THE PRAYER OF EMPATHY: Facing Up to Jewish Liturgy by Dr. Saul P. Wachs

Over the past twenty years, I have been invited to dialogue with Jews about prayer and the difficulties that many of our people experience in making a meaningful connection with the siddur. The remarkable thing about these encounters has been the extent to which the same issues surface time and again. Questions frequently asked include the following:

While I cannot summarize the richness of what has emerged from these deliberations, I will try below to share my own thinking about these issues.

In his writings, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel differentiated between what he called the "Prayer of Expression" and the "Prayer of Empathy." In the Prayer of Expression, one expresses a reaction to something that happens. It is a spontaneous prayer, frequently found in the Bible and common to many, if not all, religious groups. It is usually stimulated by a feeling-negative or positive. For example, I hear that someone is ill and I find myself praying that the person will be healed; or I hear that someone has been saved from a crisis and I find myself saying, "Thank God."

The advantage of such spontaneous prayer is that it is often creative and meaningful. It is a valid religious expression; yet for the last two thousand years, it has increasingly been replaced in organized worship by the Prayer of Empathy. Why? One reason is that, frequently, the Prayer of Expression is ego-centered (Give me, Help me). Thus, it is limited as a vehicle for inducing a sense of Jewish belongingness or for expanding the horizons of an individual Jew.

Unquestionably, public worship has been a major vehicle for helping Jews feel like a people. I suspect that one of the reasons our people turn out in great numbers during the Yamim Noraim is that, whatever other meaning public worship may have, it is an act of Jewish solidarity, a way of identifying oneself as a Jew. We share the same liturgy and rituals, and this connects us, both vertically in time with past generations and horizontally in space with Jews throughout the world.

The Prayer of Empathy has other values as well. For one thing, the liturgy (as recorded in the siddur) is a "censored text," i.e., it reflects more dearly than any other classical Jewish text the basic values and faith-assumptions of the Pharisees and the Rabbis of the Talmud. It is a textbook of ideas, beliefs, and values and has helped to educate untold numbers of Jews about the basic world-view of our tradition. It responds to the great questions asked by sensitive human beings throughout history, i.e., How shall I see the human body, the nature of the human being, nature, love, history, the meaning of life, etc.? It is also a history book, recording major events in our history through literary responses to those events. It is a book of values. We praise what is praiseworthy and should be emulated, we learn what to ask for, and we learn to get in touch with what we have, something that is done spontaneously by very few people.

Finally, the siddur is a vehicle for what Max Kadushin called experiences of "normal mysticism," structuring an awareness that there is a dimension of depth in human experience, something beyond what is measurable and definable.

Still, one has to be prepared to absorb the messages of the liturgy. At one time, this preparation came through the family and the community. In our world, preparation requires a conscious effort on our part. Unfortunately, many of the people who feel distant from the siddur have not taken the trouble to prepare themselves to understand its message.

I have found that when people have the opportunity to read the prayer texts carefully and seriously, they often make a deep connection between the texts and their own lives. This is not surprising. Every text is a literary response to some kind of personal or national experience. One of the most valuable questions I can ask of a text is, "What happened to the author of this prayer, i.e., what stimulated the writing of this text?" Though I cannot be certain of the answer, the asking of the question begins the process of empathy between the pray-er and the author.

I usually continue by asking, "Has such a thing ever happened to me? What did I do? How was I changed by this experience? What meaning does that memory have for me at this time?" Because life is dynamic, I find myself attracted to different prayers on different occasions. However, the meaning of the words can change because of changes in my own situation.

For example, when I recite the Shema, sometimes I feel it personally, while at other times (e.g., in the synagogue), it is more of a communal statement. On the Yahrtzeits of my parents, I often feel a sense of identification with the famous aggadah in which the children of Israel (Jacob) proclaimed their loyalty to their father's beliefs by reciting the Shema. Thus, a question that is productive for me when I read a prayer is, "Who is talking to whom?" The answer may vary, depending upon what is happening to me or to my family or to my community. Though the words do not change, I do, and thus, kavanah emerges from the encounter between a stable set of words and a dynamic pray-er.

Exposure to the Prayer of Empathy is also a way of ensuring that I encounter important ideas on a regular basis. For example, there are texts of praise that teach what is praiseworthy, admirable and therefore appropriate for emulation. Statements about God (God creates, loves, redeems, etc.) are statements of what I can and should be doing. They are statements of human potential and of desirable or normative behavior. They cause me to think about the passage of time and to ask whether I am in control of my life and am fulfilling my responsibilities.

