeying the letter of the law but we are not led to the basic purpose of fulfilling the law–avoiding cruelty in our relations with all creatures, animal and human alike. Hence, observing the dietary laws is meant to influence human character so that we act with compassion.

The medieval philosopher Nahmanides, in his discussion of the purpose of worship (in his commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6), arrives at the same conclusion. The proper worship of God should have a beneficial impact on human character, leading us to exemplify virtues in our lives, and bring us closer to perfection, to being God-like in our behavior.

–Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayer books and other liturgical works as director of publications for the Rabbinical Assembly. Excerpted from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights Publishing)

Why Pray “To” A Nonsupernatural God?

Given the notoriety Reconstructionists have acquired because we do not believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally in our lives, the extent of our prayer lives raises questions.

Why do Reconstructionists pray? Here are some reasons:

Spiritual Discipline. Most of us go through the day without consciously experiencing God’s presence. Prayer helps to develop and maintain a spiritual sense. Focusing regularly on our sacred encounters helps us to notice them as they occur.

Meditation. Most of us live at a very rapid pace. We welcome the opportunity to slow down and remember what has deeper meaning beyond our daily routines.

Group Connection. If we are not careful, it is easy to become isolated. Even if we interact frequently with others, our daily lives rarely afford many opportunities to let our guard down and express what is really important to us. It is a real treat to be connected to a group, all of whose members are seeking together.

Celebration. For many of us, few experiences transport us as powerfully as group singing. We may be grateful for a life passage, or for the blossoming of flowers in spring, but without our prayer communities, we might never sing about it.

Group Support. Life is unfortunately filled with disappointment, illness, and tragedy. Social scientists now tell us what we already knew: that recovery from family discord, depression, and even physical illness is enhanced when we experience the support of a caring group. Praying for a sick person is efficacious even if you don’t believe that God intercedes supernaturally. Our prayers do have power.

— Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is co-director of the Women’s Studies Program and assistant professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Temple University. Rabbi Jacob J. Staub is vice president for academic affairs and professor of Medieval Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Reprinted from Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach.

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