As an adult, however, I enjoy prayer immensely. I actually look forward to praying each morning. So what has changed? Clearly I have grown up and have an adult's perspective on prayer. Understanding the Hebrew and being used to the liturgy does not hurt either. But fundamentally I enjoy prayer because it adds a huge amount to my life. Before I get into that, however, I would like to explore the origins of prayer in Judaism and how it has evolved.
Fundamentally, native Judaism does not have a regular prayer ritual. Prayer was only something that one was obligated to do from time to time when one felt the need to ask something of God. Worship was not done in the form of prayer, but, rather it was conducted by giving offerings to God to be burned on the altar in the temple. Saying the Shema was the only twice-daily prayer type obligation. Formal daily petitionary prayer was instituted in Judaism by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly almost exactly 2,500 years ago in the early Second Temple period.
The prayer that the Men of the Great Assembly and Ezra created was the Eighteen Blessings or the Amidah, which is the apex of any Jewish prayer service. It contains three sections: Praise, petition and thanksgiving. In the first section we praise God for His abilities in the world. The second section petitions God for our needs. The third section thanks God for giving us life, goodness etc. The common denominator is that our prayer talks about God as He manifests Himself to us in our universe.
There have been some, notably Maimonides (The Guide, III: 16 and III: 32), who seemed somewhat uncomfortable with this sort of petitionary prayer. Although, as I have argued elsewhere, Maimonides does see value in petitionary prayer, but only as an anchor for a deeper contemplative type Divine service.
Consciousness of Divine influence
In modern times there have been others who have also seen the true value of prayer as being more contemplative in nature. Chabad Hasidism is a prime example of this. In his book on prayer, “Tract on Prayer,” Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (the sixth Chabad Rebbe) hardly talks about petitionary prayer at all. His main focus is on learning esoteric ideas and then contemplating on them to reach an emotional feeling of love and awe of the Divine.
Much like Maimonides, in the eyes of Chabad saying the words of petitionary prayer are secondary to the main point of prayer which, for them, is the practice of a mystical contemplative meditation. My experience with that sort of contemplative practice is that, when done properly, it’s a powerful method for experiencing mind altering states of consciousness.
There is, however, greater practical value to praise, petition and thanksgiving prayer as it was set down by the Men of the Great Assembly twenty five hundred years ago. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Judaism, in its native form, recognizes the futility in trying to understand the Divine (Isaiah 55:8 and elsewhere). Contemplation of the Godhead in a mystical or magical construct, while enjoyable and potentially mind altering, is ultimately contemplating something that is incomprehensible to us as humans. As such the conception of the Divine idea contemplated is likely to be complete fantasy – with no relation to the true nature of God whatsoever. Maimonides himself would agree with this, it seems (Guide, I: 56). In the final analysis, any conjecture of the nature of God, whether it is based on philosophical speculation or on Kabbalistic magic, is likely to be pure fantasy of the human mind.
As I have argued in a previous article in this series, a theme of native Judaism is that the Torah tells us how God acts but does not elaborate on the nature of God--something that would be incomprehensible to us anyhow. This also applies to prayer. We praise, petition and thank God for His actions with us, in our lives, and in our world. So when we pray we are recognizing a personal and imminent God who, although we can never comprehend, listens to prayers and acts in our lives.
Thus, regular daily prayer, as it was set out by the sages, creates a consciousness of the Divine influence in our lives in a practical and tangible way. This is a uniquely Jewish construct of prayer and, when done right, has a huge impact on our day to day living as people trying to live a more Godly and therefore wholesome life, anchored in reality.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life