Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Ritual prayer, personal prayer

Anyone who davens regularly has thought about the paradox of ritualized prayer. We pray at fixed times from fixed texts, many of them virtually unchanged for millennia. Day after day I mumble through the same paragraphs, my mind rarely even aware of what my lips are doing. How can we reconcile that with the intensely personal character of prayer? Shouldn't it be between me and God? Shouldn't I just spill my guts in the most intimate way, each word an expression of my individual character and my current relationship with God?

Of course, even within the structure of Jewish prayer there is room for individual expression. This morning, I felt the need for just that. There was something specific and personal I needed to pray for. So, at the appropriate point in the Shema Koleinu blessing, I paused to insert my own request.

And I felt a bit foolish.

I'm fluent in Hebrew and comfortably familiar with Jewish texts. But try as I may, my words came out sounding silly. Awkward. Either too conversational or too formal. Random bursts of phrases from classical prayers stammered out haltingly between glaring pauses and clumsy segues. None of the grace and poetry of the rabbinically-composed blessings, none of the fluency of reciting familiar language, none of the connection to generations past through unchanging texts. Who did I think I was, trying to pray in my own words? Would I stand before a king stammering and improvising?

I don't regret making the effort. I've done so before, and I intend to do again. It is humbling, and renews my appreciation of the fixity of our prayer ritual.

Fixed, traditional texts actually facilitate our personal prayers, by expressing many of our personal needs in language of a sort most of us can only dream of composing ourselves. Meanwhile, it connects us to our forefathers and our ancient tradition, as well as to other Jews in our community and the world.

The real problem isn't with the ritualization of the prayer service. It's with the mindless way I usually mumble through it.

May all our prayers be answered speedily.


shanna said...

Amen selah

yaak said...

I can totally empathize with this post.
All shuls need to add a few more minutes to Tefilla every day to allow for more meditation and personal prayer. One can ask, "How can we spare the time in our hectic lives?" One can also ask, "How can we not?"

Sharvul said...

You're right. Every person that prays regularly has the same feeling.

I recommend the following article by Prof. Leibowitz on ritual prayer vs. personal prayer and the meaning of prayer: On Prayer

By the way: why did you say your personal prayer in Hebrew and not in English? Or wouldn't it have mattered?

Sharvul said...

Coincidentally, in tomorrow's Daf Yomi there is a long elaboration on the personal prayers Amoraim added after their ritual prayer. Some of them have become (ironically?) our ritual prayers...

Zman Biur said...


Kein yehi ratzon


I prefer the opposite: All shuls need to shorten tefilla by a few minutes each day to allow time for more meditation and personal prayer!


It honestly never crossed my mind to pray in English. It's clearly permissible, but it just wouldn't seem right to me. What if something were lost in translation? (Does God use subtitles or dubbing?)

Regardless, I'm perfectly capable of stammering like an idiot in any language.

Thanks for the thoughts, all!

Jack said...

It is not the manner, it is the intent that counts.