I went to Jewish day schools in Brooklyn for my primary and secondary education, beginning with kindergarten at Crown Heights Yeshivah, then in the 6th grade switching to the Yeshivah of Flatbush. Our day always began with davenning—selected highlights in my early years, with more and more prayers added each subsequent year. By 7th grade the day began with the full shacharit service, attendance required, punctuality severely encouraged.
Of what did my education in prayer consist? Learning the traditional prayers in Hebrew; learning when to stand, when to bow, and when to sit; and (if you were a boy), learning how to lead the service. We all knew that our Christian neighbors also prayed, but we tended to scoff at their prayers. When we saw movies or tv programs that featured Christians praying, say little Timmy on his knees by his bed before going to sleep, asking God to watch over Mom, Dad, and Kitty, we would think to ourselves: They call that prayer? That’s way too simple. Real prayer has a set format, at a set time, and in a holy language (that you can’t really even understand). That’s how you pray to God. You don’t pray to God as if you are talking to your neighbor.
You can imagine my surprise when I made aliyah and discovered that Jewish spirituality in Israel often includes that very type of prayer that I had looked down upon in my youth. While the 3 formal daily prayers still have their proper time and place in Orthodox ritual, many Jews find it helpful to practice some kind of hitbodedut. Popularized by Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810), founder of the Breslov Hassidic dynasty, hitbodedut may be defined as communicating with God in one’s native tongue through conversation, song, and meditation. Who wudda thunk it? Little Timmy on his knees before bedtime was doing hitbodedut!
I asked my friend Don Compier to comment on the place of ritualized versus spontaneous prayer. Don is a priest in the Episcopal Church. He trains priests, deacons, and lay leaders as head of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka, Kansas. For Don, there is a huge difference between private, personal prayer on the one hand and public on the other. Don was raised in a Christian denomination that strongly opposed any formal prayers, except for brief formulas used for baptism and communion. Over time he became very dissatisfied with this practice. He says: “It seemed like prayers became much more about the individual praying than about praise of God or the needs of the community. I have sat through services, for instance, in which there was fervent pleading for the election of a particular candidate or victory for a particular sports team! Even the best of these spontaneous public prayers became showcases for that particular person’s understanding and sense of their relationship with God.”
As a young adult Don learned about the Episcopal Church and was immediately attracted to its Book of Common Prayer, which stresses the use of written prayers. “We call them ‘collects’,” Don writes, “because they are meant to collect together the prayers of the whole community.” Don says that “this connection with the past, with the whole legacy of faith, shapes one’s spiritual life in a distinctive way. Praying then helps us get out of and beyond ourselves, to connect to all who have walked with God. And because so many people around the world are praying these same prayers in different languages, we feel bonds of strong connection that transcend nationalism or even the limits of our own faith tradition.”
Don says that “it is very different in private and personal prayer, however, and always has been. We have eloquent examples of individual spontaneous prayer in the Psalms, in Job, in Jeremiah, in Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel, etc. Christian spiritual traditions have always encouraged us to speak with, and listen to, God intimately. I do this myself all the time. I think without this we do not build strong personal relationships with God. When I see tragedies on television for instance I cry out to God, “no more! This violence must end!” or just “damn!” I have met many a Christian who would consider the latter blasphemous, but I always appeal to the examples of the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah. We must be honest with God, our real selves!”
It turns out that Judaism and Christianity both utilize formal, ritualized prayer and spontaneous prayer. I have learned from Reverend Don of the place of formal worship in Christian prayer. I have learned from Rebbe Nachman of the place of spontaneous prayer in Jewish worship. Just as it is limiting to think of Christian prayer strictly as spontaneous, it is limiting to think of Jewish prayer as strictly formal and ritualized. Just how limiting it is I have discovered in my own practice of hitbodedut. As we head toward the High Holidays, I encourage you to make your own prayer experiments and discoveries.
Copyright 2015, Teddy Weinberger