One of the fundamental problems we post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust, American Jews have with prayer is not theological in nature; it is that our attention is elsewhere.
We think about prayer much too narrowly. Most Jews reflexively assume that “prayer” means what we do (or, quite likely, don’t do) within the communal, liturgical context—and any devotional experience that lands outside it is not recognized as prayer.
A few years ago I invited eight students to join me in a prayer experiment. I divided the students into groups of four. They met for 75 minutes, once a week, for four weeks. There was just one assignment: to engage in prayer every day (including some kind of prayer “in relation to the Jewish liturgy” at least once a week). I did not define prayer. I did not suggest that folks attend services. I did not ask them to read any articles, rabbinic commentaries or inspirational literature about prayer. I just wanted them to do it, whatever the “it” might be (and however “it” might change form, content and duration from day to day). When we got together, I led a brief, contemplative Minha service, after which each person was asked to reflect aloud for up to 15 minutes upon one simple question: This week, what did you notice?
In general, what they noticed is that they prayed more than they realized, and that their prayer took many forms. One woman noted that before she went into a difficult meeting she did what she always does at the threshold to a meeting room: “I connected up. I asked for help to be as wise as I could be. Only later did I realize I was praying." She also reported her habit of taking a particular route to a weekly appointment because she passed a beautiful field bathed in late afternoon sunlight, and the sight uplifted her. “I noticed the beauty and was grateful for it, as usual. Then I was grateful for eyes that could see, a heart that could understand, the happenstance of this incarnation … My noticing was a prayer and a feeling of prayer within a sense of oneness.“ Toward the end of the four weeks she said, “I’m in a river of prayer most of the day and I didn’t know it!”
We can only pray the way prayer is supposed to be when we recognize that in fact the soul is always praying. Without stop, the soul soars and yearns for its Beloved. It is at the time of outward prayer [i.e. in words and expression], that the perpetual prayer of the soul reveals itself in the realm of action. (Olat Re'iyah vol. I, p.11)
One of the fundamental problems we post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust, American Jews have with prayer is not theological in nature; it is that our attention is elsewhere. We do not notice what is already happening. We have failed to cultivate the skill of observation to perceive our inner lives distinctly and with sensitivity.
Certainly, the soul can “reveal itself in the world of action” through the words and fellowship of traditional, communal, liturgical prayer, but there are many other ways for the soul to make its prayerful expression, too.
Have you noticed?
Rabbi Nancy Flam co-founded the Jewish Healing Center, Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She teaches and writes about Judaism, spirituality, prayer and righteous living, and currently serves as the Co-Director of Programs at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. For more on prayer, visit http://www.jewishspirituality.org/