Petitions reinforce my sense that it is acceptable to ask for what I need. The list of petitions is a checklist of true needs, and this helps me to avoid running after things I really do not need. Asking also helps me to have some empathy for others who turn to me for help.

Thanksgiving is a way of getting in touch with what I have. We do not need a siddur to get in touch with what we do not have-everyone is acutely aware of what we are missing. Too few people wake up each morning and get in touch with what they do have.

With regard to the problem of rote in prayer, Professor Avraham Holz, like Dr. Heschel, has often spoken of prayer as an art. An artist must practice. Practice is followed by a period of gestation and then, sometimes, the artist produces great art. Physical athletes understand this principle; it is no less true for spiritual athletes.

Sometimes, davening is the practice of the skill of Jewish prayer, mastery of text and nusah so that the recitation is smooth and comfortable. At other times, a word or a phrase "leaps off the page" because it speaks to what is happening at this moment in my world. As with art, music, and sport, the more practice, the greater the likelihood that there will be moments of meaningful expression.

Most people do not prepare for prayer. We somehow expect the rabbi and the hazzan to "turn us on." I am convinced that hazal, the Rabbis of the classical period, assumed that two kinds of preparation would take place for worship. The first is required before the service starts. One cannot make an abrupt transition from the secular to the sacred. Sensitive worshippers use the time prior to the service to prepare themselves through study, meditation, silence, or music.

The second form of preparation is intellectual. The texts are a code, filled with allusions to biblical and rabbinic literature and with value-concepts, terms that are filled with deep Jewish meaning. These values (tzedakah, shalom, derekh eretz, ra-hamim, hesed, berit kehunah, etc.) are sometimes stated, but are more often embedded in the texts of prayer. To recite the words in an aware fashion is to connect with these values and to ponder their

weight and importance for personal and communal life.

It is ironic that the words of our liturgy, edited with exquisite care, evoke only cursory examination by many of our people. The truth is that one should read the siddur as if it were a love-letter or a contract, carefully searching for assertions, inferences, allusions and consequences. Here are a few questions that help me to empathize with a prayer.

Finally, prayer can be a vehicle for experiencing "normal mysticism," i.e., moments when we sense the presence of God, When prayer services are not rushed; when there is time to think, to sing, to meditate; prayer can offer a window of opportunity for experiences that nourish the spirit. If group worship is to flourish, rabbis, hazzanim and ritual committees must develop "worship curricula" through which congregations can be helped to grow, over time, in knowledge of the service and in appreciation of the opportunity offered through prayer for heshbon ha-nefesh-spiritual soul-searching.

I have often been asked about changes to the liturgical text. As a Conservative Jew, I believe that one ought to exhaust other means of understanding our prayers before seeking to change them. Sometimes, it is the translation that upsets us. It is important to recall that every translation is also an interpretation, one which may limit different shades of meaning. The word "barukh" !or example, can mean to "bless" or to "praise," depending upon one's theology, one or another if those translations might be more meaningful. "Shema" means "hear," "listen," "pay attention," and "understand." Each of these is an important idea, and it is limiting to focus on any one of them exclusively.

There are times when a change is needed because of a serious lacuna in the text. Thus, our liturgy has made room for mention of Medinat Yisrael. Sometimes, there is a feeling that a liturgical formation is deeply unsatisfying. Thus, the berakhah formulation that differentiated between men and women in a negative manner was revised. Siddur Sim Shalom eliminates formulations that imply that women are neither scholars nor members of the congregation. Changes should be made carefully and deliberatively by scholars who understand the background of a formulation and the implications of revisions in the text. We must avoid "playing with the text" or making the liturgy a hostage to political agendas that are unrelated to prayer.

It is important to remember that the words of the liturgy are poetry, and thus amenable to more than one meaning. Changing the text is possible; but when it is done, a link has been severed with the past and with the majority of praying Jews in the world.

History offers us little reason to believe that Jews who are estranged from prayer are able to transmit their positive Jewish values in a lasting way to children and grandchildren. There seems to be a strong connection between taking prayer seriously and the living of vital, creative and authentically Jewish lives.

There are real and important problems that relate to prayer, and there are two ways to respond to these problems. One way is to say, the problem is primarily with the siddur, the words, the synagogue, the tradition. The other approach is to say, I am wedded to this tradition. It has a claim upon me. I must do what is in my power to meet the siddur half way, to seek to understand it, to open myself to its messages. Upon the response we make to the dilemma of prayer may depend our future as individual Jews and as a movement in Jewish history. In conserving traditional prayer, we help to preserve our future as Jews. []


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