Modern Jews doubt. We are renowned for doubting. “Are you sure of that?” could well be called “the watchword of our faith” rather than the Shema. It’s repeated often, and we are sometimes more certain of our doubts than of our beliefs.
If we doubt things that can be proved, like whether Sean and Jessica are breaking up or whether Uncle Mark is right that the Yankees were in the 1965 World Series (he’s wrong; it was 1964), then we certainly doubt whether God hears prayer or even whether God exists at all. When philosopher René Descartes wrote, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), he guaranteed that educated rationalists henceforward and forever would entertain doubt about God’s existence. It’s a 350-year-old story. And if we doubt God’s very existence, Lord knows (oops) we doubt that the God whose existence we doubt hears prayer.
Yet, you and I crave God’s guarantees. Even if Freud contended that religion is a crutch (another reason to doubt), we still yearn for the comfort an Almighty can bring. We pray not only for better algebra grades but also that those we love will love us back, that that subcutaneous lump is only a cyst, that our children arrive home safely, and that we win at fantasy football. So often we pray for results, that things will go well for us and those we love.
When I was little, my older sister wanted a Betsy Wetsy doll. When my aunt and uncle got the doll for her for Hanukkah, she told my mother, “I was a good girl; I asked for it; and I got it.” So often even adults behave as though they believe this formula works, and simultaneously they doubt it. The thinking person’s irresolution translates to doubting the very process that we believe prayer to be, and therefore many engage in prayer hesitantly at best.
And doubt is not the only problem with prayer. It’s also boring. It’s so repetitious! The same words over and over again, day after day, week after week, prayer after prayer. In some Jewish worship we might say the very same prayers two or even four times! Yipes, how much praise does this God need anyway? It’s like riding a stationary bike. The wheel keeps turning, but the scenery is the same.
So the modern Jew ends up thinking, “Maybe our ancestors, in their naïveté, believed in God without any doubt and could stick it out through all of this nonsense. But, frankly, I’m doubtful and bored.”
Or perhaps, our ancestors knew something we don’t know.
What did they know? They knew what you, dear reader, are about to discover. They knew that Jewish prayer creates meaning in at least four or five different ways, not only literal interpretation. Jews pray poetically. The Jewish method of prayer is not simply a matter of wish fulfillment, praise of God, or thanksgiving; nor does prayer rest solely on the existence of God. Jewish prayer raises fundamental existential questions that we wrestle with daily, like “How do I deal with pain and anxiety?” and “What does my life mean?” Jewish prayer implants history, values, and stories within us, within the soul. We can call on them whenever we need them to help with our lives, like a refreshing spiritual well dug deep within to quench our longing thirst through living’s inevitable heat waves and droughts. Jewish prayer takes the issues that make us most human—death, illness, loneliness, and more—and sets them in a context so that they can be handled by any person—Maimonides and Einstein or you and me.
But you, my dear friend, have likely never been taught this most complex and fundamentally rewarding aspect of prayer. So let’s start in right now.