Does Forward's Saul Berman Understand How to be a Fan of Jewish Prayer?

Rabbi Saul Berman wrote in the Forward this week in an ostensibly valiant attempt to understand why Jews today are not cheering wildly about their prayer experiences.

He has his theories that rope in such factors as the industrial revolution, the technology revolution, undue communal comfort and the demise of mysticism, as the culprits for the dysfunction of our synagogue services.

It's a free country and Rabbi Berman is entitled to his learned-sounding but utterly misguided opinions.

What bothers us is Berman's prevailing assumption that prayer is indeed a conversation between Jews and God and that is what we should talk about.


News flash for the rabbi - that is not the case, never has been.

Of course, we have always said that prayer is the cry out of a Jew to his or her God.

It is hubris and presumption to think that our lofty God listens to every prayer of every Jew.

We pray in the far-fetched hope that our awesome God will hear some small detail of our insignificant yammerings - not in the conviction that he is tuned in to every open Artscroll davener.

Yes. That is, or ought to be, the truly meager assumption of the praying personality.

Still, in spite of the great odds against the effectiveness of our offerings, what is certain beyond doubt is that Jews at prayer are engaged in a collective recitation-ritual -- in which we affirm the basic beliefs of our faith aloud or in silence -- in the presence of our peers.

Those affirmations are complex and cacophonous -- and eminently interesting.

And Jewish prayer would be a marvelously engrossing practice -- if only someone in the rabbinate would stand up and pay attention to the content of the prayers -- rather than retelling the banal and incorrect narrative about prayer -- namely that God is standing around and listening to every whisper of every Jew.

How can I put this so that the average synagogue member will understand it?

Try this. Imagine prayer was as important as baseball.

Try to imagine having lots of conversations with your pals whose content is that banal topic that baseball is the great American pastime. Nothing more than that.

Not a detail about that unbelievable game last Sunday in which the first Met up hit an inside the park home run and the last Met up hit into an unassisted triple play.

No details about what actually goes on out on the playing field.

Imagine just saying to your buddy that we went to the ballgame last Sunday - and baseball sure is America's great national pastime.

That would be a blatantly silly, meaningless and utterly boring way to think or speak, about a sport, or about prayer.

Read a column which basically says things like that by Rabbi Berman here, "Even a New Siddur Can't Close the 'God Gap'."


Theophrastus said...

It is hubris and presumption to think that our lofty God listens to every prayer of every Jew.

Tzvee, I think that this is a non-standard view. For example, as you know (Berachos 5 and 6) the Shechinah is with a minyan that prays or three who learn.

Now clearly, Hashem does not grant all petitions he receives in prayer -- but to say that He does not receive it seems a non-standard view.

Q said...

If the content were banal, then yes, maybe God would say - "Enough already with this banality" and switch channels.

But against the majesty of God, what isn't banal?

Or when one sees the into the depths of a man's soul, what is banal?

Or, who if not God made the man who is capable of this banality? And if the man is banal then so is his creator.

Or, if the world was not made to hear the banal, then for what was it made?

Or, who knows where to stand to know what is banal? Knut Hansun's 'Hunger' and Herman Hesse's 'Steppenwolf' describe a man's long journey to the sanity of the ball game.

Or, if this God doesn't want my banality then why should I want him?

I watched the BBC television version of God on Trial with Anthony Sher. He makes a powerful point that the Jewish God is a jealous and terrifying God and that when the camp guards had the whip hand and God seemed to have deserted the Jews, then was the time to pray to God.

On that view, we are all in his hand, and if he opens it and lets us go, we fall. But then he is no friend - just the boss. On that view the world is as cold a place with him in it as without him in it.