‘Prayer isn’t boring — you are’

Jews often complain that prayer is boring. Young people resist going to synagogue — and older people drift away from prayer altogether — because they find it to be a chore.

In response to these oft-repeated criticisms, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once offered from the pulpit an admittedly cutting but nonetheless brilliant retort: “Prayer isn’t boring … you are.”

Of course, this aphorism by Rabbi Schulweis, who has served the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino since 1970, was not meant to insult people, nor to turn them away from Jewish prayer. Quite the opposite. He posed a challenge for every Jew to find himself or herself inside the siddur, which is filled with beautiful poetry, meaningful philosophy and provocative theology. At its best, Jewish prayer is an ongoing three-way conversation among the siddur, the person using it and God.

In Schulweis’ words, “Instead of looking outside and criticizing the relevance of a prayer — or perhaps even the process of prayer — look inside yourself to see where you may be lacking.”

Interestingly, many of the Jews who complain that the siddur bores them can listen to a rock song like “American Pie” or “Hey Jude,” or sing the national anthem at the stadium dozens or even hundreds of times without ever complaining once that they’re bored. Great musical compositions perpetually renew their meaningfulness as a person’s life and even his or her day develops. The siddur works the same way. Many of us who pray on a regular basis cannot say, “Baruch she’amar v’haya haolam” (“Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being”) or “L’cha dodi likrat kalah (“Go, my beloved, to greet the Sabbath bride”) without being a little moved each time.

I know some people in 12-step programs, and they tell me the meetings often start with the same readings week after week. But the readings are rarely boring to alcoholics and other addicts, because everyone in the room is working on his or her own recovery. The guidelines and steps that are recited remind people of their own addictions and compulsions, or at least those of their loved ones.

In a way, Jewish prayer is like another pillar of observant Jewish life: Shabbat. Just as tefilah involves letting one’s creativity conquer one’s boredom, Shabbat is about finding creative enjoyment on a day when cell-phones, iPods and DVD players are treated as hardly more useful than paperweights.

Some people think the real problem with prayer is Hebrew, which alienates English-speaking Jews. I disagree completely. Many, if not most, Israelis find prayer to be boring, and Hebrew is their first language. In addition, services at Reform temples in the United States and elsewhere involve a lot of English, and many Reform teens and adults still find prayer boring. Yet, Hebrew prayers can be moving to English speakers even if they only know the barest details of the meaning. Often, but not always, the key is the tune. Even so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must pray in Hebrew. The siddur isn’t even all in Hebrew. Important prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are in Aramaic, and in Eastern Europe, Jewish women used to recite Yiddish prayers called tkhines. So vernacular prayers have a long history.

The answer to Rabbi Schulweis’ challenge is education. The more Jews learn about the pronunciation, order and meaning of services the more likely they are to find significance in them. But Rabbi Schulweis’ point still stands — a Jew who is boring is likely to find prayer boring. Luckily, most Jews, deep down, are not boring — they just need to find a path to access the siddur.

David Benkof is a doctoral student at New York University in American Jewish history. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Dear God…

When someone writes to Santa Claus, he knows to address it to the North Pole. But where should he mail a letter to God?

A few days ago an AP news photo featured a plain white box labeled, “Letters to God.” A rabbi was taking them out one by one and placing them into the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The unopened letters joined the other messages, prayers and communications crammed into the interstices between Wall’s stones by visitors great and small — from children who have just learned to write to one from Pope John Paul II himself. When the Israel postal service sorters come upon a letter addressed to the Almighty, they direct it to a special pile for delivery at the Wall in Jerusalem.

Paradoxically, if Israel is the focus of so much of the world’s controversy and bloodshed, it is also perceived as the one place where God might very well pay a visit, if not actually stop by to spend a temperate winter.

As the Holy Land marks Christmas and Chanukah, which coincide on this year’s calendar, controversy continues about the role of organized religion there. One example is the lawsuit filed in the High Court of Justice, arguing not only that a Reform rabbi should be entitled to a state salary as a religious representative, but that the position can go to a female, Detroit-born Rabbi Miri Gold. Both progressive movements and women in the rabbinate are anathemas to Israel’s traditional Orthodox establishment, fighting to continue its monopoly on state-supported religious bodies in the country.

But if religious organizations are squabbling, examples of spirituality abound.

International Migrant’s Day was marked on Dec. 17 by hundreds flocking to Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque to show support for the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Israel. Physicians for Human Rights, Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Amnesty International organized the happening to celebrate the contribution of foreign workers, so often at the bottom of society’s totem pole. One event, the Israeli film with the sadly cynical name “What a Wonderful Place,” portrayed the humanism of Thai and Filipino laborers and caretakers and exposed the plight of Eastern European women smuggled from Egypt to be trafficked as sex slaves in Israel.

At the nearby Tel Aviv Museum, the theme of sacrifice in the Holy Land predominated the exhibit of veteran Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, whose art has become preoccupied to the point of obsession with the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac — Abraham raising his knife about to obey God’s command to slaughter his son like a sacrificial sheep. Kadishman’s hundreds of paintings of sheep heads symbolize the sad list of victims in the Promised Land.

But there are also seasonally appropriate stories of hope. The first to attest to one is Yehudit Nussbaum, who has just received a kidney transplant from a complete stranger. Suffering severe kidney disease, Nussbaum could not tolerate dialysis, and began searching the Internet for a possible organ donor. The American-born Israeli contacted everyone she knew, including the American Jewish Christian brotherhood group in which she was active. Meanwhile, Martin Fila of Australia was on the Internet doing the same search in reverse — he was looking for someone to whom he could give a kidney. Fila, 35, belongs to a Christian group that believes in breaking down the walls between people by donating kidneys to save strangers’ lives. He traveled to Israel accompanied by a friend who donated his kidney last year, one of 15 transplanted so far from among the group in recipients around the world.

After the successful transplant earlier this month, Nussbaum made a tearful radio appearance calling Fila and his friends “the miracle of my life” and vowing to help others in their search for donors. Meanwhile the recuperating Fila acknowledged that his gesture might seem naive in today’s cynical society, but that “the world is a better place when we give to one another.”

While the temperatures in the northern hemisphere dip into the single digits, winter flowers are just starting to bloom in Israel — petunias, phlox, snapdragons and birds of paradise.

So as Santa bundles up in his frozen arctic home, the much luckier God may be sitting incognito beneath a cypress tree on a sunny Jerusalem corner reading his mail — and watching to see if this year humankind is finally getting some sense into its head.

Helen Schary Motro is author of “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005)