Making Prayer Meaningful for Reform Jews
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of HUC-JIR was the visiting scholar this past Shabbat at Rodef Shalom of Falls Church, Virginia, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations. After Shabbat morning services, he gave a brilliant and fascinating talk on prayer and spirituality. He focused mainly on the changing cultural conditions for prayer, and its changing metaphors and practices. This led to an e-mail discussion among those of us who usually attend the Shabbat morning Torah study. Here is one bit of that e-mail discussion.
Barbara Raizen: Faith must be somewhat an attitude, as it is sodarn intangible! I am curious if you think faith starts with our spiritor with our mind, or if its embedded deep in our soul? Anyone?
My response: I really like your question, Barbara, which I think is a key one. To me the critical issue is whether our feelings of oneness with the greater universe, and other people, are rooted in reality, the reality of a transcendent power we call God, or are a figment of our imagination. In other words, the question is whether our higher impulses to love, beauty, truth, and justice are connected to God's will.
This is something which I think is mysterious, because science does not tell us, and probably will never tell us, whether our purposes are derived from purposes embedded in the universe, God's purposes. To me the key issue of theology is our attitude toward this mystery, and whether we have faith that our individual longing for the best world, of kindness and justice and love, is an echo of a transcendent wish.
To me the faith comes from our human nature as humans were always religious in some way, until recently. By saying "human nature" I don't wall off a separate body and soul. To me I don't see justification for such a separation, and it didn't exist in the Tanakh. But I do see our purposes as part of the larger universe, and reflecting goals or desires within it. In other words, our longings do reflect a transcendent power in the universe. Whether that Power is part of nature or separate from nature, and the other issues of theology, I don't think we can know. To me the religious attitude, faith, is awe at the higher power, and a feeling that when we do pursue our highest instincts, we are reflecting something more than our own individual purposes.
Now that I am a little more free from Rabbi Hoffman's mesmerizing oratory, I think I see more clearly what troubled me in his approach. I don't think you can talk about prayer and avoid theology, which he largely did. Talking about the social conditions of those who pray, or engage in other spiritual ritual, and about the metaphors they use to characterize the transcendent is really fascinating. And I look forward to reading more of Rabbi Hoffman's work and learning from it. But this kind of study doesn't tell us whether there is any point to prayer.
Traditionally, prayer was thanking God, asking for something from God, praising God, etc., assuming that God was listening and would act the world according to God's will, but also in a way responsive to prayer. Now for most of us who can't accept an interventionist God, prayer can only be the rousing of the awareness of the spiritual dimension of ourselves, of our awareness of our connection to a higher power. Then prayer serves to inspire and strengthen the best purposes in us, and our feelings of awe and gratitude for the transcendent power that is responsible for our lives. But it doesn't expect a "payoff" in direct intervention.
Thus many traditional features of prayer are carried over even with a non-interventionist God. But what is not carried over is any expectation of God's intervention, other than through the will of those who are praying. I do think this change needs to be addressed in our Reform Jewish liturgy--Rabbi Hoffman's field. To me this is the main issue in Reform liturgy. Rabbi Hoffman's work probably will help us address it, but he didn't face it head on, and I think we have to if the prayer service is going to be more meaningful to most Reform Jews. Bluntly, most Reform Jews aren't in synagogue because they don't think God is listening. But I do think that most reform Jews do believe in some kind of higher power. Our prayer service needs to reflect that, and enhance the other aspects of prayer.