The Importance of Tefillah (Prayer)

Most liberal Jews do not pray on a regular basis, if ever. But prayer has historically been one of the most important aspects of Jewish practice. The liberal aversion to prayer is due to two things: the words themselves and a basic misunderstanding of the role of prayer. We will begin with the purpose of prayer, then move to the actual words and structures of prayer.

As David Ariel notes in his book What Do Jews Believe? the Hebrew term for prayer is tefillah, which comes from a root word meaning “to judge,” “to intercede [on behalf of someone],” or “to hope.” Ariel goes on to say, “Tefillah therefore implies an act of self-judgment or intercession on one’s own behalf before God, or the expression of hopeful sentiments.” Obviously, the mention of God will be troubling for those Humanistic Jews who are atheists or agnostics, but there is a lot of value that can still be drawn from this definition of prayer. Of particular interest are the parts regarding self-judgment and the expression of hope. Humanistic Jewish tefillah would need to focus and expand on these two functions of prayer and tweak them for use so that Humanistic Jews can engage in regular self-reflection and the expression of hope and thanksgiving. Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, published a Humanist siddur of sorts (Celebration), and Humanist congregations provide their own liturgies for their shabbat and holiday observances. I have also published my own version of a Humanist siddur on this blog. The process has begun, but a theory of tefillah is needed in order to make Humanist prayer a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Ariel goes on to state, “For the rabbis of the talmudic era, the primary purpose of prayer was to educate us in the sacred beliefs of Judaism through regular repetition and reinforcement […] Prayers of thanksgiving and praise express the view that there is a divine dimension in all aspects of reality.” Through the repetition of regular prayers and the recital of blessings over every aspect of life, from eating to waking up and going to sleep, the pious Jew comes to appreciate life and feel awe for its many blessings, at least in theory. Intention (kavanah) is important, especially when the prayers are recited in a foreign language. Concentrating on the meaning of the words that are being prayed is vital for the very purpose of prayer, which is why I support having the majority of prayers in the vernacular.

As Humanistic Jews who do not find the God-idea terribly important for our worldview, this understanding of tefillah can be a valuable tool. Rather than an exercise in sycophantic praise and adulation to God, prayer is a meditative tool that Humanistic Jews can use to reflect on their own behavior, hopes, and beliefs as well as to express their awe and gratitude for the many blessings of life. It is highly unlikely that Humanistic Jews will begin to pray three times a day, even with this understanding of prayer, but they may find it valuable to begin and/or end their day with this type of prayer or to say blessings over meals with their families.

This leaves the words and structures of the prayers. There is a lot of debate among Humanistic Jews and Jews who have problems with traditional God language. Marcia Falk gives an overview of different positions in her siddur The Book of Blessings, which is a wonderful example of a feminist Humanist siddur (although I don’t think she is affiliated with the SHJ). She utilizes the formula, “Let us bless the source of life which…” This formula is broad enough to include theists and atheists while also avoiding anthropomorphism. It has the added benefit of being poetic and inspiring in juxtaposition to the deadening literal prose of much of Sherwin Wine’s siddur. It is important to note that Falk’s shabbat service carefully follows the structure of the traditional shacharit service. By doing this and providing feminist and Humanist alternatives to the traditional prayers, she was able to fulfill the purpose of tefillah (laid out above) without compromising the intellectual integrity of the person praying the service. It is my opinion that this method of following the themes and structure of the siddur while creating new Humanist prayers is the best, as I discussed in my previous post on liturgy.

While this understanding of tefillah will seem disingenuous to some, it is not terribly out of line with Jewish tradition. The Rabbis established the prayer service to act as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices, thus fundamentally changing the mode of Jewish worship for the next 2,000 years. This tweaking of the function of tefillah is no where near so radical as the changes they introduced. Furthermore, Maimonides understood the prayer service to be a compromise between God and Israel which allowed the Jewish people to worship God although the depiction of God in the prayer service was inaccurate and the prayers themselves inferior to true worship (Ariel, 198). Maimonides’ understanding of God was one in which God was essentially unknowable, and the prayer service was a creation entirely for the benefit of the Jewish people’s moral and spiritual well being. We can therefore look at Humanistic tefillah as simply the next step in the evolution of Jewish prayer, one in which we do away with the God language which was inaccurate anyway and focus more explicitly on the moral and spiritual development of the people praying. Although there is no metaphysical urgency, no mitzvah, for Humanistic prayer, it is nonetheless important as a tool for self-improvement, reminding ourselves of our values, expressing our hopes, and acknowledging the many blessings of life.

Let us bless the source of life which has brought us to this moment.


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