When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and animal sacrifices ceased, a religious crisis ensued. The Talmud says that the daily prayers were then instituted in place of the sacrifices; ever since, prayer has become the essential mode of Jewish spiritual introspection and communication in times of joy and crisis.
Now, however, prayer itself seems to be in crisis.
“The art of prayer is difficult to transmit in contemporary Jewish America,” said Rabbi Nancy Flam, co-director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. A daylong conference (Nov. 20 at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side) for rabbis, cantor, educators and other prayer leaders will seek, through “study, practice and deep discussion,” according to the organizers, “to help change the dominant paradigm of Jewish prayer in America from simply ‘attending services’ to active engagement in ‘prayer practice.’” The “Yom Iyyun: Engaging in Prayer as ‘Practice’” conference is co-sponsored by BJ, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and Romemu – Judaism for Body, Mind and Spirit.
In a statement prepared for the conference, Rabbi Flam points out that “Most American Jews regard Jewish prayer as irrelevant, outdated, misguided, inaccessible and/or ineffective. Although some Jews do participate in communal prayer services, many find them boring, difficult or of limited value. Very few engage in Jewish prayer, whether communal or individual, liturgical or non-liturgical, as spiritual practice, that is to say, as a regular discipline with particular form aimed at specific goals in the cultivation of consciousness and/or character.”
Rabbi Flam explains that many American Jews engage in non-Jewish forms of spiritual practice, such as yoga or mediation in which they see themselves belonging to “communities of practice” where they have teachers and companions to help develop skills, compare experience or understanding. “By contrast, while some may ‘attend services,’ most American Jews’ experience of ‘live prayer,’ if engaged at all, is largely uncharted, unguided…”
Among the workshops will be an exploration of “Bakashot (petitionary prayer),” or “asking God for things,” a basic aspect of the Amidah, led by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels.
The session “Reconstructing Prayer,” with Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, will “explor[e] how prayer can be re-understood as an opportunity to focus on our inner qualities.” Rabbi Strassfeld said he intends to look at how the first part of the morning service (Pesukei D’Zimra) “develops a single theme such as compassion, connectedness, generosity or patience. Through liturgy, song, and English readings the theme is set out and serves as a ‘kavana’ (intention) for the service.”
There will also be sessions in “The Magic of Hebrew Chant,” with Rabbi Shefa Gold, and “Niggunim and Building Singing Communities,” with Joey Weisenberg.
None of this is easy. “Prayer is difficult,” Rabbi Flam told The Jewish Week, “and committing to personal prayer is complicated. We are children of the Enlightenment and its values of scientific reasoning, humanism and the individual; we are children of… psychology … sociology … of post-modernism and its methods of deconstructing and reconstructing language and meaning.”
The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, she explained in a telephone interview, is pan-denominational, or non-denominational. Rabbi Flam said there are some 150 registrants for the conference, ranging from Reform and Reconstructionist to Renewal and Conservative Jews. She said she didn’t know as of yet whether any Orthodox Jews had signed up, though she noted that there has been Orthodox participation in past programs.
Once, years ago, prayer was second nature to the most simple Jews, such as the image of Tevye the milkman reciting Psalms and talking to God as he walked with his cow. When did prayer begin to find itself in such free-fall?
“That’s a great question. I think,” said Rabbi Flam, “It happened with the growth of the big suburban American synagogue in the 1950s, in particular. At that time Abraham Joshua Heschel was already railing against the emptiness and lack of feeling and engagement. You read his pieces and they sound sadly contemporary.”
She pointed out that Robert Wuthnow, author of “After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s,” wrote of “synagogues in the 1950s as being very much about belonging, so we get the large ‘houses of worship’ structures. When belonging is the central motif — aiming to create norms where lots of people can feel connected, to a people, to a history, to a particular congregation — it’s not always the inner spiritual life that is the focus or what is attended to.”
In the end, said Rabbi Flam, there is no getting around that when prayer is done right, “prayer is hard. It required dedication and concentration and practice, not necessarily what we have been trained to do.”
As in other spiritual disciplines or meditation, she said, it would be helpful if prayer was more talked about, not in sermons so much as conversations: “‘What is it like for you to pray?’ ‘When you pray, do you feel like you’re meeting God, standing in God’s presence?’ ‘What’s the role of silence for you, when you pray?’ ‘What motivates you to pray?’ ‘What do you do when you get distracted?’”
Rabbi Flam concluded: “We, as congregants, have to take responsibility for our own experience, for our own prayer lives.”
The conference takes place on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 270 W. 89. The fee of $120 includes lunch.