The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

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3 thoughts on “The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

  1. Lana Croft says:

    Neil, what beautiful words for us to consider at this prayerful time of year. Since I see God in every living thing, it is much easier for me to say the prayers. I have many friends who will love to see your perspective. We had a similar discussion on our Saturday Morning study group. As I see it, the Torah and Mitzvahs are the problem for me. My mitzvahs are aimed at the all the people in whom I see G-d. And I respect my freedom of choice.
    I have used “Beauty” as a mantra this year. It works for me too. And it reminds me to be grateful for all my blessings.
    ” I am Who I Am”……This G-d is with me always. You are a blessing to our family and to all who know you. Thank you for these brilliant thoughts. Love, Lana

    • Hi Lana,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think we should all consider how beauty and the notion of the sacred so easily intersect with one another.

      Note that our congregant, Mary Jane Suzman, was the author of this piece.


  2. Chuck says:

    Mary Jane and Neil, I have often said that with regard to synagogue observance I am in it for the food. Let me reinforce that to say that I am not kidding. I identify very strongly with Judaism and Am Israel, I was raised as a cultural Jew with no formal participation in a synagogue and little contact with members of the community outside of my immediate family. The one thing that we were really inculcated with was the traditions of ashkenazic food. Once Carol and I formed a family and I became part of the Gabel family that changed to a great extent. Now I regularly participate in a large family seder at passover and observe many of the holidays. We live in “Jewish” time. Carol and I regularly attend services and are active in minyan. But I have never adopted the god habit. Our late beloved friend Anita Winer regularly reminded us not to anthropomorphize G-d, In prayer, I chant without any desire to understand the words. The chanting is like a mantra that enables me to achieve a semi-meditative state. For me this is sufficient. When I read the english and process the meaning I am set back because much of it I don’t believe, but there is much hopefulness and beauty in the poetry of our prayers. I don’t think deeply about the possible existence of G-d. I just hope. I really can’t wrap my mind around the enormity of creation. Because of this I accept our/my existence as simply miraculous. Perhaps there is G-d, perhaps not, It is more than I can deal with. I accept our mission of תיקון עולם and yearn for peace, In the meantime let’s share some challah, some bagels, some sweets and let’s enjoy each other.

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