These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Relating to Prayer

Posted on December 25, 2013 by Jessica Baverman

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From my blog:

Jessica BavermanPrayer is a topic that I feel constantly comes up at school, and I’m amazed at how many people say they truly struggle with it. I never thought that prayer was something religious people struggled with. You either do it and love it or don’t feel connected to it at all and not do it. Obviously, those perspectives are completely wrong. There are so many thoughts involved in prayer – what I believe in, “whom” I’m praying to, “whom” I’m praying for, what I’m hoping to get out of it, and how I relate to the prayer itself.

What I Believe In & “Whom” I’m Praying To

I think that prayer is very much associated with our beliefs in Gd, especially in Jewish theology. Some people think that we pray because of our belief in Gd. If Gd exists, then the prayer to petition things to happen here on earth makes sense -that is, if you believe in an interventionist Gd. But what if you don’t believe Gd exists or you don’t believe in an interventionist Gd? Does that lessen the prayer experience? The question is, why should I pray, if I don’t believe in the One I’m supposed to be praying to?

That brings me to my next point. “Who” am I praying to? Does it matter if I don’t know who I’m praying to? Should that lessen my prayer experience? What if I haven’t “felt” Gd or been able to “understand” Gd? Does that matter? Who is it, really, that I’m praying to?

All the words on the paper in my prayer book make it seem that I am praying to a Being, one that intervenes in our lives. But if I don’t believe that, then what does it matter?

“Whom” I’m Praying For

I think that the question of whom I’m praying for is the next logical question. Is it for Gd or is it for me? Does it bring Gd closer to me or does it bring me closer to Gd? Does it bring me closer to myself? Does it help me center myself and recognize how I can’t control every single thing in my life? Or does it help me recognize, every day, how special and amazing life is and how thankful I am to be alive?

I think we all have different answers to these questions, and it doesn’t matter if we are all saying the same words. We relate differently to prayer and we relate differently to Gd and to ourselves.

What I’m Hoping to Get Out of Prayer

I seek to feel closer to Gd when I pray. I seek to feel more human when I pray. I seek to feel whole when I pray. I also seek to improve my ability to read and understand Hebrew, which is a part of my identity as a Jewish person. I hope to feel grounded. Earlier this year, when I listened to Rabbi Levi Lauer speak, I took on his idea that following halacha is about training ourselves not to exploit others. Through the repetition of prayer, I remind myself that I am human, that I have flaws, and that I need to work every day to be a better person. I may not be identifying every thing I need to work on every day, but I am recognizing that when I pray, I am striving to remember these things.

How I Relate to the Prayer Itself

Since I was young, I didn’t want to say anything that I didn’t agree with. I felt that prayers were written for a different people at a different time, and I didn’t understand how they were relevant today. As I learn more and more about each prayer, I realize that there is so much more to them than just the words. Yes, the words are important, but the meaning behind the words is more important. I have been able to see prayers in a completely new way and discover that these prayers that are 1000 years old (give or take 1000 years) are relevant to my life. And yet, there are some that I don’t connect to or don’t like or I want to change. And I think that’s okay, too. When I can feel like a prayer is truly mine, whether by thinking about a few words or a phrase or by rewriting it different language, I can feel connected to our shared history as Jews.

I also know that there are some prayers I completely don’t relate to, and even those I will say because it is part of my heritage. I know lots of people who don’t relate to prayer as a way to be Jewish, but I think it is the religious aspect of being Jewish that is one of the major factors of our survival. And it is in the religious aspect of being Jewish that I wholeheartedly believe will be the factor of our continuation now.

Hence, prayer to me is personal and political. It’s a practice of my heritage and it’s a way I can connect to myself and Gd. It’s a way I can remember that I am human and also that I am not alone – either because Jews all over the world say the same words or because there might be a Gd out there. Or just simply because I feel like praying. I don’t always have good prayer experiences, like I’ve written about before. I don’t always feel connected or grounded or elevated by what I’m reading/saying. And I don’t pray all the time. And it works for me.

I am not encouraging everyone to pray, because like I said, we all relate differently to prayer, but I am saying that prayer for me is meaningful, and that’s why I do it.